Positional Previews: Special Teams
Long time Saints fans will be sure to remember the days of Tommy Barnhardt & Morten Andersen gracing the field as the Special Teamers for the Saints in the late 80s and early 90s. Much has changed since those days, and we pick the Positional Previews back up (you can find the others here), and turn the attention to the forgotten/not so forgotten guys, and believe it or not, there’s a good bit to say.
So here’s where we talk Garrett Hartley, and whether you miss John Kasay, John Carney, or wished we would bring ‘x’ player in, Hartley is still the kicker for the Saints. Hartley, 27, struggled in the opening half of the season, missing two important kicks against the Chiefs & Packers (during the 0-4 start for those with the short term memory). He also missed a field goal against the Eagles (which didn’t matter), and the Cowboys (which did matter). Hartley would finish 2012 going 18/22 (82%), with his longest field goal being 53. He accounted for 111 of the Saints 461 points. For his performance, Hartley was actually rewarded with a nice pay bump from $734K to $2.166M. He has 3 years left on his contract, and with Sean Payton back in the mix, I strongly tend to think Hartley should be a lot more focused, and maybe we won’t yell at the TV so much during the season.
Enter the competitor, Jose Maltos, a 21 year old undrafted rookie out of the University of Nuevo-Leon in Monterrey, Mexico. According to reports, it was a workout at Southern Methodist University that caught the eye of many NFL Scouts. Payton had this to say about Maltos, “He’s got a live leg and his get off times are good.” The Patriots were reportedly interested in Maltos, but the Saints were able to get him. Now, I have to be honest. I’ve searched the depths of the internet to find any type of stats from Maltos’ time in Mexico. However, I have been unsuccessful. The only thing I could dig up was from the 2012 Aztec Bowl, and Maltos missed a 37-yard field goal. Not much to draw from that, however, he was clearly brought in for competition with Hartley.
Katherine Terrell of NOLA.com gave a great story on Maltos & how he’s integrating with the Saints. One thing is for certain, whether Maltos stays is entirely on his ability to beat out Hartley. If you recall, Hartley beat out John Kasay during training camp last season to win the starting job. There’s no telling what will happen, but you can definitely bet that this will be something many Saints fans will watch for.
Thomas ‘The Leg’ Morstead, 27, enters his 5th season for the Saints. Last summer, he signed an extension through 2018. His dual abilities as a Punter & Kick Off Specialist are greatly praised & appreciated. Not that you really want to have this type of stat, but Morstead had a career high in punts last season with 74. However, Morstead did have an average of 50.1 yards/punt (a team record), and rightfully earned his first ever honors to the Pro Bowl this past season. His longest punt of the year was 70 yards, and I’m sure everyone might automatically be thinking, Denver right? Wrong! Kansas City would be the answer you are searching for.
Quick stat, but did you know according to Pro Football Focus, no full-time punter has ever allowed less than Morstead’s 118 return yards? It was a feat he accomplished in 2011. There’s a lot to love about Morstead, and it’s not just because of his leg. In March, Morstead shaved his head & beard, and donated it to Wigs for Kids. Morstead is just a classy guy, a true asset to the Saints, and quite a fan favorite. Look for his continued success in his kickoffs and punting. When it comes down to it, we’d rather not see a ton of Morstead punting, but rather kicking touchbacks over and over after the Saints get in that end zone. I am also going to puke if I have to see Morstead having to make anymore tackles on kickoffs (even though he definitely can), but I believe that coaching change will help immensely.
Justin Drescher, 25, is one of those guys you’ll either know or not. He started his career in 2010 as an Atlanta Falcon, but was waived prior to training camp starting. Drescher entered the Saints on November 22, 2010, and has had all long snapping duties ever since, appearing in every single game (38 to be exact). Back in March, Drescher was re-signed by the Saints, and rewarded with a four year contract. The Long Snapper is a position that many overlook, and long forget, but ours is top notch, and we’re fortunate to have him as our snapper.
Travaris Cadet fielded the majority of the Saints kickoff returns in 2012 as a rookie, 26 to be exact. Cadet gained 690 yards (26.5 yards/return average) through kick returns, with his biggest highlight coming against Oakland, where Cadet ran the 2nd half opening kickoff back 75 yards. I have previously stated in my Running Backs Preview that there were some growing pains with Cadet, and his decisions in bringing out kicks, which at times put the Saints in horrible starting field position. Obviously, I don’t think we’ll have as many of those moments this season, and you will still look for Cadet to be the main return man for the Saints.
Darren Sproles served as the primary backup in the return game for the Saints, as he ran out 18 kicks for 483 yards (26.8 yards/return average), and his longest was 48 yards. Sproles is showing few signs of slowing down at 30, and with Payton back in the mix, you will definitely see Sproles more involved in the offense, which may limit his kick returning. Sproles was called upon more as a punt returner, where he fielded 23 punts for 183 yards (8 yards/return average), and a long of 37. You may be thinking that punt return average should be higher, but that’s simply not the case, as returners are mostly called upon to field punts and secure the ball, especially when they may be pinned inside their own 20 yard line. You definitely want your best hands back there to field punts. I seriously doubt Sproles doesn’t see the same duties as a punt returner this season, but one could make a small argument that veteran Jim Leonhard could see some potential action, as he has served in that role previously in his career.
Pierre Thomas was the only other return man for the Saints in 2012, and despite only taking 5 kicks, he produced 91 yards (18.2 yards/return average), and his longest was 38. Thomas is no stranger to being in the return game, and will handle kicks as needed.
Darren Sproles was the last Saint to return a kick or punt for a touchdown, which happened in the season opener in 2011 against Green Bay, where Sproles took a punt back for a touchdown. The reason I bring this up? It’s sort of been a little bit of a drought since the Saints have scored on Special Teams. Ultimately, we don’t have to have touchdowns on special teams, but remember the era of Michael ‘Beerman’ Lewis, or even Reggie Bush? It would always be nice to have an alternate threat through Special Teams.