Saints challenging season reveals a few surprise stars
In an otherwise dimly lit galaxy, the New Orleans Saints have featured a few shining stars during a disappointing 2022 season. Some unexpectedly stepped into the spotlight, including an aging veteran and an undrafted rookie.
One major unexpected surprise has been the performance of 12-year veteran Andy Dalton.
While not producing the wins you would like to see, in four of his starts this season, Dalton has completed 71.9% or higher of his passes. Against the Rams, the TCU product was 21 of 25 for 260 yards and three touchdowns.
This season, Dalton has the highest single-season completion percentage (66.8%) of his entire NFL career, throwing for 2,403 yards with 17 scores and seven picks. Dalton has not been the problem for what ails the Saints in 2022.
Defensive tackle Shy Tuttle, a former undrafted rookie, has made improvements incrementally throughout his days in the NFL.
On Sept. 9, 2019, the the 6-3, 300 pound Tuttle became only the second player in franchise history to earn a starting role in the season opener against the Houston Texans as an undrafted rookie at his position. Elex Price turned the trick against the Atlanta Falcons in 1973. In that 2019 game, Tuttle recorded his first NFL sack on Texans quarterback Deshaun Watson, whom he will face this weekend when New Orleans plays at Cleveland.
The four-year veteran has piled up 135 career tackles with 4.0 sacks with 41 tackles coming this season, to this point. Tuttle had seven stops against Atlanta last weekend. He is within striking distance of surpassing his career-high 48 tackles last season.
Pete Werner is a rose that has bloomed this season. The 6-3, 242-pound Ohio State product played in 15 contests as a rookie last season, starting eight, and totaling 59 tackles.
Despite an injury in week nine against Baltimore that took him out of the lineup for four subsequent games, Werner has managed to record 78 tackles and three pass breakups in the 10 games he’s played. Unfortunately, Werner has battled injuries and is out again this weekend.
Werner has evolved into an all-around linebacker who can fill all roles against the run and the pass. He is viewed as one of the more highly regarded young talents at his position in the League.
Chris Olave, the top pick of the Saints in the 2022 draft out of Ohio State, has been as advertised. His stats may not immediately jump out at you, but if you peel back the layers, you can see how significant his rookie campaign has been. Unfortunately, Olave is out this week as well with a hamstring injury.
Quarterback changes and the usual first-year learning curve have not stopped Olave from hauling in 63 passes for 940 yards and three scores. Only former Buckeyes teammate Garrett Wilson of the New York Jets has slightly better rookie numbers with 67 grabs for 966 yards and four touchdowns.
Olave is 197 yards shy of breaking the Saints’ rookie record of 1,137 yards receiving, set in 2016 by Michael Thomas.
The 6-foot, 187 pounder is similar in stature and style to the great Lynn Swann, as he glides through the secondary. Very fluid in his routes, Olave has a burst to allow him to separate from defenders.
James Hurst, 6-5, 304, is a nine-year veteran offensive tackle who simply earns his keep. The 31-year- old Hurst has played in 127 NFL games with 55 starts including 37 of those with the Saints since 2020.
In 791 snaps this season, Hurst has suffered just five penalties and allowed four sacks at left tackle. He has the skills to man any spot on the line except center. Ticketed to be a stop-gap with the arrival of rookie first-round pick Trevor Penning, Hurst has been heavily counted upon and has delivered since Penning missed months due to a preseason injury.
Kaden Elliss was the Saints second pick in the seventh round (244th overall) in the 2019 draft. During the absence of Werner, the 27-year old Elliss surprised with solid play. He has seized the opportunity and been consistently solid.
In 14 games this season, Elliss has 64 tackles and 5.5 sacks. He rarely makes a false step. Very strong and athletic, the 6-3, 238-pound product of Idaho is an outstanding run stopper and a major contributor on special teams. He had 12 tackles against the Rams and 13 against 49ers in recent outings.
Rashid Shaheed, undrafted 2022 rookie, played in 53 games at Weber State. Shaheed has elite speed. His 5,478 all purpose yards, including 147 career catches for 2,178 yards and 18 touchdowns, made him a college star. He set an FCS record with seven returns for touchdowns.
Shaheed was well worth the $15,000 signing bonus and guaranteed $207,000 base salary. In the absence of an injured Deonte Harty, Shaheed made the loss negligible.
Playing in nine contests with three starts, Shaheed owns the two longest touchdown receptions for New Orleans this year on scores of 68 and 53 yards. Shaheed has 15 catches for 334 yards (22.2 yards per catch) with the two long scores. Shaheed also had a 4-yard run on a jet sweep for a touchdown against the Bengals. His four catch, 95-yard performance against Atlanta last Sunday was key in the Saints win.
Cesar Ruiz has finally broken through as a steady starter. The former first round pick out of Michigan has just three flags and has allowed only three sacks this season as a 14-game starter.
Although injury appears to have ended his season. Ruiz ranks among the top guards in the NFL in fewest pressures allowed in 2022. The Saints average 5.8 yards running behind Ruiz and Ryan Ramczyk on the right side of the offensive line.
Ruiz has swung between guard and center during the absence of Erik McCoy.
Juwan Johnson, another undrafted gem from the 2020 class, played at Penn State prior to transfer to Oregon. He was a very raw wide receiver when he first arrived in New Orleans. Always a good route runner, he didn’t possess good speed for a wide receiver but his speed is excellent at the tight end spot.
The 6-4, 231-pound Johnson can utilize his skills at an advantage against linebackers and safeties. He has always been an capable blocker, possessing strong hands. He is also a physical runner following the catch.
The 26-year-old Johnson had 13 catches for 159 yards and four touchdowns in 14 games last season. His numbers have expanded to 35 receptions for 416 yards and seven touchdowns this season.
So why the success? The comfort level in the offense and confidence in his responsibilities have allowed Johnson to shine as a receiving threat and red-zone weapon.
Alontae Taylor, a 24-year old rookie who some thought was a reach in the second round. has evolved into a fine cornerback, perhaps the most consistent on the team this year in the absence of Marshon Lattimore.
Taylor has made nine appearances this season, accounting for 38 tackles. He is fast and long, with outstanding leaping ability as well. Taylor reaches top end speed quickly and displays the swagger of a wily veteran.
The 6-1, 199-pound Tennessee product has not allowed a reception longer than 20 yards and has 10 passes broken up in a season where he was forced to play as a starter due to injuries. He has been targeted 52 times and surrendered only one touchdown with no accepted penalties.
Taylor carries a ton of moxie and confidence. He reads the passers’ eyes and also moves on to the next play regardless of success or failure on the previous play.
There is a bright future for all of these players in what has otherwise been a disappointing season.
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Born and raised in the New Orleans area, Rene Nadeau has been involved in sports ever since his earliest memories. Rene played basketball, wrestled, ran track, and was an All-District running back in football at John F. Kennedy High School. He went on to be a member of the LSU football program, developing a passion for the game in even…