An unrelenting wave of injuries ravaged the New Orleans Saints in 2021, playing a major role in short-circuiting a promising season. Injuries affected both sides of the ball for the team, but especially depleted an offense that had annually ranked near the top of the league. The Saints tumbled to a lowly 28th in total offense, which included dead last in passing yardage.
An ineffective receiving corps, along with a revolving door at quarterback and offensive line, contributed to the unit’s struggles. Quarterback Jameis Winston went down for the year in Week 8, causing the Saints to start four different players during the season.
Winston is back from his knee injury to solidify the quarterback spot. New Orleans also spent first-round picks on WR Chris Olave and OT Trevor Penning and signed Pro Bowl WR Jarvis Landry to boost the offense. Despite that, and an elite defense, very few national prognosticators have the Saints among the league's contenders for 2022.
What the national media conveniently overlooks are the other stars that New Orleans will also have back in the lineup. These players are among the league's best at their respective positions, but missed all or most of last season.
MICHAEL THOMAS, WR
It wasn't long ago that Thomas was widely considered to be the NFL's best wideout. A second-round choice in the 2016 NFL Draft, Thomas established himself as an unstoppable weapon through the short and intermediate levels.
Thomas set league records for productivity in his first four seasons, averaging nearly 118 receptions and surpassing 1,100 yards each year. He capped off that impressive span with 1,725 yards and an NFL-record 149 receptions in 2019.
Thomas suffered a severe ankle injury during the 2020 season opener. After missing six games, he attempted to play through the injury rather than sit the remainder of the year. He was just a shell of his dominant self and worsened the injury. Thomas delayed surgery even after the season, and complications forced him to miss all of 2021.
Prior to the ankle injury, Thomas had played in 69 of a possible 70 games and was consistently productive. His durability is even more impressive when you consider the fact that he’s perhaps the league's most physical wideout. He hasn't participated in the team’s OTAs, but is at the facility and will reportedly be ready for training camp.
The absence of Thomas exposed a thin receiving corps lacking a consistent top target. The Saints have remedied that this offseason, but would be greatly bolstered with the return of their record-breaking receiving.
Still just 29 years old, Thomas has pulled in an incredible 77.6% of his career targets and regularly dominates the league's top corners.
WIL LUTZ, K
Coming off a stellar Pro Bowl campaign in 2019, Lutz had some uncharacteristic struggles in 2020. He converted a career low 82.1% of his field goals and missed four of 12 opportunities from beyond 40 yards.
It was revealed after the season that Lutz had been dealing with a groin injury. He had core muscle surgery, but a slow recovery caused him to miss all of 2021.
Without Lutz, the Saints went through four kickers last season. None produced effective results. The four combined to convert 83% of their field goal chances, but were unreliable in clutch situations. They also misfired on an infuriating 7 extra points.
Kicking woes conceivably cost the team three victories in a year where they missed the postseason by just half a game.
When healthy, Lutz is one of the top clutch kickers in the NFL. He’s connected on 86.6% of field goals in his career, including 91.5% from inside 50 yards. His incredible range and accuracy all but guarantees the team points from just across midfield. Lutz also has good strength on kickoffs, giving the Saints kick coverage units a major advantage.
Expect a return to form from Lutz in 2022, adding an underrated element to the New Orleans attack. His reliability will allow the offense to be more aggressive from midfield and in, knowing that they can still put points on the board from long range.
ANDRUS PEAT, RG
Long a lightning rod for criticism among Saints fans, the 28-year-old Peat is actually one of the league's most respected interior linemen. He does have wild swings in consistency as a pass blocker. However, he’s a mauler in the running game and has shown the capability to shut down the league's best interior pass rushers.
Another criticism of Peat has been his durability. He’s missed 30 of 112 regular season contests over his seven-year career and has played as many as 15 games just twice. Those injury woes struck again last season, when Peat went down for the year in Week 7 with a pectoral injury.
Guard James Hurst also had to move outside to tackle because of additional injuries along the edge. Calvin Throckmorton played admirably as Peat's replacement, but the entire offensive line had a down year. Shuffling up front caused the Saints to struggle in pass protection. The team also averaged just 3.9 per rush, ranking 28th in the NFL.
Peat's return upgrades the physicality of the offensive line. He also has the athleticism to be effective in space on outside runs and screen passes. If Peat can finally remain healthy, that also gives the team additional options with Hurst or Throckmorton if disappointing LG Cesar Ruiz continues to struggle.
RYAN RAMCZYK, RT
The 28-year-old Ramczyk was a microcosm for the Saints’ difficulties up front in 2021. Considered one of the best linemen in the game, Ramczyk is an outstanding run blocker that also regularly dominates the league's top pass rushers. Coming into 2021, he had missed just one of his team's 71 games.
Ramczyk was slowed by nagging injuries throughout training camp and didn't look like himself during the first portion of the regular season. He then suffered a knee injury during a Week 10 loss that kept him sidelined for seven games.
During Ramczyk's absence, the Saints averaged just 16 points and 270 yards per game. The New Orleans offense sputtered all year, in large part because their starting five up front played together for only two quarters all season.
Pro Bowl LT Terron Armstead departed in free agency this offseason, but will be replaced by first-round pick Penning or reliable veteran Hurst. The rest of a usually dominant line returns intact.
Ramczyk is expected to resume his place among the NFL's best blockers. His ability to eliminate elite pass rushers, dominate the edge for the running game, and be a formidable lead blocker in space is a vital element for the offense.
Michael Thomas, Ryan Ramczyk, Wil Lutz, and Andrus Peat have appeared in a combined nine Pro Bowls. They also missed a combined 61 games last season.
The team’s new additions on offense are certainly crucial and will grab most of the headlines. However, it’s the return of these elite performers that should vault New Orleans back into contender status.
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