The NFL Network is finishing up its list of the Top 100 players in the league and some of the selections and non-selections are head shaking. So I thought I would give you my list of the Top 20 players on the 2013 New Orleans Saints roster.
1. Drew Brees — The signing of Brees and the earlier selection of Sean Payton as head coach in early 2006 changed the course of this franchise. Brees is the best player to ever wear the black and gold, and he is the main reason this football team is looked at as a Super Bowl contender since that signature 2006 season.
2. Jimmy Graham — If there is a superstar player on this team other than Drew Brees, it is Graham. Over the past two seasons Graham has caught 184 passes for 2,292 yards and 20 touchdowns. Only Jason Witten (Dallas Cowboys) has caught more passes at the tight end spot over the past two years, but Graham has more yards receiving and more touchdown receptions than Witten. He is amongst the league's most feared pass-catching targets at tight end along with Witten, Rob Gronkowski (New England Patriots), Vernon Davis (San Francisco 49ers) and Tony Gonzalez (Atlanta Falcons).
3. Jahri Evans — Evans is a devastating one-on-one run blocker and a superb pass protector inside. The four-time Pro Bowler from Bloomsburg State is considered one of the Top 3 offensive guards in the game along with former Saints player Carl Nicks (Tampa Bay Buccaneers) and Logan Mankins (New England Patriots).
4. Marques Colston — Colston is not in the same category as a Calvin Johnson, Andre Johnson, Larry Fitzgerald, Brandon Marshall, Roddy White or Wes Welker, but he is just a notch below and his size, strong hands and ability to work the short to medium range areas of the field with precision gets noticed by everyone who has to play against him. In seven seasons Colston has 532 catches for 7,394 yards and 58 touchdowns.
5. Curtis Lofton — Lofton is the best player the Saints have on the defensive side of the ball. He is smart, instinctive, tough against the run, a sure open-field tackler and has really improved dropping back into pass coverage.
6. Thomas Morstead — You might think this is a bit high for a punter, but the former SMU player is arguably the best punter in the game today. His net average of 43.2 yards per punt tied him for the best net average in the league last season and his gross average of 50.1 yards per punt was second best in the NFL. His strong leg, excellent placement skills and his outstanding kickoff skills make him the most talented special teams performer the Saints have had since Morten Anderson.
7. Ben Grubbs — Grubbs had some big shoes to fill to replace Carl Nicks and is a very good starting offensive guard in this league. While he is not the huge roadgrader-type run blocker or as powerful, Grubbs is quick, very agile for a big man and is a very good pass protector.
8. Cam Jordan — He had an excellent sophomore season with the Saints. The former University of California standout was known for his stout run defense skills, but he showed a real improvement in getting off the snap quicker and has developed a good array of pass-rush moves. His eight sacks were impressive last season. He is not as talented a pass rusher as Justin Tuck is with the New York Giants, but there are some similar traits in their overall games.
9. Keenan Lewis — Many in Pittsburgh wondered when the football light would come on for Lewis, but over the past year and a half the former O. Perry Walker High School standout has really developed into a very good one-on-one cover cornerback. Lewis' size, long arms and quick recovery speed make him a perfect fit in Rob Ryan's defensive scheme. Lewis is not known for his great hands, but what was impressive last season was his 23 pass deflections.
10. Lance Moore — He certainly doesn't get the same recognition as Graham and Colston, but he is Brees' most trusted route runner and someone he regularly targets in critical spots during games. Moore's route-running skills and his expertise in quickly getting into and out of his cuts and breaks makes him a terrific slot receiver.
11. Pierre Thomas — The Saints keep throwing people at him to knock him off the team's top running back slot and he keeps throwing them back at them. There is no debate that he is the team's best pass protector in the backfield, the best receiver coming out of the backfield and he makes more yardage after first contact than any other back on the roster today. Thomas runs with great vision and while he's no speedster, he is a tremendous inside runner and rarely puts the ball on the ground.
12. Mark Ingram — He is the guy Payton wants to be his bell-cow runner in 2013. Ingram has flashed that ability at times and is a bit of a crank runner meaning he needs eight to 10 carries to get cranked up, but he has a good array of open-field moves, runs tough in traffic and has a deceptive burst to the edge. If he can stay healthy he has a chance to go over 1,100 yards rushing in 2013 when the Saints will place more of an emphasis on running the ball.
13. Darren Sproles — Sproles completes the trifecta of backs that Payton likes to use in his offensive schemes. Sproles fought off injuries and some inconsistent play in 2013, but he is lightning quick, has outstanding open-field moves he is a nightmare to cover one-on-one as a receiver.
14. Ben Watson — We haven't seen him in practice due to an injury, but the addition of Watson gives the Saints a one-two punch at tight end very few teams can match, other than New England. The veteran tight end from Georgia can stretch the seam like few tight ends can due to his speed, and he is a sure-handed target. Watson is also a very good in-line blocker. The duo of Graham and Watson will cause some real problems for opposing teams in 2013.
15. Jabari Greer — Greer is 31 years old and has had some injuries take him off the playing field, but if healthy, the former University of Tennessee speedster is still the Saints best one-on-one cover cornerback. Greer does not have the size Ryan normally likes in a cornerback, but he is quick to get out of transition in coverage situations and has excellent closing speed to the ball. Watch out for the development of Corey White at cornerback this season. I was impressed with White's foot work and break-to-the-ball skills in practice.
16. Akiem Hicks — This is a potential pick. Hicks has the size, athleticism, bulk strength and power to develop into a very good 3-4 defensive end. He is stout in run defense and has flashed some strong inside pass rush moves at times. He is still rough around the edges as a technician, but there is no one on the team defensively with as much raw talent to develop as Hicks.
17. Kenny Vaccaro — This is another potential selection. I was big on the Saints drafting former Georgia All-American outside linebacker Jarvis Jones in Round 1, but you can't argue with what Vaccaro will bring to the Saints. Vaccaro is no ball hawk like Ed Reed or Earl Thomas, but he is physical, will excel in run support and most importantly he will match up well in one-on-one coverage spots with tight ends down field. The one thing that is obvious in the OTA sessions is that Vaccaro is a quick-study athlete, very athletic and has the best ball reaction skills the Saints have at any of the safety positions. He reminds me so much of All Pro safety LaRon Landry when he came out of LSU.
18. Will Smith — With Victor Butler out for the season due to a torn ACL, Smith becomes part of a threesome of outside linebackers that will be counted on to muster a pass rush. Being moved to the outside linebacker slot in a 3-4 defense is not a huge adjustment for Smith, and while he is not an elite pass rusher, he is still flashes moments of being a pretty good one and is very solid against the run. With all the jargon of who was practicing at the "Jack" or the strongside spot in the OTA's Smith will have to ramp-up his game or the team may have to see if they can make an expensive call to a rent player in John Abraham to fill that pass rush role.
19. Brodrick Bunkley — The noseguard spot in a 3-4 alignment is the most critical piece of the puzzle to have and that spot right now falls in the lap of Bunkley. The 6-2, 310 pounder had an excellent 2011 season with the Denver Broncos playing most over center, but like most Saints defenders he had a very disappointing 2012 season. Bunkley's run defense skills and power make him a good prospect for the noseguard spot and he is also going to have to thwart off the challenge of a very athletic and strong John Jenkins, who is not the most technically sound player.
20. Junior Galette — No one could tell you just how good Butler was going to be on this team in 2013, but I have always thought the one player the move to the 3-4 defense would help most was the Saints best natural pass rusher — Galette. Galette has not been the most focused or the most technically sound player on defense, but he has a super quick initial burst off the edge that is impressive and excellent closing speed to the quarterback. This is the opportunity a more mature and focused Galette has long wanted.