Kenny Vaccaro delivers a big hit
Despite sustaining their first loss of the season, the New Orleans Saints are off to a fine start in 2013, and much of the credit for their early success is due to a number of newcomers making a massive impact.
Sure, the Saints dropped a 30-27 heartbreaker to the New England Patriots this past Sunday. But with a 5-1 record, they still enjoy a comfortable lead in the NFC South divisional race. New Orleans is also one of the NFC's early contenders for home field advantage in the playoffs.
The Saints can thank their fast start to some significant roster upgrades that include both draft picks and free agent acquisitions. Many of these fresh faces stepped to forefront early on this season, and showcased their ability to be part of a winning formula.
Following are six newcomers making an immediate impact for the Saints this season:
Keenan Lewis defends a pass against the Patriots
A New Orleans native, Keenan Lewis was a third-round draft choice in 2009 for Pittsburgh. He started for the Steelers last season, and led the AFC with 23 pass breakups.
After he was courted as a free agent last March, Lewis decided to return to his New Orleans roots, and signed with the Saints.
Lewis is an essential component of Saints defensive coordinator Rob Ryan's 3-4 scheme. His ability to lock up with receivers in single coverage on the outside allows Ryan to be more creative with his blitz packages. Additionally, Lewis' cover skills help pave the way for the much-improved New Orleans defensive line to pressure opposing quarterbacks.
Kenny Vaccaro stretches out to make a tackle
When New Orleans passed on linebacker Jarvis Jones to select Kenny Vaccaro in the first round of this year’s draft, many Saints fans voiced their disapproval. Early on in the 2013 preseason, however, Vaccaro quickly turned his critics into supporters. He brings a hard-hitting, aggressive style of play to the Saints’ secondary, which was something it lacked in 2012.
With 33 tackles, a sack, and an interception already this season, the ball-hawking Vaccaro didn’t take long to prove himself worthy of his first-round selection. Although he didn’t play particularly well against New England, the future looks bright in New Orleans for the former Texas Longhorn.
John Jenkins shakes off a block against the Bears
The success of any 3-4 scheme is predicated on the presence of a capable nose guard. At 359 pounds, John Jenkins is ideally suited for that role in New Orleans.
The third-round draft choice out of Georgia got his first opportunity in the season's first game against Atlanta. When starter Brodrick Bunkley went down with an injury, Jenkins stepped in and played admirably. He hasn't looked back since.
With his combination of size and agility, Jenkins commands the attention of at least two offensive linemen on nearly every play. When opposing offenses opt to run the ball, the middle of the New Orleans defense is typically not the area they choose to attack. Jenkins is a big reason why, and the Saints will rely heavily upon his services as the season progresses.
Benjamin Watson fights for extra yards
Veteran free agent Benjamin Watson signed on with the Saints this offseason. With his 6'7" frame, he provides a nice compliment at tight end to All-Pro Jimmy Graham. Graham and Watson tower over opposing defensive backs, and they make ideal targets for 6'0" quarterback Drew Brees.
This past Sunday, Graham drew the bulk of the Patriots' defensive focus. As a result, Watson enjoyed his most productive outing as a Saint, hauling in three passes for 61 yards. His performance serves as a reminder that he can adequately man the tight end slot if Graham's late-game injury proves significant.
Kenny Stills comes down with a huge touchdown reception against the Patriots
Rookie wide receiver Kenny Stills established his presence in a big way against New England. With just over three minutes left in the game, Stills made a leaping 34-yard touchdown catch in the end zone to give New Orleans the lead.
The Saints envision Stills, a fifth-round draft choice out of Oklahoma, as the speedy deep threat they've lacked for some time. He took a big step towards seizing that role on Sunday. With Graham neutralized, Stills led the team in receiving with three catches for 64 yards. And after Sunday's clutch grab, Brees will likely look Stills' way more often in upcoming contests.
Khiry Robinson runs through two Arizona defenders
One consistent criticism of the New Orleans offense is its lack of a power running game. But in Khiry Robinson, the Saints may have the hammer they need to close out games on the ground.
An undrafted rookie out of West Texas A&M, Robinson looks every bit the part of hard-nosed, downhill running back. Against the Patriots, he rushed for 53 yards and a touchdown on only seven carries.
If Robinson improves on his tendency to fumble, then Mark Ingram could find his playing time diminished when he returns from a nagging toe injury.
As the sting of the loss at Foxborough slowly wears off, the New Orleans Saints will realize that all their goals are still very much attainable. But in order for this team to achieve its full potential, the aforementioned newcomers must continue their significant contributions.