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. 8 CB Delvin Breaux
Last year’s rank: Unranked
Breaux was one of the best stories in the NFL last year, making a remarkable comeback from the broken neck he suffered in high school. But he was much more than that for the Saints, emerging as their No. 1 cornerback in his debut season. If the 26-year-old continues to build on the potential he showed, he’ll probably crack the top five on this list by next year.
The 6-foot-1, 196-pounder plays physical, hands-on coverage and matched up well against top receivers on the outside. He had a few hiccups with penalties and deep TD passes, but Pro Football Focus rated him as one of the league’s top corners, with less than 50 percent of passes completed in his coverage area. He had three interceptions and 19 pass defenses.
No. 7 CB Keenan Lewis
Last year’s rank: 3
Lewis’ entire season was practically wiped out last year by a nagging hip injury that limited him to six games and zero starts. And he was missed badly. Before the injury, Lewis was arguably New Orleans’ defensive MVP from 2013-2014 with two stellar seasons as a No. 1 cornerback who routinely matched up against top receivers. I thought he should have made the Pro Bowl in 2013, especially.
It remains to be seen if Lewis can regain top form at age 30, but he said he is healthy now -- even though he might be limited as a precaution to start training camp. The 6-foot-1, 208-pounder is a long and lanky corner who is good in both press coverage and deep coverage. If he and Breaux are both playing like No. 1 corners, the Saints’ defense will be in better shape than it has since former CB Jabari Greer went down in 2013.
No. 6 RB Mark Ingram
Last year’s rank: 6
You may have forgotten, since Ingram missed the final month of last season with a shoulder injury, but he hit his career peak during the first 12 weeks, setting a career-high with 1,174 yards from scrimmage. The 26-year-old former Heisman trophy winner has been getting better each year. In 2015, he established himself as a bona fide every-down back with an outstanding second half. Then last year he broke out as a pass-catcher, too, with 50 catches for 405 yards. The 5-9, 215-pounder is also an excellent pass protector.
The biggest knock on Ingram is his injury history. He has missed 18 games in five seasons. But the injuries have been mostly minor and unrelated, and he has displayed toughness while playing through some of them. So there shouldn’t be any more concern with him than any other running back. The Saints have a lot of depth at the position, but coach Sean Payton reiterated this offseason that Ingram remains the leading man in the backfield.
No. 5 C Max Unger
Last year’s rank: 8
So far, the Saints have been the winners in last year’s stunning trade of Jimmy Graham to the Seattle Seahawks for Unger and a swap of draft picks. The two-time Pro Bowl center lived up to his reputation as a solid anchor in the middle of New Orleans’ line, with an impressive combination of strength and athleticism. The 6-5, 305-pounder helped New Orleans rank second in total yards and first in passing yards -- and his absence was also felt in Seattle, which struggled early along the line.
Unger, 30, is heading into the final year of his contract and will likely be a priority to re-sign, especially considering the inexperience around him at the guard position.