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Saints rookie class sets NFL’s black and gold standard

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Checking in at the season’s midpoint reveals a group of youngsters changing New Orleans’ football culture.

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NEW ORLEANS, LA:  New Orleans Saints running back Alvin Kamara (41) celebrates his second touchdown scored against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers defense at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.
NEW ORLEANS, LA: New Orleans Saints running back Alvin Kamara (41) celebrates his second touchdown scored against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers defense at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.
Photo by Wesley Hitt/Getty Images

We’ve reached the halfway mark and the New Orleans Saints rookie class seems to be the talk of the NFL. Legitimate Rookie of the Year contenders like playmaking cornerback Marshon Lattimore and electric running back Alvin Kamara are making all sorts of waves, but they aren’t doing it alone. Let’s check in on how each of the Saints’ rookies are doing:

Marshon Lattimore, Cornerback

New Orleans, LA, USA; New Orleans Saints cornerback Marshon Lattimore  breaks up a touchdown pass thrown to Tampa Bay Buccaneers wide receiver  Mike Evans at Mercedes-Benz Superdome.
New Orleans, LA, USA; New Orleans Saints cornerback Marshon Lattimore breaks up a touchdown pass thrown to Tampa Bay Buccaneers wide receiver Mike Evans at Mercedes-Benz Superdome.
Scott Clause-USA TODAY Sports

At this point, there’s nothing left to say about Lattimore’s early success. Suggesting he belongs in the Rookie of the Year conversation or deserves All-Pro nominations would just be shouting into an echo chamber. New Orleans has spent years trying to find someone like Lattimore through free agency, pursuing guys at the end of their careers like Champ Bailey and Brandon Browner, as well as older veterans like Josh Norman and Malcolm Butler. Luckily for the Saints, they’ve finally found that elite cover corner when he’s 21-years old. The Ohio State Buckeyes product will be very good for a very long time.

Some of Lattimore’s stats, via Pro Football Reference:

  • Played 434 snaps (84.4-percent of total possible reps) over seven games, missed one game while going through NFL’s concussion protocol.
  • Logged two interceptions and eight other passes broken up (leads team). 26 solo tackles (plus five assists) are third on the team. Has forced one fumble and recovered another.
  • Has gained more yards on interception returns (52) than allowed on catches in man coverage (48), per Brett Kollman of SB Nation.

Ryan Ramczyk, Offensive Tackle

New Orleans, LA, USA; New Orleans Saints offensive tackle Ryan Ramczyk  (71) blocks on a kick attempt in the first half against the Detroit  Lions at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.
New Orleans, LA, USA; New Orleans Saints offensive tackle Ryan Ramczyk (71) blocks on a kick attempt in the first half against the Detroit Lions at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.
Chuck Cook-USA TODAY Sports

Let’s check in on the Earth-2 Saints: the Seattle Seahawks refused to let the division-rival San Francisco 49ers trade into their spot for Reuben Foster, so the Alabama Crimson Tide linebacker didn’t hang up on New Orleans. But he’s had the same injury issues he’s seeing here on Earth-1, fighting through ankle and rib issues. So the Saints are without him and have been dealing with Bryce Harris at right tackle as best they can after Zach Strief went down (yikes).

Thankfully, that’s not where we’re at. Ryan Ramczyk has been a ringing endorsement for Wisconsin Badgers offensive linemen, starting at both left and right tackle throughout the year. He’s really settled in on the right side as a high-level starter. Ramczyk looks as good as any rookie lineman has in recent years, including Tennessee Titans Pro Bowler Taylor Lewan.

Some of Ramczyk’s stats, via PFR and sharpfootballstats.com:

  • Played 527 snaps (100-percent) over eight games, joining three other players to not miss a single play: Andrus Peat, Max Unger, and Drew Brees.
  • Since Ramczyk has started at right tackle (Week Four, after Strief’s injury), the Saints have gained 289 yards on 60 rushing attempts (4.8 yards per carry) to the right side.
  • Take Pro Football Focus grades for whatever they’re worth to you, but Ramczyk (76.7 cumulative) has graded no worse than 12th among right tackles league wide every week this year.

Marcus Williams, Safety

New Orleans, LA, USA; New Orleans Saints cornerback Marshon Lattimore  (23) and New Orleans Saints free safety Marcus Williams (43) celebrate a  play against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in the second half at the  Mercedes-Benz Superdome.
New Orleans, LA, USA; New Orleans Saints cornerback Marshon Lattimore (23) and New Orleans Saints free safety Marcus Williams (43) celebrate a play against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in the second half at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.
Chuck Cook-USA TODAY Sports

He hasn’t had the impact plays of teammates like Marshon Lattimore and Kenny Vaccaro, but Marcus Williams has quietly had a strong rookie year so far. He’s one of the smartest players on the defense and has done a great job locking down the deep zones in the Saints secondary. They got wiped out by unrelated penalties, but we shouldn’t forget two of his early interceptions of New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady. Williams has ball skills and as teams start to look away from Lattimore’s clutch coverage, he’ll get more opportunities to show it.

Some of Williams’ stats, via PFR:

  • Played 509 snaps (99-percent) over eight games, leading the rookie class and ranking second on the defense overall; only free agent linebacker A.J. Klein (514) has played more.
  • Logged one interception and two other passes broken up. 24 solo tackles (plus eight assists) are sixth on the team.

Alvin Kamara, Running Back

New Orleans, LA, USA; New Orleans Saints running back Alvin Kamara (41)  runs against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in the second half at the  Mercedes-Benz Superdome.
New Orleans, LA, USA; New Orleans Saints running back Alvin Kamara (41) runs against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in the second half at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.
Chuck Cook-USA TODAY Sports

Just two rookie running backs have broken the 300-yard mark on both the ground and through the air: the Kansas City ChiefsKareem Hunt, and the Saints’ Alvin Kamara. That’s an impressive milestone no matter how you spin it, whether you’re rudelypointing out that Hunt has nearly 500 more rushing yards or lauding Kamara’s 100 fewer combined touches. Kamara has been just as exciting an addition to the Saints offense as Michael Thomas was last year, if not more so, and could very well end up in the Offensive Rookie of the Year discussion at year’s end.

Some of Kamara’s stats, via PFR:

  • Played 214 snaps (40.6-percent) over eight games, has played in 42-percent of snaps or more in every game since the bye week. Mark Ingram is the starting running back but has played just 293 snaps (55.6-percent).
  • Kamara is second on the team in rushing attempts (52), rushing yards (311), rushing touchdowns (3), pass targets (48), receptions (38), and is third on the team in receiving yards (341) and receiving touchdowns (2).

Alex Anzalone, Linebacker

Charlotte, NC, USA; Carolina Panthers running back Jonathan Stewart (28)  is tackled by New Orleans Saints outside linebacker Alex Anzalone (47)  in the fourth quarter at Bank of America Stadium.
Charlotte, NC, USA; Carolina Panthers running back Jonathan Stewart (28) is tackled by New Orleans Saints outside linebacker Alex Anzalone (47) in the fourth quarter at Bank of America Stadium.
Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

Football is a tough sport and it’s inevitable that guys get lost to injury. Anzalone was playing well for a third-round draft pick before his injury, and in a brutal moment of irony got hurt making a play no other linebacker on the team could have: using his combination of football IQ and athleticism, Anzalone shut down a wide receiver screen against the Miami Dolphins but fell awkwardly onto his surgically-repaired shoulder and aggravated an old injury. Here’s hoping he makes a full recovery and can help the team in the future.

Some of Anzalone’s stats, via PFR:

  • Played 158 snaps (77.8-percent of a possible 203 reps at the time of his injury), which is still more than the current total logged by teammate Manti Te’o (157) and many fans’ draft crush at linebacker, Reuben Foster (139).
  • Logged one sack and one pass breakup, as well as 11 tackles (five assists).

Trey Hendrickson, Defensive End

New Orleans, LA, USA; Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback Jameis Winston  (3) is pressured by New Orleans Saints defensive end Trey Hendrickson  (91) in the second quarter at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.
New Orleans, LA, USA; Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback Jameis Winston (3) is pressured by New Orleans Saints defensive end Trey Hendrickson (91) in the second quarter at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.
Chuck Cook-USA TODAY Sports

Most fans wrote off Hendrickson as the black sheep of the draft class due to his small-school pedigree out of the Florida Atlantic Owls program, but he’s played well as the third defensive end behind Cameron Jordan and Alex Okafor. Thanks to his impressive athleticism and situational awareness, Hendrickson has made a number of splash plays relative to his snap count and is looking like a steal compared to higher-drafted rookie edge rushers around the league. It’s largely due to his efforts that Hau’oli Kikaha has been a healthy scratch for several games this year.

Some of Hendrickson’s stats, via PFR:

  • Played 153 snaps (29.7-percent) over eight games, has seen 35.8-percent or better every week since the bye. Only Jordan (470, 91.4-percent) and Okafor (395, 76.8-percent) are above him on the depth chart.
  • Logged two sacks (fourth on the team), two pass breakups, and a forced fumble as well as four solo tackles and five assists.

Al-Quadin Muhammad, Defensive End

New Orleans, LA, USA; New Orleans Saints defensive end Al-Quadin  Muhammad (97) sacks and forces a fumble from Baltimore Ravens  quarterback Thaddeus Lewis (7)  during the first half of a preseason  game at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.
New Orleans, LA, USA; New Orleans Saints defensive end Al-Quadin Muhammad (97) sacks and forces a fumble from Baltimore Ravens quarterback Thaddeus Lewis (7) during the first half of a preseason game at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.
Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports

The Saints’ final draft pick this year hasn’t seen much game time, and it makes sense given his situation. He’s been away from football for over a year and needs time to get into game-ready shape, no matter how many plays he made in the preseason. The potential is definitely there for Muhammad and it’s encouraging that he’s healthy and practicing. He hasn’t registered a statistic after playing just three defensive snaps and fifteen reps on special teams during two games against the Minnesota Vikings and Green Bay Packers, per PFR.

Trey Edmunds, Running Back

Carson, CA, USA; New Orleans Saints running back Trey Edmunds (33) runs  past Los Angeles Chargers defensive back Ryan Reid (35) in the second  half at StubHub Center.
Carson, CA, USA; New Orleans Saints running back Trey Edmunds (33) runs past Los Angeles Chargers defensive back Ryan Reid (35) in the second half at StubHub Center.
Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports

It speaks to how well the Saints are drafting that just two undrafted rookies made it onto this list. Former Virginia Tech Hokies and Maryland Terps Trey Edmunds is one of those guys, having played his way onto the squad as a special teamer. He’s second on the team in special teams snaps played (136) behind only Chris Banjo (172) and has tied the team lead in tackles on coverage units (5). He’s close to pushing Daniel Lasco (active in just two games) off of the roster, who was drafted with last year’s seventh round pick to fill the gunner role Edmunds is now taking over.

Justin Hardee, Defensive Back

New Orleans, LA, USA; New Orleans Saints defensive back Justin Hardee  scores a touchdown after blocking a punt by Tampa Bay Buccaneers kicker  Bryan Anger at Mercedes-Benz Superdome.
New Orleans, LA, USA; New Orleans Saints defensive back Justin Hardee scores a touchdown after blocking a punt by Tampa Bay Buccaneers kicker Bryan Anger at Mercedes-Benz Superdome.
Scott Clause-USA TODAY Sports

The other undrafted rookie to make a name for himself this year is Justin Hardee, a former Fighting Illini wide receiver who the Saints converted to defensive back. Hardee now highlights on special teams, ranking fifth in snaps played (99) and tying Edmunds for the most tackles (5). Hardee has also stood out when downing punts and made an awesome play this past weekend against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers by blocking, catching, and fielding a punt for a score all by himself.