Special teams is an underappreciated aspect of any level of football. It can often be the difference between a win and a loss. Tragically, this is something that the New Orleans Saints experienced first hand during the 2016 season, when putrid special teams play directly cost them 3 games, and most likely a spot in the playoffs. Today, we continue our postseason position grades with a look at how the special teams units affected the 2017 New Orleans Saints season.
The New Orleans Saints boast one of the best punters in the game with Thomas Morstead. The nine year veteran was one of just 3 players left on the roster from the Saints 2009 championship team (quarterback Drew Brees and tackle Zach Strief were the others), and he continues to kick strongly. He averaged 47.0 yards per punt in 2017, ranking within the league's top 10 in punting average for the 7th time in his career. Morstead's booming leg, he ranks 3rd in all-time average, and his ability accurately to place a ball inside the opponent's 20-yd. line can give the Saints a consistent field position advantage.
Wil Lutz seems to have finally given the Saints both a consistent and strong legged kicker, something they've lacked since early in Garrett Hartley's career. Lutz converted 86.1% of his field goal opportunities in 2017, and missed just one of his five attempts from beyond 50 yards. His 31 field goals tied a team record held by Saints and Pro Football Hall of Famer Morten Anderson and Saints Hall of Famer John Carney. Most importantly, Lutz has the confidence of his head coach, Sean Payton, to put points on the board in clutch situations.
The Saints kick and punt return units are still, by far, the weakest part of their special teams. Ted Ginn Jr., who had a good year at wideout, was brought in as much for his kick return abilities, returning 4 punts and 3 kickoffs for touchdowns over his career, and averaging over 10 yards per punt return. Ginn averaged just 5.4 yards per punt return with New Orleans, and struggled so badly with fielding the ball that he eventually relinquished punt return duties to Tommylee Lewis. Lewis fared no better, showing some nice open field ability at times, but struggled with consistency, averaging 8.2 yards per punt return. He did perform slightly better at returning kickoffs, averaging over 23 yards per return, but still did not exhibit gamebreaking tendencies. New Orleans began using rookie star Alvin Kamara to return kickoffs over the last portion of the season, hoping to add an explosive element that neither Ginn or Lewis had provided. The NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year did not disappoint, averaging over 31 yards on 11 kick returns. He had a team record 106-yd. return for a touchdown in the Saints season finale against Tampa Bay, and broke others for big gains.
Justin Hardee, Chris Banjo, and Taysom Hill added some nice athleticism to the Saints' kick coverage and punt block squads. Hardee blocked a punt, and returned it for a touchdown during a week 9 victory over the Buccaneers, and the team pressured opposing punters well all season. The New Orleans kick coverage unit improved only slightly as the year progressed. They surrendered an average of over 10 yards per punt return, and nearly 25 yards per kickoff return, but the coverage units did tighten somewhat down the stretch of the regular season.
Morstead and Lutz are as solid as any punter/kicker combination in the league. Both are strong-legged, clutch performers. The Saints have shown the ability to pressure the opposing punter, resulting in a number of big plays last season, but must continue to shore up their coverage units. Far too many big returns were given up in 2017, putting an improved defense on it's heels. New Orleans continues to lack a playmaking kick returner. Alvin Kamara has shown that he could be dynamic, but it's highly doubtful that the coaches want to use such a valuable offensive weapon in full-time return duties. The Saints special teams showed some improvement over the previous season, but despite a solid kicking game, often failed to produce any game changing results
SPECIAL TEAMS GRADE= C
How would you grade the Saints special teams in 2017?
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