The New Orleans Saints fan base knows more than anyone how important the special teams units can be to the outcome of a football game, perhaps even a season. The 2016 season ended with a 7-9 disappointment for the Saints, and three of those losses were the direct result of the failure of their kicking game. By contrast, New Orleans won three games during a 13-3 run in 2018 mostly due to an opponent's failures in the kicking game. One look at the Saints franchise Hall of Fame will also tell you how important special teams has been through their history. The team has three kickers in their Hall (Tom Dempsey, Morten Anderson, and John Carney), along two players who were among the NFL's most feared returners during their playing career (Michael Lewis and Tyrone Hughes). The team has lacked such a threat in recent seasons, but with a number of competitors this summer, that could change. NFL teams are now a few days into 2019 training camp, and today we preview our final Saints position group before preseason.
The Saints have boasted one of the league's best punters for the last ten years in Thomas Morstead. One of the last two players remaining from the Saints 2009 championship season (quarterback Drew Brees being the other), Morstead executed the successful onside kick to open the second half in Super Bowl XLIV. More conventionally, he is an underrated weapon for a Saints team that doesn't have to use their punter often. Morstead averaged 46.4 yards per punt in 2018, sixth best in the league and his ninth straight yearly ranking in the top ten. He has averaged 46.9 yards/punt through his career, which is second best among active players and 3rd best all-time. More than just a booming leg that gives New Orleans a field position advantage, Morstead adds to that edge with deadly accuracy that consistently places the ball inside the opponent's territory.
Wil Lutz enters his fourth season with New Orleans as one of the NFL's most underrated but one it's most accurate kickers. Lutz has converted 87% of his field goal attempts, second in franchise history and ahead of both Carney and NFL Hall of Famer Morten Anderson. Extremely accurate from long range as well, Lutz has made over 80% of his attempts from over 40 yards. He not only all but insures his team points from just inside of midfield, but exhibits a booming leg on kickoffs as well to limit return opportunities. New Orleans re-signed the 25-yr. old Lutz to a five year extension this offseason, leaving their kicking game on the capable leg of one of the league's most prolific point scorers.
Usually the only time anyone hears about a team's long snapper is if something goes horribly wrong, which is probably why the average football fan would not know the name Zach Wood. Entering his third season with New Orleans after a year on the Dallas Cowboys practice squad, the 26-yr. old Wood is also listed as a defensive end, but has just one career tackle to his credit. His value to the Saints is as the team's long snapper, a spot he has occupied for all 36 games (including playoffs) of his New Orleans career. Wood's snaps are crisp and precise, allowing the Saints kicking game to flourish, even as he himself toils in anonymity, much to the relief of fans of the team.
The Saints have one of the better kick coverage units in the league. They allowed a mere 5 yards per punt return in 2018, while surrendering 22.7 yards per kickoff return. The team has had a sharp focus on the athleticism of their coverage units over the last few seasons, reflective on their late round drafting and free agent signings. Players like linebacker Craig Robertson, defensive backs Justin Hardee and Chris Banjo, and even backup quarterback Taysom Hill not only provide key depth for the team, but have been outstanding special teamers as well. The Saints looked to add to the athleticism of their extra units in this year's draft as well. Sixth round pick, safety Saquan Hampton from Rutgers, and seventh rounder Kaden Elliss from Idaho were both highly accomplished on special teams during their collegiate careers. New Orleans also blocked two punts last season, including a momentum changing block by Hill in a road contest against Tampa Bay to key a comeback win. The Saints are aggressive on special teams, and are not afraid to run a fake punt at any point on the field. Taysom Hill in particular exhibits his versatility not just on the offensive side, but all around the field as a special teams tool. He is a threat as the up back on punt protection, and averaged 24.9 yards on 14 kickoff returns.
One area of weakness on the New Orleans football team in recent seasons has been the lack of a dynamic kick or punt returner. Head coach Sean Payton will occasionally use explosive running back Alvin Kamara in the role occassionally. Kamara has averaged 31.5 on fifteen career kickoff returns, including a franchise record 106-yd. touchdown in 2017 against the Buccaneers. Given Kamara's huge role in the Saints offense though, the team would prefer not to use him on special teams if it can be avoided. Hill was a serviceable on kickoff returns last season, but the Saints have averaged a paltry 6.5 yards per punt return in each of the last two seasons. One of the major battles of Saints training camp this summer will be at kick and punt returner, where the team hopes it can find an explosive threat to add to a championship caliber squad.
New Orleans signed veteran Marcus Sherels this offseason in hopes of finding that explosive element. Sherels, who turns 32 in September, is entering his 10th NFL season after playing all previous nine with the Minnesota Vikings. Listed as a cornerback, Sherels has been one of the league's better punt returners over the past decade. He has returned 5 punts for touchdowns in his career, a Vikings record, and also holds franchise records for career punt return average (10.4 yards) and returns over 50 yards. He has also averaged 25.5 yards per kickoff return in his career, giving him a prime opportunity to make this deep Saints roster, particularly if he can show some value as a reserve defensive back.
New Orleans also signed one of the most prolific kick returners in NCAA history when they inked rookie Deonte Harris following the draft. The diminutive Harris (5'6, 170-lbs.) is from equally tiny Assumption College, and holds the NCAA record with 14 return touchdowns. He is elusive and explosive in the open field, and was also a productive receiver at Assumption. Harris' ability to contribute as a backup receiver as well as a potential return threat could work his way up the depth chart and cement a roster spot despite the odds against him. He and Sherels could face additional competition as returners from the blazing fast wideout Cyril Grayson, undrafted rookie running back Devine Ozigbo, or veteran running back Javorius Allen.
The New Orleans Saints still have one of the most productive offenses in the league behind quarterback Drew Brees, receiver Michael Thomas, Kamara, and a dominant offensive line. Couple that with a young and rapidly improving defense, one of the NFL's most stable kicking situations, along with athletic coverage units, and the Saints have one of the most complete teams in the league. Competition will still be heavy though for several backup spots, as well as perhaps the team's most glaring weakness: kick and punt returner. Taysom Hill has been a serviceable kickoff return man, but if another threat can emerge this preseason, it would further strengthen one of the NFL's strongest teams.
Who emerges as the Saints kick and punt returner in 2019?
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