The Saints’ offseason went about as badly as any offseason where you don’t lose major players could go. First there was BountyGate, which caused the Saints to lose their top pass rusher, Will Smith, for 4 games, their starting middle linebacker, Jonathan Vilma, for the season, and Head Coach Sean Peyton for the season. It also is a major distraction for the players and a major disruptor of team chemistry. On top of all that, it cost them a 2nd round pick in the 2012 and 2013 NFL Drafts. Already missing their 1st round pick this year, they didn’t have a draft pick until the 3rd round, which hurt their ability to reload.
The other major problem was Drew Brees’ holdout. Brees is signed long term now, but it took them until right before the franchise player deadline. That was another distraction and major disruptor of team chemistry. When your franchise quarterback has to put in that much effort and that much time to get paid fairly, it starts to make the other players question if their front office has their best interests in mind. Brees also missed all of OTAs and minicamp, which will also hurt team chemistry.
Brees is signed now and won’t miss any of Training Camp, which will definitely help, and while they’ve lost other pieces this offseason, they still have the most important one, the quarterback. Even without Sean Payton, this team will be able to score tons of points as long as they have Brees. The Saints offense averaged 476.1 yards and scored more than 40 points six times in the 10 games Pete Carmichael Jr. called the plays last season, when Payton was in the booth with an injury. And I’m sure Payton will find some way to bend or break the rules to put his stamp on this team in some way.
Last season, Brees completed 71.2% of his passes for an average of 8.3 YPA, 46 touchdowns, and 14 interceptions, good for a QB rating of 110.6. Including playoffs, Brees completed 70.9% of his passes for an average of 8.4 YPA, 53 touchdowns, and 16 interceptions. The Saints’ offense scored 34.2 points per game (4th highest all-time in a 16 game season) and won 13 games despite an average defense that ranked 13th in the league with 21.2 points per game allowed. 9 times out of 10, that wins you the MVP. However, Aaron Rodgers set the single season record for QB rating last year, averaged a higher YPA and a better TD:INT ratio, and led the Packers to 35.0 points per game (2nd highest all-time in a 16 game season).
There are some areas in which Brees was actually better than Rodgers last season. He had better pocket presence, taking a sack on only 13.9% of pressured snaps, as opposed to 22.9% for Rodgers (all stats including playoffs). Only Michael Vick and Eli Manning took a sack less often when pressured. He also had an accuracy percentage (doesn’t count drops, throw aways, hit as throwns, spikes, or batted passes) of 68.6% under pressure, as opposed to 63.2% for Aaron Rodgers. Only Eli Manning was accurate on a higher percentage of his pressured throws.
Brees also ranked 3rd in deep accuracy (20+ yards or more) with a 53.5% accuracy percentage, 2nd in overall accuracy percentage with a 79.0% accuracy percentage, 2nd in yards in the air (total yards – YAC + yards lost on drops), and 2nd in adjusted QB rating (doesn’t count drops, throw aways, hit as throwns, spikes, batted passes, or yards after catch). ProFootballFocus graded him out as their best quarterback last year and his 70.7 overall rating led all players at any position. 2nd place Justin Smith had a rating of 59.9, a pretty big difference.
The only hole you can poke in Brees is that he gets to play 8 home games in a dome and he’s not as good outside as he is inside. In domes, Brees completed 72.7% of his passes for an average of 8.7 YPA and 37 touchdowns to 6 interceptions, as opposed to 68.5% of his passes for an average of 8.0 YPA, 16 touchdowns, and 10 interceptions outside, including playoffs. There’s a reason why the Saints went 5-4 on the road and 9-0 at home.
Over the last two seasons, the Saints are 11-7 on the road, outscoring opponents by an average of 3.7 points per game. At home, they are 14-3 and outscore their opponents by an average of 13.4 points per game. They’ve been 9.7 points per game better at home than on the road. The Saints would have their best chance of winning the Super Bowl again if they get the #1 seed and home field advantage, like they did when they won it the last time. Luckily for them, if they make the Super Bowl, they’ll have the ultimate home field advantage because the Superdome hosts the Super Bowl this season. They will try to be the first team to play the Super Bowl in their home stadium in NFL history.
Wide Receivers/Tight Ends
Brees has no shortage of talented receivers to throw to either, though he does make them all look better than they are. The Saints like to use 4 different wide receivers, giving Marques Colston, Devery Henderson, Robert Meachem, and Lance Moore all significant snaps last season. Colston was targeted 124 times on 598 pass plays (including playoffs), once every 4.8 pass plays, one of the best rates in the league.
He hauled in 96 of those passes (77.4%) for 1394 yards and 9 touchdowns, but didn’t do much after the catch as his 3.2 yards after catch per catch ranked 4th worst among players who averaged 14.0+ yards per catch, behind Miami’s Brian Hartline, Chad Ochocinco, formerly of the New England Patriots, and Robert Meachem, Colston’s former teammate in New Orleans. He also only broke 3 tackles all year. Colston lines up in a bunch of different places, ranked 2nd in QB rating when thrown to (134.3), and 6th in yards per route run (2.45), but is largely a product of the system. There’s a reason he resigned with the Saints quickly this offseason, seemingly at a discount. One thing he does have is reliable hands, dropping just 3 passes last season, good for the 4th best drop rate in the league.
Robert Meachem was the starter opposite Colston last year. He’s gone, but he’s pretty mediocre. On 532 pass plays last year, he was targeted 72 times, just once every 7.4 pass plays. He only hauled in 65.3% of those targets (47) and while his high YPC (15.9) led to 748 yards, his aforementioned low YAC per catch was just 3.1, largely because he broke just 2 tackles all season. He scored 7 times.
He’s being replaced in the starting lineup by Devery Henderson, an equally mediocre player. Henderson saw 561 passing snaps last year (which shows how much the Saints like to rotate receivers and use 3 and 4 wide receiver sets), but was targeted just 58 times, good for one every 9.7 passing plays. He hauled in just 38 of those targets (65.5%) for 616 yards and 3 touchdowns.
With Meachem gone, Lance Moore will see more of the field. Moore is a more efficient player who lines up primarily on the slot. On 336 pass plays, he was targeted 72 times, once every 4.7 passing plays. He hauled in 52 of those passes (72.2%) for 627 yards and 8 touchdowns. He’s a nice sure handed possession receiver. The 4th receiver will either be the inexperienced Adrian Arrington or 4th round rookie Nick Toon. Toon was a steal in the 4th round and deserves to win the 4th receiver job. If he does, he’ll see plenty of the field. He should eventually be a starter for them.
The Saints also get plenty of pass receiving production from tight end Jimmy Graham and running backs Darren Sproles and Pierre Thomas. Graham played 651 passing snaps and was targeted 164 times (once every 4.0 plays) for 111 receptions (67.7%) for 1468 yards and 14 touchdowns. He led the team in all of those categories. Brees throwing to his tight ends often is nothing new. In 2010, David Thomas, Jeremy Shockey, and a then raw rookie Jimmy Graham combined for 108 catches for 1046 yards and 9 touchdowns. Graham essentially just consolidated all of those targets and used his superior athleticism to do the rest. He’s not much of a blocker, but he should have yet another strong season as a pass catcher in 2012. David Thomas, a better blocker, handles most of those duties.
Darren Sproles is listed as a running back, but he’s essentially a wide receiver. He ran 450 pass routes, as opposed to only 101 carries. He was targeted 130 times, once every 3.5 pass plays. He caught 105 passes (80.8%) for 877 yards and 8 touchdowns. He led all running backs in targets by 22, in receptions by 24, and in receiving touchdowns by 5.
Sproles wasn’t their only running back who contributed in the passing game. Pierre Thomas saw 238 passing plays and was targeted 62 times on those for a rate of once every 3.8 pass plays and caught 57 passes (91.9%) for 485 yards and a touchdown. Brees loves passing to running backs and tight ends. He’s got plenty of targets and knows how to get the most out of them. There’s a reason he was 3rd in the league in yards in the air before drops per attempt (yards – yards after catch + yards lost in drops/pass attempts) with 4.7, only behind Eli Manning (4.8) and Aaron Rodgers (5.0).
Sproles and Thomas also some saw carries as running backs, but the Saints don’t run nearly as much as they pass. In the regular season, they passed 662 times, as opposed to 431 runs. In the postseason, they passed 106 times to 50 runs. Sproles carried the ball 87 times for 603 yards and 2 touchdowns (6.9 YPC), while Thomas rushed for 562 yards and 5 touchdowns on 110 carries (5.1 YPC). Because of those two, the Saints were actually able to rush 4.9 YPC, good for 4th in the league. Sproles and Thomas have career averages of 5.2 and 4.8 YPC respectively and are undoubtedly helped by the Saints’ passing game and offensive line, so they could replicate that in 2012.
The one guy they need to get going is Mark Ingram. Ingram was a 1st round pick of the Saints in 2011, after they traded a 2nd round pick in 2011 and a 1st round pick in 2012 to grab him 28th overall. The former Heisman winner struggled mightily as a rookie with injuries and rushed for just 474 yards and 5 touchdowns on 122 carries (3.9 YPC) in 10 games. He also only caught 11 passes for 46 yards, but he’s never been much of a pass catcher. Ingram had another knee surgery this offseason so things still look pretty bleak for him. He’s their best between the tackles and short yardage runner, so if they can get him going, it will be very good for their offense, especially around the goal line.
The Saints also have a very strong offensive line that ranked 8th on ProFootballFocus in pass blocking efficiency and 5th as run blockers. Brees is a very good quarterback under pressure, but they did a very good job making sure he was protected as he ranked 18th out of 22 eligible quarterbacks (50% of their team’s snaps) as he was pressured on just 25.9% of his team’s snaps.
Left tackle Jermon Bushrod is the weak point. Bushrod only allowed 3 sacks, but that was mostly Brees’ doing as Bushrod also allowed 11 quarterback hits and 42 quarterback pressures. He was a decent run blocker and penalized 6 times. He’s in a contract year and might not be brought back. Inexperienced 2010 2nd round pick Charles Brown could challenge for his job at some point this season.
Opposite Bushrod, Zach Strief played much better. The right tackle was in just his first season as a starter and graded out well as both a run blocker and a pass protector. With a 15.2 rating, he ranked 2nd at his position behind only Jason Peters. He allowed 5 sacks, 2 quarterback hits, and 25 quarterback pressures, numbers that don’t look great, but remember how much they passed. He was also only penalized twice and run blocked well, helping pave the way for the Saints surprisingly strong ground game in 2011.
Also helping that was a strong interior offensive line. Carl Nicks and Jahri Evans are among the league’s best guards, while center Brian La Puente did a very good job in his first season as a starter. Nicks is gone, but the Saints signed Ben Grubbs from the Ravens. He’s not the elite player than Nicks is, but he’ll definitely get the job done. In 2011, he ranked 20th at his position and in 2010 he ranked 10th. Evans, meanwhile, is overpaid, but still a solid starter. He ranked 11th at his position in 2011 with a 7.6 rating, while center Brian La Puente ranked 14th among centers with a 4.5 rating.
Sean Payton is gone, but the Saints offense should be fine without him. Drew Brees is as good as it gets at quarterback and he’s got plenty of talented receiving options around him, as well as a surprisingly strong running game and a strong offensive line. Even with Payton gone, the system isn’t changing much and they did fine with him not calling plays when he was hurt last year. They also have a lot of continuity, which will help combat Payton’s loss, and Payton will still likely find some way to put his mark on this team, even though he’s technically suspended. They should be at least a top 5 offense and score over 30 points per game again this season.
Sean Payton’s loss on defense won’t be felt much as he’s not a defensive coach. The Saints did well by bringing in Steve Spagnuolo as defensive coordinator. Spagnuolo was an excellent defensive coordinator with the Giants before taking a Head Coaching job in St. Louis, where he didn’t have much of a chance. Even there, he did great work with their defensive line and pass rush.
That’s a good thing because that’s where the Saints need the most help. The Saints had 33 sacks last year, which is a low total, but it’s even more pathetic when you realize that the Saints did that despite blitzing often. In fact, their team leader in sacks was their strong safety. Including playoffs, only 18 of their 38 sacks came from the defensive line. ProFootballFocus ranked them as the league’s worst pass rushing team. Even worse, their leader in sacks on the defensive line, Will Smith with 7, is suspended for the first 4 games of the season and heading into his age 31 season anyway. He’s not getting any better.
The other suspended defensive player is Jonathan Vilma. He won’t be missed as much. He ranked 52th among middle linebackers with a -18.4 rating last year and was equally bad in coverage and against the run. Now 30, his best days are behind him and he may have played his last game in a Saints uniform. He’s been suspended for the entirety of the 2012 season and the Saints wasted no time replacing him, signing Curtis Lofton, a much better player, from the Falcons. In fact, the Saints brought in 3 new starting linebackers and upgraded a major weakness of their defense.
On top of all this, the Saints should have more takeaways this year. They had just 16 last year, which hurt their defense. In spite of that, they still were a solid 13th in points per game allowed with 21.2 points per game allowed. Since 2002, 38 teams have managed 20 or fewer takeaways. The following season, they have had 7.53 more takeaways and won 1.41 more games. A poor pass rush will hurt them in this area, but they should still be an improved team in this aspect. In 2010, they had 25 takeaways and in 2009, they had 39.
In Will Smith’s absence, Turk McBride and Junior Galette will rotate at defensive end. McBride is a mediocre and inexperienced player, while Galette did a solid job as a nickel rusher last year, but struggles against the run. On 339 pass rush snaps, he had 4 sacks, 11 quarterback hits, and 19 quarterback pressures, good for a rate of 10.0%. Will Smith, meanwhile, had 7 sacks, 7 quarterback hits, and 34 quarterback pressures on 630 pass rush snaps, good for an average at best 7.6% pass rush rate.
The Saints really need Cameron Jordan to get it going at left end. Jordan, the 24th overall pick of the 2011 NFL Draft, stuffed the run well, ranking 6th at his position in that aspect, but he struggled to get any pass rush with 1 sack, 6 quarterback hits, and 18 quarterback pressures on 365 pass rush snaps, good for a rate of 6.8%. Martez Wilson, a 2011 3rd round pick as a linebacker, has converted to defensive end and will see some snaps there this season as an undersized nickel rusher.
The Saints didn’t get much pass rush from the interior of their defensive line either. Sedrick Ellis has always been a strong player against the run, but he doesn’t always get much pass rush. Last year, he managed just 2 sacks, 2 quarterback hits, and 18 quarterback pressures on 527 pass rush snaps, good for a poor 4.2% rating. Rather than adding a pass rushing interior defensive lineman this offseason, the Saints gave Brodrick Bunkley a 5 year, 25 million dollar deal and used a 3rd round pick on Akiem Hicks. Both Bunkley and Hicks are better run stuffers than pass rushers, so those moves didn’t make much sense. Bunkley ranked 3rd at his position with a rating of 26.8 with the Broncos last year, and first against the run, but managed just 1 sack, 1 quarterback hit, and 5 quarterback pressures on 213 pass rush snaps (3.3%).
Steve Spagnuolo is great at getting the most out of his defensive lines, but he doesn’t have much to work with. Their best pass rusher is aging and suspended for 4 games and neither of his replacements look like every down ends. The best case scenario is that Smith plays well in 12 games, doesn’t show his age, and Cameron Jordan breaks out as an inside/outside pass rusher, while Galette continues to play well in a nickel role, but even then they won’t be a great pass rushing team. Also, with Gregg Williams gone, they’ll blitz less, which was one of the only reasons they got any pressure last year. They could be one of the worst teams in the league in terms of sacks.
The Saints didn’t stuff the run well last year either, allowing 5.0 YPC. However, the addition of Brodrick Bunkley will help, as will their overhaul at linebacker. Not expecting Jonathan Vilma, a declining player anyway, to contribute in 2012, the Saints signed Curtis Lofton from the Falcons to play middle linebacker, stealing one of their biggest rival’s best defensive players in the process. With a 12.3 rate, he ranked 17th at his position last year. He’s best against the run, but not terrible in coverage and played all 3 downs for the Falcons last year.
The Saints also signed David Hawthorne this offseason, who ranked 19th among middle linebackers with an 8.9 rate. He’ll move outside and be a major upgrade over JoLonn Dunbar. Dunbar struggled both outside and inside last year at linebacker, ranking 39th among 42 outside linebackers and 49th among 53 middle linebackers. Overall, he had a pathetic -26.3 rating.
Their other linebacker, Scott Shanle, wasn’t much better. Shanle only sucked at one position, but his -15.5 rating ranked 40th among 42 outside linebackers. The Saints signed Chris Chamberlain to compete with him for the starting job. Chamberlain is only a two down run stuffer, but that’s all they need him to be and he was solid in that role in St. Louis last year under Steve Spagnuolo. With likely 3 new starting linebackers, the Saints have turned a group that was once a major weakness into a strength. That will definitely help them against the run, the specialty of all 3 new linebackers.
The Saints’ secondary played well last year as they allowed just 7.1 YPA, 14th in the league, despite struggling to get to the quarterback and often blitzing members of their back 7 in order to generate any pressure. #1 cornerback Jabari Greer allowed 74 completions on 137 attempts (54.0%) for 857 yards (6.3 YPA), 4 touchdowns, and 3 interceptions, while deflecting 17 passes and not committing a single penalty. His 17 deflections were good for most in the league, tied with Joe Haden. If a few of those turn into interceptions in 2012, that will help them improve their takeaway total, as history suggests they will. He got his hands on plenty of balls last season.
Opposite him, 2010 1st round pick Patrick Robinson played pretty well as a starter, allowing 49 completions on 86 attempts (57.0%) for 575 yards (6.7 YPA), 2 touchdowns, and 4 interceptions, while deflecting 11 passes and committing 3 penalties. Slot cornerback Tracy Porter is gone, but he played really badly, allowing 62 completions on 87 attempts (71.3%) for 752 yards (8.6 YPA), 2 touchdowns, and 1 interception, while deflecting 7 passes and committing 4 penalties. The organization believes that 2011 3rd round pick Johnny Patrick is ready to step up and take the job.
At safety, Roman Harper led the team in sacks with 9. He also had 5 quarterback hits and 7 quarterback pressures on 153 blitzes, good for an impressive 13.7% rate. He struggled in coverage though and ranked 83th out of 84 safeties with a -17.8 rating overall. He allowed 33 completions on 64 attempts (51.6%) for 437 yards (6.8 YPA), 7 touchdowns, and no interceptions, while deflecting 3 passes and committing 9 penalties.
Opposite him, Malcolm Jenkins also struggled in coverage and had a -8.7 rating, but the 2009 1st round pick has been better in the past. He allowed 26 completions on 49 attempts (53.1%) for 555 yards (11.3 YPA), 4 touchdowns, and no interceptions, while deflecting 6 passes and committing 2 penalties. He allowed the 4th most YAC of any safety in the league and missed 13 tackles. Between the two, they didn’t manage a single interception. Both allowed completion percentages in the 50s, but their coverage rating was hurt by their lack of interceptions. I don’t expect that to happen this year. They’re not bad players.
The Saints’ weakest group on defense, by far, is their defensive line, but they’re well coached there as Steve Spagnuolo is their defensive coordinator and that’s his specialty. They overhauled their linebacking corps and turned that into a strength and, in the secondary, they start 4 players who all allowed completion percentages in the 50s, despite the fact that they couldn’t get any pressure on the quarterback without blitzing. Based on history, they should have more takeaways this year. That and their play against the run were their two weaknesses last year, but that should not be the case this season. They had the league’s 13th ranked scoring defense last year. They should be around there this year and may even break into the top 10, like they were in 2010 (7th with 19.2 points per game allowed).
Their Head Coach situation is complicated. Sean Payton is suspended for the year. Interim Head Coach Joe Vitt is suspended for the first 6 games of the season. Pete Carmichael Jr. is expected to be the Head Coach for the first 6 games of the season. He did a great job of calling the plays last year and he’s a great offensive mind who should keep things the same on offense even without Payton. However, the Saints will essentially have two different Head Coaches this year and neither of them have been the Head Coach before. Steve Spagnuolo is their only assistant with Head Coaching experience, but he’ll continue to coordinate the defense, which he should do a good job of. Still, if anything derails this team, it will be the coaching staff.
Under normal circumstances, this team might be my Super Bowl pick. They have one of the best offenses in the league and they have the talent defensively to be a top-10 scoring defense. They led the league in points differential last year with +208 and won 13 games. Last year, they might have been the league’s most well rounded team and, as bad as they are on the road, they almost beat the Packers in Lambeau week 1.
Over the last 3 years, they’re tied with the Patriots for most wins with a combined 37. Including playoffs, they lead the league with a combined 41 wins (Green Bay is at 40 and New England is at 39). This year, I think they’re an even more talented bunch, especially defensively with the addition of 4 new starters and a great new defensive coordinator. They’re the only elite offense that I actually trust to also be able to stop anyone.
But these aren’t normal circumstances. Drew Brees’ semi-holdout set them back in their offseason training and hurt team chemistry and morale, while BountyGate destroyed their coaching staff and gave them a major off the field distraction. Brees is back and will be under center this year, so this is still the favorite in a tough NFC South that really could be anyone’s (except maybe Tampa Bay, but even they’ll be improved). However, I think they’ll be a worse team wins wise in 2012 than they were in 2011.
Perhaps in 2013, once all of the off the field stuff has blown over, they can win the top seed in the NFC again and play 2 home games in the Superdome en route to the Super Bowl. As for this year, they’ll probably be the NFC’s #3 or #4 seed and have to play a road playoff game, which I don’t trust them to win, even though all of the off the field stuff could have blown over by then. Drew Brees has never won a road playoff game in his career (read that again, because that’s baffling). Neither has the Saints organization. They’ve lost in San Francisco and Seattle in each of the last 2 seasons on the road in the playoffs.
In the division, they have to face Atlanta, Tampa Bay, and Carolina a combined 6 times. They have a tough schedule, but I think they’ll win all 3 of those home games and at least one on the road. I have them at 4-2 in the division. Outside of the division, they host Washington, Kansas City, early season San Diego, Philadelphia, and San Francisco. Except for the Philadelphia game, those could all be very easy games, even San Francisco, who beat them in Candlestick last year. The 49ers are not as good on the road and will find playing in the Superdome very tough, especially since I think they’re overrated. Their non-divisional road games are in Green Bay, Denver, Oakland, New York to play the Giants, and Dallas. With the exception of Oakland, those are all losable games for them and given their road struggles in the past, they could go 2-3 in those 5. That would put them at 11-5.
Projection: 11-5 1st in NFC South