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John DeShazier: Saints coaches knew early on that Alvin Kamara, Ryan Ramczyk were special

Posted Feb 28, 2018

Road to the Saints draft presented by Dixie Light

Indianapolis – To say that the New Orleans Saints “immediately” knew would be a stretch, but it wouldn’t be much of one.

It didn’t take much longer than the amount of time required to read those first 36 words – give or take an hour or two – for Saints coaches to conclude they were watching something special.

They liked what they heard from running back Alvin Kamara in the classroom. They loved what they saw from him on the field. Those two important steps help factor into the formation of the Saints’ 2017 draft class, arguably the best in franchise history.

From the class, the Saints produced the NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year (Kamara) as well as an offensive tackle (Ryan Ramczyk) who started every game and played every offensive snap.

New Orleans also selected the NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year (cornerback Marshon Lattimore), its starting free safety (Marcus Williams), a starting linebacker (Alex Anzalone) and two promising defensive ends (Trey Hendrickson and Al-Quadin Muhammad).

Replicating that success is a herculean task, but the Saints are looking to add more impact players this year as coaches, scouts and front office personnel participate in the yearly evaluation process at the NFL Scouting Combine.

But before moving forward, it’s worth it to take a look back at what attracted New Orleans to members of its banner Class of ’17. And on offense, Kamara jumped off the page in his evaluation, Saints offensive coordinator Pete Carmichael said.

“We had an opportunity – (Coach) Sean (Payton), myself and (assistant receivers coach) Ronald Curry – we went up to Tennessee, had an opportunity to work him out individually,” Carmichael said. “And the first you see is, you’re in the classroom with him before we go out to the workout, and you see a guy that’s highly intelligent, and talking through the game like a quarterback. So you really felt good about that.

“And then you take him on the field and I’m telling you, Sean – quickly, as his workout was going on – he just had a vision of, ‘I know how I can use this guy.’ Maybe you didn’t see as much of the run game on film that maybe you saw this year that was pretty explosive, but we felt good with him coming out of the backfield running routes, his ability to catch the ball. He had a very good season.”

Kamara’s good was among the best – he led the team in touchdowns (14), a franchise rookie record that surpassed George Rogers’ 13 in 1981 (Rogers was named Offensive Rookie of the Year in ’81). He totaled 1,554 yards from scrimmage (728 rushing, 826 receiving), averaged 7.7 yards per touch and gave the Saints the longest play in franchise history, a 106-yard kickoff return for a touchdown against Tampa Bay in the regular-season finale.

Also, Kamara was a Pro Bowler and second-team All-Pro at the flex position, and joined Pro Football Hall of Famer Gale Sayers as the second rookie in league history to score five rushing touchdowns, five receiving touchdowns and a special teams touchdown in his first season.

The timeshare plan with which the Saints entered the season – with Kamara, Mark Ingram and Adrian Peterson – had to be scrapped because of the rookie’s promise. Peterson was traded after Week 4.

“I think the more and more exposure you had to him, the more you saw him get reps live in games, you felt like, this guy is special,” Carmichael said. “We felt like, hey, this guy needs to get more and more and more reps and with his experience, he’s just going to keep getting better.”

While Kamara’s production grew, Ramczyk’s impact was immediate and steady.

He was a season-opening starter at left tackle due to injury, shifted to right tackle due to injury, played both positions in one game due to injury, and never missed a snap.

But while injuries contributed to his initial starts, effectiveness kept him in the lineup as he became a bargain as the last pick of the first round, No. 32 overall, acquired from the Patriots in the deal that sent receiver Brandin Cooks to New England.

“Our first exposure to (Ramczyk) for myself was here at the Combine (last year),” Carmichael said. “We had a chance to interview him in the formal interview and at the time, he wasn’t doing anything because of his injury (torn labrum). But you got a chance to have him in that room and meet him and get to know him as a football player.

“When he walked in you felt great about his character, his demeanor, just the way he handled himself. And you thought, ‘OK, it’s going to be important to look at this guy’s film when we get back.’ And we really liked what we saw on film.”

What the Saints saw was a left tackle in college whom they projected to play right tackle in the NFL.

“I give credit to (offensive line coach) Dan Roushar and to (assistant line coach) Brendan Nugent for seeing that he would have a little versatility, where he could move from side to side. But you saw all the traits that you saw this year – he’s athletic, he’s smart, and you can see on film that there was toughness. He knew what he was doing and we felt like this is our kind of guy.”

Ramczyk and Kamara each exhibited the kind of intelligence that the Saints are seeking in their players, Carmichael said.

“One of the first comments that Dan Roushar made after the first few practices, was that (Ramczyk) got it and he understood the game,” he said.

“One of the things that Sean always talks about –and credit to (Assistant General Manager/College Scouting Director) Jeff Ireland and his staff, leading us toward these guys that have intelligence. The smart players play.”

Though the number of offensive rookies didn’t match the total from the vaunted ’06 class – running back Reggie Bush, guard Jahri Evans, tackle Zach Strief and receiver Marques Colston – the impact was proportionally comparable. Each class helped the Saints win a division title, and both sets of offensive players were significant contributors to one of the league’s top units.

“Maybe back in the ’06 draft, maybe there was a little bit more development with a couple of those guys,” Carmichael said. “For a guy like (right tackle) Zach Strief, (he) sat behind Jon Stinchcomb for a couple of years and had a chance to come in as a jumbo tight end and play. And Marques (Colston) ended up having a really productive season himself.

“(But) these guys got into the mix right away and really had improvement throughout the season.”