Q&A: Zone Read On The New Orleans Saints

With the New England Patriots squaring off against the New Orleans Saints in joint practices leading up to Week 2 of the preseason, we reached out to Nath, a lifelong Saints fan to answer some questions about the team. Nath is the editor of ZoneReads.com, a football site including prospect breakdowns, film work, stats, and commentary. New Orleans has had a tumultuous offseason and Nath gets in-depth with his thoughts on the squad.

Quarterback Drew Brees showed some statistical decline in 2014, posting his worst yards per attempt figure and touchdown to interception ratio since 2010. What does the tape say? Is he on the downside, or do his numbers have more to do with his supporting cast?

It depends who you ask, honestly. I’ve seen film scouts who say that it’s clear Brees has lost something on his deep ball. On the other hand, advanced stats support the idea that it’s his supporting cast. Football Outsiders suggested that Brees had the lowest percentage of “poorly thrown” balls, despite having the highest number of attempts in the league. FO’s stats also show Brees’ receivers consistently have higher than average catch rates, based on where passes are distributed, no matter which receivers they are. These stats are based on charting plays, and suggest Brees’ ball placement is as good as ever. He was always good for a handful of boneheaded plays each year, but it seems that last year those plays came at particularly inopportune moments and/or resulted in large point swings.

The receiver decline is undeniable and rests on three points:

  • Marques Colston, for reasons unknown and hopefully not related to age-based decline, saw a substantial spike in his drop rate;
  • Jimmy Graham played through a shoulder injury, and was often shy about making contact;
  • Darren Sproles was traded and the team never found an adequate replacement for his production and ability to create mismatches.

So I remain optimistic. Unfortunately, I don’t know how productive Brees can be, given his relatively limited receiving crew. Hopefully the shift to a more balanced offense allows him to throw fewer pass attempts but at a higher efficiency.

The Saints had a ton of offensive turnover in the offseason gone are receiving weapons Graham and Kenny Stills, guard Ben Grubbs, and running back Pierre Thomas; in their place are center Max Unger, running back C.J. Spiller, and tackle Andrus Peat, the team’s first-round draft pick. How do you think New Orleans will fare? Can head coach Sean Payton put together another top offense?

It’s going to be really interesting. I’ll tell you this, I was really disappointed that C.J. Spiller got hurt already. He should be back for the regular season, and I think he’s in an ideal spot for a big season, so I really hope he comes back from that knee surgery (which is supposedly just a minor cleanup) healthy.

Graham and Stills provided elements to the passing offense that haven’t really been replaced. The offense is going to look very different, but one thing I feel confident about is Sean Payton’s ability to scheme for the talent at his disposal. I believe Spiller is a top candidate to fill that back-in-space role that both Reggie Bush and Sproles once did. Brandin Cooks will obviously be expected to carry a large load (more on that below).

It seems the team wants to take the pressure off Brees and run more, so the days of 5,000-yard seasons may be over regardless. That said, I don’t think they’ll correct too much in the other direction: While they clearly want to feature Mark Ingram as a power back, I think the trade for Unger was more about giving Brees a clean interior pocket to work in. That was a real problem last year.

I’m really curious to see the battle between the young receivers for playing time, and see if any of them step up. If one of the candidates can take on a serious significant, it would go a long way toward lifting the offense back to its old heights.

I don’t think it’s realistic to expect [third-year tight end] Josh Hill to duplicate or even come particularly close to replacing Graham’s production, no matter how much the coaches hype him.

The New Orleans defense jumped from dead last in yardage allowed in 2012 to fourth-best in 2013, which was defensive coordinator Rob Ryan’s first year with the team. In 2014, however, they backslid to 31st. What can we expect out of the Saints’ D in 2015?

For the life of me, I don’t know. I think the biggest signing of the offseason for them was Brandon Browner who gives the team a baseline of competency at the CB2 position, a spot where they were sorely lacking in 2014 after Jabari Greer‘s injury/retirement at the end of 2013. The Saints have obviously recognized the problem and have invested considerable resources to infuse the defense with talent ‒ nowhere more so than in the secondary, where the team drafted two cornerbacks and signed three others (they may not all make the team, but I expect at least two will, probably Browner and [CFL Signee] Delvin Breaux).

I don’t know if we’ll see an elite unit yet, but I’m trying to be optimistic. Even though [team sack leader] Junior Galette is gone, I think we have hope of replacing his production: What I saw of [free agent edge rusher] Anthony Spencer and [second-round pick] Hau’oli Kikaha in the first preseason game was very encouraging; Spencer in particular looks like he might finally be all the way back from his 2013 microfracture surgery.

Rumors are Ryan has simplified the scheme because the team made too many assignment and alignment errors during games. The really interesting question is how much this defense will be made in Ryan’s image vs. “senior defensive assistant” [and former Raiders coach] Dennis Allen’s. It may be a case of too many cooks, although the optimistic spin is that Ryan is the play-caller and exotic scheme-designer, while Allen is the guy instilling fundamentals in the players.

What are you looking for in Saturday’s game? Who are the “swing” guys who are going to determine how the season goes? What are the position battles of note?

Following up on that question, there are many position battles on the defense, mostly the front seven and at any cornerback role that isn’t filled by Keenan Lewis. My guess for most likely scenario at corner is that, assuming full health, Browner starts on the outside opposite Lewis, with Breaux in the slot; the second unit will be Stanley Jean-Baptiste, [rookie third-rounder] P.J. Williams, and [rookie fifth-rounder] Damian Swann.

It’s not entirely clear what front the team will be using (the talent and scheme last year were nominally a 3-4, but the first depth chart this year introduced a 4-3). While the three lineman (again, assuming full health) look to be Cameron Jordan, John Jenkins, and Akiem Hicks, the rotation behind them will be interesting. The team drafted Tyeler Davison out of Fresno State in the fifth round this year, and I really liked some of their undrafted free agents, in particular Kaleb Eulls and especially Bobby Richardson. I have a great deal of interest in seeing if those guys make the team, or if they go with a combination of other players. The initial depth chart has [35-year-old] Kevin Williams starting as the “under” tackle in a 4-3, with Jordan and 335-pound Hicks at end. I don’t know what Williams has left in the tank, but if they can get something out of him in this formation, I say go for it– maybe in some small way it can make up for drafting Johnathan Sullivan ahead of him, many years ago.

Edge rusher is another spot where a rotation will probably fill Galette’s void. Spencer, Kikaha, Parys Haralson, and [former Boston College Eagle] Kasim Edebali will probably all rotate for time. The team also drafted one of my favorite sleeper edge rushers, Davis Tull out of Tennessee-Chattanooga, although he is on the NFI with a shoulder injury and this may essentially be a redshirt year for him.

I doubt anyone seriously thinks that [first-round pick] Stephone Anthony won’t be the starting MLB/ILB on day one. [Former Dolphin] Dannell Ellerbe probably starts next to him, with David Hawthorne as the backup; I expect Anthony will be a three-down linebacker. The current depth chart has Hawthorne over Anthony, but Anthony is drawing rave reviews in camp.

Now to offense: The biggest questions are on the offensive line and the receiver rotation. The line is simple and boils down to two questions: Is [third-year guard] Tim Lelito ready? If not, is [13th-overall pick] Andrus Peat ready? I suspect Peat is too talented to stay on the bench for long, but I also think he’d be better served at tackle. I don’t know if [incumbent right tackle] Zach Strief can play guard. I didn’t think much of Lelito when he played center last year and if he can’t elevate his game playing in between Unger and [left tackle] Terron Armstead, then there’s probably no hope for him. Of course, the team could make an all-bets-are-off move like clearing cap space to sign [former Eagle] Evan Mathis.

I think the receivers in particular will be those swing guys you mentioned. Are they going to be good enough for Brees to move the ball with, or are they going to hold the team back? One guy I’m hugely interested in is Brandon Coleman. He looked to be on the verge of breaking out as a sophomore at Rutgers before suffering through an injury-plagued junior season, declaring, and going undrafted. He spent last season on the Saints’ practice squad, but he’s a huge (6’6”) target who runs pretty well, and can if nothing else be a red-zone threat.

Coleman so far is my favorite for the third receiver job behind Cooks and Colston. Other guys that will compete for that job, and to stay in the rotation, are Nick Toon, Seantavius Jones, and Willie Snead. Joe Morgan is almost exclusively a deep threat; whether or not he makes the team depends on if the Saints feel they need him there, I suppose.

So I’m most interested in those position battles, particularly how the younger guys perform. The rookies who are expected to make an impact or contribute right away, the second- or third-year players who should be taking a step forward and are being groomed for an increased role, things like that.

Garrett Grayson: What the what? I was pretty shocked when he came off the board. What were your thoughts on the pick and what have you seen so far from him?

My first thought was “I really wish this was Brett Hundley.” Seriously, while I’m not totally negative on Grayson, I’m not as impressed by him as a prospect as NFL teams evidently are. I haven’t seen a ton of film on him, though. It seems as though they like his anticipation and timing, but he seemed fairly pedestrian otherwise. Obviously, I hope I’m wrong and the coaching staff is right.

I did watch a lot of tape of Hundley, and have come away convinced that the criticisms were misguided and he was being held back by poor offensive line play and a restrictive coaching staff that didn’t develop him. Everything people said he couldn’t do, he showed the ability to do on film; perhaps not all the time or even consistently, but I saw him make reads, avoid pressure, and deliver accurate throws all across the field to his third or fourth option. Hundley apparently wasn’t allowed to audible at UCLA, which might explain many of the plays where he seemed to make a “pre-determined decision”, as the rap on him went– if you know a blitz is coming and you’re powerless to stop it, yeah, you’re going to decide on the course of action that avoids it as best you can.

I think we’re going to look back and marvel that Logan Thomas was taken a round earlier in 2014 than Hundley was in 2015.

Stanley Jean-Baptiste. Can you give a Nebraska fan reason to believe again?

I haven’t watched him, but IIRC, he played with the ones in the first preseason game after Browner got hurt. So clearly they still believe in his talent and want to give him a chance. I saw speculation earlier this preseason that he might not make the team, but that’s unlikely. (I will say again, though, this is a spot where I wished they’d drafted Phillip Gaines, and not just because I’m a Rice fan.) Best case scenario, I think, is Browner acting as a sort of mentor/role model for that “large, physical cornerback” mold. Like I said, I think he likely ends up making the team but in the second-string. I do think there’s talent there.

Building off the question about the offense, given the losses in the offseason. Do you think that Brandin Cooks becomes the focal point for the offense? Does he become the key hope for that offense to return to the upper echelons of the league?

Yeah, I do think he becomes the focal point. I expect him to be the top target in the passing game and I expect Sean Payton to find creative ways to use him. The one thing that worries me is that Cooks has talked about wanting to be used more as a downfield threat and I don’t think he’s particularly good at tracking the deep ball. Beyond that, Cooks struggles with press coverage, so getting him in situations where he can’t be jammed at the line will be important. But his speed, acceleration, and agility are absolutely real.

I think the plan is, between Cooks and Spiller, to spread the field more horizontally than vertically, which may be a reaction to the perception that Brees is losing his deep ball and/or to how losing Darren Sproles limited what the offense was able to do. I expect those guys will open opportunities for the younger players, and hopefully Colston can go back to being a reliable possession receiver who can make catches in tight space. Given his age, his seemingly out-of-nowhere performance decline last season worries me, though.

Cooks is going to be important to the offense, as he’s clearly their most explosive playmaker, and will get fed plenty of targets, but as I mentioned in the previous item on the offense, I think Max Unger, and to a lesser degree Spiller, will be hidden keys to the Saints’ offensive success.

Follow Nath on Twitter at @ZoneReads and check out more of his work at ZoneReads.com.

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Inside The Pylon covers the NFL and college football, reviewing the film, breaking down matchups, and looking at the issues, on and off the field.

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