Later on this evening in Tampa Bay, Florida in their final regular season game against the division rival Buccaneers, New Orleans Saints rookies Marshon Lattimore and Alvin Kamara will both have one last opportunity to make an impression on voters who will select the 2017 NFL Offensive and Defensive Rookie of the Year award winners on the night before the Super Bowl (the NFL Honors ceremony in Minneapolis on February 3rd).
Lattimore and Kamara are hoping to become the first set of teammates to get a "sweep" the Rookie of the Year awards in exactly 50 years — when Detroit Lions teammates Lem Barney and Mel Farr did it in the 1967 season (the Saints' very first season of existence).
As noted by New Orleans Advocate beat writer Joel A. Erickson: Lattimore appears to be the clear front-runner for the Defensive Rookie of the Year award.
The only rookie named to the Pro Bowl as a defensive player, Lattimore leads rookies with five interceptions, including one in each of the past three games. He has 17 passes defended, one behind Buffalo's Tre'Davious White for the rookie lead.
Kamara however, faces a much tougher battle and will need a solid and maybe even a "great" performance in today's game in Tampa, to further strengthen his case.
That's because Kamara is "neck and neck" with Kansas City rookie running back Kareem Hunt, who has come on strong and has essentially caught up to Kamara; particularly in the last 3 weeks.
One potetntial pitfall for Kamara, who shares the running game workload for the Saints along with veteran Mark Ingram; is that unlike Kamara, Hunt plays the majority of snaps as the starting back in Kansas City.
Hunt handles the entire load in the running game for the Chiefs between the tackles; and he also serves as their primary target coming out of the backfield in the passing game.
Hunt sits 2nd in the league in rushing yards going into today's Week #17 against Denver. He’s 3rd in yards from scrimmage and all-purpose yards, and 4th overall in touches.
Hunt: 271 carries 1,292 yards 7 TDs
53 catches 455 yards 3 TDs
Kamara: 111 carries 684 yards 7 TDs
75 catches 742 yards 5 TDs
As Erickson notes: Hunt ranks third in the NFL with 1,747 yards from scrimmage and is closing strong.
He ranks second in the NFL in rushing with 1,292 yards, and is in a three-way race with the Rams' Todd Gurley (1,305) and Pittsburgh's Le'Veon Bell (1,291) for the NFL rushing title.
The clear favorite early in the year, Hunt struggled midway through the season, but he's ripped off 116 yards, 155 yards and 91 yards in the past three games to help the Chiefs clinch the AFC West.
Which essentially means that Kamara, who ranks eighth in the NFL with 1,426 yards from scrimmage (684 rushing yards, 742 receiving yards), will have to make up the gap in workload with his consistent production.
Unfortunately, he will only have 60 minutes worth of action to do it.
However, one thing that could possibly help Kamara today is the fact that Chiefs head coach Andy Reid has already hinted earlier this week that he intends on resting several key starters in what basically is a meaningless game today against Denver, since the Chiefs are already "locked" into the #4 Playoff seed in the AFC.
Meaning that there's a very good chance that Hunt will see limited action today, if he even plays at all.
Regardless of how things actually do or don't play out in today's game(s), this much has become evident:
Which is that Lattimore and Kamara's respective 2017 rookie seasons in the NFL are among the best that there's ever been throughout the entire 51-year team history of the New Orleans Saints franchise.
But here's a question that I've gotten from more than a few Saints fans recently (as one of the "old guys" that cover the team), which is:
Are Marshon Lattimore and Alvin Kamara the greatest Saints rookies EVER?
That all depends on your point of view, and likely also depends on what "Era" of Saints football that you grew up in.
But since the inquisitive have a want (and possibly a need) to know, here are my personal Top 5 Saints rookie seasons of ALL-TIME, starting at #5 and working down to #1.......
#5 REUBEN MAYES, RUNNING BACK (1986)
The Saints came into the 1986 season with low expectations but a renewed sense of purpose under 1st year head coach and former USFL champion head coach Jim Mora; who had taken over the team after former head coach Bum Phillips quit coaching the previous season, when he simply walked away from the job after 12 weeks of the 1985 season with a (4-8) record (the Saints finished at 5-11).
But even Mora himself was probably taken aback by the performance of that first season in New Orleans by 3rd Round pick and Washington State running back Reuben Mayes, who unexpectedly won the starting job with a strong Training Camp and Pre-Season over fellow rookie (and former LSU star) Dalton Hilliard.
Mayes, whose brief NFL career was eventually cut short by a series of nagging injuries, carried the ball 286 times for 1,353 yards and 8 TD's, and as a result was named 1986 NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year by the Associated Press —making him the last Saints rookie to have won the award (until this year's possible winners with either Lattimore or Kamara).
New Orleans finished at (7-9) in that 1986 season, but Mayes would be a key player on the Saints offense once again when they earned the team's first trip ever to the NFL Playoffs the following season in 1987 (when the Saints finished 12-3).
#4. ALVIN KAMARA, RUNNING BACK (2017)
After a slow start to the season, Kamara has emerged as one of the team's most vitally important players to their overall success in quite some time; as the rookie RB from the University of Tennessee star has since gone on to take the entire League by storm.
Kamara ranks 8th overall in scrimmage yards (1,476), one spot behind Saints starter Mark Ingram, and he is only the 3rd rookie EVER in NFL history to have both 600 rushing and receiving yards in a season. He has rushed for 684 yards, caught 75 passes for another 742 yards and scored 12 total touchdowns.
Essentially, Kamara has the skill-set of a 25-30 carries per game running back who is equally as comfortable taking on the duties of a wide receiver and also is similarly adept at running routes.
To say that he's the most complete and versatile RB in the NFL right now might be insulting him. And when you factor in his incredible athletic capabilities, his impact upon the team can't be overstated.
If any one had any doubts about Kamara not only as a NFL Rookie of the Year candidate but even possibly as the team's most valuable player this season, all you had to do was to see how completely LOST that the Saints offense looked after he suffered the concussion against Atlanta in Week #14 (Thursday Night Football); and missed the rest of the game.
The Saints NEED Kamara, and he's been an undeniable and indisputable part of their success in 2017.
#3. MARSHON LATTIMORE, CORNERBACK (2017)
There's no denying it: one of the BIGGEST reasons for the Saints' re-emergence this year as an NFL Playoff contender has been because of the team's #1 draft pick this past season, sensational Ohio State rookie cornerback Marshon Lattimore.
Lattimore easily has been the team's best defensive player taken in a Draft since the team's 1981 2nd Round pick, University of Pittsburgh defensive end Rickey Jackson, whom the Saints converted into an outside linebacker before he went on to become the team's greatest defensive player in their 51-year history.
Jackson was elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2010.
When he's not hurt, Lattimore has already become one of the NFL's best cornerbacks in just a very short period of time, and he's fully capable of "locking down" most NFL receivers. Lattimore has 49 tackles, 5 interceptions and 17 passes defended, and additionally is a phenomenal athlete in his own right.
If Lattimore were to actually win the award, he'd be only the 3rd cornerback in the NFL over the past 20 years, to do it. Only two other cornerbacks — Oakland's Charles Woodson (1998) and Kansas City's Marcus Peters (2015) — have been named the top rookie defender in that amount of time.
#2. MARQUES COLSTON, WIDE RECEIVER (2006)
The team's VERY LAST PICK of the 2006 NFL Draft, University of Hofstra wide receiver and 7th Round pick (#252 overall) Marques Colston was NEVER expected to become an NFL "superstar" — but yet did so against all odds.
After a solid performance at the team's 2006 Training Camp along with catching the "eye" of Sean Payton's mentor and then-Dallas Cowboys head coach Bill Parcells during the Pre-Season, Colston slowly and methodically worked his way into the starting line-up.
But then suddenly the trade of fellow wide receiver Donté Stallworth to the Philadelphia Eagles placed Colston into the Week #1 starting position for the Saints at wide receiver, and he became one of very few 7th round draft picks in NFL history to start in their teams' first regular season game.
Colston quickly became the favorite target of then-new Saints QB quarterback Drew Brees, and as a result he went on to finish the 2006 season with 70 receptions, 1,038 yards, and eight touchdowns, including one for 86 yards.
Colston's unexpected rise to NFL fame helped the Saints reach the playoffs with a 10-6 record; and eventually the Saints made it all the way to the NFC Championship Game against the Chicago Bears. However, despite Colston scoring a touchdown, the Saints fell by a score of 39-14, ending the team's "magical" 2006 season.
Colston tied for second in voting for 2006 Offensive Rookie of the Year, behind Tennessee Titans quarterback Vince Young, and with Jacksonville Jaguars running back Maurice Jones-Drew. He even had more votes than fellow rookie teammate Reggie Bush, who was picked 2nd overall by the Saints in the 1st Round of that same 2006 Draft.
#1. GEORGE ROGERS, RUNNING BACK (1981)
In April of 1981, brand new Saints head coach Bum Phillips — who had just come from coaching All-Pro RB Earl Campbell at Houston — chose 1980 Heisman Trophy winner and University of South Carolina RB George Rogers with the very first overall pick of the 1981 NFL Draft; and obviously because he planned to utilize Rogers in the same manner that he had used Campbell with the Oilers (which he did).
Phillips notably took Rogers (although no one actually even realized it at the time) ahead of University of North Carolina Tarheels linebacker Lawrence Taylor, who would subsequently be taken by the New York Giants with the 2nd overall pick and became one of the greatest NFL players of all time.
But we can "forgive" Phillips for passing on Lawrence Taylor since a round later with the 51st overall pick in the 1981 NFL Draft, Phillips chose University of Pittsburgh defensive end Rickey Jackson, who Phillips converted into an outside linebacker for his new 3-4 defense. As noted previously: Jackson went on to become the team's greatest defensive player of all-time and is in the NFL Hall of Fame.
And as for Rogers, he was the first of five Heisman Trophy winners selected by the Saints (Danny Wuerffel in 1997, Ricky Williams in 1999, Reggie Bush in 2006 and Mark Ingram in 2011 were the other four).
In his first season, Rogers was a "work horse" for New Orleans — and led the League in rushing with 1,674 yards, which set a record for rookies and is still the single season record for the Saints. He earned a trip to the Pro Bowl and was selected as the 1981 NFL Rookie of the Year.
But what will be remembered most (at least by myself anyway): how DOMINANT Rogers was that year. Even though the Saints were a "rebuilding" team at that time (they finished at 4-12 that year, one season removed from the infamous 1-15 "Aints" season in 1980) , Rogers was by far and away the Saints' best player.
He was virtually (and literally) UNSTOPPABLE when he wanted to be.
Unfortunately around that same time (and unbeknownst to Phillips and Saints management), Rogers may have been "dabbling" in drug usage; and following his rookie season with the Saints, Rogers testified to a federal grand jury during an investigation into trafficking by another Saints player, that he along with other teammates had purchased and used cocaine during his rookie season with the Saints in 1981.
He claimed to have spent more than $10,000 on cocaine during the 1981 season, and voluntarily checked himself into a drug treatment center for cocaine addiction in 1982. He played 3 more years for the Saints, before he was eventually traded to the Washington Redskins in the 1985 off-season............