The latest in a five-part series counting down the top 20 New Orleans Saints players, based on their current value heading into the 2016 season:
No. 16 RT Zach Strief
Last year’s rank: 13
Strief took a slight step back in 2015, partly due to injury, after he was arguably the Saints’ most consistent offensive lineman from 2013-2014. He turns 33 in September. And even Strief himself admitted last year that he will eventually be replaced by the Saints’ top draft pick in 2015, Andrus Peat.
Could that happen this summer? Perhaps. But so far, Peat hasn’t been able to beat out Strief, who remained entrenched at right tackle in OTAs and minicamp while Peat moved to right guard. Strief has been with the Saints for 10 years, five as a starter, for good reason. He’s a solid, savvy pro with enough athleticism and versatility for the Saints’ pass-happy offense. And he is a well-respected leader.
No. 15 P Thomas Morstead
Last year’s rank: 17
I say it every year -- Morstead could be ranked even higher on this list, because he is one of the few Saints who ranks among the elite players at his position throughout the NFL. Morstead earned a Pro Bowl trip in 2012, and he ranks among the top three in NFL history in both gross punting average and net punting average. He is also the Saints’ kickoff specialist, another area where he excels.
However, the eighth-year veteran showed more inconsistency than usual last year -- mostly because he was dealing with a nagging quad injury that sidelined him for two games. He could use a bounce-back season to prove he is an irreplaceable advantage, rather than a luxury.
No. 14 LB Stephone Anthony
Last year’s rank: Unranked
Anthony had an excellent rookie season, starting every game at middle linebacker and finishing with 112 tackles, one interception and two forced fumbles. However, the 6-foot-2, 245-pounder essentially was demoted this offseason. The Saints moved him to strongside linebacker and brought in veteran James Laurinaitis as the new “quarterback” and signal caller of their defense. They wanted a more experienced vet in that role to help clean up the assignment and alignment problems that plagued them last year.
But now that he is freed from those duties, Anthony should be able to develop into even more of an athletic playmaker for the Saints – which should bump him even further up this list a year from now.
No. 13 TE Coby Fleener
Last year’s rank: N/A
I may be overrating Fleener here -- but that’s what the Saints did when they signed him to a surprisingly-expensive, five-year $36 million contract in free agency. The 6-6, 251-pounder never had more than 54 catches or 774 yards in a season during his first four years with the Indianapolis Colts, and he has just 17 career TD catches. However, I have little doubt that he will vault past all of those numbers now that he is in an offense that loves throwing to tight ends (see: Jimmy Graham, Benjamin Watson).
Coach Sean Payton said he has a clear vision for Fleener. He said when the Saints signed Fleener, “I watch him do the right thing every time. There are games where you can watch the tape and say, 'Man, if we threw [to] him eight times in a row we’re going to have eight completions.”