New Orleans Saints 2015 Preview

Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

How can a team with one of the best coaches in the NFL, one of the best quarterbacks in the NFL, and one of the best offenses in the NFL go 7–9 and fail to make the playoffs in the worst division in football? The answer — by having one of the worst defenses in the NFL. Part of New Orleans’ problems were caused by their massive spending on offense really hurting New Orleans’ ability to spend on defense. New Orleans surprisingly traded offensive stars Jimmy Graham and Kenny Stills this offseason and added some new players on defense the help solve the leaking there.

Offense

Since 2006, when Payton took over for the consistently average Jim Haslett, the Saints have never finished worse than sixth in the NFL in yards. That’s a pretty incredible run. Payton’s pass-happy offense allows quarterback Drew Brees to spread the ball around to a circus of receivers. The Saints have a very multiple offense, in both personnel and formations, which can help create a lot of confusion for defenses. Even with the losses of Ben Grubbs, Jimmy Graham, Pierre Thomas, Jonathan Goodwin, and Kenny Stills, the Saints should have one of the top offensive attacks in the NFL.

Quarterbacks

Despite losing nine games last year, Drew Brees was still among the top quarterbacks in the NFL. At 36 years old, Brees may only have a few years left. Brees is one of the most accurate quarterbacks in the NFL, if not the most accurate. Brees also is a strong deep passer. He really doesn’t struggle in any areas, with the exception of turnovers. Brees threw 17 interceptions last year, but he also was the clear leader in pass attempts last year, so his interception numbers are higher than most starting quarterbacks because he passes more. Over the past four years Brees has averaged over 5000 yards and 40 touchdowns in a season. Brees has great movement in the pocket, even though he’s not a great athlete and he’s one of the better quarterbacks against pressure and the blitz. Still, Brees is 36 and the Saints have started prepping for the future by drafting Colorado State quarterback Garrett Grayson in the third round. Grayson joins veterans Luke McCown and Ryan Griffin, although the Saints will probably decide to release either McCown or Griffin. The Saints drafted Grayson as a long-term investment in the future. There’s no guarantee that Grayson will eventually take over from Brees, but the Saints will be training him for that scenario until Brees retires. Grayson shares a lot of similarities with Brees and Payton gushed over Grayson after the draft. Luke McCown was the backup last year while Ryan Griffin was the third quarterback, spending time on the 53-man roster and practice squad. They’ll be competing for the top backup spot and likely a roster spot. Griffin played under quarterbacks coach Mike Neu at Tulane and the staff really likes him, but veteran Luke McCown may get the call because with the drafting of Grayson, Griffin no longer is the Saints’ top developmental quarterback.

Running Backs

The Saints rewarded running back Mark Ingram with a four year, sixteen million dollar deal after a breakout year in 2014, when he ran for 964 yards and nine touchdowns. Ingram finnally showed that he could stay healthy last year and excel in the Saints’ zone-blocking scheme that complements Ingram’s one-cut running style and showcased his mix of power and explosiveness. Ingram even showed that he could factor as a receiver, but Pierre Thomas and Travaris Cadet were featured as receiving backs last year. The Saints surprisingly dumped both Cadet and Thomas and signed free agent C.J. Spiller, who’s had an up and down career with the Bills. Spiller has elite speed and playmaking ability, but he hasn’t shown he can be a full-time back and he’s also had some injury issues. Spiller averaged only 3.8 yards per carry last year, but he’s had some major success as a runner at times. His biggest role with the Saints is expected to be as a receiver. Sean Payton loves explosive backs like Spiller, Reggie Bush, and Darren Sproles because they’re frustratingly hard to defend with linebackers in the passing game. Khiry Robinson follows in Chris Ivory’s footsteps as a Sean Payton undrafted running back who’s shown some major ability in limited action. Like Ivory, Robinson has great strength, and he’s a tough back to bring down. Robinson ran 78 times for an average of 4.8 last year, and might not see much more than that this year because of the addition of Spiller. The Saints drafted Missouri back Marcus Murphy in the seventh round. Murphy’s 5'9' size will remind Saints fans of Darren Sproles. Murphy could factor as an occasional receiving back and returner, if he makes the roster. Tim Hightower hasn’t played since 2011, when he tore his ACL, and he’s a longshot to make the roster. Edwin Baker spent time on the practice squad and 53-man roster last year, but Baker will have a hard time making the team next year. Last year free agent addition Erik Lorig went down with an injury, opening a spot for undrafted rookie Austin Johnson to step in at fullback. Johnson played at fullback for the first half of the season before going down with injury and being replaced by a now healthy Lorig. Johnson fared much better as a lead blocker than Lorig last year, but both are getting a shot the compete for the job. Toben Opurum spent the past two seasons on the Chiefs, Texans, and Saints’ practice squad and will also get a shot.

Receivers

One of the main reasons the Saints felt comfortable trading away Kenny Stills and Jimmy Graham was their confidence in 2014 first round pick Brandin Cooks. Cooks is a speedy receiver who was incredibly effective in college. Cooks doesn’t have great size, but he’s shown he has the ability to play outside as well as in the slot. Cooks is very dangerous after the catch and he has great hands and is an incredibly reliable target. Cooks caught 53 passes for 550 yards in ten games last year, and those numbers should go way up in 2015 as Cooks will surpass Marques Colston as the Saints’ top receiver and he won’t have to deal with Jimmy Graham and Kenny Stills stealing his targets. Colston caught at least 1000 yards in six of his first seven seasons, failing to reach the mark only once when he missed five games. However Colston hasn’t caught over 1000 yards since 2012. Colston was never an extraordinary athlete and his abilities continue to decrease, but he’s a big target and Brees trusts him. Nick Toon will take over as the third receiver for Kenny Stills. Toon, a 2012 fourth round pick, has seen limited action, but he’s displayed reliable hands. The Saints spread the ball around a lot between backs and tight ends, so Toon might have a smaller role than most expect. Toon will have to hold off veterans Joe and Josh Morgan and youngsters Seantavius Jones and Brandon Coleman. Morgan has more experience in New Orleans’ offense than Toon and has shown that he can be a threat as a deep threat. If Morgan can stay healthy and out of trouble, he should make the roster based on his talent. Coleman and Jones spent last year on New Orleans’ practice squad and impressed enough to convince New Orleans to not draft any receivers. At 6–6 Coleman has great size and may develop into a red zone threat. Seantavius Jones also has decent size and has the look of a possession receiver. Josh Morgan may have a hard time making the team as he lacks explosiveness, but he’s a tough player and adds another veteran voice. Jalen Saunders impressed in limited action as a returner last year and may have a hard time making the team because they’ve added more return options. Journeyman Lance Lewis, 2014 practice squadder Willie Snead, and undrafted rookie R.J. Harris are also competing for jobs on the roster or practice squad. Josh Hill has received high praise from Sean Payon and he’ll take over at tight end after the departure of Jimmy Graham. Hill’s a decent blocker and receiver, but he’s nowhere near the threat that Graham was. Hill will share time with veteran Ben Watson, who used to have great speed, but is now primarily a blocker. The Saints sniffed at free agent tight end Jermaine Gresham, who remains unsigned and may eventually join New Orleans. Former Bengals fourth round pick Orson Charles will compete to make the team as the Saints third tight end. Charles has the versatility to play several roles, but he’s not really good at any of them. Charles will compete with undrafted rookie Jack Tabb, although I wouldn’t be shocked if the Saints didn’t keep either player and decided to add a player off the streets instead.

Offensive Line

The addition of Max Unger will solidify the middle of the Saints’ offensive line. Unger’s a strong run blocker and he’ll force center Tim Lelito to shift to left guard, where he’ll replace Ben Grubbs. Lelito’s a decent run blocker who’s seen time at guard and center in his first two years in New Orleans. Left guard Jahri Evans had a down year last year, allowing six sacks , according to ProFootballFocus. That’s a lot of sacks for a guard, but New Orleans hopes that Evans can bounce back as a pass protector. Evans is also a decent run blocker. Tackles Terron Armstead and Zach Streif are solid and above average, but they’re both not elite. That’s partially why the Saints drafted Stanford tackle Andrus Peat, who will sit for at least a season before taking over at one of the tackle spots. Peat has the tools to be an elite starting tackle for years and years. Bryce Harris was New Orleans’ swing tackle last year and he didn’t do that great as a fill-in, but at least he didn’t allow many sacks. Senio Kelemete adds some depth along the interior of the line and he’ll compete with free agent addition Mike McGlynn, who can also fill in at center. Nick Becton, Cyril Lemon, Sean Hickey, Doniel Gamble, Andrew Miller, and Mike Brewster will compete for maybe a final spot on the roster and spots on the practice squad.

Defense

The Saints allowed the fifth most points in the NFL last year and allowed the second most yards. New Orleans also didn’t force a lot of turnovers on defense. They struggled stopping the run, in coverage, and rushing the quarterback. However the Saints retained defensive coordinator Rob Ryan. The Saints added several veterans in the front seven including Kevin Williams, Anthony Spencer, and Dannell Ellerbe along with rookie Hau’oli Kikaha. The Saints did add former Raiders head coach Dennis Allen to help coach the secondary, which welcomes the addition of cornerbacks Brandon Browner, P.J. Williams, and Delvin Breaux. I’m not expecting a huge breakthrough from New Orleans’ defense, but they will be better.

Defensive Line

Defensive end Cameron Jordan had a quiet year after racking up 12.5 sacks in 2013, recording only 7.5 sacks. New Orleans was convinced by Jordan enough to sign him to a five year, $60 million extension. Jordan’s a solid run defender, but he wasn’t the elite pass rusher in 2014 that he was in 2013. Junior Galette is used at defensive end and outside linebacker and he’s notched 22 sacks in the past two years, but he hasn’t been that string against the run and he’s had multiple off-field issues and some injury issues. Akiem Hicks has emerged as a solid starter at defensive end, but he’s not an elite talent. Hicks is good against the run but doesn’t add a whole lot as a pass rusher. Brodrick Bunkley and John Jenkins will share snaps and are both good run defenders. At 34 Kevin Williams can still get after the quarterback, but he’s a rotational guy at this point. Anthony Spencer has been pretty injury prone and hasn’t done much as a pass rusher since 2012, when he had 11 sacks. Spencer may share some snaps with Galette and rookie Kasim Edebali, who will play as hybrid linebacker/ends. Lawrence Virgil, Tyeler Davison, and Glenn Foster add decent interior depth. Bobby Richardson surprisingly went undrafted and should make the roster or the practice squad.

Linebackers

New Orleans still hasn’t sorted out their linebacker situation, as they have three potential candidates to start at middle linebacker. David Hawthrone, who played at WLB last year is the leading candidate, but the spot could go to newcomers Dannell Ellerbe or Stephone Anthony. Hawthrone is stout against the run, but he’s not the best in coverage. Ellerbe is projected to start at WLB, but he could swap positions with Hawthrone. Anthony has a lot of potential, but the Saints may wait to make him a full-time starter at middle linebacker. Parys Haralson is the starting SLB, but he will share some snaps with rookie Hau’oli Kikaha, who has more upside as a pass rusher. Haralson has just 7.5 sacks in the past two seasons, and Kikaha may see time qucikly if Haralson can’t produce. Ronald Powell, a fifth round pick from last season who didn’t see the field much at all, can play on the line or at outside linebacker. Ramon Humber adds some depth and is vauable as a special teamer. Fifth round pick Davis Tull may have to play special teams before he sees much time on defense.

Defensive Backs

The Saints’ biggest signing this offseason was big cornerback Brandon Browner, one of the most physical corners in the NFL. Browner exploded onto the scene in Seattle in 2011, intercepting six passes, but he’s only had five picks since them. It will be interesting to see how he responds tono longer playing opposite Richard Sherman or Darrelle Revis. Keenan Lewis had a down year in 2014 after picking off four passes and allowing only 54.5 percent of passes thrown his way to be completed and a 66.6 quarterback rating in 2013, according to ProFootballFocus. Third round pick P.J. Williams has good size and speed and is expected to step in as the slot cornerback right away. Former CFL player Delvin Breaux has looked very impressive in the slot role this offseason and he, like Williams, can also play outside. Breaux is a very physical player and may surprise some people with his play next year. 2014 second round pick Stanley Jean-Baptiste is the forgotten man after not seeing a lot of action as a rookie. Jean-Baptiste has great size at 6–3, and pretty good speed for his size and he has been compared to teammate Brandon Browner. Fifth round rookie Damian Swann also has good size and speed and should make the team as a rookie. Veteran Kyle Wilson may have to win the nickel job to get a roster spot because there’s a lot of bodies at cornerback. Wilson opened OTAs as the starter, but I have some doubts that Williams or Breaux won’t be able to beat him out. Young players Terrence Frederick and Brian Dixon may have really hard times making the team. Jairus Byrd is going to need a really strong year to bounce back from his injury riddled debut with the Saints. Byrd has shown in the past that he’s one of the best coverage safeties in the NFL. Kenny Vaccaro is a physical player, but he was a disaster last season and he was penalized ten times in 2014. Vaccaro has the tools to be a decent player, but he needs to improve, especially in coverage. Rafael Bush is a productive defender and probably one of the better backup safeties in the NFL. Bush could see some action in some sub-packages next year. Undrafted second year player Pierre Warren impressed as a rookie, starting the final six weeks of the season, including a two interception effort against the Bears. 2014 fifth round pick Vinnie Sunseri didn’t see much time on defense last year and he’ll have to hold off veterans Jamarca Sanford and Kenny Phillips for a role as depth and special teams help. New additions at cornerback should help, but the Saints need bounce back seasons from their starting safeties.

Special Teams

Punter Thomas Morstead is one of the best punters in the NFL, but the Saints have struggled to solve their kicker position the last few years. Dustin Hopkins and Zach Hocker will compete for the kicking duties next year. Long snapper Justin Drescher has been with the team since 2010. C.J. Spiller, Brandin Cooks, Jalen Saunders, and Marcus Murphy will compete for the return duties. Ramon Humber is a solid contributor on special teams.

Conclusion

The Saints may be the favorites to win the NFC South next year, but the NFC South has gotten a lot better with the additions of Dan Quinn and Jameis Winston. It won’t be easy for New Orleans to get back to the postseason, but I think they can do it. The Saints havea good offense and their defense should be much improved after New Orleans invested there this offseason. That said, I don’t think New Orleans is a legitimate Super Bowl contender because Brandon Browner and a few rookies and over-the-hill free agent signings aren’t going to completely turn things around in New Orleans. This isn’t a team to sleep on, but I’m not buying Super Bowl tickets in August if I’m a Saints fan.