The term ‘Step Up’ is often associated with people who need to bring themselves to a higher level after failing to achieve their goals or meet expectations. However, sometimes that term can also be applied to people who in a vacuum would be considered to be doing a great job, but once circumstances change, sometimes expectations and needs change with them. That is the case for the 2017 Saints. None of the players on this list are coming off of a bad season, and a couple of them were actually pretty good, but without exception each of these 5 players is someone the Saints will need to ‘step up’ and perform at a higher level if the team wants to achieve their goals and return to being a contender in the NFL.
1: Michael Thomas:
Sometimes you have to start big, and that’s what we’re doing on this list, and its exactly what Michael Thomas did as a rookie in 2016. While Michael Thomas had a historic season as a rookie and emerged as a major piece in the Saints offense, it is also true that for most of the year he was the ‘number 2’ option on the offense. Fair or not Thomas played a part in chasing former Saints wide receiver Brandin Cooks out of town (although most of that had to do with Cooks own ego and issues with coaches and his role). Thomas was good as a rookie, very good even, but now the offense in many ways is going to be built around him and it will be his job to draw coverage, win match ups, and being the driving force behind the passing game (other than Drew Brees of course). That is no small task as what I’m essentially asking Thomas to do is go from a facsimile of Marques Colston, into being more of a Brandon Marshal, and I make that comparison inentionally. Brandon Marshall has spent most of his career being a better and more dynamic version of the same player Colston was, and Michael Thomas needs to show he can be that level of player.
Do I think he can do it? Yes, I do. However, the fact is that Thomas has yet to prove on an NFL field he can be the driving force of an offense on a consistent basis, and the step the Saints need him to take is to prove he can be that player. If he can, and I firmly believe he has the ability, Thomas will be able to become a player on the level (and of the type) of a Brandon Marshall, and that would be a HUGE impact for the Saints.
2: Delvin Breaux:
There is a position that could be taken that all of Breaux’s problems last year stemmed from the injury he suffered against the Raiders, and he was never the same player again. There is some merit to that, however, the reality is that while when he’s been at his best Breaux has looked like a true shut down corner (much better than an Accord Andrew), there were also times where he showed his lack of experience and inconsistent technique. Breaux will be entering his 3rd year as a pro this year, and its time for him to put all the pieces together. Delvin has all of the tools to be an elite corner in this league, he has size, speed, technique, and maybe most importantly guts. But, he needs to prove he can stay healthy, and he can be consistently playing at or near his best, not doing so every few games and then having a stinker.
If Delvin Breaux can make that next leap up and can be a consistent contributor for the Saints next season it will not only have a tremendous impact on the defense from the stand point of scheme, but it will also help take the pressure off from rookie Marshon Lattimore to be a star from day 1 (which is an insane request for a rookie corner).
3: Sheldon Rankins:
Rankins would be on this list even if Nick Fairley didn’t have a chance to be forced to retire due to a possible heart condition. But, with Fairley’s status being up in the air the pressure on Rankins just multiplied several fold. Coming out of college there were a lot of people who compared Sheldon Rankins to LA Rams all-world defensive tackle Aaron Donald, and if the Saints don’t have Nick Fairley they will need Rankins to live up to that hype if they still want to see this defense improve. Rankins showed a few flashes as a rookie, but his numbers don’t accurately reflect his performance. Rankins didn’t get nearly the amount of pressure that his sack totals would imply, and he spent plenty of time getting stonewalled by guards and centers. That isn’t to disparage him, he was a rookie going against ‘grown man’ competition for the first time in his life, and he lost a lot of time due to his broken leg, but it’s still a fact.
Rankins has the athleticism, skillset, frame, and hopefully the desire to be great. But, he also has the pressure to do so as well. If he’s not great, not just a solid contributor, but a difference maker at the 3-tech defensive tackle position, then he will not be the asset the Saints need him to be. What’s more the Saints will need Rankins to step up regardless of whether Fairley can play or not because their defense being better this year is largely predicated on the two of them being able to operate as a tandem in the Saints ‘Nascar’ pass rush package.
4: Coby Fleener:
There were two names just about any Saints fan would expect to be on this list as soon as they read the title of the article, and Fleener is the one who made it. the Saints signed Coby Fleener last year as their lone big money free agent, and while he didn’t have a bad season (contrary to popular belief), he also didn’t have a particularly good one. With Brandin Cooks now gone and Michael Thomas and Alvin Kamara expected to be the main focal points for the offense, the Saints find themselves in need of a big play threat who can attack the seams and punish defenses for bringing players down to control the intermediate parts of the field.
This is the exact role I imagined that Fleener was originally signed to fill, and its time for him to deliver on that purpose. Fleener has shown flashes of having the ability to get open deep and make big plays in the passing game, but he has also demonstrated that he lacks the ability to consistently make tough contested catches. That’s ok, that doesn’t have to be his role for this offense, but if he isn’t going to bring value in the short to intermediate game and he can’t be a big body for Drew to rely on in crunch time, then he is going to have to demonstrate an ability to beat teams deep and make them pay as a secondary or more likely tertiary option in the offense. If he can do that then he will be of tremendous value to the Saints in 2017, but if not….they may be going TE shopping next off-season.
5: Andrus Peat:
Andrus Peat is a really interesting story. He was drafted in the first round to be the heir apparent to Zack Strief at right tackle, failed to take that job and got moved to right guard (where he sucked just as bad) and then got moved to left guard where he was surprisingly really solid. Peat spent most of last year alternating between left tackle and left guard, and while he was ok at tackle, it was pretty apparent to me that he had a much larger impact for the team at the left guard position. What Peat needs to do in year 3 is not only solidify himself as an upper tier guard in this league, but consistently become the dominating force in the run game he has the potential to be. He is the type of player who has the athletic ability to maul his opponents, get out to the second level and create carnage in his wake…but he has to prove he can do that consistently.
One of the reasons why we don’t see Sean Payton commit to the run consistently is because in recent years the blocking has never been conistent, and if the blocking isn’t consistent then the run game will suffer. The Saints will need an effective run game this year more than ever, and Andrus Peat stepping up may actually be the single biggest key to that happening in 2017.