Rookie class powered Saints to playoffs, could make history

Marshon Lattimore proved that he has the tools to be a lockdown cornerback, recording five interceptions in the regular season. David Goldman/AP

So much for the idea that it takes three years to properly judge a draft class.

The New Orleans Saints' class of 2017 -- led by cornerback Marshon Lattimore, running back Alvin Kamara, offensive tackle Ryan Ramczyk and safety Marcus Williams -- was the single biggest reason why this team returned to the playoffs for the first time in four years. And they might just earn their place in NFL history if Lattimore and Kamara become the first duo in 50 years to sweep the NFL’s Defensive and Offensive Rookie of the Year awards (Kamara will have to win a tight battle against the Kansas City Chiefs' Kareem Hunt).

The Saints had by far the highest “approximate value” rating of any draft class in the NFL this year -- a measurement devised by Pro Football Reference to compare players of all positions. According to ESPN Stats and Information, the Saints' total AV of 43 was 15 points higher than the second-place San Francisco 49ers. And it was the second-highest AV of the past five years, behind only the 2016 Dallas Cowboys' 45, led by Dak Prescott and Ezekiel Elliott.

It was also the second-highest AV in Saints history, behind the incredible 1981 class that included Hall of Famer Rickey Jackson, George Rogers, Jim Wilks, Frank Warren and Hoby Brenner, among others. But that class used a total of 12 players to reach 44 points.

The Saints’ remarkable 2006 draft class (Reggie Bush, Roman Harper, Jahri Evans, Marques Colston, Zach Strief, Rob Ninkovich) only totaled an AV of 34 in its rookie year.

“The stage isn’t too big for them,” Saints running back Mark Ingram said of this year's crop -- crediting their preparation and poise as much as their talent.

"It's impressive to see these players come in and contribute to the level that they are," Saints center Max Unger said. "You look back at my rookie year, and I wasn't playing to that level. And to have guys come in and make the Pro Bowl, start 16 games and be true core elements of a good football team is a testament to the guys that we're bringing into this locker room."

Here is a wrap-up of what they've accomplished (so far) heading into Sunday's divisional-round playoff game at the Minnesota Vikings:

Grade: Near perfection

Best rookie: Lattimore. It’s almost impossible to choose between Lattimore and Kamara, both of whom earned Pro Bowl selections. But I’ll give the slight edge to the No. 11 overall pick out of Ohio State because of how important he was for a team that was starving for a No. 1 cornerback. The 6-foot, 192-pounder often shadowed No. 1 receivers and finished the regular season with five interceptions (one returned for a touchdown), 18 pass defenses and a forced fumble in 13 games played. He was the main reason New Orleans’ pass defense went from 32nd in 2016 to 15th in 2017.

Most improved rookie: Kamara. This feels like a lame runner-up award. But it fits given that Kamara’s role became much bigger than the Saints anticipated it would be when they drafted him in the third round -- and much bigger than the role he played in college at Tennessee. He ran for 728 yards with an NFL-leading 6.1 yards per carry, caught 81 passes for 826 yards and scored 14 touchdowns. He joined Gale Sayers as the only rookies in NFL history with at least five rushing TDs, five receiving TDs and a kickoff return TD. He and Ingram became the first RB duo ever to surpass 1,500 yards from scrimmage in a season.

Kamara's AV of 16 was tied for the fourth-best ever by a rookie running back, according to ESPN Stats and Info, behind only Edgerrin James, Marcus Allen and Sayers. He is tied with Elliott, Marshall Faulk, Ricky Watters and Tony Dorsett.

Not to be overlooked: I had to squeeze in an extra category here so Ramczyk and Williams didn’t get the shaft. In most years, they’d be in a tight battle for best rookie. Ramczyk, the 32nd pick in the draft out of Wisconsin, started all 16 games and played every snap for the Saints’ No. 2-ranked offense, despite having hip surgery last January. He showed his flexibility by starting games at both right tackle and left tackle and flashed his versatility in the run game and passing game. Williams, a second-round pick out of Utah, started 15 games at free safety, finishing with four interceptions and seven pass defenses. He was another huge reason for the Saints’ remarkable defensive turnaround.

Most disappointing rookie: DE Al-Quadin Muhammad. The sixth-round draft pick from Miami gets stuck in this category by default in a year when nobody really underachieved. He earned his way onto the roster with four sacks in the preseason, but he played a total of only 22 defensive snaps all season. The Saints clearly felt he still needed some seasoning.

Jury is still out on: LB Alex Anzalone and DE Trey Hendrickson. We might as well mention the whole class at this point. Anzalone, a third-round pick out of Florida, earned a starting job at weakside linebacker during training camp because of his athleticism in the open field. But he played in only four games before suffering a season-ending shoulder injury, which was an issue that plagued him in college. Hendrickson, a third-round pick from Florida Atlantic, showed promise in a supporting role as a pass-rusher. He had two sacks and a forced fumble before missing the final three games of the regular season with an ankle injury.

Undrafted rookie evaluation: The Saints didn’t have any major contributors in their undrafted rookie class. But cornerback Justin Hardee (who joined the Saints after getting cut by the Houston Texans) and running back Trey Edmunds both played significant roles on special teams. Quarterback Taysom Hill (signed after he was cut by the Green Bay Packers) wound up playing a big role in special-teams coverage because the Saints wanted to find a way to use his athleticism.