Saints Special Teams Play Anything But Special
With the offseason upon the New Orleans Saints, certain areas of their game need to be improved if they want to make a run for a championship next season. One component that frequently gets overlooked by many, but one that needs attention, is the special teams unit. Whether it concerns field goal kicking or punt returns, the Saints have some holes to fill this offseason.
The Saints field goal kicking became so erratic that they dropped longtime kicker Garrett Hartley in favor of veteran journeyman Shayne Graham, who last kicked for the Houston Texans, in Week 15. Graham went 2-for-2 in his two regular season games and 4-for-6 in his two postseason games, including a disappointing performance against the Seattle Seahawks where he missed both of his attempts.
Hartley had an inconsistent year, making just 22 of his 30 attempted field goals, which equates to a 73 percent efficiency rate, the lowest of his career. New Orleans seemed to lose confidence in Hartley during a three week stretch from Weeks 8 through 10, when he missed four out of six attempts, prompting the Saints to bring in a bunch of kickers to work out with the team, including Graham. That move appeared to send Hartley a wake up call, and he responded with a good game against the San Francisco 49ers. Unfortunately for Hartley, his woes returned when he missed two field goals in Week 15 against the St. Louis Rams, ultimately sealing his fate and ending his five-year tenure with New Orleans.
So the question is, where do the Saints go from here with the kicking situation? Do they stick with Graham, a 12-year veteran with an 85.5 percent accuracy rating and little postseason experience?
An alternate route is to pursue free agent veterans such as Adam Vinatieri, Phil Dawson or Jay Feely, to name a few. Of the three, Vinatieri has the most playoff experience and is viewed by many as the greatest clutch kicker of all time. The problem is, he will cost the team a pretty penny so they may have to pursue other options. The team is already in trouble with the salary cap and it goes without saying the Saints will not spend top dollar for a kicker.
Moving on to the Saints punting situation, Thomas Morstead put up another solid year in 2013. Morstead ranked third in the league in net punting average. Also, he put up a career high 25 punts that landed inside the 20, a stat that is pivotal in tight games where field position is crucial. Morstead is signed through the 2017 season and is always at the top of the league in net punting yards. The one drawback with Morstead this season was the fact that his average punt yards decreased by three yards from last season. He signed a six-year contract with the team in 2012, which at the time made him the second highest paid punter behind only Oakland’s Shane Lechler. This proves his value as a punter.
In regards to the return game, whether it was kick or punt returns, the Saints did not post impressive numbers. RB Darren Sproles carried most of the load, managing only 255 yards in 12 attempts, ranking near the bottom of the league in average yards attained per attempt. On punt returns, Sproles registered 194 yards on 29 attempts, constituting to a meager 6.7 yards per attempt. To add salt to the wound, the Saints had no special teams TDs and never came close to recording one all season. Going forward, New Orleans can choose to stick with Sproles, attempt to sign a return specialist or hope the team finds a diamond in the rough in the draft field. The Saints could potentially pursue a free agent specialist that can become a multifaceted player similar to Kansas City's Dexter McCluster, but once again the salary cap will hamper their efforts.
The Saints did an exceptional job on special teams coverage, however, ranking seventh in the league in yards per return. This was the one bright spot in an otherwise pedestrian special teams year for the Saints.
With the onset of the offseason comes a lot of unanswered questions regarding kicking and returning, a problematic area that came full circle in the team's two playoff games. The Saints are limited to improve these areas as far as funding is concerned, so they may have to enforce baptism by fire when addressing the return game and sign a middle of the road kicker for field goal attempts.