Article Ross Jackson

How Did the Saints Rookies Fair Through the First Half of the Season?

The Saints have been on a roll when it comes to drafting NFL talent over the last few years. Particularly since 2015 where over half of their draft picks are still on the roster and others are still making names for themselves around the NFL. This year’s draft class was a thin one, only five players selected, four of which remained on the team past the first few weeks of the season. The Saints also landed a few impact Undrafted Free Agent rookies as well. With the success the Saints are seeing this season from their young newcomers, I thought it would be a good idea to take a look at exactly what they’ve faired so far. We’ll look at rookie newcomers only, both drafted and undrafted.

Erik McCoy, Center, Texas A&M – Drafted 2.48

McCoy had some big shoes to fill being selected by New Orleans just after 2x Pro Bowler Max Unger retired. McCoy also had the odds stacked against him with the Saints having also signed veteran Nick Easton the day after Unger announced his retirement as well.

However, McCoy (who allowed only one sack in his collegiate play) took only about half of the offseason to win the starting job at Center. While there were some early concerns about how quickly he’d learn the offense, pick up communication with Drew Brees, and some errant snaps here and there, his talent was undeniable. He quickly mitigated those concerns and now, ahead of Week 10’s matchup with the Atlanta Falcons, is listed as PFF’s #2 rated Center in the NFL. Among rookies, he’s the highest-rated across all Oline postions.

He’s yet to allow a sack on 326 pass blocking snaps and he’s one of only five offensive lineman to play over a total of 500 snaps so far this season. He’s been reliable, durable, and effective right off the bat. To put it in perspective, he’s been the interior O-line version of Ryan Ramczyk.

McCoy’s work in the passing game is complimentary to his work as a run blocker as well. In the video above you can see examples of his quickness, power, and awareness as he launches into the second level to clear Jalen Smith out of the play and lead the way for a big gain by Alvin Kamara.

McCoy is looking like a long-term win for New Orleans who scooped him up after trading up in the second round to grab him at 48th overall when his expected draft position was nearer the bottom of the first or top of the second round. Another win for Jeff Ireland and the team.

Chauncey Gardner-Johnson, Defensive Back, Florida – Drafted 4.105

Speaking of players expected to go near the bottom of the first round, Chauncey Gardner-Johnson (CJGJ) had a completely unexpected fall all the way to the fourth round and within striking distance of New Orleans who pounced without hesitation. The former Gator has been an absolute chess piece for New Orleans on the defensive side of the ball lining up as a Free Safety, out wide on the boundary, in the box as a box Safety, on the edge as a blitzing linebacker, and in the nickel package as a linebacker. But most impressive is what he’s done over the last pair of games with slot corner P.J. Williams suspended.

CJGJ played the STAR role at Florida where he played a ton in the box and was a player trusted to not only cover Tight Ends and out of the backfield, but to play in run support and rush the passer as well. Think Vonn Bell’s former box role with greater coverage responsibility. His experience in that role allowed him to step into Williams’ spot without a single stumble.

Before recently focusing down, Gardner-Johnson was already making plays from that box role. In the Jacksonville game, he had a couple of big plays but this early 3rd down stop on a pass to Leonard Fournette out of the backfield showcases his ability to recognize plays as they develop and his impressive abilities to close quickly and tackle soundly.

In his two games in the slot against Chicago and Arizona, Gardner-Johnson played 67 coverage snaps and allowed just 7 catches on 12 targets for only 22 yards. That’s only a third of a yard per snap allowed. Unfortunately, he is credited with allowing one touchdown to Allen Robinson of 7 yards against the Bears but it came late in the game with 2:36 left.

CJGJ has staked his claim for more playing time in the slot and has risen into the top-10 for PFF’s highest-graded defensive rookies. He won’t be in the Defensive Rookie of the Year conversation this year with Nick Bosa running away with that honor. But the longevity he’ll provide to New Orleans at an increasingly important position is remarkable.

Saquan Hampton, Safety, Rutgers – 6.177

Hampton hasn’t been much of a standout so far this season on the defensive side, but he’s been a contributor in special teams. Hampton didn’t see his first snaps with the Saints until Week 7 against the Bears. just in time too as both J.T. Gray and Patrick Robinson went out of the game with injuries on special teams play. This opened the door for Hampton to get out there and show why he said he’d be “honored to play special teams for New Orleans” after he was drafted. Despite not having a tackle yet, he’s shown some discipline with lane integrity as well as his intensity of play.

In that Bears game he also saw some defensive snaps, giving up a 17 yard reception to Allen Robinson in the first quarter but did not draft another target on his remaining 14 coverage snaps. He’ll be a player that will continue to grow and potentially contribute to the level of former Saints Chris Banjo over the years.

Shy Tuttle, Defensive Tackle, Tennessee – Undrafted

Tuttle was one of the undrafted guys I’d hoped would make the roster. His versatility and lateral quickness was noticeable with the Volunteers and I thought he’d be an excellent piece to Dennis Allen’s defensive line. Thankfully that hope came true and he’s made good on his time.

Tuttle has gone from undrafted to a member of one of the most effective defensive lines in the NFL. Their pass rushing ability off the line has been outstanding so far this season gather 21 of the team’s 24 sacks. They’ve also been very effective against the run leading the NFL’s fourth-ranked rushing defense.

Tuttle himself has compiled six tackles with a sack and two tackles for a loss as well as an additional six hurries. While those stats might not jump off the paper, his work on film over his 147 snap rotational role has been a pleasant addition.

Deonte Harris, Wide Receiver/Returner, Assumption College – Undrafted

The speedster Deonte Harris has been getting into the fold of the offense a little more recently but has made his name as a returner. Yes, he’s had some fumbling issues, but he’s also third in the NFL in punt return yards and one of only two players so far in the league with a punt return touchdown. In all honestly, he should have had his second against the Bears but there was a questionable holding call that erased it. He hasn’t been as success when it comes to the looks of his kick return stats, but the Saints defense doesn’t give up much these days and thus, fewer opportunities for Harris in that area of the game.

Harris, even outside of his on-field production, has brought a charge to this team we haven’t really felt since Darren Sproles. He is someone that you always feel can break one either for a touchdown or at least a big gain to put the Saints offense in good field position. That alone has made him an invaluable rookie addition to this team.

Making the number 11 jersey look good again.

The Rest of the Class:

The Saints’ first 7th round draft pick Kaden Elliss showed a ton of promise early but saw his rookie year end early with an ACL injury. Fellow 7th-rounder Alize Mack has now signed on to the Kansas City Chiefs’ practice squad. Undrafted Free Agent Defensive End Carl Granderson has a sack on the season. Offensive Tackle Ethan Greenidge hasn’t yet played a snap but sticks on the roster as another UDFA.

Practice Squad:

Wide Receivers Emmanuel Butler and Lil’Jordan Humphrey maintain their spots on the practice squad though Humphrey was brought up for an earlier portion of the season as the Saints battled pass-catcher injuries. Butler, curiously has not yet gotten his shot despite two practice squad wideouts being brought up. Despite his offseason hype, the Saints must need more development from him.

Offensive Linemen Derrick Kelly and John Leglue (formerly of the Tulane Green Wave) also maintain their UDFA practice squad status. Kelly saw a lot of second-team reps over camp but have maintained an effective offensive line so far this season with Will Clapp emerging as the sixth man.