Have you heard? The Saints are at the midway point of the season and the 2017 draft class is heavily contributing towards the team’s six-game win streak. While it’s true for most cases of athletes, young football players in particular are able to succeed when they’re put in familiar situations and asked to do things within the framework of their skill-set. The Saints rookies are no different, displaying many of the same abilities that they had in college while also expanding their toolbox and improving their strong-points.
You probably saw this play last week vs. the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Alvin Kamara shows you why he was worth a 2018 2nd round pick with a variety of physical traits on this touchdown play, but his balance is the specific characteristic that truly stands out. He has the dexterity to use his off-hand to keep himself upright, but also the balance and low center-of-gravity to shed contact, allowing him to be sudden and explosive.
Let’s just take a brief moment to appreciate that play. That’s ridiculous. Not only does the first defender look silly in his tackle attempt, but the secondary defender gets juked from 5 yards away as he tries to go inside of the block as Kamara hits his fake move inside. Again, he uses his off-hand to keep himself upright and ensure his knee doesn’t go down while shedding contact and accelerating into the endzone.
For comparison’s sake:
I’m willing to say it. Marshon Lattimore is an elite cornerback in the NFL. That’s not even outrageous to say, right? In terms of quality and magnitude of contribution towards the team’s success, “Lockdown Lattimore” leads the Saints rookies. Our very own John Sigler detailed just how insane some of Lattimore’s stats are so far. My favorite: “Lattimore has more interception return yards (52) than yards he’s allowed in man coverage (48)”. Even if Lattimore had 0 return yards on 0 interceptions and was still allowing less than 50 yards in man coverage on the year, we’d be singing his praises as a very good player. But no, being very good isn’t sufficient. The standard for him is now greatness.
Lattimore is very Darrelle Revis-like in a few ways, but here he shows one of the most valuable skills that Revis had: defending the long ball without deep safety help. He has the speed to stay on top of wide receivers but also the ball skills and patience in his technique to locate the ball and make a play on it without evoking even the thought of a yellow flag.
That ball was outside, but even if it was in play, Marshon had it located and was in a position to get a hand on it and possibly intercept it. There’s no panic in his game. He’s as athletically comfortable as you could hope for your cornerback. Sometimes, he even looks like he’s the one playing receiver.
The interception was overturned, but he shows you the same things he showed against the Packers. While this play was from a press alignment rather than in off-coverage, he still essentially flipped roles on the receiver. He looks like he’s stacking a cornerback on a go route, using his body to wall the defender from the ball before accelerating underneath to make the catch. Except, you know, he’s supposed to be the defender on the play.
Remember all the way back in Week 3, when this six-game win streak all started?
Kenny Vaccaro gets damn near a flawless victory in press-man on the play, but it’s pretty clear what Marcus Williams is telling you right here: just put the man near the ball. The rookie safety is disciplined in his coverage roles and has the range and effort to get to the ball often, but he’s also going to convert a lot of opportunities into turnovers because as a former receiver, his hands are one of his best traits.
It’s uncanny how similar these plays are. Contact at the catch point causes a deflection, and Marcus dives to the turf and nimbly scoops the ball with one hand. You see that on tape in college and you know good things happen when Marcus Williams is near the football. Dennis Allen and his staff figuring out ways to get that done will be something to keep an eye on in the second half of the season.
You have to appreciate the big guy. While many people don’t enjoy watching offensive line play, almost everyone agrees on its importance. Ryan Ramczyk has played 100% of the team’s offensive snaps in 2017, starting games at both right tackle and left tackle. One of the reasons the Saints running game has been so potent is because of how smooth and efficient Ramczyk has been when sealing defenders at the point of attack.
(Ramczyk #71 is playing Right Tackle)
The major difference on this next play is that instead of helping with the defensive tackle and moving to the second-level linebacker, Ram is going to engage the edge defender directly in front of him. Basically, his assignment and track to the block are different in these plays, but he gets the different assignments done using the same skills. His hands are quick and active, and he consistently gets both of them inside the shoulders of the defender to establish control. While his hands are striking the opposing player, his hips and feet are working together fluidly to gain inside leverage to the ball and provide the runner with a clean lane. He never gets to a compromised position that could cause him to lose his balance or be called for holding.
(Ryan Ramczyk #65 is the left tackle)
Those four rookies are the guys that are playing and producing most heavily, but other guys from the 2017 class have given solid contributions as well. If the Saints rookie class can maintain their level of production during the final stretch of the regular season and into the playoffs, good things will happen for New Orleans. If they improve on their production? Who knows where the limit is.
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