Saints Season Recap Part 4: Special Teams Grade and Addressing the Future
By Bob Rose
The New Orleans Saints finished their 50th season as an NFL franchise with a 7-9 record for the third consecutive year. It was the 4th out of the last five years that they finished with such a record.
When such mediocrity occurs, one would expect the New Orleans Saints fanbase to be a bit impatient with the progress of their franchise. Such frustration is understandable.
Yet the 2016 Saints actually left many fans excited for the immediate future of this team.
In the fourth part of our Saints season recap series, we will grade the New Orleans special teams, along with a quick assessment of the team’s future.
There really isn’t any other grade one could possibly give to a bumbling unit that single-handedly lost 3 games and got Greg McMahon, its position coach and long time friend/confidant of head coach Sean Payton, fired.
The Saints do possess arguably the best punter in the league in Thomas Morstead.
And they may very well have finally found a kicker for Sean Payton in rookie Wil Lutz. Lutz finished his first NFL season making 28 out of 34 field goals, including 25 out of 27 attempts under 50-yards. He only missing one extra point attempt.
Lutz struggled through mid-season with a low trajectory on many of his kicks. That fatal flaw, along with very noticeable collapses on the right side of the line, led to three blocked kicks.
Lutz will be remembered for these until he has an opportunity to redeem himself in 2017. The first, a blocked field goal that was returned for a touchdown in a 3point loss to the Giants. The second, a blocked extra point returned for a 2pt conversion in a 2point loss to Denver. And the third, a blocked field goal that ultimately led to a touchdown in a 3point loss to Carolina. Three simple plays, yet three disasters that turned a 10-6 playoff year into a third straight 7-9 frustration.
The Saints return game was perhaps the biggest joke in the league, as the team simply could not find a return man capable of putting fear into their opponents. Marcus Murphy has likely bobbled his way out of chances in the Big Easy. TommyLee Lewis may yet turn into the threat the team has lacked since Darren Sproles returned kicks. But it’s more likely that whatever “skill position” player the Saints bring on board before 2017 will have strong return abilities.
The Saints have an extremely young team.
Brandin Cooks, Michael Thomas, Willie Snead, Terron Armstead, Kenny Vaccaro, Vonn Bell, and Sheldon Rankins all under the age of 26. Established team leaders Cam Jordan, Delvin Breaux and Mark Ingram are only 27yrs old, and are likely just entering their prime. Potential up and coming players such as defensive linemen David Onyemata and Tyeler Davison are both 24. Players such as Stephone Anthony, Andrus Peat, and Brandon Coleman have had struggles early in their careers, but will only be entering their 3rd or 4th seasons in professional football.
Quarterback Drew Brees, at 37yrs old, has had very little drop off in his hall of fame talents and veteran offensive linemen Max Unger, Jahri Evans and Zach Strief had solid years. And we cannot forget the hopeful returns of players such as Hau’oli Kikaha, PJ Williams, Damian Swann and Josh Hill; all potentially fine role players with less than 4yrs of NFL experience as well.
Contractually, New Orleans has most of this young corps locked in for at least the next few seasons. Wideout Willie Snead is an exclusive rights free agent this off season, so the Saints control that negotiating process, and Coleman has a restricted free agent tag on him.
Defensive tackle Nick Fairley and corner Sterling Moore are both unrestricted, so those situations bear watching as the Saints head into free agency, and both Brandin Cooks and Kenny Vaccaro enter the final years of their contracts in 2017.
This offseason will see the Saints have more salary cap freedom than they have had in a number of years.
Not only will they benefit from an increase in salary cap, amount having not yet been determined, but the team also begins to get out from under the “dead money” from so many of the contractual mistakes made in recent seasons.
This does not necessarily mean a front office spending spree, but more likely an opportunity for the Saints to lock up their stars into long term/cap friendly deals. The Saints do still have a number of holes to fill to be considered a top contender; most notably at linebacker, edge rusher, and a younger offensive line.
The New Orleans front office has made much better decisions in free agency over the last year or so, as evidenced by the additions of players such as Fairley, Robertson, Moore, Tim Hightower and John Kuhn to fill specific roles, while focusing on building the team a stronger future through the draft. Expect the Saints to spend a little more in free agency then they have over the last year or two, as we will cover in the upcoming weeks here at the Who Dat Dish, but we should not expect a repeat performance of the poor decisions of 2014 and ’15.
Next: Biggest disappointments on the Saints' roster
Expect the Saints to spend a little more in free agency then they have over the last year or two, as we will cover in the upcoming weeks here at the Who Dat Dish, but we should not expect a repeat performance of the poor decisions of 2014 and ’15.
The Saints had an incredible TWELVE games decided by a touchdown or less in 2016, losing seven of them. The team has shown that it can play with anyone the National Football League has to offer, but also the struggles of a young team learning to win as it meshes together. Devoid of the locker room disruptions and attitudes that destroyed the Saints teams of 2014 and 15, this appears to be a close knit group ready to win now.