With a 7-1 record at the midpoint of the season, the New Orleans Saints are off to their best start since their 2009 championship season. Great team efforts and tactful coaching make it difficult to pick any team against them despite a difficult remaining schedule. However, some position groups need to perform better if the Saints are to finish strong and clinch a high playoff seed.
Here’s an attempt to rank the Saints’ position groups against each other after eight games.
1 – Quarterback
Typically this group consists of one sole contributor in Drew Brees. His play alone this season is still probably enough to top the list, but third-string quarterback and jack of all trades Taysom Hill solidifies this ranking.
By some measures, Brees is having the best season of his prolific career. He currently boasts a 76.3 completion percentage, which would top his own single-season NFL record by 4.3 percent. Brees has thrown just one interception through eight games. Even if he throws an interception in every remaining game, it would be his second lowest total in a full season. So far Brees is averaging 8.4 yards per pass attempt, just behind his career high of 8.5 yards per attempt in 2009. His current 120.6 passer rating is exactly 10 points ahead of his career high in 2011.
While Hill’s greatest value may be the distracting effect he has on opposing defenses, he’s made valuable contributions on offense and special teams. Hill has gained 135 rushing yards and a touchdown at a 5.8 rushing average. He’s made valuable plays on fourth down throughout the season, including a pass completion and a successful run on fake punt plays as well as his nine-yard fourth down scramble last week. In the kicking game, Hill averages 24.5 yards per return and has three tackles as a gunner in kick coverage.
2 – Offensive Line
The success of the Saints offensive line is a big reason why the offense has excelled despite limited options in the passing game. They also helped New Orleans average 418.2 yards per game in the first four weeks despite running back Mark Ingram‘s suspension during that time.
The line has allowed a league-low nine sacks, or just over one per game. For context, the Cleveland Browns, who rank last in this category have given up 35 sacks. The Minnesota Vikings and Los Angeles Rams star-studded pass rushes both failed to sack Brees. The Baltimore Ravens got him just once after recording 11 sacks the week before. The offensive line also helped the Saints running game top 100 yards against these three teams, which all have top-13 run defenses.
If Brees weren’t having an MVP-type season, this group would be at the top of the list.
3 – Running Back
After gaining just 105 combined rushing yards in the first two games, New Orleans has averaged 132 rushing yards per game since then. Ingram’s return helped generate this figure, but most of the production is still coming from Alvin Kamara.
The 2017 Offensive Rookie of the Year currently ranks third among skill players with 12 offensive touchdowns. Kamara averages 114.6 yards from scrimmage per game at 5.7 yards per touch, and he’s the Saints second leading receiver with 51 receptions for 427 yards. He hasn’t fumbled once despite 162 touches already in 2018.
Ingram has averaged just 45.3 rushing yards and 15.5 receiving yards per game, but he looks better each game and those averages will likely rise in the coming weeks.
4 – Defensive Line
None of the Saints defensive linemen have posted Pro Bowl numbers, but this has been their strongest defensive unit this season. New Orleans has allowed the fewest rushing yards per game (76.4) and the lowest rushing average (3.4). While the credit belongs to the entire Saints defense, this achievement wouldn’t be possible without the line’s dominant play in the trenches.
Left defensive end Cameron Jordan has been the star of the group once again with 5.0 sacks and eight tackles for losses, but New Orleans has built incredible depth here. Alex Okafor, Marcus Davenport, and Trey Hendrickson have all had good moments while sharing the right defensive end spot. Sheldon Rankins is having his best season at defensive tackle but David Onyemata has stolen many of Rankins’ snaps with his solid play. At nose tackle, starter Tyeler Davison and backup Taylor Stallworth are consistently plugging holes in the run game.
Consistent quarterback pressure is the only thing this group is lacking. The Saints’ 17 sacks on the season rank 28th in the NFL. With Jordan consistently getting double teamed, someone on the Saints’ young defensive line has to step up and give opponents another pass rush threat to worry about.
5 – Linebacker
I had high hopes for this group before the season, and so far they have taken a big step forward after an inconsistent 2017 showing.
The signing of Demario Davis looks like the Saints’ best off-season move so far. He’s shown great range and diagnosis ability while stopping runs all over the field. Pro Football Focus currently has Davis graded as their 16th best linebacker and he leads the Saints with 62 tackles, including six for losses, and two sacks.
A.J. Klein was heavily criticized for his play last season, but he’s playing much better this year in a reduced role. Alex Anzalone is coming along nicely after playing just four games in his rookie season. Veteran Manti Te’o is still a positive force against the run, but he’s seen his role greatly reduced because of Davis.
While these linebackers have played brilliantly against the run, there’s room for improvement in the passing game. They’re giving up too many short and intermediate catches in the middle and need to play more disciplined in zone coverage. However, Anzalone made a great interception last week by reading Jared Goff‘s eyes and getting in front of a dig route. Making more plays like this will take pressure off the secondary.
6 – Wide Receiver
This was the most difficult position to rank because of the disparity between Michael Thomas and the rest of the group in terms of production.
Thomas leads all wide receivers with an 88.6% catch rate. His 70 catches and 110.0 receiving yards per game both rank second. He’s on pace to shatter the Saints single-season catch and receiving yardage records by 36 catches and 361 yards. Fortunately, opposing defenses are still hesitant to double Thomas, which is likely because Brees will throw to any open target.
Meanwhile, the other four Saints wide receivers have accumulated 529 yards and six touchdowns on 38 receptions. This group is banged up too. Cameron Meredith joined Ted Ginn and Tommylee Lewis on injured reserve earlier this week, a move that coincided with New Orleans signing Dez Bryant. Bryant quickly caught the injury bug as well with a potentially season-ending Achilles injury on his second day of practice.
For now, the Saints passing game depends largely on the excellence of Brees and the valuable skillsets of Thomas and Kamara, which has actually worked quite well so far.
7 – Specialists
This ranking is more so a result of the lack of time specialists have spent on the field than their overall play, which has been excellent.
New Orleans has punted the least of any team this season, but Thomas Morstead is hitting his usual standard of excellence. Just half of his 19 punts have been returned for a total of 43 yards and seven of punts have fallen inside the 20-yard line. Morstead’s 42.6 net punting average ranks fourth in the NFL.
Kicker Wil Lutz has been even better. He’s 16 of 17 kicking field goals on the season, including 9-10 on field goals from 40 yards away or longer. His only blemishes are a missed 44 yard field goal and a missed extra point. Lutz was named NFC Special Teams Player of the Month in September.
The Saints could use more production from their return game, but only a handful of teams are getting a significant impact from their returners right now.
8 – Tight End
Ben Watson‘s return to New Orleans has brought some production back to the tight end position. He’s recorded a healthy 292 yards and two touchdowns on 26 catches at an 81.3% catch rate. Longtime backup Josh Hill has been more slightly productive than usual with 10 catches for 134 yards and a touchdown.
However, Jimmy Graham set a high standard for tight end production earlier in the decade and these numbers pale in comparison. There was hope that converted wide receiver Dan Arnold would evolve into a playmaker, but so far he has just two catches for 35 yards.
This group is performing better on the blocking front, where they’ve been a big part of the Saints’ run success again this season.
9 – Defensive Back
The defensive backfield is the Saints’ only real liability after becoming the most improved position group last season. This has been apparent without even looking at the stats, which are grim to say the least. Opposing quarterbacks are averaging a 70.1 completion percentage, 311.4 passing yards per game, 8.8 yards per attempt and a 112.1 passer rating. All of these figures rank in the bottom five among NFL defenses.
On the bright side, there’s undoubtedly a lot of talent in the secondary, led by 2017 Defensive Rookie of the Year Marshon Lattimore. This group consists primarily of second and third year players who appear to be having growing pains. The Saints trade for Eli Apple three weeks ago hasn’t led to an immediate transformation, but he’s giving up fewer big plays than previous starter Ken Crawley.
Strong safety Vonn Bell is quietly having a great season. His 76.3 Pro Football Focus grade ranks 26th at the position. Free safety Marcus Williams isn’t playing as well as he did last year, but he’s not making as many of the metal errors that crippled New Orleans early in the season.
If the Saints’ secondary can improve to even just an average unit, it would be hard to find a more complete NFL team.
View the original article on Last Word On Pro Football: Ranking the New Orleans Saints Position Groups at Midseason