Photos of Delvin Breaux from the 2015 Season. Photos by Michael C. Hebert (New Orleans Saints photos)
It wasn't the season that the New Orleans Saints wanted in the standings, where they finished third in the NFC South Division and posted a 7-9 record for the second consecutive year, the first time they've had a losing record in consecutive seasons since Sean Payton became head coach in 2006.
But for several players, 2015 served as a breakout campaign, the kind that put everyone on notice that even bigger and better things could be on the horizon.
No matter how many times the tale is recounted, the Delvin Breaux story is nothing short of a fairy tale with a happy ending, so far. The New Orleans native broke his neck as a senior in high school, rendering him unable to play at LSU, then played in the Gridiron Developmental Football League, the Arena Football League and the Canadian Football League before wowing the Saints at a tryout and signing as a free agent.
From the outset, he showed he belonged and soon he became the Saints' best cornerback. He led the team with three interceptions and 19 passes defended, and also had 45 tackles. More, he was the team's best man-to-man, cover corner, assigned to shadow receivers like Atlanta's Julio Jones, Indianapolis' T.Y. Hilton and Odell Beckham Jr. of the Giants. With a year under his belt and a better understanding of the NFL, Breaux looks like he could be a fixture for years.
Joining him as a fixture will be second-year receiver Drew Brees, who showed exactly why the Saints traded up in the 2014 draft in order to pick him at No. 20 in the first round. After a modest rookie season (53 catches for 550 yards and three touchdowns, with seven carries for 73 yards and a touchdown, in 10 games), Cooks became the top target for Drew Brees in his sophomore season.
He started every game and led the team in receptions (84), receiving yards (1,138) and receiving touchdowns (nine). Repeatedly, Cooks was able to get behind the opposing secondary and though he proved to be the deep threat that the Saints thought he was, he also showed ability to run underneath routes. He's a worthy successor to Marques Colstonas the Saints' No. 1 receiver; he became the first Saints receiver to post a 1,000-yard season since Colston and Lance Moore totaled 1,154 and 1,041, respectively, in 2012.
And it appears that Cooks will have an effective receiving partner in Willie Snead, another second-year receiver.
He's another great story – undrafted, cut by Cleveland and Carolina, added to the Saints' practice squad in 2014 – who has found a home in New Orleans, and in the Saints offense.
Snead warded off the competition, earned a roster spot and continued to catch just about everything that touched his hands during the season, finishing third in receptions (69), second in receiving yards (984) and adding three touchdowns. With him on the field, the offense remains in good hands.
There's no way there could be a list of breakout performances by Saints players that excludes tight end Benjamin Watson, whom Brees calls the most complete tight end in the league, and who certainly looked the part, even as he turned 35 years old and completed his 12th NFL season.
In addition to remaining an elite blocker, Watson had his best statistical season – he posted career highs in receptions (74) and receiving yards (825), and tied a career high with six touchdowns. And, absolutely, Watson could repeat the performance in 2016; few players in the league are more physically fit, regardless of age, than the man who didn't miss a game or a practice this season.
Terron Armstead wasn't so fortunate. He missed practices and games due to a knee injury. But, other than teammates, few comprehended what the left tackle went through in order to be able to play until he finally was shut down prior to the season finale against Atlanta. The maintenance program pretty much was to stay off the leg and get treatment throughout the week, get as many mental reps as possible, then go out and block elite pass rushers every weekend.
His teammates believed that even on one leg – and more specifically, because of what he was able to do on that one leg – Armstead should have been a Pro Bowl selection. But perhaps the most valuable lesson learned by Armstead was that he can be an elite player even when robbed of his athleticism, and that is helpful knowledge going forward.
Did you realize that safety Kenny Vaccaro posted a career high in tackles (104) and sacks (three) this season, while posting five passes defensed and forcing a fumble? A lot of things get ignored and flushed when a defense allows a league-high 29.8 points per game and 413.4 yards, second-most in the league.
But let's not lose track of the fact that Vaccaro likely had his best season, and that he looks like he'll be a good fit going forward in the defense that will be designed by Dennis Allen, who took over as coordinator after the 10th game and is expected to return in that role next season.