Saints' resurgence fueled by first-, second-year pros
By BRETT MARTEL
METAIRIE, La. (AP) Saints rookie cornerback Marshon Lattimore derives a certain satisfaction from seeing New Orleans' younger players assume pivotal roles in the club's longest winning streak in seven years.
"I love it," said Lattimore, whose coverage skills have helped the Saints rise to first place in the NFC South.
"It's just great to see young players bring the Saints back up, because a lot of people just wrote the Saints off and said that we were a bad team and everything."
When the 2017 campaign began, it was clear the Saints would need a number of players with less than two years of NFL experience to come of age quickly in order to break out of a three-season run of mediocrity in which the club never had a winning record.
Halfway through this season, the Saints (6-2) look like one of the top teams in the NFC, having won six straight for the first time since 2011 as they prepare to visit Buffalo on Sunday.
The club's recent success has hinged on the play of rookies such as Lattimore, running back Alvin Kamara, offensive tackle Ryan Ramczyk, and safety Marcus Williams, as well as second-year players including receiver Michael Thomas, cornerback Ken Crawley, and interior defensive linemen Sheldon Rankins and David Onyemata.
Meanwhile, rookie Trey Hendrickson has been effective in a reserve role with two sacks and a forced fumble, while undrafted rookie Justin Hardee broke through with a big special teams play in last week's victory over Tampa Bay , blocking a punt and returning it for a touchdown.
Rookie running back Trey Edmunds and second-year pro DeVante Harris, who both joined the Saints as undrafted free agents, have been regulars on special teams.
Saints coach Sean Payton said his club appears to have a group of players that have "acclimated quickly," and added that a lot of credit goes to former Miami Dolphins general manager Jeff Ireland, who has overseen college scouting in New Orleans since 2015.
It wasn't necessarily apparent that so many of New Orleans' youngest players would quickly emerge as effective pros.
Kamara, for example, wasn't a starter for most of his college career, which began at Alabama and ended at Tennessee.
But he has been a key contributor in both the running and passing games, with 654 yards from scrimmage and five touchdowns through his first eight NFL games.
"I've improved a lot, but I think it's a lot of credit to the system," Kamara said. "As an organization, you get players and you find the best ways to use their skills. I'm just grateful I'm in a position where my skills are being used."
Ramczyk, who played only one season of Division I college football at Wisconsin in 2016, has started at either left or right tackle in every game this season.
Two years ago, Onyemata looked like a longer-term project. Having grown up in Nigeria and having learned to play American-style football at a Canadian college, he was hardly NFL-ready when he arrived for 2016 rookie camp.
Now he's a starting defensive tackle with 1+ sacks and three tackles for losses this season.
"It's astronomical from where he was (during) rookie minicamp last year to where he is today," said Rankins, adding that when Onyemata arrived, "He couldn't tell you any formation. But now he's out there calling out things, identifying protections and knowing where plays are going. So it's a huge leap."
Rankins, a 2016 first-round pick, hasn't been impressive statistically, but defensive end Cameron Jordan credits much of his success this season to how well Rankins has taken on double-teams.
"When you talk about how fast our young guys have been able to learn and grow, that's what's impressive," Jordan said.
Rankins said the Saints' current mix of hungry young players and established leaders such as Jordan and quarterback Drew Brees seem to have synergy.
"When you're led by guys like Cam and Drew - guys who have consistently done it at a high level - it does nothing but make you want to raise your level of play," Rankins said.
Brees, meanwhile, sounds rejuvenated by the emerging young players helping New Orleans win.
"You just never know when that light bulb is going to come on and I think for a lot of guys it's come on in a big way," Brees said.
"They're big contributors and that's another thing that makes it exciting around here is you've got this young talent where all of a sudden the light bulb is coming on and you feel like the sky's the limit."
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Updated November 8, 2017