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Football Outsiders ranks total Special Team performance every year, measuring field goals, kickoffs/punts, and return yards, while accounting for external factors like weather and stadium versus dome.
Not surprisingly for fans who watched the New Orleans Saints in 2016, the Saints came in near the bottom at 26th overall in last season’s rankings. The Saints received a neutral score out of Wil Lutz’s Field Goal kicking duties and a positive score out of Thomas Morstead’s punting, but were hurt in both the kickoff and punt return categories. Both Lutz and Morstead are returning to the Saints in 2017.
The Saints came in at 13th in the league in average kickoff return yards with 22.5 yards per return and 22nd in average punt return yards with a measly 8.2 yards per return. The Saints used a primary combination of Travaris Cadet and Tommylee Lewis for returns, with Jairus Byrd occasionally stepping in for a fair catch punt.
With the Saints heavily invested (at the time) in Brandin Cooks, the team was hesitant to put Cooks back as a return man and risk injury. After the release of Jairus Byrd and the highly-publicized trade of Brandin Cooks, the Saints signed veteran WR Ted Ginn Jr, formerly of the Carolina Panthers, to replace Cooks on offense and be the new primary return specialist.
So here’s why they’re better in 2017:
The changes on Special Teams for the Saints begin and end with two names: Ted Ginn Jr. and Bradford Banta.
Unlike Cooks, the Saints do not have a significant part of their future tied up in Ted Ginn Jr. The Saints should have no issues running him out their on each and every kickoff and punt return. He has an average kickoff return of 22.8 yards in his career and 10.5 average on punt returns - both which would single-handily be better than the Saints averages in 2016. Adding him to Tommylee Lewis on kickoff returns, allowing TLL the opportunity to learn from the veteran return man, would present a great duo in 2017 while also grooming TLL as the return man of the future.
Getting Greg McMahon out as Special Teams Coordinator will also be a fresh change of pace for the team. As a member of the Special Teams staff with the Detroit Lions, the Lions enjoyed an improvement in Special Teams play, tying for the NFL lead in Special Teams tackles under Bradford Banta. Banta will attempt to instill new fundamentals for the Saints Special Teamers in tackling, kickoffs, kickoff returns, punt returns, and blocking for field goals and extra points.
All in all, 2017 should be a better year for the Saints on Special Teams across the board.