New Orleans Saints' Marshon Lattimore, Alvin Kamara are ultimate chess pieces

PFW's Offensive and Defensive Rookies of the Year catalyzed Saints' transformation

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Where would the Saints be without first-round CB Marshon Lattimore and third-round RB Alvin Kamara — Pro Football Weekly’s Offensive and Defensive Rookies of the Year, respectively?

We can tell you where the NFC South champs almost assuredly wouldn’t be: one win from the franchise's first conference title game since Kamara was a high-school freshman and Lattimore was in eighth grade, back in 2009.

Lattimore, the ex-Ohio State star and first cornerback selected last April (No. 11 overall), tallied more combined interceptions (five) and passes defensed (18) than all but three NFL defensive backs despite missing three games. His combination of size, speed and ball skills changed the complexion of Dennis Allen’s secondary, where Lattimore spent nearly half the season in a star corner role, shadowing and frustrating some of the game’s more feared receivers — Brandin Cooks, Julio Jones and Mike Evans, to name a few.

"He's a great player, having a fantastic season," Evans told reporters in Week 17. "The ball just finds him, a physical corner. Really good player. It's going to be fun to play him again."

That praise coming from Evans is particularly noteworthy. It was the Bucs’ jumbo-sized receiver who launched into Lattimore’s back out of bounds in their first meeting, earning a one-game suspension. The best corners in the NFL both lock down their opponents and get inside their heads. That’s two checks for Lattimore, who held Evans to only one catch for 13 yards in their first meeting, a 30-10 Saints blowout.   

Cornerback is one of the NFL's toughest positions to grasp immediately, much less thrive in. That Lattimore was just a one-year starter at Ohio State, declaring after his redshirt sophomore season, makes his ascent — and his effect on the Saints — even more impressive.

Allen’s ‘D,’ which had almost an entirely new back seven from the units that gave up the NFL’s most combined points from 2015-16, ranked 10th in points allowed and third in interception rate. Lattimore was thrust into an expanded role following a lost season from 2016 breakout player Delvin Breaux and before long was its most feared member not named Cameron Jordan.

As for Kamara, well, Sean Payton’s offense might not have required the transformation that Lattimore’s arrival sparked. Still, an already deadly offense received it anyway in Kamara, the NFL’s fifth-leading receiver among backs, second in all-purpose touchdowns and fifth in yards from scrimmage.

Perhaps no draft illustrates more clearly that the NFL is a matchup league than the one pulled off by the New Orleans front office. Kamara lines up everywhere from out wide to in the backfield to in his end zone as a returner, equally stressing opponents with his breathtaking speed, suddenness and more power than defenders first expect. Lattimore’s own speed, physicality and unwavering confidence is the ultimate elixir in today’s golden era of wide receivers.

And, frankly, New Orleans’ third rookie sensation, first-round RT Ryan Ramczyk, was also worthy of consideration for the award. The Saints ranked third in the NFL in efficiency (5.31 YPC) and sixth in volume (58 attempts) running behind their road-grading rookie, Ramczyk.  

Although we should’ve known Payton had a significant plan for Kamara, whom the Saints traded a 2018 second-rounder to San Francisco to move up for in Round 3 days after signing Adrian Peterson, his rookie impact exceeded even Payton’s own expectations.

"Look, if we had known what we were going to get as a runner, we wouldn't have taken him in the third round. We would've taken him earlier," Payton said in December, following Kamara’s first of two huge outings vs. Carolina’s Luke Kuechly and Thomas Davis and fifth consecutive game with at least 100 yards from scrimmage and a touchdown.

Kamara only handled 120 carries, but at a ridiculous 6.1-yard clip, more than a full yard better than the next RB qualifier.

And it was the Saints trading Peterson to the Arizona Cardinals in Week 5 that helped unlock Kamara in Payton’s pick-your-poison attack. The Saints finished fifth in rushing (No. 2 in yards per attempt), which allowed Drew Brees to attempt his fewest passes in a full season in New Orleans, and the passing offense to rank first per attempt as defenses cheated closer to Kamara and Ingram.

Indeed, a player many pegged solely as a third-down back coming out of Tennessee is now the envy of every club that lacks its own do-it-all dynamo. And it's not often that rookie corners earn their team's intimate so quickly, but Lattimore and Kamara aren't just unique rookies — they're 2017's best NFL freshman.