See game action photos from the Saints rookies in the 2017-2018 season.
Few declared the New Orleans Saints clear-cut victors of the annual rookie haul this year, after the last name was called in the 2017 NFL Draft, the free agent class had been secured and the late pickups had been added.
But, possibly, everyone is calling them undisputed champs today, because it would strain credulity to name a better rookie class than the one the Saints fielded this season.
Likely, some will present a blue-in-the-face opposing case and, just maybe, a contrarian will interject just for the satisfaction of pot-stirring. But when New Orleans (11-5) steps onto the field Sunday in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome against Carolina (11-5) to play its first playoff game since 2013, and as the NFC South Division champions for the first time since 2011, it will do so in large part due to the contributions of a group that has comprised its own honor society.
"It's encouraging," center Max Unger said. "It's just a testament to the guys we're bringing in and our coaches being able to develop them. Having such young players be this impactful is hard to do. It's been refreshing, to say the least."
Four members of the seven-man draft class were Game 1 starters – cornerback Marshon Lattimore (first round, No. 11 overall), offensive tackle Ryan Ramczyk (first round, No. 32), safety Marcus Williams (second round, No. 42) and linebacker Alex Anzalone (third round, No. 76). A fifth rookie, running back Alvin Kamara (third round, No. 67), has been a starter in every sense of the word, given the amount of snaps he plays and impact he makes.
Defensive lineman Trey Hendrickson (third round, No. 103) was a rotation player who was contributing nicely before he was injured, and defensive end Al-Quadin Muhammad (sixth round, No. 196) is a promising prospect who had four sacks in the preseason.
Undrafted defensive back Justin Hardee, whom the Saints picked up off waivers prior to the season opener, leads the team with nine special teams tackles, and blocked a punt that he recovered and returned for a touchdown. Undrafted quarterback Taysom Hill, who also was picked up prior to the opener, also has made his mark on special teams with four tackles after being inactive for the first 11 games, as the third quarterback.
It will take time – six, seven, eight years – to see if the group equals or surpasses the standards established by the revered draft of '06, which included running back Reggie Bush (first round, No. 2), safety Roman Harper (second round, No. 43), right guard Jahri Evans (fourth round, No. 108), right tackle Zach Strief (seventh round, No. 210) and receiver Marques Colston (seventh round, No. 252).
Among that collection is several future Saints Hall of Famers; two 10-year starters (Evans and Colston) who also are the best in franchise history at their respective positions; a current Saint (Strief) who was a six-year starter before injuries interrupted, then ended, this year; a face-of-the-franchise player in '06 (Bush) who set an NFL record for receptions by a rookie running back (88), and was a major contributor to the Super Bowl champions; and a hard-hitting, productive safety (Harper) who was a strong leader and locker room voice.
However, when class has been in session this season, there hasn't been a better collection of first-year students. The group is well on its way to establishing some benchmarks of its own, with two – Lattimore and Kamara – already having earned spots on the NFC Pro Bowl roster.
"I feel like we've contributed a lot, from offense, defense and on special teams," Lattimore said. "I feel like we have a good amount of success, being rookies. With me, Justin on special teams, Alvin, Ryan, Alex at the beginning of the season – Alex was a key part to this defense. Trey Hendrickson. The list can go on. I feel like we contributed throughout all three phases.
"I'm not trying to get into that, 'Y'all are one of the best.' I don't really get into all that. But just seeing people say that, it makes me know that we're doing something to get their attention like that. I know it's rare to have rookies contributing to the team in all three phases, (but) we're doing it. We have to keep it up, keep it going."
While Lattimore avoids the debate, the actions speak louder than his words.
He has been one of several gems in the class, a projected top-five pick who slipped into New Orleans' hands at No. 11. Lattimore has a team-leading five interceptions (one returned for a touchdown and one, on his stomach with the ball pinned against his backside against Atlanta, which will live in Saints lore) and 18 passes defensed, with a forced fumble, a fumble recovered and 52 tackles. He has given the Saints a fearless, No. 1 cover corner, willing to match talent and wits with the opponents' top receiver and able to hold his own in every game.
Four times, Lattimore was named Pepsi NFL Rookie of the Week and he's a strong candidate to be named Defensive Rookie of the Year. Atlanta's Julio Jones, one of the league's best receivers, expressed admiration for Lattimore's play because the rookie "travels" to cover the opponents' best receiver; Lattimore had two interceptions against the Falcons this season.
His mirror in accolade and deed has been Kamara, whose presence and potential essentially made necessary the trade of Adrian Peterson. Kamara was just that good, and he hasn't disappointed a single day.
He has run for 728 yards and eight touchdowns on 120 carries, caught 81 passes for 826 yards and five touchdowns, and chipped in 11 kickoff returns for 347 yards, including a franchise-record, 106-yard touchdown. With 14 total touchdowns, he topped the previous Saints' rookie record of 13, set by George Rogers in 1981. And with five Pepsi NFL Rookie of the Week honors, he is a leading candidate to be named Offensive Rookie of the Year.
Kamara and Pro Football Hall of Famer Gale Sayers are the only rookies in NFL history with five rushing touchdowns, five receiving touchdowns and a kickoff return touchdown in their first season. He and fellow running back Mark Ingram are the first running back teammates in league history to amass 1,500-plus yards from scrimmage in the same season, and he and Ingram are the first running back teammates to be Pro Bowlers since 1975.
"He's someone that's driven and he's also resilient," Saints Coach Sean Payton said. "He's traveled a long road to get here with Alabama, the junior college and then Tennessee. Remember I said this in the beginning, he's very intelligent, he's exceptional with regards to learning. That doesn't just benefit a player on the football field. It benefits him with adversity. It benefits him in so many other areas."
While Lattimore and Kamara have provided the highlights, Ramczyk arguably has provided as much value, or more, than either.
He has started every game this season, two at left tackle in relief of an injured Terron Armstead and 14 at right tackle in place of Strief. In one game, against Miami in London on Oct.1, he played both positions in the same game, starting at left tackle and then moving to right tackle in the second half after Strief was injured.
Ramczyk, acquired with the draft pick the Saints received from New England in the Brandin Cooks trade, was projected to be a backup this season before eventually transitioning in as a starter. Instead, he has been a mainstay on the line and Payton regularly has referenced his maturity, saying that he acts more like a three- or four-year veteran than a newcomer.
Too, there's Williams, who finished second to Lattimore with four interceptions (two in the end zone, to directly prevent points from being scored), and had seven passes defensed and 73 tackles. The play-making centerfielder missed one game and not much else, on or off the field. Williams had all of his interceptions against division rivals – one against Atlanta, one against Carolina and two versus Tampa Bay.
"He's a guy that we targeted in the first round, right around the latter part of the round," Payton said. "We felt we needed some play-making ability on the back end, we also felt like we needed somebody that had real good football intelligence. I think that with him and Vonn (Bell) back there, we have a good combination of both."
Said Williams: "I feel like we're doing a good job. We're all coming in here and doing what we have to do to make plays. It's all a big part of the coaches and the players around us that are helping us develop into those roles.
"When I came in here, I thought it was going to be a whole bunch of individuals, just because of that perception from the outside looking in, it's like, 'Oh, it's all about you.' But when I got here, everybody is pretty much a team, trying to be a family. They all come together, everybody talks to everybody, there's no one individual that won't talk to me on this team."
Teammates are talking to Williams, and outsiders are talking about him and his class. The only way their production could be overlooked is willful neglect.
"I'm just impressed with the class, the way they came in," Saints defensive end Cam Jordan said. "Ryan Ramczyk was thrown in and learned to play both sides. You talk about Kamara and what he's meant to the offense.
"Trey, when he got hurt, he was clearly rotating into the defensive line. Al-Quadin clearly has potential. The Ohio State guy (Lattimore) and Marcus – our secondary improvements, that's clearly something I'm proud of. I like the way they've responded from camp to in-season."
The contributions from camp to in-season helped the Saints advance to the postseason. It's bonus work for a class that has been capable of handling the curriculum.