The New Orleans Saints’ 2016 season has been torpedoed by injuries, coaching gaffes, and a healthy dose of pure bad luck. But that doesn’t mean it’s been meaningless. Young players have emerged as staples moving forward, and experienced veterans have reaffirmed their value to the team.
On this Thanksgiving, here’s a few Saints we should be thankful for:
Defensive end Cameron Jordan would be the best player on the team if Drew Brees weren’t around. Only New York Giants defensive ends Jason Pierre-Paul (691 snaps) and Olivier Vernon (666) have played more snaps at the position than Jordan (619), but Jordan’s tackles for loss (11) almost equal theirs combined (14). All three defensive ends have logged four sacks at this point in the season.
Jordan isn’t appreciated by the average fan, or even many Saints fans. He’s one of the league’s better run defenders and can generate his own pass rush off the edge, but the Saints have to prioritize finding a complimentary defensive end for the stalwart Jordan in the spring. Now in his sixth season as a starter, the 27-year old defensive captain is in the prime of his career.
Wide receiver Michael Thomas has been one of the breakout stars of the year. He leads all rookies in catches (56), yards (681), catches for 20-or-more yards (11), first down conversions (36), and completion percentage (75.7-percent), while tying New York Giants rookie slot receiver Sterling Shepard in touchdowns (5).
What’s most impressive is how Thomas creates that production: he averages 4.8-yards after the catch, providing an added element to the Saints’ passing attack, the best rate on the team. He can make plays with the ball in his hands rather than have touches manufactured for him.
Despite a terrible “welcome to the NFL” game against the Denver Broncos where Thomas ceded two fumbles and a deflected interception, his rare combination of confidence and humility has cemented his status as a once and future star in New Orleans.
Outside linebacker Dannell Ellerbe has a frustrating injury history, but the Saints’ patience with him should be rewarded. In only 83 snaps Ellerbe has racked up an impressive 16 tackles, two sacks, two tackles for loss, and a pass breakup. For context, that rate of tackles relative to snaps played sits at 19.3-percent and no other Saints linebacker comes close; Craig Robertson is the next-best with a rate of only 13.4-percent.
Ellerbe brings a berserk energy to the defense and unmatched sideline-to-sideline speed. He’s an impressive athlete who can just as easily defend coverage downfield as bend the edge and come screaming down after the passer. When healthy and dialed in, there’s few linebackers around that can match Ellerbe’s production.
Right tackle Zach Strief was highlighted for most of the spring and summer as a liability along the offensive line, but he’s maybe been the best lineman in New Orleans. With Terron Armstead and Andrus Peat splitting time at left tackle, Strief has played a huge part in the NFL’s premier pass rushers – Von Miller, Cliff Avril, Khalil Mack, and Frank Clark – combining for one sack in their games against the Saints this year.
Strief has also stepped up as a run-blocker, showing renewed nastiness at age 33 in his eleventh year. The team nominated Strief for the Art Rooney Sportsmanship Award, and the good guy of the locker room would be a deserving winner of that honor.
Quarterback Drew Brees is one of the league’s best – best-ever – passers and doesn’t need further discussion. We should be thankful to see him play every week, YOLO throws and all. I’ll leave you with this outstanding pass that maybe three or four people on the planet can make. Happy Thanksgiving, y’all:
Drew Brees. Pinpoint #TNF pic.twitter.com/HClh6XD4JX— Mike Renner (@PFF_Mike) November 18, 2016