32 NFL Teams in 16 Weeks: New Orlean Saints

Last year we attempted to work our way through the league one by one, taking an in-depth look at every NFL team. We failed. We were short by about 6 teams, which has been the cause of many a restless night and nightmare for me. So now we have a chance to right some wrongs, Division by Division, starting with the NFC South, we are going to get through all 32 teams. I promise…hopefully. Anyway let’s look at the Saints.

Previously, in New Orleans…

I don’t know whether dredging up last year is the best way to look at every team, but for this team it’s fairly important. The Saints had a roller-coaster 2014 season, finding it seemingly impossible to string a streak together and not taking advantage of a weak NFC South, that was eventually won by a team with a losing record, albeit narrowly, thanks to the Panthers gaining a draw against the Bengals. 2014 for the Saints was all about traction, or really a lack of it. Their longest win streak was 2 games, which they only achieved once and immediately followed up with a 3 game losing streak, all of which were at the Superdome, which had been considered as one of the tougher places to visit up until this Season. Despite losing a number of games at home, it felt like the Saints were always on the verge of turning it around, thanks to taking a couple of big scalps on the road, but the next game would always dash any hopes the Saints fans had. Even up until week 16, they were in the running for a playoff spot, but a loss to the Falcons dashed any hopes of the Saints seeing the Post-Season. The Saints were the most consistently disappointing team in the league last year, with a 7-9 record and were hugely over their salary cap. Things needed to change in New Orleans.

A Busy Off-Season.

The Saints Off-Season has been about 2 important issues. 1. Get under the Cap. 2. Find an identity. You can pretty much put any move they’ve made under 1 of these 2 titles. The biggest move was undeniably the trade of Jimmy Graham to the Seahawks for a 1st and Max Unger. Graham had a rough 2o14 season, which he played the majority of with a shoulder injury, but also there are rumours that he wasn’t getting on with the Saints front office, which could explain the trade. The fact is it wasn’t a salary cap move. Graham leaves the Saints with a massive $9m cap hit in dead money. Benjamin Grubbs had been a solid player on the Saints offensive line for a number of years, but a poor season and a massive cap hit, meant that the Saints were forced to trade him to the Chiefs for a 5th round pick. Despite being off the team, Grubbs has left $6m cap hit once again in dead money. To get under the projected salary cap number the Saints cut no less than 17 players, including Curtis Lofton and Pierre Thomas, all of which culminate in leaving a huge cap hit in dead money of over $20m.

Whilst the yard sale of players had left the Saints looking a little threadbare, they did bring in some strong players, which fit heavily under the “find an identity”, title. Dannell Ellerbe was a pickup in a trade with the Dolphins, seeing Kenny Stills go the other way. Ellerbe is coming off a hip injury that forced him out of the Dolphins team last season. Unfortunately for him made way for younger players at inside line-backer to come in and do a better job at a portion of the cost, making him surplus to requirements on a team that has spent a fortune on 2 players. Ellerbe should add some experience to an ever changing group of line-backers, as well as some much needed depth at the position. The addition of C.J Spiller gives them a versatile running back, similar to Darren Sproles and Reggie Bush, a dangerous weapon for Drew Brees, but dare I say it, maybe a little better in fact, particularly at actually running the ball. This addition shows the focus shifting slightly from an offence that is heavily dependent on the exceptionally talented Drew Brees, to a team that wants to run the ball with both Spiller and Ingram in the backfield. Finally the Saints used free agency to add cornerbacks Brandon Browner and Kyle Wilson, giving them some much needed depth in the secondary. Browner should add some experience to the unit too.

Whilst the Saints added very little in free agency to make up for the vast swathe of players they’d lost, they had under the radar acquired an awful lot of draft picks. The Saints addressed a number of needs with some of the early pickups. Andrus Peat will almost certainly come into the Saints line-up as a starter this year, either at the predicted left guard, or if Sean Payton is to be believed, at right tackle. Stephon Anthony was a surprise with their second 1st round pick, but Anthony will add some size to unit that has been heavily hit over the last couple of seasons. Hau’oli Kikaha is a pure pass rusher, who could be a decent partner for Junior Galette who racked up 10 sacks last season, especially in a division with notoriously bad offensive lines. In the 3rd round they picked up a sub package defensive back and in my opinion a bargain in P.J Williams and Drew Brees’ potential future replacement in Garrett Grayson, who has been compared to the future hall of famer, evidence that this is a team that is looking to the future. In the later rounds New Orleans added some depth at corner, line-backer and running back, 3 areas that have been hit hard over the last couple of years. Despite a poor free agency this team potentially got a lot better over the Off-Season and turned a crisis into the building blocks of a half decent rebuild.

Areas of Concern

The biggest concern I have for this team isn’t one on the field (although there are a few), but is in the form of their defensive coordinator. Being someone who bears a striking resemblance to Rob Ryan I wish nothing but the best for him this season, but his track record is not on his side. Since 2004 he has somehow managed to find a job as defensive coordinator on 4 different teams. In that time he has only had 3 top 16 seasons for yards allowed and 2 for points allowed. Rob Ryan has failed to provide a successful defence for more than 3/4 of his career. After a particularly poor season last year (31st in yards allowed, 28th in points), Ryan needs to somehow find a winning season from somewhere. If he doesn’t you have to think he’ll struggle to find yet another defensive coordinator job. Rex’s twin brother will be relying on a secondary that has cost an awful lot of money, but has thus far failed to deliver. If they can’t get it together, the Saints heavily run based offence will seriously struggle, with potential shoot-outs meaning they’re chances of winning will be resting on Drew Brees’ shoulders, which is something it feels they are desperate to avoid. Rob Ryan’s career could live or die by this season.

What to Look Out For

The Saints offence will live and die by their line this year. There is no denying that the loss of Grubbs is a pretty big one, but he proved to be a player they simply couldn’t afford. Despite the loss of potentially the best player on the line, they did add arguably the best center in the game in Max Unger and 1st round pick Andrus Peat, who could fill in at a number of positions, with the most obvious being left guard, filling in for the now missing Grubbs. With the addition of these 2 players, on top of Zach Strief, Terron Armstead and potentially Tim Lelito, the ex- UFA, who has come in and impressed the Saints brass, the Saints could have a solid line for a run game that will be hugely important this year. Just as important will be giving Brees enough time in the pocket to work with a diminished group of weapons. Brees is going to need all the help he can get.

What to Expect

The Saints could have a season where it’s obvious they’ve improved from last season, but end up with a similar record, maybe progressing slightly to an 8-8 record. That being said if the defence doesn’t improve they could struggle. A heavily run based offence is only as good as their defence. They need to keep the score low in games if the offence to succeed, something that teams like the Bills will almost certainly excel at, thanks to their defence. The Saints I don’t think have a good enough defence for this to be a successful method. That being said they still have Drew Brees, who is still a game changing QB. I think as much as we play up the Saints run game, this is a team that will rely on their QB to win games when they inevitably fall behind in games.

If I had to rate this team, I’d probably put them 3rd in the NFC South, a Division that I think will take some big steps forward. Despite my lack of faith in them this season, I would imagine we see them gradually move their way back to the top of the NFC South in only a couple of years, but I can’t see Rob Ryan being a part of it through to the end.