(If you missed part one of our Drew Brees tribute, click here.)
[dropcap]W[/dropcap]ho are the best players to surround Drew Brees in his time with the Saints? I’ve tried to put together a first- and second-team at every other position on the offense based on the player’s production and impact on the team in the Brees/Payton years, from 2006 to now.
(Thanks to nola.com for their Brees article providing a handy reference for some of these statistics.)
First team: Mark Ingram
Second team: Pierre Thomas
The two longest-tenured running backs in the Brees era, each with eight seasons played for the Saints (and counting). Thomas was more frequently used as a receiver than Ingram, but Ingram was the rushing bellcow, with 1199 career carries to Thomas’ 818; Ingram passed Thomas in total yards from scrimmage last season.
First team: Darren Sproles
Second team: Alvin Kamara
Kamara will eventually pass Sproles for this position (and maybe even become the new lead workhorse), but Sproles was the most productive on a per-touch basis of the backs who were used in a receiving role.
Kamara has, in 21 career games, already hit 2,204 yards from scrimmage, and his incredible running ability and dynamic big-play capability gives him a strong chance to end up #1 when it’s all said and done overall.
You’ll notice I excluded one very prominent name; I’ll get to him later.
First team: Marques Colston, Michael Thomas
Second Team: Devery Henderson, Brandin Cooks
Colston, of course, needs no introduction. At this point, Thomas doesn’t either, although his career totals are less than Henderson’s. I think it’s safe to say which one is better and has had the bigger impact, though,as Thomas is in the conversation for best wide receiver in the league. Henderson was a consistent second wide receiver for many years; Cooks had two 1000-yard seasons in his three years with the Saints before he was traded.
First Team: Lance Moore
Second Team: Reggie Bush
Bush would be used more as a lead back in Miami and Detroit after he left New Orleans, but the Saints threw to him so much, it felt appropriate to list him here. (It also seemed like a crime to leave one of Bush, Sproles, or Kamara off the team, so I cheated a little.) He was highly productive as a receiving back, but Moore’s eight years with the team and two 1,000-yard seasons give him an edge in total productivity. (Willie Snead also had a 1,000-yard season in the slot; Austin Carr looks to replicate the trend of undrafted free agents filling that role for New Orleans.)
First Team: Jimmy Graham
Second Team: Jeremy Shockey
Graham is one of the best receivers Brees ever had and at his peak was one of the best receiving tight ends in history, so this is no surprise.
Shockey gets the nod over Ben Watson; Watson had the best single season of the two, but Shockey was more consistently and overall productive, plus he was on the Super Bowl team.
First Team: Jermon Bushrod
Second Team: Jammal Brown
Honestly, it feels weird to pick Jammal Brown over Terron Armstead. But despite what my gut tells me there, even though Armstead has had a longer tenure with the team, he’s still only started 51 games at left tackle to Brown’s 45, and Brown has two Pro Bowl and one All-Pro appearance between ’06-’08. I think Armstead has Pro Bowl talent, but his injury inconsistency has kept him from getting a bid and keeps him from getting the second-team spot here. Even though Brown’s ACL tear caused him to miss an entire season, in the four years he was the expected starter, he started 45 games to Armstead’s 44 in 2014-17, plus the awards accolades suggest his peak was higher. (If Armstead remains the left tackle for a few more seasons, he’ll probably pass Brown.)
Bushrod gets the first-team nod with the most games started (62) and two Pro Bowl appearances; he moved into the lineup when Brown tore his ACL, and didn’t leave until his contract expired and Chicago inked him to a big free-agent deal.
First Team: Carl Nicks
Second Team: Andrus Peat
Nicks was a legitimate All-Pro at the position for New Orleans, and it’s only because the team couldn’t come to an agreement with Drew Brees in time that they were unable to retain Nicks past his rookie deal. It’s one of the real shameful what-ifs in NFL history; Nicks signed a giant free-agent deal with Tampa Bay, then suffered not only a toe injury but a MRSA infection that essentially ended his career. (Multiple NFL teams suffered MRSA outbreaks in their locker rooms around this time, a rather galling indictment of the care NFL teams invest in their billion-dollar enterprises.) If the Saints had been able to use the franchise tag on Nicks, he might still be with the team today (or at least having recently wrapped up a long tenure of playing at a high level).
After some time where Peat was moved around the line to find his best spot, he’s settled in comfortably at left guard and been a solid, productive player there. (Ben Grubbs was the only other candidate of significant tenure, and his signing by the Saints has generally been considered a disappointment.)
First Team: Max Unger
Second Team: Jonathan Goodwin
Center is another position the Saints have gotten solid production from over the years despite rotating a number of players. Unger is the best of those players, a former All-Pro player who hasn’t received any Pro Bowl accolades since joining the Saints, though his performance is certainly worthy of them. Of the other players to man the pivot, Goodwin was the longest-tenured, signing with the team in 2006 and taking over the starting job in 2008 after two years of Jeff Faine, then starting from ’08-’10 and coming back for one last year as the starting center in 2014. (Brian de la Puente, a 2008 undrafted free agent, took over from 2011-13, after 2011 free-agent signing Olin Kreutz retired unexpectedly after starting four games.)
First Team: Jahri Evans
Second Team: Larry Warford
Jahri Evans is arguably a Hall of Fame lineman, with six Pro Bowl and four All-Pro appearances in his eleven years manning right guard for the Saints. The team let him go after the 2016 season and signed Larry Warford, who made the Pro Bowl in his first year for the Saints. There literally isn’t another option for this position.
First Team: Zach Strief
Second Team: Jon Stinchcomb
Ryan Ramczyk hasn’t played enough to earn this distinction yet– especially considering how much of his playing time in 2017 came at left tackle– but he’s got the talent to jump to the top of this list if he develops as expected and stays at right tackle. Stinchcomb and Strief both played at an above-average level– Stinchcomb has a Pro Bowl appearance, while Strief doesn’t– but ultimately I chose Strief because he spent years as the team’s swing tackle before taking over at right tackle when Stinchcomb retired, spending his entire twelve-year career with the Saints.
SPECIAL DISPENSATION: Thomas Morstead. A punter isn’t an offensive player, but Morstead is the only player aside from Brees remaining from the Super Bowl team, and thus the second-longest tenured Saint. (And his onside kick in Super Bowl 44 remains the gold standard for onside kicks.)
Next up: A review of the team before Baltimore’s game and some looks at how they can improve.