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The Saints Have The Best Rookie Class This Century

After three straight years of finishing 7-9, the New Orleans Saints seemed headed to another year of mediocrity when they began the season 0-2. But since Week 3, when New Orleans routed a 2-0 Carolina Panthers team on the road, the team has peeled off 12 wins in 15 games, including another win over the Panthers in the wild card round last Sunday.

And yet there’s reason to believe the franchise revival didn’t begin in late September. It began in April, at the NFL Draft.

There are lots of reasons for the Saints’ success this season — including the ageless Drew Brees and the historically good running back duo he’s been handing the ball off to — but the team’s terrific rookie class is perhaps the driving force behind it all. The Saints had just seven draft picks in the 2017 NFL draft, slightly less than the NFL average of 7.9 picks per team, and nearly every one of the picks can be viewed as either a solid addition or a huge success.

Cornerback Marshon Lattimore, taken 11th overall, has helped revitalize a defense that last year ranked as the second worst in the league in terms of points allowed. Third-round running back Alvin Kamara has accumulated more than 1,500 yards from scrimmage while leading the NFL with 6.1 yards per carry. Thanks in no small part to a number of ridiculous highlight plays like Kamara’s juggling touchdown and Lattimore’s butt interception, the duo were both named to the Pro Bowl and are favorites for offensive and defensive rookie of the year.

Even drafting just one of these two would be about enough to qualify a draft class as a success, but the Saints didn’t stop there. Tackle Ryan Ramczyk, who was taken 32nd overall after New Orleans traded Brandin Cooks to the New England Patriots for that pick, has played every offensive snap this season. Second-rounder Marcus Williams started 15 games and made four interceptions at safety while the remaining picks — linebacker Alex Anzalone, edge rusher Trey Hendrickson and DE Al-Quadin Muhammad — have all contributed to various degrees.

Put it all together, and the Saints not only had the top draft class of any team in 2017 but one of the best this century. To show this, I used Pro-Football-Reference.com’s Approximate Value (AV) metric.1 AV is “an attempt to put a single number on the seasonal value of a player at any position from any year.” Obviously there’s no perfect way to measure the contributions of an offensive tackle relative to a middle linebacker, but this metric allows us to at least estimate value of every player and compare them regardless of position. Comparing the total AV of every team’s rookies shows just how well the Saints drafted in 2017 relative to the rest of the league.

Looking at the entire New Orleans roster, nearly 18 percent of the Saints’ overall AV in 2017 came from their draft class, good for the highest percentage of any team this year. Unsurprisingly, New England’s four draft picks, the fewest in the league, produced the least value for their team in 2017.

The Saints leaned on rookies more than any other team

Share of each team’s Approximate Value created by their draft picks, 2017

Team Percent
New Orleans 17.8%
San Francisco 16.3
Cleveland 14.7
Houston 12.7
Chicago 11.5
New York Giants 11.4
Buffalo 10.8
Detroit 10.3
New York Jets 9.9
Jacksonville 9.7
Washington 9.2
Los Angeles Rams 9.2
Cincinnati 9.0
Pittsburgh 8.7
Tampa Bay 8.6
Kansas City 8.4
Arizona 8.2
Green Bay 8.2
Minnesota 8.1
Seattle 7.9
Indianapolis 7.2
Miami 7.1
Tennessee 6.8
Oakland 6.3
Carolina 6.2
Dallas 5.6
Los Angeles Chargers 5.3
Denver 4.7
Philadelphia 4.5
Baltimore 4.5
Atlanta 2.7
New England 1.2

Source: Pro-Football-Reference.com

What’s also clear from the table above is that leaning heavily on rookies is more likely a sign of turmoil than success, as it could suggest that teams are rebuilding or that their veterans are riddled with injuries. The five teams ranked just behind the Saints in percent of team AV contributed by rookies — the 49ers, Browns, Texans, Bears and Giants — combined for only 18 wins, or 3.6 apiece.

Going back to 2000, the 2017 Saints class is only surpassed by the Dallas Cowboys’ excellent 2016 draft class — headlined by Ezekiel Elliott and Dak Prescott — in terms of total value produced during their rookie seasons. Even the 2010 Patriots’ haul, which featured Rob Gronkowski and Devin McCourty, doesn’t compare.

And the Saints only had seven picks in 2017, compared with nine for the Cowboys in 2016 and 12 for the Patriots in 2010. Indeed, the Saints’ 6.1 AV per pick among draftees in their rookie year is the best of any team since at least the 2000 draft.

The Saints have already won a playoff game for the first time since 2013, and they are now two wins away from going to their second Super Bowl in franchise history. If they don’t get there this year, the team’s 2017 rookie class may give them a fighting chance at another title in the handful of years before Drew Brees’s storied career comes to a close.

Check out our latest NFL predictions.

Footnotes

  1. You can see more detail on how AV is calculated here.

Jeff Asher is based in New Orleans and used to work for the city as a crime analyst. He currently does crime analysis for the Jefferson Parish Sheriff’s Office and runs the NOLA Crime News data analysis blog.

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