The NFL preseason is finally here. The New Orleans Saints officially report for their training camp today, with practices set to commence on Thursday. Not talked about in the media at great length, yet under extremely close scrutiny by the coaches, are the special teams battles through training camp and preseason games. Roster spots are often won or lost on the lower half of NFL teams by the performance of players on these units. The Saints know as well as anyone how important these units can be. Three New Orleans losses in the 2016 season were a direct result of special teams errors, and wound up being a major difference between a 10-6 season and a playoff berth, or the third straight 7-9 finish that the team endured. The Saints were noticeably improved in some of these areas during the 2017 season, but some of the team's offseason moves were made with a specific eye towards further upgrades on the sometimes forgotten element of football. As the Saints slip on the pads for their official beginning of the 2018 preseason, we have a look at the last unit of our training camp previews.
Wil Lutz enters his third year as the Saints placekicker. Blessed with an extremely strong leg, Lutz improved his accuracy a year ago, converting on 86.1% of his field goals, up from 82.4% the year before. His 31 field goals made in 2017 tied a team record held by NFL Hall of Famer Morten Anderson and Saints Hall of Famer John Carney. Lutz converted 4/5 attempts from beyond 50 yards last season, and has shown a tendency to nail the clutch kick in key situations. His kickoffs consistently reach the opponent's end zone, even when outdoors and away from the friendly confines of the Superdome. The underrated 24-yr old kicker is well-appreciated by teammates and coaches for his ability to give the team an almost automatic three points from long range when an offensive drive does stall.
Thomas Morstead continues to be one of the most underrated punters in the National Football League. Morstead, a nine year veteran, has 8 of the 10 best punting average seasons in team history, including the top three marks. His 42.2 net average in 2017 was a bit lower than his career average, but still good enough for 6th best in the league. Morstead's booming leg often flips field position in favor of the Saints, but he also shows deadly accuracy in his ability to down the ball inside the opposing 10-yd. line to create a defensive advantage.
The New Orleans coverage units struggled at times a year ago, allowing 24.6 yards per kickoff return and 10.4 yards per punt return, including one touchdown. Reserve quarterback Taysom Hill became a cult hero among some New Orleans fans for his gritty play on the kick coverage and punt block units last season. Hill will be locked in a battle for the backup quarterback job this preseason, so it's unlikely that he sees many more snaps in this area. Justin Hardee provided one of the plays of the year on special teams, when he blocked a punt and returned it for a touchdown during a victory over Tampa Bay. Safety Chris Banjo was a standout on the team's coverage units, and played a team-high 71.9% of the snaps. The Saints still lacked overall athleticism from it's coverage units, something that the team focused on upgrading this offseason. Natrell Jamerson was drafted in the 5th round, not only for his potential as a talented defensive back, but for his outstanding special teams play while at Wisconsin. Jamerson was one of the top gunners on kick and punt coverage in the Big 10 throughout his career with the Badgers, and has very good open field tackling ability. A sixth round pick was used on defensive back Kamrin Moore from Boston College. While Moore hopes to make an impact in the defensive backfield, he will try to be a factor in special teams as well. He is a hard hitter, who takes proper angles in space and aggressively moves in for the tackle. University of Cincinnati cornerback Linden Stephens went undrafted, but brings an athletic skillset to both the defensive backfield and kick coverage squads. Late round draft picks and undrafted prospects often earn their way onto a roster by catching the coach's eye on the kick coverage units, as cornerback Arthur Maulet did a season ago, and a number of reserve linebackers such as Jayrone Elliott and Colton Jumper will attempt to do in this camp.
The Saints kick and punt return performances was one worthy of a Football Follies video at times in 2017. Outside of Alvin Kamara returning the opening kickoff a team-record 106-yds. for a touchdown at Tampa Bay, the return units were abysmal. Ted Ginn Jr. was signed as a free agent last offseason in hopes that he would add a breakaway threat as a returner. Ginn's career average of nearly 11 yards per punt return, almost 23 yards per kick, and 7 total return touchdowns made him one of the most feared special teams players in the league. While Ginn turned out to be a major contributor in the Saints' passing game, he quickly became a liability as a returner. A number of fumbles, along with a lowly 5.4 yards returning punts and 11.2 yards on kickoffs caused the team to remove him from return duties. The Tommylee Lewis experiment may be over. The third year receiver can be a jitterbug in the open field, but has never translated that into consistent production as a returner. He averaged less than 9 yards bringing back punts a year ago, and has averaged less than 22 yards per kickoff return in his career. Kamara provided an explosive spark when inserted as the team's primary kickoff return man down the stretch of last season, but he is not likely to be used in that capacity often, given his offensive responsibilities. Natrell Jamerson showed some explosive potential as a returner at Wisconsin, and will undoubtedly be in the mix for kick return duties in New Orleans. Running back Boston Scott was drafted in the 6th round from Louisiana Tech, and may be given first crack at return responsibilities. Although not used in that role often in college, Scott has sure hands and good open field running skills. Backup running backs Trey Edmunds and Jonathan Williams, and Shane Vereen may also be given a chance at returning kicks, as New Orleans looks for a consistent threat in what may be the most wide-open competition of the preseason.
The New Orleans Saints have a kicker/punter combination as good as any team in the league. The team added more athleticism to it's coverage units this offseason, but someone needs to step forward and be a difference maker in an open competition for the return duties. New Orleans is among 5-6 of the top contenders for a championship in a packed NFC. In what is expected to be a tight race all season, the Saints will likely need their special teams to be special in order to add another championship trophy to their award case.
Who will emerge as the Saints primary kick returner?
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Ted Ginn Jr.
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