Rookies give hope for turnaround
Thomas, Lutz provide foundation to build upon
After their third straight losing season and for the second season in a row, it wasn’t surprising that not one Saint was named to the NFC's initial Pro Bowl roster.
Quarterback Drew Brees performed at an all-star level this year, and may yet make the team as an alternate. But a 7-9 team – and its players – don’t get the same attention as teams competing for the postseason. As such playoff QBs Atlanta’s Matt Ryan, Green Bay’s Aaron Rodgers and Dallas rookie Dak Prescott made the team ahead of Brees.
Two Saints, however, were named to the 2016 Pro Football Writers of America All-Rookie Team, and they provide a bright spot as the team looks to return to the form that won them Super Bowl XLIV.
The Saints selected Michael Thomas in the second round (47th overall) of the 2016 NFL Draft to fill the void left by the franchise’s all-time leading receiver Marques Colston. The rookie lived up to his pedigree – he’s the nephew of former NFL wide receiver Keyshawn Johnson – and his rookie contract, a four-year, $5.11 million deal with $2.60 million guaranteed and a signing bonus of $1.92 million. Thomas was an immediate starter and finished his rookie campaign with 92 receptions, 1,137 yards, and 9 touchdowns, each all-time receiving records for a Saints rookie.
Undrafted kicker Will Lutz slipped through the cracks and landed in New Orleans after the preseason wrapped up. The kicker originally signed with the Baltimore Ravens, but was waived at the end of August. Ravens coach John Harbaugh put in a good word with Saints coach Sean Payton, and he was picked up to replace two kickers who battled all preseason, but couldn’t land the gig.
The special teams suffered in the early part of the season with several blocks and misses, requiring the Saints to bring in special teams assistant Kevin O’Dea to improve the kicking unit. The adjustments worked, as Lutz went on to set the Saints rookie record for field goals made with 28 out of 34 attempts, surpassing team legend Tom Dempsey (22). It should be noted that four of his missed kicks came at a distance greater than 50 yards.
Both players filled huge needs for the Black & Gold. The team has struggled to find consistency in the kicking game since Garret Hartley was let go. Without Colston, the team didn’t have a big receiver who provides a huge target for Brees, and whomever will be his eventual heir.
Thomas and Lutz are firmly part of the foundation that will hopefully help the Saints return to the NFL’s elite. While another 7-9 season is not what the Who Dat Nation wanted, the future is looking promising.
When Payton’s Saints were best, they found diamonds in the rough and turned them into Tiffany quality gems. After several seasons without breakout rookies, these accolades point to a resurgence in strength across the roster. Hopefully the team can continue to build on these successes, and return to their winning ways.