I know it’s only week 11, and there are still seven games left, but halfway through the 2017 season, one thing is abundantly clear. The Saints are getting major production from their strongest draft class since 2006.
That year, the Saints drafted Reggie Bush in the 1st round, Roman Harper in the 2nd, Jahri Evans in the 3rd, Rob Ninkovich in the 5th, Mike Haas and Josh Lay in the 6th, and Zach Strief and Marques Colston in the 7th. The majority of that draft class played at least 10 NFL seasons and may one day become franchise Hall of Famers.
It’s no secret a major part of the Saints struggles over the past four out five seasons has been due to drafting poorly and overpaying free agents whose production didn’t match their paychecks. Under the direction of Jeff Ireland, however, the Saints have spent both their draft picks and free agent additions wisely. (Think Alex Okafor, Manti Te’o, Larry Warford, Ted Ginn Jr., and A.J. Klein instead of Coby Fleener)
The Saints 2017 draft class boasts four players worthy of first round draft grades, and all four are playing high percentages of snap counts. Marshon Lattimore, Ryan Ramczyk, Marcus Williams, and Alvin Kamara have all performed beyond the Saints’ wildest dreams. But two of them in particular have great shots at being voted Rookie of the Year.
Picked 11th overall in the first round, Lattimore, the highest rated cornerback in the draft, unexpectedly fell to the Saints after a slew of picks at wide receiver. The Ohio State product battled hamstring issues throughout college, but flourished during a healthy sophomore season. The Saints clearly like drafting defensive backs from Urban Meyer’s system, and nine games into the season, Lattimore is not only the best cornerback on the Saints, he’s one of the best in the league.
In fact, Lattimore is currently rated the 10th best cornerback in the entire NFL. His name now floats among the likes of Josh Norman, Richard Sherman, Patrick Peterson, Xavier Rhodes, Chris Harris Jr., and Jalen Ramsey. Lattimore has only allowed a passer rater of 62.1, which is fourth best in the league.
He may not lead the league in tackles (36) or pass breakups (8), but that’s because his coverage is so good, it effectively erases the impact of whomever he covers. Quarterbacks simply don’t want to throw the ball in his direction.
If you are more attracted to flash, how about Lattimore’s two interceptions which were returned over 52 yards and one touchdown? If he continues to play at this level, Lattimore is a strong candidate for Defensive Rookie of the Year.
The fact that the Saints may have finally stabilized their secondary seems too good to be true. But what’s even crazier to ponder is the fact that they may have drafted an Offensive Rookie of the Year at the very same time.
During the third round, the Saints traded up for Tennessee running back Alvin Kamara. The Saints gave up a 2017 7th round pick and 2018 2nd round pick to move up and nab the shifty back 67th overall. The price seemed steep at the time, but only a half season later, Kamara is proving to be an absolute coup for the Saints scouting and drafting department.
Kamara leads the entire league in rushing yards per attempt with 6.5. When it comes to pass receiving, Kamara is averaging even more yards per attempt with 8.9. The fact that he catches most passes out of the backfield behind the line of scrimmage makes his receiving yards average even more impressive.
He’s 7th in all purpose yards with 910, which is only slightly less than Le’Veon Bell (1,091), Ezekiel Elliot (993 yards), and Antonio Brown (911 yards); and slightly more than his equally talented and productive teammate, Mark Ingram (864 yards).
He’s become a possessed millennial 2.0 version of Saints fan favorite Darren Sproles, except with the balance of Pierre Thomas and the quickness of Reggie Bush. After nine games, Kamara has scored six touchdowns. Along with Ingram’s resurgence as lead back, Kamara’s immediate impact on the running game allowed the Saints to trade a future Hall of Famer, Adrian Peterson, to the Arizona Cardinals for a compensatory pick. Suddenly, I feel a lot more confident the Saints can turn that pick into a great player as well.
Mark my words, even if Lattimore and Kamara don’t win Defensive and Offensive Rookies of the Year, this draft class will belong in the pantheon of franchise fortune turning classes just like the class of 2006. I’m not even sure we need the next seven games to figure that out.