Goodbye 2013 season, hello 2014 off-season – way earlier than I would like, but hey, 12-6 and a Divisional Round appearance isn’t bad. Welcome to part one of the "Final Thoughts Edition" of the Rookie Run-Down. This installment will stay the course and focus on the draft picks as we have done throughout the season and will include a final grade for their performance. In part two, I will turn my attention to all of the undrafted free agent rookies on the New Orleans Saints roster. For all 11 rookies, you can expect to see their regular season and playoff stats, my evaluation of their performance, and open dialogue about that player’s future in a Saints uniform.
Kenny Vaccaro, S – Season Grade: A- (9/10)
This one makes me sad because I have been a Vaccaro supporter since before the draft, so not having him for the playoffs really took some of the luster off for me. Moving forward, a look at Vaccaro’s body of work through 14.25 games leaves high hopes for the future. Depending on how you might personally grade defensive backs, you may either be very happy with Vaccaro or somewhat disappointed. Let me explain. If your position grading system is rather old-school in nature, Vaccaro may underwhelm you because he is not a top flight cover guy or an interception machine. If you are more modern in your grading, Vaccaro will probably score off the charts with you for his ability to be used in multiple ways and his instincts to find the football. I fall into the latter; Vaccaro has been a perfect fit for Rob Ryan’s scheme.
I will not throw ratings at you from grading sites (because I’m sure that those of you who care about those ratings have premium memberships and I do not) but I can honestly say that he was the best rookie safety this year. The only close competition for that distinction is Eric Reid from San Francisco but comparing them is nearly impossible because they are used so differently. The advantage swings in Vaccaro’s favor because unlike Reid, he was consistent for every game he played in. Pending a full recovery, Vaccaro is the front runner to start again at SS/Rover and has the potential to be even more effective if the team can pick up a solid #2 cornerback.
Playoff Performance: Injured Reserve/DNP
Vaccaro’s season totals: Through 14 1/4 games played – 60 solo tackles, 17 assisted, 77 total, 1 sack, 1 forced fumble, 6 passes defended, & 1 interception
Terron Armstead, OT – Season Grade – C- (7.6/10)
Mr. Armstead has officially arrived at left tackle for the New Orleans Saints. It was the tale of two halves in week 16, then a solid performance in week 17 for Armstead. For many Saints fans, the idea of having Armstead start in the playoffs was enough to require "self-medication", but others believed that the kid was ready to show Charles Brown how it’s done. Fortunately, Armstead rose to the occasion in both the win over the Philadelphia Eagles in the wildcard round and the loss against Seattle in the divisional round. Armstead has athleticism and appears to have the disposition to battle with some of the best edge rushers in football, but there were plays in both games where his youth was evident. In a perfect world, the 2013 season will serve as a learning experience for our young LT and he will be even better in 2014.
Playoff Performance: Armstead was elevated into the starting role and would face great pressure as a rookie LT, protecting Drew Brees, on the road, and in the playoffs no less. It was pleasantly surprising that the Saints went with the ground attack and many of the runs came on the kid’s side of the field. Mark Ingram and later Khiry Robinson were able to find room as the entire offensive line out-muscled the Eagles front seven on play after play. Unfortunately, when the Saints headed to Seattle, that vaunted defense proved to be to tough for the offense to get things going until late in the game when Brees tried to rally the troops. Armstead was solid in his pass protection and run blocking.
Johnathan Jenkins, NT – Season Grade – C (8/10)
John Jenkins’ season in review should be kept in perspective. What I intend to convey is that a realistic expectation should be placed on a rookie nose tackle. With that said, I honestly believe that Jenkins had a solid introduction to the NFL and has a high ceiling in terms of potential. The big man didn’t overwhelm the box sheet with statistics, but he did perform at a level that would remove any doubt of his ability to play at the professional level. After relinquishing his starting duties to Broderick Bunkley upon his return from injury, Jenkins kept himself in the DL rotation for the rest of the season and both playoff games. It would not come as a surprise if the 2014 season sees Jenkins overtake Bunkley for the starting job at NT.
Playoff Performance: The wildcard round of the playoffs was very kind to quite a few Saints players’ reputation including Armstead, Mark Ingram, and Khiry Robinson. Jenkins’ contributions were less obvious but were instrumental in limiting the NFL rushing champ LeSean McCoy. Jenkins posted 4 solo tackles while clogging the line of scrimmage, preventing McCoy from having running lanes while also freeing up linebackers to close out tackles on the slippery back they call Shady. The next week against Seattle, a far more physical offensive line kept the Saints DL largely in check. It is worth noting that Marshawn Lynch did not truly have a great day running the ball, but the Saints defense didn’t shut him down either. Jenkins did manage to break his sack shutout that lasted the entire regular season and was able to corral Russell Wilson for his lone tackle on the day. He is an active player when he is on the field and with Rob Ryan’s situational substitutions, Jenkins could be in for the long haul.
Jenkins’ season totals (including playoffs): 13 solo tackles, 8 assisted and 21 total tackles, P/O - 5 total tackles, 1 sack
Kenny Stills, WR – Season Grade – D+ (7.3/10)
Kenny Stills really impressed me this season. He has explosive speed, solid catching skills, and above average route running. Unfortunately, he also demonstrated quite a few rookie tendencies such as misjudging the ball in flight or sitting down in the wrong zone instead of working to get open. The good news is that he will get better and should build upon a strong rookie season in which he surpassed most fans’ expectations. The 2013 season saw Stills flash brilliance in his precise route running and spectacular body control while adjusting to awkward passes, but also revealed the reasons that Stills ended up a 5th round pick. Kenny is not a one trick pony, contrary to what many have said – he is in fact a two trick pony. This young man will either run by a DB and catch something deep or make an awesome grab underneath that moves the chains. Another full off-season with Brees should be enough to open up other areas for Stills such as using double moves to get open and better timing to allow Brees to find him. This season Stills had a few breakout games then went silent for long stretches, hopefully 2014 will be his breakout season and he’ll make noise all year!
Playoff Performance: The playoffs can be a scary place for a rookie, especially a rookie wide receiver. Stills had two opportunities to sink or swim in the playoffs and unfortunately he was fitted with concrete cleats for the stretch run. In the wildcard game against the Eagles, Stills was partially responsible for an interception in the first half where he undercut a pass from Brees and gave the defensive back an easy pick. He would go on to finish the game with 1 catch for 3 yards and 1 carry for 1 yard, a very unspectacular debut. The following week was another no show as Stills did not record a single statistic. As I have mentioned already, Stills has the potential to be very good and could end up being the steal of the 2013 draft, but only time will tell.
Stills’ 2013 totals (including playoffs): 32 catches for 641 yards, 5 TD, 3 carries for 10 yards, P/O - 1 catch for 3 yards, and 1 carry for 1 yard
Rufus Johnson, LB – Season Grade – N/A
The good news is, Rufus made the active roster for the playoffs; the bad news is that it was a front office roster move just to create a practice squad spot for another player. If he makes it past camp, Johnson may be seen on the field past the preseason. My assessment of Jonson is simple, he was drafted as a defensive end who the Saints were converting to outside linebacker and the transition may have been a bit much for a rookie. There is also the idea that after seeing Will Smith struggle with the transition and weight loss, it may have been best to hand old Rufus a red-shirt to help him adapt. This fall he will have one year in the system under his belt, less veteran competition in front of him, and a chance to mold his body into something that can handle playing outside linebacker without getting hurt.
Playoff Performance: Inactive, DNP
Based on the grade eligible members of the 2013 draft class, the Saints front office has earned a C (7.95/10) in my opinion. I kept it simple in terms of grading by only accounting for tangible things such as production and meaningful snaps (contributing to getting first downs or aiding in a fourth down stand). Keep in mind that this is my assessment of the draft and disagreement with my grades is expected, so feel free to leave your opinions in the comment section including your player and overall grades. Also, stay tuned for part 2 of the Rookie Run- Down as we shift our attention to the undrafted free agents of 2013.