My annual ranking of the New Orleans Saints’ roster. Part three of a five-part series:
No. 12: WR Willie Snead
Last year's rank: No. 12
Give Snead tons of credit for knowing his potential. A couple years ago when we were all comparing him to Lance Moore, he respectfully said he wants to be even better than Moore. After two years, 141 catches, 1,879 yards and seven touchdowns, he's on his way.
The 5-foot-11, 195-pounder has developed into one of the NFL's top slot receivers after going undrafted out of Ball State in 2014 and getting cut by both Cleveland and Carolina. His role could increase this year after the Saints traded Brandin Cooks.
Snead, 24, remains unsigned as an exclusive-rights free agent (the label for players with less than three years of NFL service). And he recently switched agents from Jim Miller to the higher-profile Drew Rosenhaus. But it seems unlikely that Snead will stage a training-camp holdout after he signed a waiver to participate in OTAs and minicamp. He might have to wait until his restricted-free-agent year in 2018 for a bigger payday.
No. 11: G Larry Warford
Last year's rank: N/A
Sean Payton gave perhaps the most memorable Saints scouting report of the year when describing what they liked about Warford after signing him to a four-year, $34 million deal in free agency:
“We think he's got ass and mass,” Payton said of the 6-foot-3, 317-pounder, who spent his first four seasons with the Detroit Lions.
Warford, 26, has started all 57 games he has played in his career. And though he battled injuries and inconsistency early in his career, he seemed to be entering his prime over the past year or two. He should be an asset as both a run blocker and pass protector. And he will continue to play the same position -- right guard -- in New Orleans, where he'll replace one of the franchise's all-time great players, Jahri Evans.
No. 10: DT Sheldon Rankins
Last year’s rank: No. 18
I'm projecting a bit here, since Rankins has played in just nine career games after being drafted with the No. 12 overall pick last year, then suffering a broken fibula in training camp. But he flashed when he returned -- with four sacks and a forced fumble over the final nine games. I'm expecting a breakout year now that he is healthy and has more experience.
Rankins is one of the greatest reasons for optimism that the Saints can finally turn things around on defense. The 6-2, 305-pounder is an athletic big man who can be a disruptive force as both a pass-rusher and run defender. He had 14 sacks and 26.5 tackles for loss over his final two seasons at Louisville.
Rankins expects greatness of himself -- he speaks often of his desire to "dominate" more than he did last season. And he will play a bigger role now that fellow three-technique Nick Fairley is out for the season with a heart issue.
No. 9: CB Delvin Breaux
Last year's rank: No. 8
Breaux also broke his fibula in Week 1 last season -- and I don't think any one event derailed the Saints' season more.
The physical, 6-foot-1, 196-pounder emerged as a bona fide No. 1 cornerback after migrating from the Canadian Football League in 2015. He played at nearly a Pro Bowl level that year while routinely matching up against the opponents' top receivers, with 19 passes defensed and three interceptions. Losing him for most of last season was a huge blow for the Saints' secondary. Then to top it off, Breaux suffered a shoulder injury in Week 14 that landed him on injured reserve. He played in only six games all season.
A healthy Breaux is another huge reason for optimism that the Saints can finally turn their defense around. The Saints need his size and physicality in a NFC South division loaded with big receivers like Julio Jones, Mike Evans and Kelvin Benjamin.