The New Orleans Saints have arguably made all of the moves necessary to field the NFL's most complete and well-rounded team in the 2014 season. The offense will undoubtedly continue to bolster the offensive line and receiving corps in this year's draft, and the defense will likely look to add talent and depth at both cornerback and linebacker. Despite recent roster upgrades and potential additions through the draft, the Saints continue to field one of the NFL's least effective special teams units in the kick return and punt return game.
Here is a sample of the Saints' lack of production in the return game in the 2013 season:
- Ranked next-to-last in the NFC in punt return yards with a a total of 194 yards.
- Ranked next-to-last in the NFC in yards per punt return with 6.1 yards per return.
- Darren Sproles led the Saints in punt returns with 29 returns, his longest return gained 28 yards.
- Ranked dead last in the NFC in kick return yards with a total of 506 yards.
- Ranked dead last in the NFC with only 15 kick returns of 20+ yards.
- Darren Sproles had 15 kick returns for 255 yards, his longest return gained 32 yards.
- Travaris Cadet had 9 kick returns for 239 yards, his longest return gained 82 yards (vs San Francisco, the lone bright spot in the 2013 return game).
The stats speak for themselves, but outside of the numbers, the Saints return unit just doesn't pass the "eyeball test", they just don't look or feel very impressive. Should the Saints expect to pull out those tight games with a small margin of error (like the aforementioned SF game) they will need to become far more dynamic in the return game and defending their opponents return game. This attention to a much overlooked aspect of the game can be the difference between a brief playoff appearance and a successful Super Bowl run.
This is why it is imperative that the Saints address their lack of a true return threat in the upcoming NFL Draft. It will be up to the Saints' scouting staff and front office to decide who that player may ultimately be, but it is unlikely that the dynamic player needed to shorten the field for Drew Brees and the offense is currently on the Saints roster. The sample size on Travaris Cadet is large enough to see that he's not quite dynamic enough to be the threat the Saints need, even though he provided the lone return highlight of 2013.
The Saints can use their first pick on a high profile wide receiver/kick returner or use a lower pick on a return specialist/gunner to bolster the special teams unit. As much as the Saints need to improve in the kick return game, improvement needs to be made in defending kick and punt returns as well. For as atrocious as the 2012 Saints defense was, special teams coverage gave them a run for worst unit on the field in many games. Although the 2013 return coverage unit wasn't quite the liability they had been, improvement is still needed going forward. Even though he may be on the back end of his career, Devin Hester will be a threat, and defending him twice a year will me more than a chore. Things won't be very easy defending the return game in the NFC South in 2014.
Whether the special teams deficiencies ultimately fall on longtime coordinator Greg McMahon or on the players themselves is up for debate, but what isn't debatable is that there has been no excitement, and most importantly, no production in the Saints return game since the 2011 season opener at Green Bay. Now, it would be far fetched to expect the Saints to field the leagues' most productive return unit in 2014 no matter who they draft, but they have to break out of the NFL's bottom quarter of productivity.
To return a top five offense and defense, improve upon those units, and introduce a special teams unit that can provide a spark as well as stifle the opposition, would be absolutely unsettling to the rest of the league. The Saints already have a solid foundation to build upon, punter Thomas Morstead is arguably the best in the game today and he is consistently solid on kickoff duty. Incumbent kicker Shayne Graham is not the long-term solution for the Saints, but he can be a reliable kicker in the present, and far less fear inducing than the polarizing kicker he replaced in Garrett Hartley. Special teams are the missing, and oft-neglected piece to place the Saints among the most complete contenders to the Super Bowl title in 2014.
Simply put, improved special teams play will be key in making the Saints, well… special.