The 2016 NFL season begins now, with 32 teams scheming to knock off the reigning champion Denver Broncos. The NFL Draft is just around the corner, but the first step in any offseason plan is to assess a team’s needs. Here we look at what the New Orleans Saints team needs are.
These reports were compiled with the help of Inside The Pylon’s writers and editors, as well as the outstanding offseason primers at OverTheCap.com, which are invaluable for understanding the salary cap and contractual obligations of each team. In addition, the depth chart data is courtesy RosterResource.com – thanks for all your support!
The New Orleans Saints have been a laughingstock for much of their history, but few teams have experienced more success since 2006, when head coach Sean Payton and quarterback Drew Brees joined the team. New Orleans has reached the playoffs five times and won the Super Bowl following the 2009 season in that span. The team has taken a downturn of late, however, finishing 7-9 in both 2014 and 2015, leading to rumors that Payton, Brees, or both might exit the Big Easy. Despite those rumors, the partnership will endure; Payton recently signed a five-year extension and the team is reportedly working on a Brees deal as well.
For years, the Saints have managed their salary cap the way twenty-somethings manage credit card debt, pushing off their obligations to make room for short-term acquisitions. The bill is finally coming due, with Brees’ cap figure a whopping $30M, but general manager Mickey Loomis has resisted the urge to extend the 37-year-old and lessen his cap hit. As a result, the Saints have remained quiet in the free agent market, with tight end Coby Fleener the only notable addition.
Payton and Brees have been a formula for offensive success, and that remained true in 2015, when New Orleans ranked eighth in points and second in total yards. The problems were almost entirely on the other side of the football, where the defense allowed NFL worsts 476 points, 380 first downs, 45 passing touchdowns, 7.9 net yards per pass attempt, and 4.9 yards per rush attempt. Unsurprisingly, that performance cost defensive coordinator Rob Ryan his job. The challenge will be improving the defense to respectability, at least, while maintaining their offensive output.
There is some hope in improvement from young players. Saints rookie defenders started a collective 45 games in 2015 – and that doesn’t include cornerback Delvin Breaux, who started 15 games in in his first NFL season after spending two years in Canada. While their 2015 performance was uneven, players like Breaux, defensive lineman Bobby Richardson (undrafted, 11 starts), edge rusher Hau’oli Kikaha (2nd round, 11 starts), and linebacker Stephone Anthony (1st round, 16 starts) give New Orleans reason for some optimism in 2016 and beyond. With little cap room to augment the defense with free agents, development from young players will determine how far the unit goes in 2016.
While the Saints would surely love to use their limited resources improving the defense, holes have sprung up on offense over the offseason. The team cut longtime veterans Jahri Evans and Marques Colston, creating holes at guard and receiver, respectively, and all of the roster’s tight ends entered free agency. Luring Fleener over in free agency should give them a viable pass-catching option at tight end, but the team still has some work to do to ensure similar offensive performance in 2016.
For a long time, the Saints boasted the league’s best guard tandem in Evans and Carl Nicks. Nicks left in free agency after 2011 and New Orleans replaced him with Ben Grubbs, another fine player. But before the 2015 season, the Saints traded Grubbs, and blocking in the interior line was an issue. Now Evans is a cap casualty, versatile Tim Lelito is a free agent, and New Orleans has gone from the most decorated interior combination in the NFL to perhaps the most uncertain. They may plug one hole by moving one of their three solid tackle options, but the position remains a question mark heading into the draft.
In their hybrid defensive front, New Orleans rotated rookies Richardson and Tyeler Davison with massive third-year tackle John Jenkins and veteran Kevin Williams. They added former Detroit Lion and St. Louis Ram Nick Fairley to replace Williams, a free agent at age 35, as well as add some girth to fortify a run defense that allowed 2,071 rushing yards, the second-most in the NFL. New Orleans tackles combined for only 2.5 sacks in 2015, so the group could also use a disruptive pass-rushing presence.
The Saints will be taking a $12.1M cap hit in 2016 from Junior Galette, who posted double-digit-sack totals in 2013 and 2014. Unfortunately, they won’t be getting any production for that money, as the team cut ties with Galette after multiple domestic violence incidents. That left the team scrambling for production, and the team’s 31 total sacks ranked sixth-worst in the NFL. Tallying 10 of those sacks was Cameron Jordan, the team’s best defensive player. Jordan’s 981 snaps played ranked fifth in the NFL among defensive linemen, highlighting the team’s lack of depth. Beyond Jordan, they leaned on rookies Kikaha (4.0 sacks in 2015) and Obum Gwacham (2.5), and second-year man Kasim Edebali (5.0), but will need more in 2016.
Desired Depth Upgrades
No receiver in franchise history has more receptions (711), yards (9,759), or touchdowns (72) than Colston, but the team noted the 32-year-old’s diminishing skills and moved on. That places the burden on the team’s young receivers: speedster Brandin Cooks, the 2014 first-rounder who broke out with 1,138 yards and nine touchdowns last season, and surprise sensation Willie Snead, who added 984 yards in the air. The Saints may look to fill Colston’s shoes with 23-year-old Brandon Coleman, who at 6’6”, 225 pounds is a near-doppelganger for the long-time veteran. The team lacks a true #1 wideout and could use a receiver who can win reliably against man coverage, but even if they plan to roll with Cooks, Snead, and Coleman, they need depth behind the trio.
The play of Anthony was one of the team’s few bright spots in 2015, with the 31st overall pick starting from day one, playing 93% of snaps and leading the team in combined tackles. He played next to Dannell Ellerbe, who missed all but six games in 2015 with a variety of maladies but was effective when healthy. New Orleans needs a sub package linebacker who can compete in coverage to help a unit that ranked 32nd in DVOA against tight ends and 31st against running backs. They may have that help in the person of James Laurinaitis, who inked a three-year contract with New Orleans a few weeks after the Los Angeles Rams cut him. The team also added former Brown Craig Robertson, helping depth depleted by the departure of veterans David Hawthorne and Ramon Humber.
Brandon Browner possesses an unusual set of strengths and weaknesses, but it seems the Saints only got the latter from their free agent acquisition in 2015. Teams picked on the 31-year-old in coverage, drawing penalties and connecting on big plays. Despite his poor play, Browner led all Saints cornerbacks by playing 96% of snaps, which highlights how shallow their depth was. Breaux was one of the unit’s few positive stories. Injuries to veteran Keenan Lewis, the team’s best defensive back, rookie third-rounder P.J. Williams, and slot corner Damian Swann – another rookie defender – effectively wiped out their seasons. If those three can contribute in 2016, they should help shore up the unit, but the Saints will need to add another piece to the group.
Few teams have invested more in their safeties than New Orleans. Jairus Byrd is one of the game’s highest-paid safeties, averaging $9M per year, while Kenny Vaccaro is one of the rare safeties taken in the top half of the first round. The tandem hasn’t quite lived up to what the Saints must have expected, but they should be serviceable at least. Behind them, veteran Rafael Bush left to sign with the Lions, while the Saints brought back Jamarca Sanford.
Set, For Better Or Worse
Brees doesn’t always get his due as one of the NFL’s elite quarterbacks, perhaps because of the lack of team success in recent seasons, but any decline from his peak is very modest. At the age of 36, he led the NFL in passing yards (4,870 in 15 games), was second in completion percentage (68.3%) and posted an impressive 32 touchdown to 11 interception ratio. Veteran backup Luke McCown and 2015 third-round pick Garrett Grayson fill out the depth chart. Brees is a free agent after the season, and it’s unclear whether the Saints will extend him, hand the keys to Grayson, or seek a new starter.
After a disappointing start to his career, Mark Ingram has lived up to his first-round draft status since 2014, totalling 1,733 rushing yards, 15 touchdowns, and 550 receiving yards in his last 25 games. C.J. Spiller, another former first rounder who has only intermittently performed to that level, was a disappointment in his first season in New Orleans but it appears the Saints will give the shifty veteran another shot as a change-of-pace back. Travaris Cadet, another pass-catching option out of the backfield, is back with the team after spending parts of 2014 elsewhere.
The Saints made one of the 2015 offseason’s most surprising moves in dealing away three-time Pro-Bowl tight end Jimmy Graham, but his absence didn’t wind up hurting much, as veteran Ben Watson tallied 74 catches for 825 yards and six touchdowns – at age 35, the best statistical season of his career. Watson filed for free agency after the season, however. The team replaced him with Fleener, a capable receiver who never quite lived up to expectations in Indianapolis. It appears that little-used backups Josh Hill and Michael Hoomanawanui will return as depth.
The Saints boast an unheralded young star in left tackle Terron Armstead and added Andrus Peat with the 13th overall pick in 2015 to complement him going forward. They also have longtime right tackle Zach Strief. With the interior an area of concern, they may move Peat or Strief to guard, in which case they might add a swing tackle as depth.
Longtime punter Thomas Morstead did not have his best season in 2015, but he is under contract through 2018 and presumably sticking around awhile. Kicker has been an issue off-and-on, but the team has a couple of experienced options to compete in camp: Kai Forbath, who made 9 of 13 kicks for New Orleans after joining part way through the season, and Josh Scobee, last seen struggling early in the season for the Pittsburgh Steelers. Return duties were largely handled by 2015 seventh-round pick Marcus Murphy, who had a solid rookie year.