A Week 17 recap and the year in review

There really isn’t much worth discussing about the Saints’ performance in week 17, as a team with nothing to play for played like it, resting most of their starters for parts of or the entire game, as much as could be allowed with roster limitations.

The most exciting part for diehard fans like me was seeing Teddy Bridgewater return to action. Bridgewater started his first game since the Vikings’ wild-card match against the Seattle Seahawks at the end of the 2015 season. Bridgewater’s severe knee injury in training camp the next year kept him off the field for nearly two years; the Vikings let him leave in free agency the next year, where he signed with the Jets before they traded him to the Saints.

Bridgewater, despite playing almost entirely behind a backup offensive line and without Alvin Kamara, showed many of the traits that made him a desirable QB prospect and a target of the Saints in the preseason. The office didn’t move the ball much with all the backups playing, but Bridgewater threw his first touchdown pass in over three years:

The defense, well, played like the game didn’t matter, surrendering 33 points, mostly to third-string quarterback Kyle Allen (although fourth-stringer Garrett Gilbert came in to finish one field goal drive near the end of the game after Allen suffered an injury). Marcus Davenport split a sack with David Onyemata, his first since returning from injury. With most of the defensive starters playing a minimal or limited workload, the name of the game was mostly avoiding injury. (Even then, alarmingly, three different Saints went down after a play, although none of them were hurt seriously or out for long.)

Also, Taysom Hill scored a touchdown.

The game didn’t matter because the Saints had locked up home-field advantage throughout the playoffs, so they were able to cruise to a 13-3 record. With that in mind, analyzing the game further won’t be very productive. So let’s look at how the regular season went for the Saints, and who and what deserve recognition:

Most improved player: Sheldon Rankins. Rankins, the #12 overall pick in 2016, was drafted to provide interior pressure from the defensive line.  During a practice in preseason, though, Rankins broke his leg and wasn’t able to return until November. That injury slowed his development as a pass rusher, both due to the fact that he couldn’t get reps in, and because it takes time to adjust and get comfortable again with the body after a major injury like that. He still notched four sacks in nine games as a rookie, but last year that number was down to two despite starting sixteen games.

But in his third year, Rankins took a major step forward, bringing the confidence to match his athleticism and technique. Rankins’ explosiveness up the middle, combined with his devastating spin move, allowed him to get consistent pressure up the middle, and the versatility his athleticism grants him allowed him to move around the line, attack from all angles, and even drop into coverage. (Most notably, by dropping into coverage on a zone blitz against Pittsburgh, Rankins was able to strip JuJu Smith-Schuster and seal the win in week 16.)

In his third year, just 24, Rankins put it all together to leap from a solid if unspectacular starter into a Pro Bowl-caliber player. He should be a fixture of the Saints interior line for years to come.

Runner-up: Alex Anzalone. Drafted to be the kind of athletic coverage backer the Saints need, Anzalone only played four games as a rookie before shutting down with a shoulder injury. In his second year, he played all sixteen games, and though he still trailed Demario Davis and A.J. Klein in snaps, he managed to come up with some major impact plays in crucial games for the Saints, and looks to join the four players picked in front of him as yet another strong addition from the Saints’ 2017 draft class.

Best new addition: Demario Davis. The Saints have seemingly been trying to shore up the linebacker spot since the days of the Dome Patrol ended. Last year they spent money on A.J. Klein and Manti Te’o and drafted Alex Anzalone to try to cure their woes, with mixed results. Klein was okay– depending on whose analysis you trust, anywhere from “pretty good” to “well below average”– while Te’o was a solid run stopper but mostly wasn’t athletic enough to take on a bigger role (something reflected by the time he spend this year as a healthy scratch), and Anzalone got hurt too early in the season to make an impact.

The Saints tried one more time to address the position in free agency this offseason, and struck gold when they landed Davis. Despite worries by some analysts that the Saints were handing Davis a big contract based on an outlier season, he ended up being exactly what the Saints needed: A solid cover man on running backs, a sure tackler excellent at diagnosing run plays, and a very good blitzer to boot (his five sacks put him third on the team behind Cameron Jordan and Rankins). Finally, it seems the Saints have found the three-down linebacker they need.

Runner-up: Eli Apple. A midseason acquisition is an unusual choice, sure– by definition– midseason acquisitions are unusual– and Apple didn’t set the world on fire, but he was enough of an improvement over Ken Crawley to help solidify the Saints defense down the stretch (#2 in DVOA from weeks 9-15).

There really weren’t many other contenders for this award. Patrick Robinson was playing well enough to be considered before his injury; Marcus Davenport and Tre’Quan Smith didn’t play enough snaps to be selected over Apple; and Ben Watson played like, well, a 38-year-old tight end (granted, a tight end that’s pretty darn good for being 38 years old, but still, 38 years old).

Most secretly valuable player: Ted Ginn. I was tempted to give this to Terron Armstead, based on the decline in the offense’s performance while he was injured. Given his Pro Bowl starter nomination and his second-team All-Pro selection, though, it’s hard to say his value is secret to anybody. Ginn, on the other hand, has transformed in his 30s from a no-hands speedster into a sharp route runner who uses his natural gifts to get substantial separation from defenders, and he’s a reliable #2 for Drew Brees. Indeed, when he was out, the offense struggled to move the ball downfield, as defenses could double-team Michael Thomas while not really worrying about anyone else. (This was more pronounced when Armstead was out, as the Saints’ screen game suffered substantially, taking away one of the offense’s most reliable packages.) With Ginn back in week 16,
the difference was immediately evident– especially for the snaps Armstead played– as the offense had a much easier time moving the ball downfield. (Indeed, Ginn came up with a crucial 25-yard catch on a third-and-20 on the Saints’ game-winning drive.)

Runner-up: If we disqualify anyone who got some kind of awards accolades as not being “secretly valuable”– which means Terron Armstead and Max Unger’s Pro Bowl selections take them out of the running, as does Ryan Ramczyk’s second-team All-Pro selection– it’s probably Marcus Williams, whose name you didn’t hear called very often this year, but when you’re a safety that’s often a good thing. He didn’t pull down as many interceptions this year as last, but his range at free safety largely kept the back end locked down while the Saints pass rush made life miserable for opposing quarterbacks.  (If Marshon Lattimore hadn’t made the Pro Bowl last year, I’d consider him for this honor; the Saints’ shaky start this season led him to become a bit underrated, as nobody really seemed to notice when he bounced back to his old level. He was very deserving of a Pro Bowl nod this season.)

Speaking of the AP All-Pro team, the Saints only put one player on it this year, Michael Thomas, but four on the second team: Drew Brees, Terron Armstead, Ryan Ramczyk, and Cameron Jordan. A little disappointing that more players weren’t recognized from the league’s best team, but it’ll have to do. And unfortunately, the fact that Patrick Mahomes got 45 of 50 votes for the AP first team is probably indicative of how the MVP voting will go. Not here, though:

MVP: Drew Brees. Duh. Cameron Jordan and Michael Thomas are next on the ballot.

Last thing: The benefit of writing this column so late is, I now know who the Saints’ opponent will be next week. After a surprise upset Sunday afternoon, the Philadelphia Eagles will be traveling to New Orleans. The two teams met earlier this year in the Superdome; that game was possibly the Saints’ best performance of the year, a 48-7 blowout that was every bit as lopsided as that score indicates. I’ll be back later in the week with a preview of the game.