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Saints’ stacked veteran roster reflected in low ‘under-25-talent’ ESPN ranking

Sometimes it hurts to have experience

Tampa Bay Buccaneers v New Orleans Saints Photo by Sean Gardner/Getty Images

The end goal for the New Orleans Saints’ 2020 NFL season is transient and singularly focused - the elusive second ring for quarterback Drew Brees. The Saints are in win-now mode. Accordingly, New Orleans prioritized signing poised veteran players to bolster lacking position groups heading into the 2020 season. Particularly heightened by the tumultuous 2020 offseason, in tandem with the frantic dash to Super Bowl LV, New Orleans is not focused on cultivating young talent – save for the quality players selected to fill key holes in the 2020 NFL draft.

ESPN on Monday released their under-25 talent team rankings for the 2020 NFL season, and the Saints received a considerably low grade at No. 21. Typically, a ranking of 21 out of 32 is unsavory; in context of the Saints’ goals for the 2020 season, it’s not at all surprising.

ESPN classified the under-25 players into two categories: blue-chip players and notable graduated players. The former denotes, “cornerstone assets from whom teams will likely derive their biggest future value,” while the latter simply applies to players who’ve turned 25. Here’s who made the cut for the Saints, their impact, and a reluctant grading comparison of the rest of the NFC South.

Blue-chip players: center Erik McCoy, CB Marshon Lattimore, WR Deonte Harris

Tampa Bay Buccaneers v New Orleans Saints Photo by Jonathan Bachman/Getty Images

C Erik McCoy

Head coach Sean Payton does some of his best work when he’s backed into a corner with negligible leeway – most often apparent in his (mainly self-inflicted) quality-over-quantity draft approach. Erik McCoy is a prime example. No 2019 Saints mock draft predicted a Payton trade-up for the former A&M center. And yet, we should have seen it coming – just as much as New Orleans’ 2020 first pick C Cesar Ruiz. Saints fans were stunned with former C Max Unger’s sudden retirement in March of 2019. While draft analysts were overly-focused on glaring defensive holes – albeit fairly – Payton was playing chess while we all played checkers.

McCoy not only immediately filled a glaring hole as a prime protector for Brees, but he was also easily one of the top rookie centers in the NFL. The durable center started every game in the 2019 season on the impenetrable offensive line that allowed a sparse 24 QB sacks and averaged 108.6 yards per game on the ground. While he was responsible for 8 penalties that oftentimes stalled New Orleans’ offensive momentum, the mental demands placed on rookie centers make it one of the most difficult positions to start outright; teams often initially delegate these draft picks to guards to acclimate them to timing and line calls. McCoy’s natural talent, coupled with his rare quickness and power, propelled him through these growing pains. Along the way, he manhandled some of the NFL’s best interior linemen with apparent ease.

He becomes even more crucial to the Saints offensive line in 2020 with the release of Pro Bowl guard Larry Warford; equally critical is the corresponding replacement rookie Ruiz. The two young linemen are poised to likely trade off at center and guard until Ruiz is acclimated, with the foreseen eventual move of McCoy to replace Warford at guard. Particularly with the shortened offseason, this type of position versatility is paramount. The tandem of McCoy and Ruiz emphatically bolster the athleticism of the offensive line, which not only better protects Brees, but also allows for other stars such as Kamara to flourish with proper blocking to create openings.

CB Marshon Lattimore

To anyone with qualms or reservations from Lattimore’s elongated sophomore slump, I would like to remind everyone of CB Brandon Browner and the 2015 Saints’ 47-14 loss against the Redskins under defensive coordinator Rob Ryan.

Since the inception of the NFL Rookie of the Year award in 1969, the Saints have had exactly one defensive player receive the award. That player is Marshon Lattimore. Lattimore came in as an absolute monster lockdown corner in his 2017 NFL rookie season.

Though he came into the league with a splash, the rookie phenomenon dwindled considerably in subsequent seasons. The consensus outlook on Lattimore, resultingly, saw a strong decline. The lukewarm opinion on Lattimore often forget two key factors – one of which similarly plagued Kamara’s legacy in the 2019 season – pitiful coverage counterparts and lingering injuries.

Just as Michael Thomas was forced to carry the Saints’ offense – barring the obvious, Brees – on his back, the same existed for Lattimore in the 2019 season. I never could wrap my head around the Eli Apple signing, who peculiarly made this list, for any reason past desperation. It’s a bit difficult to be responsible for the entirety of the backfield when your position partner can’t always decipher left from right. Then there’s the painful and annoyingly lingering hamstring injury. While this doesn’t excuse his lackluster play, it kept him out of two games and was quite apparent when he was playing through the pain. Particularly in the corner slot, one that’s primarily reliant on speed and agility, a strained hamstring is very much a hindrance.

That said, the Saints defense as a whole enters the 2020 season with a complete and elevated roster. S Malcolm Jenkins will undoubtedly reign in the scattered backfield – and serve as a crucial mentor at that, particularly to The Player Formerly Known as C.J. Gardner-Johnson. Janoris Jenkins will similarly restore Saints fans’ blood pressure levels. The relieved pressure off Lattimore primes him to return to the form that completely embarrassed WR Mike Evans in the 2019 season. Failure to capitalize on this, however, will receive no excuses.

WR Deonte Harris

Refreshingly, undrafted rookie standout Deonte Harris makes the list – deservedly so. In just one season, Harris cemented himself as one of the top current return men in the NFL. While special teams players rarely receive accolades, I once had someone select Devin Hester as their second draft choice in a fantasy football league; while that was lunacy, there’s certainly value in special team plays – Ambush being exhibit A. The only rivalry for the no-longer Belichick-Brady duo is Belichick and special teams. Moreover, Harris showed considerable promise past punt returns, and we likely haven’t come close to seeing his full potential. With a 4.35 40-yard dash, the same as Calvin Johnson, at a Pro Day hosted by Harvard, that speed doesn’t restrict itself to return yards. Also, Julio Jones ran it in 4.39 – who dat.

Harris started to emerge as a promising receiver at the end of the 2019 season. While the rest of the team was asleep through the first three quarters of the 2020 Wild Card matchup against Minnesota, Harris and QB Taysom Hill were out making magic happen; Harris recorded a killer 50-yard catch that immediately became the best catch by a receiver not named Michael Thomas. Though we shouldn’t expect his role to be a deep ball threat with Father Time catching up to Drew Brees, he undeniably has untapped potential, and has some solid mentors with Michael Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders. Head coach Sean Payton has a knack for finding the diamond in the undrafted rough, and Harris is a prime example.

Onto the graduating class.

Notable graduated players: running back Alvin Kamara, strong safety Vonn Bell, CB Eli Apple, linebacker Alex Anzalone, defensive end Trey Hendrickson

It’s hard to top the Saints 2017 NFL Draft class that was one of the most decorated in NFL history. Accordingly, Lattimore, Kamara, Anzalone and Hendrickon constitute nearly the entire graduated players category. The two other players that round out that category, Vonn Bell and Eli Apple, are no longer on the team.

New Orleans Saints v Seattle Seahawks Photo by Abbie Parr/Getty Images

RB Alvin Kamara

Sleepless in Seattle aptly refers to both a classic Rom Com and the Seahawks coaching staff after the 2019 33-27 Saints upset – sans Drew Brees. As Saints fans meagerly tuned into an assured blowout, 2017 Offensive Rookie of the Year Alvin Kamara re-introduced himself as the most insanely nimble running back of all time.

That feeling of glory was rather short-lived as Kamara curiously regressed through the 2019 season – similar to his DROY counterpart, Lattimore. Though unspecified, Kamara was clearly playing injured for the majority of 2019; we’ve since learned that he ‘tore’ his knee up in Jacksonville. Keen fans will point to that Week 6 game as the last sighting of the elusive running back. Moreover, he went into that game listed as questionable due to an ankle injury. The running back was quite literally cut off at the knee for the majority of the 2019 season.

Rest assured, anyone who follows Kamara’s trainer on Instagram knows that he’s back to his inhuman skill set. While the Saints may not have many ‘under-25’ stars, New Orleans’ offensive line and running game are headlined by young standouts. A healthy Kamara decisively bolsters the entire Saints offense. When Kamara was drafted in 2017, New Orleans completely transformed their offensive strategy; previously reliant on 50-pt pass-heavy performances to compensate for the defensive woes, the 2017 Saints became an efficient, well-rounded team with an effective running game. An adjustment quite necessary with the unavoidable aging of Brees.

While there’s a looming dark cloud of contract dilemmas that largely center around Kamara, this isn’t the 2021 rankings. In the meantime, let’s enjoy an absolute powerhouse offense headlined largely by young stars.

Carolina Panthers v New Orleans Saints Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images

LB Alex Anzalone

Maybe he’s born with it, maybe it’s Anzalone. Alex Anzalone is an athletic, versatile linebacker with good instincts defending both the run and the pass – when he’s able to suit up on game day. Frankly, Anzalone and DE Hendrickson making this list over 24-yr old S Marcus Williams is a bit puzzling. This ranking is decidedly retroactive as he played all of two games in the 2019 season; he only made it through four in his 2017 rookie year.

I’m willing to bet 31-yr old Demario Davis has a better 15 year outlook than Anzalone has in the 2020 season alone. Coupled with injury buddy LB Kiko Alonso, the recent signing of LB Nigel Bradham raises healthy caution to Anzalone’s durability to justify his inclusion in this list. Prove me wrong, Anzalone.

New Orleans Saints v Buffalo Bills Photo by Brett Carlsen/Getty Images

DE Trey Hendrickson

Trey Hendrickson is a quiet, dependable DE in the Saints backfield; though not the sexiest choice, Hendrickson is poised to build on the momentum of his career-high 2019 season. The long-awaited emergence of second-year pro DE Marcus Davenport in 2019 considerably elevated Hendrickson’s play, accordingly. Davenport found his footing as a key facilitator whose blocking abilities clear the path for Hendrickson (and obviously Cameron Jordan, just ask Matt Ryan) to be a quarterback nightmare.

Hendrickson recorded 4.5 sacks and 17 pressures in his third season in 2019, receiving high accolades from his defensive teammates. Former Saints LB A.J. Klein went to bat for the underrated defensive end, noting “he really understands fronts, alignments. He’s definitely becoming a student of the game. He’s definitely working on technique.” The Saints overwhelmingly are drawn to cerebral players with mental games to match their athleticism; Sean Payton’s low-key obsession with his future President WR Austin Carr being a prime example.

More than anyone else on this list, Hendrickson has the perfect player profile for this rating. He started to come into his own in 2019, and we began to see inklings of his full potential when bolstered by Davenport’s elevated play. He also has the benefit of freedom from microscopic-level pressure that will undoubtedly overanalyze every minor mistake committed by Lattimore and Kamara.

NFC South Roundup:

New Orleans Saints v Carolina Panthers Photo by Jacob Kupferman/Getty Images

Carolina Panthers, No. 18

Blue-chip players: WR D.J. Moore, RB Christian McCaffrey, DT Derrick Brown, DE Brian Burns

Notable graduated players: LB Jermaine Carter, QB Will Grier

I mean, one can only go up from a 5-11 2019 season. Unlike New Orleans’ three-quarterback roster intended for depth purposes, Carolina decided to give everyone a go in the 2019 season. Accordingly, QB Will Grier somehow skirted into this list with a whopping two-game showing and entering the 2020 season presumably as a benchwarmer.

I’ll give credit where credit is due: RB Christian McCaffrey carried the Panthers through the 2019 season. WR D.J. Moore torched the Saints in the 2019 34-31 matchup that barely went to New Orleans, thanks to kicker Wil Lutz, with six catches for 126 yards and two TDs. Outside these two, this ranking is hedging on a lot of bets.

DE Brian Burns is a bit similar to Saints’ DE Hendrickson; like Hendrickson, sack-heavy Burns recorded 7.5 sacks in 2019. Unlike Hendrickson, he leaves much to be desired defending the run. LB Jermaine Carter isn’t a liability, but he’s not necessarily a burgeoning star either. The most promise from this unproven tier is DT Derrick Brown, who has decidedly hefty expectations to lead a scatterbrained defense – in an offseason that leaves no time for chemistry development. Bold strategy, Cotton.

It’s worth mentioning that, outside of Carter and Grier, the Panthers used their first round draft picks on every single other player on this list. While a young corp certainly has its benefits, when every one of them was drafted to fill a glaring need, perhaps one should consider having a more well-rounded roster.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers v New Orleans Saints Photo by Jonathan Bachman/Getty Images

Tampa Bay Buccaneers, No. 20

Blue-chip players: ILB Devin White, WR Chris Godwin, OT Tristan Wirfs

Notable graduated players: DT Vita Vea, RG Alex Cappa, TE O.J. Howard, SS Justin Evans

Those muddling Bucs. Admittedly, Tampa Bay has potentially the strongest ‘under-25’ class in the NFC South. Tampa has a quietly strong defense, largely headlined by interior linebacker Devin White. The unit finished the 2019 season as the NFL’s top-ranked rush defense and found a dynamic playmaker in ILB White, who came in as a strong compliment to Lavonte David. DT Vita Vea played a strong role in anchoring that impenetrable defense – you know, with a little help from Ndamukong Suh.

Just as Cesar Ruiz was a paramount draft pick to protect Drew Brees, Tampa employed a similar draft strategy in selecting offensive tackle Tristan Wirfs. Further similar to New Orleans, Wirfs will be crucial in allowing the Brady-led offense to open up. Enter nightmare Chris Godwin. The tandem of Mike Evans and Chris Godwin present an ominous matchup for New Orleans’ secondary. Mercifully, Lattimore won’t be assigned both of them for coverage with the presence of Janoris Jenkins.

That said, all of this is nonsense speak, as this race will ultimately come down to Brees vs. Brady. Even if that’s untrue, no other storyline will serve of any importance in the 2020 NFL season.

New Orleans Saints v Atlanta Falcons Photo by Carmen Mandato/Getty Images

Atlanta Falcons, No. 32

Blue-chip players: The number of Atlanta’s Super Bowl rings (zero)

Notable graduated players: WR Calvin Ridley, LB Deion Jones, FS Keanu Neal, TE Austin Hooper, RT Kaleb McGary

If there was an insertable laugh emoji, it would be placed here. Of COURSE Atlanta is last on the list and was deemed completely absent of youthful assets. Here’s a fun fact: 28-3 = 25. No wonder they came in dead last on the ‘under-25’ list.

As someone who had Calvin Ridley absolutely tank my fantasy team in 2019, I give up on Ridley – his ceiling is reached. LB Deion Jones is a solid coverage linebacker, particularly strong off-ball. However, his sole interception in 2019 came from an overtime Week 17 win thrown by none other than Jameis Winston. Not the most elusive club to become a part of in the last game of the season. While right tackle Kaleb McGary got his gloating moment when he kept demure DE Cameron Jordan in check in their 2019 upset over New Orleans, he proceeded to casually allow 48 sacks on QB Matt Ryan the remainder of the season.

The Falcons round out this list with FS Keanu Neal, who suited up for a whopping four games in the past two seasons, and TE Austin Hooper, who is no longer on the team. When a player leaves a team for the Cleveland Browns, I needn’t say more.

All in all, the Saints could frankly cut every ‘under-25’ on this list and still be contenders. The remainder of the NFC South cannot say the same. And at the end of the day, I’ll take grandpa Brees and a trip to the Super Bowl over the wishful thinking of 19 prospects.

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