Saints sailing under a strong Brees

I always hope Saints fans use this joke “Knock knock” “Who’s there?” “Wendy” “Wendy who?” “Oh wendy Saints come marching on, oh when the Saints come marching on” but they probably don’t. It’s been a tough couple of seasons for Brees and crew competing in a very competitive NFC South, dominated for the last three years by the Panthers. They are somewhat hampered by their limited cap space as well. Drew Brees continues to have dominating performances, who can forget his 7 touchdown game against the Giants last year? But have the Saints made the moves and draft picks to mount a challenge to the Panthers dominance at the same time holding off the resurgent Bucs and Falcons? I have a look at their prospects here.

As we covered in our Top QB list podcast, Bress lead the league last season in passing yards, as he has done so for 4 out of last 5 seasons and has not had a QB rating below 95 since 2010. He was sacked only 31 times only two more than in 2014. Brees continues to be the cornerstone of the team and linked up well with Brandin Cooks, who has shown promising signs in his first two seasons though questions remain still if he is really elite. This is probably why they spent a second round pick on Michael Thomas, to create some more competition, despite Willie Snead having a surprisingly good season. The Saints obviously feel they need more legitimate receiving options and Thomas provides that.

 I like that they picked up Coby Fleener (well ok I don’t like it that much but know why the Colts couldn’t resign him). As much as Ben Watson had a career season, Fleener has more potential for going on longer purely by being younger and is likely to have a good year as he will be targeted especially when in the red zone. Fleener is a good touchdown threat but also has speed and the ability to get open and get down the field. Admittedly he is not the best blocking tight end but really for the Saints that doesn’t seem to be essential.

They have lacked a distinct running game for several seasons (last year they were 24th with a mean of 93.2 yards per game), relying mainly on Brees arm and accuracy, Mark Ingram is solid but still only managed not much over 700 yards. Admittedly with Brees passing, the Saints don’t need to rely on the run but it does make them somewhat more one dimensional in an era where the power running back is making a come back. Since their Super Bowl XLIV winning ’09 season, the Saints have only had one player rush for more than 900 yards. They have C.J. Spiller still (can act as another catching threat, though mainly out of the back field or on screens) and I suppose it costs them little with picking up California’s Daniel Lasco in the 7th round, I suspect seeing if he is a bit of a star sleeper. California seemed to have a good o-line and many of Lasco’s plays he benefited from good blocking and Goff’s convincing dummy passes. However, he is kind of a power back, quite quick on tape, spins well, is not afraid of contact and barging would be tacklers as well as very acrobatic and versatile in attempting to avoid the tackle. Yes he runs out of bounds at times, but I see why the Saints were tempted to try him out. He probably needs to work somewhat on his pass blocking but Ingram and Spiller probably could do that. Maybe not a prospect this season, but one for the future and may well feature on Special teams. We may also see more of Marcus Murphy who had a memorable 74 yard punt return for a touchdown against the Panthers last year. However, do not expect a big run game this year from the Saints. Points will come sailing with the Brees.

Scoring points and getting yardage is not the problem, they were 8th for scoring with 26 points per game on average . Partly due to the salary cap issues I suppose but the real problem has been the defense. When you allow on average 30 points per game, that gives you a general net of -4 points i.e. you are losing games or at least always chasing games.  No wonder they opened their limited draft picks with a defensive tackle in Sheldon Rankins, who is a big strong boy. You don’t need to watch that much tape to appreciate the talent he has as an inside pass rusher. He has power and speed and good technique in breaking blocks and spinning blockers, eyes focused on the passer and in his last two seasons totaled 15 sacks. What he brings is strength, a dominating frame and one that will draw attention possibly distracting o-lines long enough for the likes of Cameron Jordan and Stephone Anthony to get involved. He also looks pretty handy at stopping the run game and the Saints really need that help, last year allowing the most yards per attempt of any team (4.9 yards and a total of 2076 yards, only the second worse behind the Eagles). Hence why they also trade up for Vonn Bell in the second round, nominally as a strong safety but he is in the mold of a hybrid safety – cornerback. I love watching his tackling, he converts speed into power but tackles wonderfully low with some classic rugby union style good tackles, properly tacking the legs away. At Ohio he showed potential for closing down running backs and receivers quickly. They also picked up David Onyemata, the defensive tackle from Manitoba. Three picks that add depth and strength to what has been considered a flaky defense at best.

The Saints will continue to struggle because of their limited cap space and limited draft picks, Micky Loomis has possibly made the best of a difficult situation. Yes they need to sort out a contract for Brees, but this is a matter of when not if. The pre-season games will be interesting, especially on defense, which has been their weakness to date. Can they show that they don’t have to chase games? Their regular season opener is going to be a tough one, against a team most think have vastly improved in the off-season both on the o-line and the defense, which is considered one of the scariest front seven in the league. Yes I am talking about the Oakland Raiders. Can the defense keep Brees and co in the game? Can Rankins et. al. get to Derek Carr and close down Amari Cooper? Will the o-line step up and hold back the likes of Khalil Mack (ha ha ha what am I saying) and Mario Edwards at bay? It will be an exciting game for sure.

And the rest of the season? The NFC South is now one of the toughest to get out of with the Panthers the team to beat. The Saints are trying to follow the Falcons in finding ways to beat the Panthers and then everyone else in the league. They have a tough schedule, facing both West divisions. As good as I think the Saints have the potential to be, I am sorry to say I do not see them making the play-offs and most likely the Saints will limp on to an 8-8 season.