One of the most underrated factors in the outcome of a football game on any level is the special teams unit. Often overlooked in media circles, most coaches realize their team can win battles on the offensive or defensive side but lose a game because of special teams. Look no further than the 2016 New Orleans Saints for evidence of this. That team missed out on the playoffs with a 7-9 record but lost four games directly because of kicking miscues or special teams breakdowns.
Since that time, the team has put extra emphasis on special teams in their offseason maneuvers. Late round draft choices, undrafted additions, and even free-agent signings are often made with the strategy of upgrading their special teams. The result has been one of the better squads in the league, capable of turning the momentum of a game in various ways.
Today we continue our 2020 position grades with an often forgotten unit.
New Orleans added a little-known and diminutive wide receiver named Deonte Harris from even lesser-known Assumption College as an undrafted rookie after the 2019 draft. The Saints were looking to inject more explosiveness into their kick return units, a problem spot for years. Harris obliged, bursting into the national attention by becoming the league's best kickoff and punt returner and earning All-Pro honors.
Harris had an even better sophomore campaign, averaging more yards in punt returns (12.2) and kickoff returns (27.3) than as a rookie. Unfortunately, a neck injury suffered at mid-season limited Harris to only nine games, taking away one of the Saints' most explosive weapons.
The most feared special teams player in the game, Harris is a scoring threat whenever he touches the ball and routinely flips field position in his team's favor with big returns. Harris had a huge first quarter in the Saints Divisional Playoff game against Tampa Bay, but injuries again sent him to the sideline in the eventual loss.
Another undrafted rookie gem emerged this year with wideout Marquez Callaway. He caught 21 passes for 213 yards as a receiver, but Callaway also proved to be a capable replacement as a punt returner when Harris was injured. Callaway averaged 11 yards on eleven returns and 23.5 on four kickoff returns. He was also limited by injury, including a hamstring injury that caused him to miss three games in December.
Callaway was also part of a New Orleans kick coverage unit that was athletically superior to its opponents. The Saints allowed a league-low 52 punt return yards and a paltry 2.3 per punt return in 2020, the second-lowest in the league since 2006. New Orleans was equally effective at defending kickoff returns, surrendering just 17.2 per return.
The underrated aspect of the Saints' success was the play of special teams standouts CB Justin Hardee, S J.T. Gray, LBs Zack Baun, and Craig Robertson. New Orleans prioritizes adding players who add athleticism to their fearsome coverage units, often giving the Saints a field position advantage by bottling an opponent deep in their territory.
Veteran punter Thomas Morstead has been one of the league's best at the position throughout his twelve-year career. Possessing both a booming leg and precise directional ability, Morstead has been a valuable defensive tool. However, he was bothered by nagging injuries early in the year and averaged just 43 yards per punt, lowest in his career.
Assuming quarterback Drew Brees' retirement is imminent, Morstead is the last remaining player from the Saints Super Bowl XLIV team. He is under contract until 2023 but scheduled to count for $4.5 million towards the team's salary cap in 2021. The team has high hopes for rookie UDFA Blake Gillikin but could restructure Morstead's existing deal to free up salary-cap space.
Kicker Wil Lutz is another model of consistency that took a step back in 2021. One of the league's most accurate and best clutch kickers over the previous three seasons, Lutz converted a career-high 57 of 58 extra points this year. He had a career-low 82.1% field goal percentage, converting just 23 of 28 attempts.
Lutz went just 7 of 12 on field goals over the last nine games, a lowly 59% success rate. Whether a slump or an undisclosed injury, his inconsistencies caused the team to audition several kickers down the stretch, even adding K Blair Walsh to the practice squad before the playoffs.
The New Orleans kickoff and punt coverage's exemplary performance was valuable to the team's success in 2020. However, uncharacteristic struggles from Lutz and Morstead and the injuries to Harris that hampered the return game caused the Saints' special teams to perform a notch below their standard of excellence.
SPECIAL TEAMS GRADE = C+