Sean Payton entered his 11th season with the New Orleans Saints in 2017 on the verge of passing Jim Mora for the most wins in franchise history, but on a bit of a hot seat according to some. Payton's teams had finished 7-9 in each of the last three years, and for the previous two seasons he had been the topic of rumors that had the coach leaving the only team that he had led for other opportunities throughout the league. Payton was forced to make some tough decisions during the 2017 offseason, electing to replace longtime friends and assistant coaches Joe Vitt, who oversaw the linebackers, and defensive line coach Bill Johnson. Today, we have a look at how the coaching staff performed with one of the NFL's youngest rosters.
Payton is considered one of the NFL's best offensive minds, but joining him is Pete Carmichael, one of the league's most underrated offensive coordinators. Carmichael has been with Payton's Saints staff from it's inception in 2006, and offensive coordinator since 2009. He has helped develop one of the most productive passing attacks in NFL history. They team with respected quarterbacks coach Joe Lombardi to give Drew Brees perhaps the most effective sideline braintrust in the league. The Saints possessed one of the NFL's most balanced offenses in 2017, finishing 5th in both rushing and passing to rank 2nd in overall offense and 4th in points scored. Second year wide receiver Michael Thomas established himself as one of the best young wideouts in the game, flourishing under the tutelage of receivers coach Curtis Johnson, who returned to the team this past year after holding the same position from 2006-11. New Orleans had one of the most dynamic rushing attacks in the league, led by 1,000-yd. rusher Mark Ingram and the NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year, Alvin Kamara, who combined for an incredible 3,094 yards from scrimmage. Third year running back coach Joel Thomas has helped transform Ingram into an every down threat, and oversaw Kamara's development into one of the league's most dangerous offensive weapons. New Orleans offensive success could not have been possible without a good performance from it's offensive line. The Saints overcame a number of injuries and two new additions up front with the help of offensive line coach Dan Roushar and offensive assistant Dan Campbell, who interviewed for the head job with Indianapolis. New Orleans brought in Larry Warford as a free agent, who played at a Pro Bowl level in replacing Jahri Evans, then drafted Ryan Ramczyk with the 32nd pick, who stepped in as immediate starter and earned a spot on the NFL All-Rookie team. New Orleans had to contend with nagging injuries to left tackle Terron Armstead and the loss of veteran right tackle Zach Strief early in the season. The athleticism and versatility of the line helped the Saints to an NFL best 23 rushing touchdowns, a 4.7 yards per rush average to rank second in the league and allowed their future Hall of Fame quarterback to get sacked just 20 times.
Saints defensive coordinator Dennis Allen began the year with two new assistants, Ryan Nielson on the defensive line, and veteran Mike Nolan as linebacker coach. Nielson brought together a front four that became a disruptive unit over the course of the season, led by All-Pro end Cam Jordan and former 1st round tackle Sheldon Rankins. Nielson and pass rush specialist Brian Young will oversee continued development of Rankins, David Onyemata, and Trey Hendrickson, crucial to defensive success. Nolan, a 30-yr. NFL coaching veteran, had a linebacking corps thinned by injury, but helped Manti Te'o and Craig Robertson to their most productive professional seasons. Nolan will be charged with the development of athletic Alex Anzalone and the improvement of A.J. Klein upon their return from injury, along with shoring up a linebacker squad considered a team weakness.
Aaron Glenn has fast become a hot coaching commodity in just his fourth year as coach and 2nd with the Saints. Glenn and Leigh Torrence, both accomplished former NFL defensive backs, have been developing a very young New Orleans defensive backfield into an exciting, playmaking unit. Saints defensive backs were responsible for 16 turnovers, 6.5 sacks, and 2 touchdowns, while limiting the production of numerous pro bowl calibur wideouts in 2017. Ken Crawley, an undrafted college free agent a year ago, has become a solid NFL cornerback, second year safety Vonn Bell showed vast improvement, and Kenny Vaccaro had his most consistent year since his rookie season. The Saints added cornerback Marshon Lattimore and safety Marcus Williams with first and second round picks, respectively, in last spring's draft. Williams provided a playmaking presence at safety that the defense had lacked in years, earning him a spot on the All-Rookie team. Lattimore, meanwhile, had an impact rarely seen from a rookie cornerback. He was the first Saints cornerback in 22 years to be voted to a Pro Bowl. Lattimore quickly established himself as one of the better coverage corners in the league, and his ability to shut down some of the NFL's better wideouts allowed Dennis Allen to be more aggressive with his defensive personnel.
Sean Payton's 105 regular season wins are the most of any coach in New Orleans Saints history. The fiery coach's intensity had come into question over the last few years, but Payton was as animated as ever in 2017, admittedly rejuvenated by this current group of Saints players. New Orleans has one of the youngest rosters in the NFL, but the staff kept this team focused and progressing all year despite a rough start to the regular season. The offensive staff did a wonderful job featuring the talents of Ingram, Kamara, and Michael Thomas, as well as utilizing the versatile talents along their offensive line. They must find and develop more talent at receiver and tight end, perhaps a reason for the offense's lowly 37.6% 3rd down conversion rate. Defensively, the Saints made great strides, but a stronger linebacking corps still must be developed, as well as consistency up front. Special teams coaches Kevin O'Dea and Banford Banta need to work on improving kick coverage, as well as developing a more productive return game. The New Orleans Saints possess an exciting young roster, and more pieces will certainly be added this offseason. Further development of the talent in place is crucial to the team cementing it's place as a title contender in 2018 and beyond.
COACHING STAFF GRADE= B
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