To understand how good a season the New Orleans Saints had on special teams in 2011, all you have to do is look at rankings compiled annually by the Dallas Morning News.
Veteran NFL writer Rick Gosselin assigns point values for each of the 32 teams (the top team receives 32 points on down to 1 for the worst) in 22 different elements of special teams and is considered one of the top barometers for measuring that aspect of the game.
After finishing a little bit below average in 18th place in 2010, the Saints were more effective last season and rose 10 spots to eighth.
While it encompasses 22 all-around elements of special teams, at least a good portion of the Saints’ improvement can be attributed to the powerful right leg of punter/kickoff man Thomas Morstead and the addition of speedy kick returner Darren Sproles.
Morstead, who recently signed a six-year, $21 million contract extension with the team, averaged a club-record 48.3 yards per punt and had the third-best single-season net average in NFL history at 43.1 yards per kick. He also set an NFL record with 68 touchbacks on kickoffs.
“He’s an elite punter, but his strength is his ability and work ethic and his ‘come early, stay late, get better (mentality)’ ” special teams coordinator Greg McMahon said of Morstead, a four-year veteran. “He just feels like he’ll be better this year than last year.
“So he is a tremendous talent for us, and he’s a good warrior.”
At the same time, Sproles, a shifty running back, gave some juice to the return game. He averaged 27.2 yards on kickoffs and 10.1 yards on punts after the team averaged 21.8 yards and 7.8 yards, respectively, the previous year.
While McMahon knows what he has in those two valuable weapons, fans are keeping an eye on the training camp battle for the kicking job between 2009 postseason hero Garrett Hartley and grizzled veteran John Kasay.
Hartley missed the 2011 season with a hip injury and the 42-year-old Kasay stepped in and capably replaced him, setting a single-season club record with 147 points.
Even though Hartley is fully recovered, the Saints surprised a lot of people this spring by re-signing Kasay, an unrestricted free agent, for some high-stakes training camp competition.
While it’s not unusual to bring an extra kicker to camp, it’s usually an undrafted free agent who is at best a long shot to make the team.
“We re-signed John for a reason,” McMahon said this spring. “Garrett knows that, and it’ll be good competition. It’s healthy. It’s good for us.”
While McMahon is looking for more overall improvement, usually no phase of the game has more turnover than in the part he oversees — mainly because his groups are mostly made up of backups and young players who haven’t yet earned their stripes.
“It’s an encouraging group,” McMahon said after the first week of training camp. “It doesn’t look like anybody doesn’t fit in. They have worked real hard, so it’s been good.”
McMahon has the core of his coverage units back as safety Isa Abdul-Quddus, defensive end Martez Wilson and wide receiver Courtney Roby all return after tying for the team lead with 11 tackles each.
Safety Jonathon Amaya, a hard hitter, was also extremely active last season with nine tackles.
To that group, he hopes to add more pieces to the puzzle with one of those being cornerback Corey White, a fifth-round draft pick this spring, as well as youngsters like cornerbacks Johnny Patrick and Marquis Johnson.
With five preseason games this year, McMahon knows there is ample time to get a read on what he’ll have to work with when the final cuts are made on Aug. 31.
“I want to see all of them, I want to see how they do under preseason conditions and when the bullets are alive,” he said.
“We want to see who can run, who can play with leverage, and at the end of the day, who can make tackles. That’s key.”
The Saints made several roster moves Saturday, the biggest being the addition of 11-year veteran tight end Daniel Graham.
Graham, a first-round draft pick of the New England Patriots in 2002, has played in 142 games with 117 starts with New England, Denver and Tennessee and has 224 career receptions with 25 touchdowns.
In addition to Graham, the Saints signed cornerback Nick Hixson and guard Paul Fenaroli.
To make room on the 90-man roster, they cut linebacker Nate Bussey and waived/injured cornerback A.J. Davis and guard Andrew Tiller, the team’s sixth-round draft pick this spring.
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