How valuable is Head Coach Sean Payton? Well, if you look just at records, you could say he’s worth 6 wins, as the Saints went from 13-3 in 2011 to 7-9 in 2012. However, Payton’s absence wasn’t the only reason for the decline. Drew Brees’ numbers were still great without Payton, not as good as they were in 2011, but it’s unrealistic to expect him to produce like that every year. He still completed 63.0% of his passes for an average of 7.7 YPA, 43 touchdowns, and 19 interceptions. Everyone remembers his 5 interception loss to the Falcons, but everyone is entitled to one bad game, especially on a short week against an opportunistic defense. This was still the NFL’s 3rd ranking scoring offense, scoring 28.8 points per game, only behind the Patriots and Broncos.
The issue was more the coaching on the other side of the field and you can’t really blame Payton’s absence for that. The reason the Saints went 7-9 despite their great offense was that their defense allowed almost exactly the same amount of points, allowing 28.4 per game, 31st in the NFL. Coming into the season, I had Steve Spagnuolo in the horrible Head Coach/great coordinator club, but he obviously lost his membership this year, as the Saints were horrible defensively in his first year with the team as defensive coordinator.
His scheme is predicated around getting pressure with 4 guys, something he’s always been able to do, both in New York with the Giants and in St. Louis with the Rams. When he can do that, he’s effective, but he wasn’t able to do that at all with the defensive line he had in New Orleans, nor was he able to coach those linemen up into better players.
The Saints once again had one of the least efficient pass rushes in the NFL, 29th in pass rush efficiency, and, sticking true to his scheme, he still refused to blitz, which is what former defensive coordinator Gregg Williams did at an NFL leading rate in 2011, with much better success. Unable to generate any pressure, their so so defensive backs were completely overmatched, allowing the highest YPA in the NFL. Their defensive line didn’t do a whole lot of good against the run either, as they also allowed the NFL’s highest YPC. Sean Payton returning in 2013 will help this team, but if Spagnuolo returns too, they could be in some trouble once again. They obviously need to make the defensive line a priority of this off-season.
You could also put defensive tackle first, but I think end is a more important position. Either way, the Saints need to overhaul their defensive line. Will Smith looks pretty done, grading out as ProFootballFocus’ 2nd worst 4-3 defensive end this year. Owed 10 million in his age 32 season in 2013, he won’t be back unless he accepts a major pay cut and even then maybe not. The Saints need someone to replace just the sheer volume of snaps he played this year, 1007, 2nd on the line and 5th on the team. Hopefully this player will also make better use of them as well. A defensive end is a definite possibility with the 15th overall pick.
If they don’t use their 15th pick on a defensive end, expect them to use it on a defensive tackle. This is a defensive line rich draft in the top half of the 1st round and the Saints need all the help they can get. Sedrick Ellis is a free agent this off-season and the 1st round pick bust is not expected to be welcomed back. He led the position in snaps played and like, at defensive end with Will Smith, they need a replacement who is going to make better use of those snaps.
Their defensive issues weren’t just on the defensive line. Starters Jabari Greer and Patrick Robinson were both inconsistent and while both will probably be given another shot as starters in 2013, because of all the organization has invested in them (a big contract and a 1st round pick respectively), they definitely need more depth. Corey White was horrible as the 3rd cornerback and the 5th round rookie never should have been put in that position anyway.
The Saints’ safeties also played horribly. Roman Harper and Malcolm Jenkins ranked next to last and dead last respectively among ProFootballFocus’ safeties this year, routinely blowing coverages and missing tackles. Like with their cornerbacks, they have a lot invested in them, giving Roman Harper a big deal 2 off-seasons ago and using a 1st round pick on Malcolm Jenkins in 2009, but they need some competition. Jenkins is heading into a contract year, while Harper should definitely be put on notice after two straight awful years. If this continues, he should definitely be cut next off-season, owed 6.15 million in 2014. I’d say cut him now, but it doesn’t sound like that will happen.
The Saints made overhauling their linebacking corps a priority this off-season, giving significant contracts to Curtis Lofton and David Hawthorne, who both disappointed. The Saints will give them another shot in 2013, but they need an upgrade at the 3rd linebacker spot. Jonathan Vilma played there after his suspension, but he picked up where he left off in 2011, showing his age and playing poorly. Owed 5.9 million in his age 31 season in 2013, he’s not expected to be brought back and the Saints will need a new 3rd linebacker.
Left tackle Jermon Bushrod is a free agent this off-season. The Saints should let him walk. He’s not worth the kind of money someone will probably pay him. Yes, he’s allowed just 10 sacks in the last 3 years, but that’s more on Drew Brees, who has one of the quickest releases in the NFL. In spite of the low sack number, he’s allowed 141 total hits and hurries over that 3 year stretch, most in the NFL, and committed an additional 20 penalties. They should be able to find a comparable replacement easily, maybe even from in house, but they could use this opportunity to find a long term upgrade as well.
Devery Henderson is a free agent. He was ProFootballFocus’ 2nd worst rated wide receiver last year and I don’t know if there was anyone less efficient. He caught just 22 passes for 316 yards and a touchdown on 44 targets, despite having one of the best in the game throwing to him, dropping 5 and having another 3 picked off.
That doesn’t even tell the whole story. Those 316 yards came on 454 pass snaps, good for a 0.70 yards per route run average. Among players with as many targets he had, only Early Doucet had a lower average and he had Arizona’s shit show at quarterback. Henderson had Drew Brees. Heading into his age 31 season with a history of injury issues, he shouldn’t be brought back. They might bring in another receiver for depth or opt to replace him in house with Joe Morgan, who was promising in limited action this year, or Nick Toon, a 2012 4th round pick who missed his entire rookie year because of injuries.