Saints Rookies Shine in First Half of Season
The New Orleans Saints did not have a first or third round picks in this past spring’s NFL draft. The team has done well over the past few years in building their core with players selected on the second and third days of the league’s spring extravaganza, however. Talents like Michael Thomas, Vonn Bell, and Marcus Williams were drafted in the 2nd round. They selected Alvin Kamara and Trey Hendrickson in the 3rd round, David Onyemata in the fourth, with Will Clapp added in the draft’s final round.
These players have been vital contributors to a New Orleans team that has won consecutive NFC South titles and entered 2019 as a prohibitive Super Bowl favorite. The Saints now hold a 7-1 record at this season’s halfway point. As we are about to see, the first year players have played an important role in that success.
New Orleans traded up in the second round to the 48th overall pick to use their first draft selection on center Erik McCoy from Texas A&M. McCoy was immediately penciled in as the starter to replace the offseason retirement of Pro Bowler Max Unger. Despite lofty expectations, McCoy has flourished, anchoring what many consider the best offensive line in the league. Pro Football Focus has graded McCoy as one of the NFL’s top interior linemen through the first part of the year. The 6’4, 314-Lb. center possesses a powerful punch at the point of attack and is a solid technician with good footwork.
He is already perhaps the team’s best run blocker and has shut down interior pass rushers to keep a clean pocket for his quarterback. Center may not be a glamour position that will garner much attention for Rookie of the Year honors, but McCoy has been as valuable as any first-year player to his team’s success.
Like McCoy, many expected defensive back Chauncey Gardner-Johnson to be an early day 2 pick. Instead, the former University of Florida standout slipped to the Saints in the 4th round at the 105th selection. He has been one of the Saints most aggressive special teams aces since the start of the year, but has also logged more snaps in the Saints defensive backfield with each passing week. He has been the team’s primary nickel back over the last two games because of a league suspension to cornerback P.J. Williams.
Gardner-Johnson was impressive in containing the versatile Bears RB Tarik Cohen two weeks ago and limited the Cardinals future Hall of Famer, Larry Fitzgerald, to just 2 receptions for 8 yards last Sunday. The 5’11 210-Lb. Gardner-Johnson is a good tackler in the open field and has also been an effective blitzer besides his solid play in coverage.
The Saints, perhaps more so than any other team, have unearthed talented undrafted players. One such surprise this year so far has been wide receiver/kick returner Deonte Harris. The 5’6 Harris, who played at tiny Assumption College, has been lightening in the open field as a punt and kick returner. His 53-Yd. punt return score provided the spark for a key road victory over Seattle in week three.
Harris leads the league with 123 punt return yards so far, averaging 9.3 yards per attempt and 22.3 on kickoff returns. He has also had several big returns brought back by penalty this year, providing an extra scoring dimension to an already dangerous New Orleans squad. Watch for Harris to be used more at receiver to take advantage of his open field skills by Saints Coach Sean Payton the rest of the season.
Another undrafted gem is defensive tackle Shy Tuttle. The 300-Lb rookie from Tennessee has appeared in all eight games, starting one, and has 1.5 sacks to go along with 2 tackles for loss. Tuttle has provided a disruptive pass rush inside and has stonewalled opposing linemen at the point of attack against the run. He has been part of a deep and formidable tackle rotation for the New Orleans defense.
Another deep and talented position for the Saints has been at defensive end, where undrafted rookie Carl Granderson has still attracted some attention. The Wyoming product missed the preseason and first portion of the regular season because of legal problems, but has appeared in four games and has flashed good pass rushing ability. Granderson has 1 sack so far, but has exhibited a burst to the quarterback that has coaches excited about his potential.
Despite depth at this spot, Granderson may earn some important snaps down the stretch of the season. The same is likely true of the Saints 5th round pick this spring, safety Saquan Hampton. The former Rutgers defensive back had an impressive start to training camp and preseason, but he progress has been slowed by injury. He has been active the last two games and has play primarily on special teams. His presence could be a positive factor for a defensive backfield that has been playing well this season.
The New Orleans Saints have one of the deepest and most talented rosters in the NFL. That depth was tested in the first half of the year thanks to several injuries, particularly on the offensive side. The team has responded with six straight wins, in part because of the contributions from their 2019 rookie class. These players will play key roles over the second half of the year if the Saints are to be successful in their championship pursuit.