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John DeShazier: Saints rookie class one of the NFL's most productive this season

To say that the Saints, 6-2 and winners of six straight, have one of the league’s most productive rookie classes this season is an understatement.

Cornerback Marshon Lattimore, offensive tackle Ryan Ramczyk, safety Marcus Williams and linebacker Alex Anzalone were Game 1 starters, and running back Alvin Kamara has been one of the most versatile and productive players in the league at his position.

Coach Sean Payton said an early read can be had on whether a rookie is ready to start.

“There’s always that optimism the draft weekend and through the process and through the spring,” Payton said Wednesday morning, in a teleconference with local media. “And yet, you recognize – some of them come in like Ramczyk, who wasn’t fully available because of the injury until training camp.

“But at some point during training camp, you have to see it and see it consistently enough. To credit those guys, we were able to. That can vary sometimes but I think probably a couple of weeks into training camp, you might know if you think (they can start), you’ve gotten into the preseason games. It’s a little bit harder in the spring now with the practice schedules and the no contact.”

Payton also gave high praise to Assistant General Manager/College Scouting director Jeff Ireland for the role he has played in the evaluation process with this year’s rookie class, as well as previous ones. Since Ireland, a former general manager in Miami for five years, was hired in January 2015, the Saints also have drafted offensive lineman Andrus Peat, defensive end Hau’oli Kikaha, cornerback P.J. Williams, defensive tackle Tyeler Davison (in ’15), and defensive tackle Sheldon Rankins, receiver Michael Thomas, safety Vonn Bell, defensive tackle David Onyemata and running back Daniel Lasco (in ’16).

“I think this appears to be a group of young guys that we drafted this year that have acclimated quickly,” Payton said. “I’m encouraged by that. We made some changes that were necessary in our draft process, in our evaluation process, all of that. Scouting, that was completely revamped – I think Jeff Ireland has done an outstanding job – and how we look at players, all of that was overhauled, if you will. And I think the results are paying off, fortunately, for us.

“Starting with who’s in charge. And starting with the organization of the scouts – where are they going to be, who are the scouts. Changes made there. Prototypes, all these things that were necessary that are put in place now. Getting Jeff was huge for us.”

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JUSTIN TIME:** Another rookie this season also has had a prominent impact. Defensive back Justin Hardee has been a standout on special teams, with his most notable play being a punt block and touchdown against Tampa Bay on Sunday.

“He brings some juice and some energy,” Payton said. “We saw him with Houston during the preseason, practicing with them (for joint sessions). Fortunately, we were able to put him on our roster. He’s played both receiver and corner in high school, and then he went and played receiver at Illinois, and we’ve got him working with the DBs.

“He’s one of those guys that comes to work and gives you great effort. A play like that the other day was significant because it wasn’t a designed block, it was actually more of a return. It’s one guy really working his technique and it’s a huge play in a game like that.”

TWO-HEADED MONSTER: Sunday’s opponent, Buffalo, has a pair of slippery targets in the offensive backfield. Running back LeSean McCoy 149 carries for 546 yards and three touchdowns) and quarterback Tyrod Taylor (154 of 236 passing for 1,628 yards and 10 touchdowns, with two interceptions, plus 50 carries for 210 yards and two touchdowns) present unique challenges for a team that averages 31.2 rushing attempts per game, fourth-most in the league.

Of McCoy, Payton said: “He’s very elusive. You don’t see a lot of hard, contact hits on him. And I think he’s someone that can quickly get to top speed. His acceleration, his burst, he’s got very good instincts. With him, there’s that dimension of flexibility where in the passing game he can hurt you, in the running game he can hurt you. He’s had a fantastic career and you put on the film, you see the same player we saw in Philadelphia the last time we played them. He’s dynamic.” And Taylor will be the most mobile quarterback the Saints have seen this season.

“Compared to who we’ve seen to date, he would be ahead of that group,” Payton said. “He can beat you throwing it and if you’re not careful, he’ll scramble for a 38-yard gain. And I don’t know that we’ve seen that.”

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