The Saints really showed us who they were going to be early on. After starting 0-1, the Saints lost a home game to their division rival Buccaneers in Jameis Winston’s second career start. A 1-4 Saints team pulled out a surprising three game winning streak against the undefeated at the time Atlanta Falcons, the Andrew Luck led Colts, and the Giants in a 52-49 thriller. That was clearly their best run of the season, and it followed by a loss more depressing that their week 2 performance, another home loss to fellow rookie quarterback Marcus Mariota. That loss started an even uglier four game losing streak, and while the Saints finished the year winning three of their last four games, no one seemed to notice as they were already 4-8 and facing plenty of challenges, specifically on defense.
As mentioned changes were needed on defense in were made with Rob Ryan getting fired midway through the year. They were not just bad, they were historically bad and according to football outsiders were the least efficient defense in the past 20 years. Dennis Allen was promoted and will take over the play calling. He isn’t historically a bad coordinator, but in his brief stint as a DC and Head Coach he ran a 4-3 defense. He inherited a 3-4 and all you can say is that if he is looking to make the change he will need ownership to be patient. Sean Payton seemed to face rumors of his trade all year, and while he is still here, on a team with a rebuild in site it is always something to keep in the back of your head.
Drew Brees didn’t quite have a Peyton Manning year, and truly didn’t have a bad season but at he did show regression. He missed a game with a shoulder injury early in the season but the rest of his season showed accuracy. What most was effective was his downfield accuracy. While many can argue that Brandin Cooks, Willie Snead and Marques Colston aren’t the best of options, this is a guy who once made names out of Lance Moore, Robert Meachem, and Devery Henderson. With one year on his contract, and Garrett Grayson drafted last year, there is probably a decent chance Brees will not be back in New Orleans. Grayson hasn’t proven yet that he can be a starter, but his preseason may need to be watched thoroughly.
Running Back Play
The Saints run game seemed to go as Mark Ingram went. Ingram unfortunately could only play for 10 games, and only one 100 yard game he still was the only Saint to have a yards per carry rate over 4 with his 4.6. With Ingram running successfully it has to be questioned why with their total pass attempts were 667 and their total rushes being 397, and would suspect they need to get that a little closer to even. Tim Hightower had a nice three game stretch with Ingram sidelined, but he is a free agent this year and a back up at best. Khiry Robinson is also a free agent, and plays a similar role to Hightower so the thought would be at least one is back. Ultimately CJ Spiller will more than likely be back, because the team saves little cutting him. He did catch 34 balls in 2015 but really was not a threat as a runner. Essentially the team is tied into two and will add a third in a power veteran runner.
Wide Receiver and tight end Play
In terms of targets Brandin Cooks, Ben Watson, and Willie Snead accumulated over half of Drew Brees passing attempts. They also combined for 18 of Brees’ 31 touchdowns. Watson will be a free agent this year and at 35 it will be an interesting test to see how much they truly appreciated the tight ends 2015. Cooks will be back, and led the team in targets, catches, yards and touchdowns. Cooks is a slot specialist, but has deep threat ability. Marquese Colston and Willie Snead are his outside guys to open him up. While Snead had a major breakout year with 984 yards in nine starts, Colston essentially lost his job to Brandon Coleman late in the year and may not be back as the team can save three million moving. It could help them in extending Snead who is a free agent next year, but still Brandon Coleman may not be a future option, and Snead will see how coordinators adjust after his first year of NFL tape. It leaves the outside open for improvement, but the Saints will have to do maneuvering if they want it to work,
Offensive Line Play
The offensive line actually played well ranking in the top ten in run efficient blocking, and top fifteen in pass blocking. The trade of Jimmy Graham for Max Unger ultimately hurt because, as mentioned the Saints didn’t change their offensive mentality. In a pass heavy offense, sure the huge tight end is more valuable, but the run game was more efficient with Unger. Jahari Evans is another talented interior blocker, and while the Saints currently have a hole at left guard but they drafted Andrus Peat in the first round last year, and while it was to be a future left tackle, Terron Armstead currently holds that spot. Armstead will be back, and Peat did get one start at left tackle last year, but got four starts at left guard. While he is a future tackle, Armstead and Zack Streiff are signed for this year, and if the team is confident in Armstead moving forward they may extend him and continue forward with Peat at guard.
To keep it brief. if most of the defense is a mess and is going be under question due to scheme change. Cameron Jordan is a stud and when he missed time the defense was rendered useless. He is a fine pass rusher and shouldn’t be too bothered by scheme change, but the rest of the defense has major questions. Hau’oli Kikaha is more of a pass rusher than linebacker, and may slot in as another pass rushing end, but still the team will need to find pass rushers in the 4-3 scheme. John Jenkins will slot in at nose tackle, and can transition fine as well, but the defensive tackle and at least one end will be needed this off season.
Stephone Anthony is a punisher against the run, and in his rookie year added to Peat in what looks to be a solid draft class. He can fit as the middle linebacker, and it will be a guess who plays beside him. Kikaha and Dannell Ellerbe would be the leaders in the clubhouse, and Ellerbe has played in the 4-3 before. Ellerbe however, has been ineffective since leaving Baltimore in 2013. The Saints can save 5 million cutting him, It would be smart to move on, and use the money on a cheaper, more effective linebacker.
Brandon Browner has to be the worst cornerback per dollar in the NFL making six million. When he isn’t getting burnt he is holding and getting pass interference calls. When isn’t missing tackles due to not wrapping up, he is getting penalties for tackling guys 20 yards away from the play. Somehow they are locked into him for another year and but they will certainly hope for year of better healthy from their rookie corner PJ Williams and veteran Keenan Lewis. Lewis only played in six games and being the fifth highest paid player on the team it will be key to get him for all 16 to get out of the cellar. They will also need a year from Jairus Byrd that they have not seen since he signed in New Orleans in 2014. Byrd has played in only 16 games in those two years, and has been a liability in coverage with corners who just cannot afford to have poor play at free safey. After being snake bit signing so many free agents and watching them fall off, it will be interesting to see their thoughts on in house Kenny Vaccaro. Vaccaro didn’t have a good year in his third in New Orleans but it is safe to say he is one of the most talented guys on that side of the ball, and his play may have been a product of the environment. One thing for sure is that 2016 will be the most crucial of his career.
Where do they go?
They need to figure out what the heck their defense is. They need to figure out to run the ball more, but when playing from behind it leaves them with little options. It also leaves Brees with no options but to take unadvised shots, and make it look ugly at times. While the offense has a couple needs, and could use help in the big receiver category, this offseason should be all about defense and building on the blocks of Jordan, Anthony, Lewis and Vaccaro.