(WVUE) - With the Saints season looming, we're ranking the twenty best players on the roster heading into 2018. Nick Fairley was not considered due to his tentative career status. The first five on our list feature three newcomers:
#20 - The countdown starts with the youngest player on our list. At 21 years old, Marshon Lattimore was college football's top-rated cornerback and when he unexpectedly slipped to the Saints at #11 in the draft, he was too good for the black and gold to pass up.
The Saints hope Lattimore proves them right. Through the offseason, he spent time with the first, second and third teams. He started slow but finished strong and demonstrated clear improvement. The real test will come once training camp begins; the hope is he can grow into a legitimate starter opposite Delvin Breaux. If he does, then by this time next year, Lattimore will be ranked much higher than #20.
#19 - Tight end Coby Fleener looks the part but didn't completely play the part during his first season in New Orleans. He struggled with the playbook which led to inconsistency. Still, he played in all 16 games and finished with 50 receptions, 631 yards and three touchdowns.
The Saints will want more out of him in 2017. He said his knowledge of the system has improved. If that's the case then his production should improve as well in the Saints' tight end-friendly offense. If it doesn't then 2017 could be the final year for Fleener in the Big Easy.
#18 - Zach Strief will turn 34 this season and remains as steady as ever. For the second time in three years, the Saints drafted his replacement with Andrus Peat and now Ryan Ramczyk. Yet, Strief is still here and remains a steady starter.
In 2016, he started all 16 games at right tackle and has missed just one game in the last three seasons. In 2017, he'll be counted on once again especially early on with the injuries to Terron Armstead and Max Unger.
#17 - Another newcomer to the Saints' defense makes the list in linebacker A.J. Klein. Backing up Luke Keuchly and Thomas Davis in Carolina for four years, Klein came to New Orleans ready to step out of the their shadows.
The Saints believe he's ready to do that and paid him like it. During the offseason, he received first team reps at all three linebacker spots and will almost certainly be a starter at one of them. The hope is that wherever he plays, he'll be a force for the Saints' revamped linebacker group just like the Panther players he used to backup.
#16 - Yet another newcomer in the top twenty in guard Larry Warford. Warford comes to the Saints after four seasons as a starter for the Lions. The Saints signed him to a four-year, $34 million contract because they believe he's the player that can fill the void left at right guard by Jahri Evans, one of the best guards in team history.
His position is crucial. With Drew Brees, the Saints have always placed a premium on interior offensive line protection. It's a responsibility the team expect Warford will handle well.