New Orleans Saints: Five awards for 2016, including MVP

Dec 24, 2016; New Orleans, LA, USA; New Orleans Saints head coach Sean Payton before a game against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome. Mandatory Credit: Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports

The disappointing 2016 season is in the books, and it can be hard for fans to take away much positive from the New Orleans Saints’ performance. But there are a few players very deserving of recognition for their stellar effort and execution over the year.

The New Orleans Saints played with heart throughout 2016. It’s easy to see, and it’s easy to love. A far cry from those horrible seasons in 2014 and 2015. Even in their blowout losses, no one can question the Saints’ effort or focus during the season. From the top to the bottom of the roster, players left it all on the field.

That’s a reassuring sign. It indicates that, as almost all Saints players unanimously agree, this locker room has the right makeup. And clearly, Payton still knows how to motivate his team.

But the problem is: there’s no prize for moral victory. This league is about wins, and for the third season in a row, the Saints failed to field a winning product. The problem, at least how it appears to us on the outside, is not a lack of effort or focus. It’s a lack of talent. Yes, the roster is filled to the brim with solid players. No way could you make that claim last year. But too few of those solid players are game-changers. Too few have elite or even above-average talent.

The playoffs are not an unrealistic goal for this 2017 squad. But Sean Payton and the Saints front office will need to have an extraordinary offseason if this roster is going to compete for a championship anytime soon. And with Drew Brees’s window closing fast, that’s exactly what they’ll need to do.

Yet all that said, there were a number of Saints who went above and beyond expectations, and put together remarkable seasons.

And a few of these players deserve acknowledgment for their performances. In a depressing year, these few stood out and gave fans a reason to tune in. We are forever grateful.

These are the sorts of talents that the Saints need to build on, to find and nurture within their organization, if they want to get back to the level of success they enjoyed from 2009-2011. Don’t doubt that Sean Payton has the offensive mind to coach a powerhouse, and the locker-room presence to develop a dynasty. But he needs to improve his personnel decisions if he wants to upgrade this roster. That starts with bringing in players with a similar makeup to these stand-out players.

So, without further ado, we give you our picks for the Saints’ 2016 season awards.

Nov 27, 2016; New Orleans, LA, USA; New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees (9) celebrates with wide receiver Michael Thomas (13) after a touchdown against the Los Angeles Rams during the third quarter of a game at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome. The Saints defeated the Rams 49-21. Mandatory Credit: Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports

Michael Thomas: Rookie of the Year

We’re starting off easy, with the most obvious pick of the bunch.

Michael Thomas is so deserving of Rookie of the Year, it’s almost ridiculous. It’s hard to remember a better rookie season, for any Saints player. The popular comparison is Marques

The popular comparison is Marques Colston, and no surprise why. Both receivers have similar body-types and had similarly explosive rookie seasons in New Orleans. But when you look at the stats, you’ll see that Michael Thomas was arguably a better rookie receiver than Colston was.

Now, that’s not to say that Thomas will necessarily have a better career than Colston. You can’t predict the future. But from the eye test, I’d say Thomas has a shot at being the best receiver ever to play with Drew Brees.

Colston had a knack for finding the soft spots in zone coverage, and for making difficult, high, and contested catches over the middle of the field. He developed an outstanding chemistry with Drew Brees and will be forever remembered for his time here.

But Thomas just does so many things well.

He’s still developing into the zone threat that Colston was. But I’d argue that he’s already more challenging to defend in man coverage than Colston was in his prime. He has the hands to make more difficult catches than Colston, and has an ability to shed tacklers and run after the catch that few in the league have.

Sheldon Rankins had a very solid year. And by all accounts he’ll be a staple of this defense for years to come. But even if Rankins had played in all 16 games, I don’t see much chance that he’d overtake Thomas as the Saints’ Rookie of the Year. Neither with Vonn Bell, who struggled through most of the season. In Bell’s defense, it’s much harder to be a rookie safety than a rookie receiver. But out of the two Ohio State alums, it’s clear as day who the better prospect is at this point.

Dec 18, 2016; Glendale, AZ, USA; New Orleans Saints running back Mark Ingram (22) runs the ball as offensive tackle Andrus Peat (75) blocks against the Arizona Cardinals at University of Phoenix Stadium. The Saints defeated the Cardinals 48-41. Mandatory Credit: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

Andrus Peat: Most Improved Player

Early in the year, it was looking like this award would go to DT Tyeler Davison. Davison, after a relatively quiet 2015 rookie campaign, looked to have put it all together and become a competent and explosive player along the defensive line. Particularly in training camp and the preseason, Davison looked to be the textbook emerging sophomore.

We’ll we only found out recently that Davison injured his shoulder early in the season, severly enough that it now requires surgery. That might explain why, after so much hype, he had a relatively pedestrian 2016 campaign.

So in his stead, Andrus Peat did more than enough to earn the M.I.P. award.

Peat was by no means perfect on the year. Filling in for Terron Armstead at LT did no wonders for his reputation, as of course he failed to match Armstead’s top-tier production.

But after fans were widely ready to dismiss Peat as a bust, his bounce-back 2016 performance highlighted just how rash it is to judge a rookie on their first, or even second, years.

Fans need to be more aware that many players take time to develop and to reach their ceilings. Be patient.

The Saints originally drafted Peat to fill in for the aging Zach Streif at RT. But Peat played LT in college and never made a smooth transition to the right side. In the future, who knows, maybe the Saints will give him another look at unseating Streif. But for now, Peat looks more comfortable at LG than elsewhere on the line. That’s not to say that he can’t play well as a tackle. But assuming Terron Armstead stays healthy next year, Peat should be able to stick at LG. And I expect he’d put together a very solid year as a guard.

Peat’s been responsible for a few sacks on the year. But playing LT means typically going up against the opposing defense’s best pass rusher. And for the most part, Peat did an outstanding job.

But what has me most excited about his potential are the flash plays he made in the run game. Peat is a huge body. He absolutely pancaked some defensive lineman and linebackers when playing LG to open up holes for Ingram and the Saints ground game. He moves well in the second level, and seeing him at LG should, in 2017, mean an even better year from Ingram.

Mandatory Credit: Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports

Nick Fairley: Signing of the Year

Nick Fairley had too impressive of a year to leave him off this list.

After a career on the bubble of starting lineups across the league, Nick Fairley absolutely came alive in New Orleans. He finished the year with a career high in tackles and in sacks, and was one of the few bright spots on the Saints defense.

Mickey Loomis had to get creative with Fairley’s contract, in order to bring the former first-round pick to New Orleans with limited cap space. Well, after Fairley turned in the best season of his career, the only thing we can fault the Saints for is not locking Fairley up for longer.

Sean Payton and Loomis now face one of the toughest personnel decisions that they’ve ever had during their time with the New Orleans Saints. After a monster season, how much do they pay to hold on to Nick Fairley?

It’s a bit of a damned if you do, damned if you don’t situation for Payton. The Saints finally have some cap flexibility, but would need to spend a substantial portion of it to retain Fairley.

But after a disappointing year on defense, the question is whether the Saints can afford to let Fairley walk. The answer, unfortunately, is probably not.

At the end of the day, the Saints will set a value on Fairley. If no team offers more, then he’ll be back. And if someone decides that he’s more valuable than the Saints figure, he’ll leave. It’s that simple. So, how much will the Saints determine Fairley is worth?

Many writers are speculating somewhere in the $8 million range. For a top-tier defensive tackle, that number looks a bit small. Elite DTs make upwards of $10 million a year.

So will Fairley command that type of money in the open market? Only time will tell. Obviously, the Saints would do well not to overpay the emerging DT. But if another team does overpay, it will hurt this defense. There’s no way around it.

Mandatory Credit: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

Cameron Jordan: Defensive MVP

As I mentioned, the defense had a somewhat disappointing year. Injuries played no small part in that, particularly in the secondary. But depleted or not, far too often teams had wild success moving the ball against this New Orleans Saints defense.

Yet game after game, throughout the season, Dennis Allen could always count on one player to perform: Cameron Jordan.

Jordan has been the best player on this defense for a long time now. But I’d argue that 2016 was his strongest season to date. He didn’t post career highs in tackles or in sacks, but had by far the most TFLs he’s ever had. He was near the top of the league in that department. And that was plain as day to the eye.

Jordan consistently got penetration into the backfield, and was perhaps the single biggest reason that this defense saw such an improved run defense. He forced teams to run almost exclusively to the other side of the field. He was, for much of the season, unblockable. And it only came out after the season that he played through a knee injury for the early part of the year.

You just know that, if he’d had any sort of pass rush generated across from him from the other DEs, Jordan would have had a huge year statistically. But teams were able to gameplan for him exclusively. Add an improved Sheldon Rankins and a competent DE opposite, and you have to expect this defensive line will finally become a dangerous unit.

Dec 24, 2016; New Orleans, LA, USA; New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees (9) before a game against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome. Mandatory Credit: Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports

Season MVP: Who Else?

Drew Brees. Man.

At 37 years old, Drew Brees somehow put together one of the better years of his career.

Barring two absolute duds against Detroit and Tampa Bay, Drew Brees looked about as dangerous as he’s ever looked.

It helps to have the caliber of receiving core that the Saints have put together. And it helps that the Saints got production on the ground throughout the year.

But ultimately, no player is more responsible for what little success the Saints enjoyed than Drew Brees.

He finished the season with a 70% completion percentage, the third best of his amazing career. That’s behind only the 2009 and 2011 seasons, both of which most fans agree were the best offenses of the Payton-Brees era. He threw for 5,000 yards for the fifth time in his career. The fifth.

That’s just absurd.

Statistically, the Saints offensive line did a great job of protecting Brees and keeping a clean pocket. But statistics don’t tell the whole story. And that’s why Brees’ season is so damn impressive.

Brees’ ability to move in the pocket, to make quick reads and to get the ball out on time and in traffic allowed the offensive line to put together their strong statistics. But when you look at it, they really didn’t have the most incredible year. Senio Kelemete struggled at times in pass protection. Likewise with Andrus Peat, though in Peat’s defense he was playing out of position. Max Unger had a few rough games, as did Jahri Evans.

But Brees and Sean Payton did a fantastic job of keeping the defense off-balance enough to keep the pocket clean. That’s something that fans will miss, more than the accuracy or even the reads, when Brees is gone. He’s better than anyone in the league at maneuvering the pocket, besides maybe Tom Brady. And that’s what keeps this offense so dangerous.

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