The New Orleans Saints, like the other teams across the NFL, enter 2017’s campaign with much anticipation and excitement. In a sense, all slates are wiped clean in the new league year, but many can’t help but dwell on the past and ponder what could have been. As many issues as the 2016 Saints faced, there were some real bright spots.
As a whole, the draft class really exceeded expectations, with the largest contributions coming from wide receiver Michael Thomas. The team’s first round draft pick, Sheldon Rankins, rebounded in a big way after suffering an injury that shelved him for nearly the first half of the season. Safety Vonn Bell had a larger role within the defense, logging six more snaps than Jairus Byrd’s 883. David Onyemata rotated in on the defensive line to finish with 392 total snaps, while Daniel Lasco had a handful of reps on offense despite primarily being used on special teams.
It doesn’t stop there, as the Saints had to lean on some of their undrafted rookies like Ken Crawley and De’Vante Harris with a depleted secondary. Kicker Wil Lutz went from being stashed on the Ravens roster to earning the starting gig, and it was shocking when the team elected to go with the rookie over two veterans. However, Lutz ended up being a stability in special teams. Then there were guys who hung around the 53-man roster like Landon Turner, Jake Lampman, and Tommylee Lewis. You could even go a bit further to look at the team’s practice squad, if you wanted to.
In this crucial year the Saints face, the majority of these players should have a seat on this season’s squad. Some will play a more prominent role than others. One would fully expect Michael Thomas to have the biggest role in 2017, as Brandin Cooks was sent packing to New England. Without question, he enters the season as the team’s primary target for Drew Brees. However, it won’t stop there.
No Tim Lelito presumably means Senio Kelemete and Landon Turner will have bigger roles within the team’s offense. Lelito accounted for 406 snaps (35 percent) on offense, and added 108 (23 percent) on special teams. Even if you cite Kelemete’s 665 snaps on offense and 72 on special teams, Turner could easily gain 10 times the reps he had in his rookie season.
Sticking with offense, Daniel Lasco has a battle ahead of him for what looks to be the team’s fourth option at running back. He’ll have returning backs Travaris Cadet and Marcus Murphy to battle with. However, the value on special teams coverage is what ultimately sets Lasco apart from the others.
One of the biggest saviors to appear for the Saints last season was Kevin O’Dea, who helped Lutz and the special teams in a big way. Once O’Dea entered the picture, Lutz went on to make all 12 of his field goals after missing five through the team’s first half of the season (six and an extra point block before O’Dea was officially added). And his return to work with Lutz along with the addition of Brad Banta as special teams coach is a big boost for what’s been a very porous coverage team.
Arguably, the biggest progression we’d like to see the most from is on defense. Bell and Onyemata look to have larger roles for Dennis Allen in the new season. After the Saints elected to designate Jairus Byrd as a post-June 1 cut and made moves (signed Rafael Bush and drafted Marcus Williams) to likely close the window on a Byrd return, Bell is destined to be a starter in 2017 after turning in 889 snaps last season. Onyemata could be the most intriguing player on the defensive line, mainly because he showed some real flashes of brilliance for a guy who hasn’t always played football, and now new defensive line coach Ryan Nielsen brings his style to the table for the second-year product from Canada.
It’s tempting to imagine what things would have been like had Sheldon Rankins been in for all 16 games for the Saints, but there’s little to be upset with from him turning in 4.0 sacks from the interior in his nine games. His best news of the offseason came when the Saints elected to re-sign Nick Fairley. Paired together, that tandem looks to be very underrated, but really puts together strong work in the trenches.
As for Harris and Crawley, they’ll likely have to battle it out for a spot as the team’s 5th or 6th option at cornerback. Unfortunately, it doesn’t seem realistic that both make the final roster, but the good news is they could stay close on the team’s practice squad.
Other considerations to potentially make some noise come training camp and watch include Lewis and Lampman, along with the likes of Jack Allen, Garrett Griffin, Jordan Williams-Lambert, and Taveze Calhoun. However, at this point of the season, it’d be a bit premature to crown anyone or place any player aside Lutz, Thomas, Bell, Rankins, and Onyemata in the 2017 Saints plans. Still, the fact remains that many of the aforementioned players will all play a pivotal role in the team’s quest to rid themselves from the shadows of being a mediocre 7-9 club.
Which second-year Saints player do you think has the most impact for 2017?
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