<
>

Safeties Jairus Byrd, Kenny Vaccaro among hardest to peg in Saints' roster rankings

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. 12 WR Willie Snead

Last year’s rank: Unranked

The third-year pro had one of the NFL’s most unexpected breakout players last season, catching 69 passes for 984 yards and three touchdowns. Not bad for a guy who went undrafted in 2014, then got cut by two teams before landing on New Orleans’ practice squad.

The sure-handed 5-foot-11, 195-pounder is reminiscent of former Saints standout Lance Moore, another versatile playmaker who mainly worked the middle of the field. Snead should resume his role as New Orleans’ No. 2 receiver this year, though bigger rookie Michael Thomas could emerge as more of a red-zone option.

No. 11 S Jairus Byrd

Last year’s rank: 4

Byrd is one of the hardest players to rank on this list, since we still haven’t seen him at full strength since he signed a six-year, $54 million contract with the Saints in 2014. Byrd was a three-time Pro Bowler with the Buffalo Bills with 22 interceptions in his first five seasons. But he has been a non-factor in New Orleans because of a back injury and a major knee injury he suffered during his first season.

Byrd was still limited by the injury this summer, even though he played in 13 games last year, but he is expected to be close to full speed in training camp. Now 29-years-old, Byrd needs to prove he can get back close to being his former self.

No. 10 LB James Laurinaitis

Last year’s rank: N/A

One team’s trash is another team’s treasure? The Los Angeles Rams let Laurinaitis go this offseason, even though he started every game for them at middle linebacker for the past seven years (112 in all, with the most snaps of any defensive player in the NFL over that span). But the Saints snatched him up because it was a top priority for them to find a savvy veteran “quarterback” of their defense to help with all of their alignment and assignment problems.

Laurinaitis, 29, has drawn praise for being a great addition to the locker room. And quarterback Drew Brees has already talked about the “chess match” developing on the practice field with his fellow veteran. Laurinaitis has 852 tackles, 16.5 sacks and 10 interceptions in his career.

No. 9 S Kenny Vaccaro

Last year’s rank: 16

Vaccaro is also hard to peg since he has shown so much inconsistency in his three-year career. He was outstanding as a first-round draft choice in 2013, battled through a sophomore slump in 2014, then had a nice bounce-back season in 2015. He is a versatile playmaker who can be used in coverage, as a blitzer and against the run.

Now 25-years-old, Vaccaro seems to have his arrow pointing up. He is healthier after battling injuries during his first two years, and he has acknowledged that he needed to learn to “be a better pro.” The Saints picked up Vaccaro’s fifth-year option for the 2017 season, and he appears to be a building block for their rebuilding defense.

Previous rankings:

No. 17-20

No. 13-16