Every year at this time during what's known as Pro Football's "dead period" — which is the 6 weeks starting from the middle of June and lasting up to the end of July, when most of the entire League and all of its 32 teams are enjoying their annual Summer-time vacations before the start of Training Camp, Pre-Season, and the Regular Season — most of the publications covering the sport put out their yearly list of "breakout" candidates for the upcoming season ahead.
This year is no exception, and as fate would have it: your New Orleans Saints have several players on a wide variety of different websites and publications that cover the NFL, listed as potential "breakout year" candidates; thanks to their (11-5) season last year in 2017 that saw them win the NFC South Division Championship and finish 10 seconds short of a berth in the NFC Championship Game, with one of the League's youngest but very talented up-and-coming rosters.
So it's with that topic in mind this morning here at the Saints News Network, that we're giving you our own quick list of 5 Saints players whom we feel could potentially have a "breakout year" wearing the Black and Gold during the upcoming 2018 season, which is now about 10 more weeks away.
And we'll begin first with the Saints player who's listed at #5.....
#5. ALEX ANZALONE, WEAKSIDE LINEBACKER
Let's go ahead and "call it like we see it": IF Saints 2nd year LB Alex Anzalone can actually stay healthy and play an entire season in 2018 (which he hasn't done since his sophomore season in college at Florida as a back-up), then he has the talent and capability to have a "breakout year" in 2018 similar to that of which two of his fellow teammates — 2017 NFL Offensive and Defensive Rookies of the Year Alvin Kamara and Marshon Lattimore — had last year.
Anzalone was placed on injury reserve by the organization just a few days after sustaining a severe right shoulder injury during the first quarter of the Week #5 contest against the Miami Dolphins on October 1st, which took place in London, England. He exited that game in the 1st quarter, and left with a single tackle to his credit.
And while Anzalone's starting role at "Will" / weakside linebacker was filled very capably by veteran Craig Robertson, one can only imagine what the difference would have been if the younger and presumably more-talented Anzalone could have remained on the field. In 4 games, Anzalone totaled 16 tackles (11 solo) and a sack on 158 defensive snaps.
Nevertheless, when ever Anzalone is considered "healthy", he's been one of the very best players at his position regardless of who he's faced or the level of competition. Bottom line: if he can stay healthy, he absolutely has the talent to become a solid three-down starter at this level; and possibly even one of the better players at the position League-wide, period.
The key word there however, is "if".
#4. RYAN RAMCZYK, OFFENSIVE RIGHT TACKLE
Last season as a rookie, Ramczyk started out the season on the left side, moved to the right when former veteran Zach Strief went down with an injury (and has since retired), and then quickly established himself as one of the NFL's premier offensive right tackles, as the "other" 1st Round pick from last year's impressive 2017 Saints Draft Class.
Ramczyk eventually became one of only two Saints offensive lineman to play every single snap in 2017 (along with veteran center Max Unger), and actually ended the season as the 8th highest graded offensive tackle in the entire League according to the good folks over at Pro Football Focus, despite his being a rookie.
That actually would suggest that Ramczyk has already had a "breakout year" under his belt at age 24, although he didn't earn the recognition or the "hype" that his fellow rookie teammates (Kamara and Lattimore) got.
But Ramczyk remains undaunted, and as noted by New Orleans Advocate beat writer Joel A. Erickson: his smarts and his professionalism are what allowed him to make an impact right away. In an era when NFL-ready offensive linemen are increasingly difficult to find in the draft (when most need a little time to develop before they can contribute), Erickson says that Ramczyk fit right in with the veterans from the start.
That means that Ramczyk should only get even BETTER in 2018 — and easily is a prime candidate for a "breakout year" in his 2nd NFL season.
#3. CAM MEREDITH, WIDE RECEIVER
With the Saints having had a Top 5 offense in the League for as long as anyone can remember, it's almost too good to be true to think just even how much higher it could be ranked with a legitimate #2 WR to complement #1 WR and young superstar WR Michael Thomas, which they didn't truly have last season outside of veteran Ted Ginn, Jr.
The off-season addition of former Chicago Bears WR Cam Meredith a few months ago however in 2018 NFL Free Agency, could quickly change that. The one "catch" still yet to be determined: whether or not Meredith can come back from a devastating knee injury suffered last summer during the 2017 Pre-Season.
The Saints have high hopes for Meredith, who had 888 receiving yards two seasons ago back in 2016, when he showed immense potential as a receiving threat and the versatility to line up at different spots (in the slot and on the outside) in the Bears offensive scheme; in what essentially was a horrendous Chicago offense ran by a litany of back-up QB's that year.
In all likelihood assuming that Meredith can remain on the path to full recovery to begin the season, he probably will be penciled in at the Slot WR position between Thomas and Ginn, to patrol the same intermediate area of the field that NFL defenses must protect from the likes of Kamara and other Saints offensive "weaponry".
If Meredith can emerge as another "weapon" for Drew Brees, he'll be yet another Saints prime "breakout year" candidate for many people covering the NFL, when all is said and done
#2. SHELDON RANKINS, DEFENSIVE TACKLE
The Saints defensive improvement was a notable one last year, and it's the reason why they went from three straight (7-9) losing seasons from 2014 to 2016, to NFC South Division Champions in 2017. But one name that wasn't mentioned and clearly overlooked: 2016 top draft pick and now 3rd year veteran defensive tackle Sheldon Rankins.
Rankins started in every game in last year's magical season for the Black and Gold, while helping to fill the void in the middle of the Saints defensive line that was created following the sudden and abrupt retirement of former veteran DT Nick Fairley, due to a heart condition.
And while the numbers he put up didn't exactly have Saints fans "Second Lining" on Bourbon Street, he still managed to finish with 16 total tackles, 2 sacks, 1 forced fumble, and 1 pass defended. That also included his "highlight reel" interception that he nearly returned for a TD, in a memorable road victory at Buffalo. Even more impressive: he lined up at several spots on the D-line including Right Defensive End, 3-technique Defensive Tackle, 1-Technique / Nose Tackle, and even dropped back at time in pass coverage (as he did in that Bills game).
But Rankins has often drawn comparisons to Los Angeles Rams DT and former NFL Defensive Player of the Year award-winner Aaron Donald for his unlimited potential to be a force as a disruptive interior pass rusher; and with the expectation being that Saints defensive coordinator Dennis Allen will move him back inside (after filling in Alex Okafor’s DE role after he went down last season), he should finally earn some well-deserved recognition.
And that recognition could be as one of 2018's eventual NFL "breakout year" players.
#1. MARCUS DAVENPORT, DEFENSIVE END / EDGE RUSHER
The only current 2018 Saints rookie to make our list, Davenport obviously is the team's #1 draft pick this year but his selection has been criticized by some observers in the National Media that cover the League; some of whom believe that the Saints organization gave up way too much for (surrendering their #1 pick in next year's 2019 NFL Draft to the Green Bay Packers, in order to move up and select him at #14 overall) — given the lingering questions that continue to be asked with regard to his being able to to play at the NFL level.
The most vocal of critics have questioned specifically Davenport's capability to play with his "hand in the dirt", which he's considered better suited to do by most analysts because of his length and size (6-foot-7, 264 pounds). Many of those same critics believe that Davenport can be neutralized at times by bigger offensive tackles when he comes off the outside edge as a "stand-up" rusher in a 2-point stance (for NFL D-Linemen in the base 4-3 defense, sometimes it’s actually harder to get a good jump off the ball when you don’t have your "hand in the dirt" — a.k.a., a 3-point stance).
However, Davenport has been receiving "hands on" tutelage and guidance from well-respected Saints defensive line coach Ryan Nielsen (aided by defensive assistant / pass-rushing specialist Brian Young); who has already gotten "ahead of the curve" with Davenport by working with him on his technique at Rookie Mini-Camp; and that process likely will continue into Training Camp and the Pre-Season; as the talented rookie continues learning the "ins and outs" of playing the position.
While listing him as the #1 rated Saints "breakout year" candidate might sound like a bit of a stretch for an unproven rookie, the thing to remember here is that Davenport OOZES a ton of talent whenever he lines up at the outside edge position. That was never more evident in the team's recent Mini-Camp when he BLEW PAST veteran offensive left tackle Terron Armstead with a powerful "bull rush" for what would have been an easy sack, despite playing with an injured thumb that required non-serious minor surgery for a slightly-torn ligament.
Bottom line: assuming he can remain injury-free (for the most part) and can continue learning while he's on the job, Davenport appears to be EVERY BIT "as good as advertised" — and he's the #1 Saints player even as a rookie, who potentially can have a "breakout year" in the upcoming 2018 NFL season.......