Jul 162013
 

Introduction

How valuable is Head Coach Sean Payton? Well, if you look just at records, you could say he’s worth 6 wins. Last season, the New Orleans Saints went 7-9 and missed the playoffs, a year after a 13-3 regular season. A lot of people blamed this on Sean Payton’s absence with a yearlong suspension, but Payton comes from an offensive background and the offense was not the problem in 2012. In fact, they ranked 3rd in the NFL in scoring behind only New England and Denver, but unlike the Patriots and the Broncos, who both earned 1st round byes, the Saints were sitting at home at the end of the regular season because of their defense. They allowed more yards than any team in NFL history and their scoring defense ranked 31st as only the Oakland Raiders allowed more points.

The first move made to change things this off-season was to fire defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo. While Spagnuolo is a Super Bowl winning defensive coordinator, winning a ring in 2007 with the Giants, his scheme never really fit in New Orleans. His scheme is largely reliant on a strong defensive line and being able to get to the quarterback with 4 guys, something the Saints just didn’t have the personnel to do in 2012. In 2011, they had a league average defense under disgraced defensive coordinator Gregg Williams, who is one of the most blitz happy coordinators in NFL history, sending an extra man over 50% of the time.

After firing Spagnuolo, the Saints immediately decided they wanted to switch up the defensive scheme entirely and targeted defensive coordinators with 3-4 backgrounds. This move made a lot of sense for 3 reasons. The first is simply that when you were as broken defensively as the Saints’ were in 2012, any change can’t possibly hurt. The second reason is that eventual hire Rob Ryan, while he runs a different base scheme than Williams, is very Williams-esque with the amount of blitzes he calls, which, after not using a single draft pick on a pass rusher until the 6th round, the Saints will largely rely on to get pressure in 2013.

The 3rd reason is that several players in their front 7 are more natural fits for the 3-4 than the 4-3, which will help compensate for the lack of added pass rushers this off-season. Defensive end Cameron Jordan, a former 1st round pick in 2011, played in a 3-4 in college and has largely looked like a fish out of water at 4-3 end in the first 2 years of his career, playing the run well, but struggling mightily to get pressure.

Martez Wilson was a collegiate linebacker and will benefit from moving back to the linebacker position this year, after an attempt to convert to the defensive line in 2012. Junior Galette, meanwhile, should be able to start at rush linebacker in a 3-4. He’s been the Saints’ most efficient pass rusher over the past 2 seasons, but his inability to stop the run has forced him into a situational role. That won’t be as big of an issue in a 3-4.

In addition to changing up the defensive scheme, the Saints spent a large amount of their off-season effort on the defensive side of the ball, adding Kenny Vaccaro in the 1st round and signing Keenan Lewis from the Steelers. They also signed Victor Butler from the Cowboys, one of the best reserve rush linebackers in the league over the past few years, and he looked poised to breakout in his first chance as a starter, but he unfortunately tore his ACL this off-season. Still, their defense should be better than it was last year and overall having Sean Payton back will help, though he alone won’t solve all their issues.

Quarterback

There was concern about how Brees would do without Sean Payton last season, but he did fine, completing 63.0% of his passes for an average of 7.7 YPA, 43 touchdowns, and 19 interceptions, while leading the NFL’s #3 ranked scoring offense. He’s now thrown for 5000 yards in 3 of the last 5 seasons, including the past 2, the first quarterback in NFL history to do so. Since 2008, he’s completed 2114 of 3134 (67.5%) for 24730 yards (7.9 YPA), 190 touchdowns, 83 interceptions. He’s led the #1, #1, #11, #2, and #3 offense in those 5 seasons respectively and should be able to lead a top-3 offense again this season. He’s up there with Tom Brady, Peyton Manning, and Aaron Rodgers.

Grade: A

Offensive Line

One of the very valuable things about Drew Brees is his quick release and pocket presence. Only two quarterbacks were sacked on a lower percentage of pressured drop backs last season, 13.0%. In 2011, he once again ranked 3rd, getting sacked on 13.9% of pressured drop backs. He also ranked 3rd in 2009 and 2010 and 2nd in 2008. For this reason, the Saints felt they could afford to part with Jermon Bushrod, their long time left tackle, who commanded a 5 year, 36 million dollar contract this off-season from Chicago.

While left tackle is a very important position, Brees was the one making Bushrod look good, not the other way around. Jermon Bushrod was someone I felt would get overpaid and sure enough he did. Bushrod has made 68 starts over the last 4 seasons, including the post-season, and has allowed just 20 sacks, including 11 in his last 3 seasons, but he’s also allowed 205 combined hits and hurries. He’s really a middling talent that Drew Brees made look better than he is. He was ProFootballFocus’ 44th ranked offensive tackle last season.

The Saints will try to replace him with either Charles Brown, Terron Armstead, or Jason Smith. Brown was a 2nd round pick in 2010, but he’s played just 542 snaps in his 3 years in the league, primarily on the right side, and he hasn’t done a great job. Brees might be able to make him look passable, however. Armstead, meanwhile, is a 3rd round pick rookie, with tremendous athleticism, but his small school background may mean he takes a while to adjust to the NFL.

Smith is the dark horse candidate. The 2nd overall pick in 2009, Smith was a massive bust and is on his 3rd team in 3 years, getting traded from the Rams to the Jets for Wayne Hunter last off-season and then being cut by the Jets this off-season. He missed significant time with injuries in 2009 and 2011 and in his only full year as a starter in 2010, he graded out as ProFootballFocus’ 51st ranked offensive tackle out of 78 eligible and he doesn’t have much experience on the left side. Last year, as a pure backup, playing only 265 snaps, he actually graded out very well. He came cheap and he’s only 27, but more likely than not he’ll be the backup right tackle this season.

Even if he does start the season as a backup at right tackle, he could break into the starting lineup at some point because that’s also a position with issues. After a breakout season in which he was ProFootballFocus’ 4th ranked offensive tackle in 2011, Zach Strief graded out slightly below average this season and missed time with injury. He’s always had issues staying healthy in his career, so there may be opportunity here for Smith. Overall, the tackle positions are both concerns, but Brees will make them look better than they are.

Things are better on the interior of the offensive line, however. Jahri Evans is one of the better guards in the league. He’s been a top-10 guard on ProFootballFocus in 4 of the past 5 seasons, grading out 8th last season. Ben Grubbs, meanwhile, was even better, grading out 5th. Also one of the top guards in the league, he’s graded out in the top-16 in each of the last 4 seasons, topping out at 5th last year. They are one of the better guard combos in the NFL.

In between them at center is Brian La Puente, who had a breakout year last year, grading out as ProFootballFocus’ 2nd ranked center last season, after ranking 12th in 2011, his first year as a starter. He’s on his way towards becoming one of the best centers in the NFL and this is arguably one of the best interior offensive lines in the NFL. That, and Brees’ pocket presence, will help make up for their weaknesses at tackle.

Grade: B

Running Backs

The Saints’ strong interior offensive line really helps their running game. They were ProFootballFocus’ 5th ranked run blocking team last year and I don’t see any reason why things would change in 2013. Mark Ingram will once again be the lead back and hoping to get things together in his 3rd year, after going in the 1st round in 2011. He’s averaged just 3.9 yards per carry since and had just 278 carries, struggling through injuries. He could breakout this season though and the Saints seem confident in him, trading away their top insurance option in Chris Ivory.

Pierre Thomas is the primary backup and has done a good job, rushing for 4.8 yards per carry in his career, though he’s maxed out at 147 carries. He’s also been a big part of the passing game as well, catching 188 passes in 66 games in the past 5 seasons. Darren Sproles has also been a very big part of the passing game in two seasons with the Saints and he’s essentially more of a slot receiver than a running back. He’s had 135 carries and 161 catches in the last 2 seasons and is a threat to score at any time, scoring 17 touchdowns. He gives them a great, safe check down option (with 1544 yards after the catch in the last 2 seasons) and adds another level to their explosive offense. On top of that, Jed Collins is one of the best fullbacks in the NFL. He was ProFootballFocus’ 9th ranked fullback in 2012 and 2nd ranked in 2011.

Grade: B+

Wide Receivers/Tight Ends

Marques Colston gets a reputation for being injury prone and he has had a bunch of knee surgeries, but he’s only missed 10 games in 7 seasons and he’s been nothing if not reliable. With the exception of 2008 (when he played a career low 11 games), he’s caught 70 passes for 1000 yards and 7 touchdowns in every season of his career. Last season, he once again had big time production, catching 83 passes for 1132 yards and 10 touchdowns while not missing a game. He’s only 30 and he has great chemistry with Drew Brees so he should once again be Drew Brees’ top receiver.

Jimmy Graham was the Saints’ leading receiver in 2011, catching 99 passes for 1310 yards and 11 touchdowns, but injuries led to a league leading 15 drops in 2012 and he “only” caught 85 passes for 982 yards and 9 touchdowns in 15 games in 2012. He should get back over 1000 this season though. Lance Moore also had 1000 yards last year, catching 65 passes for 1041 yards and 6 touchdowns. He’s an underrated receiver who has the talent to be an incredibly productive receiver when he has an opportunity and the starting job opposite Colston is all his, but he’s had a history of injuries, so that’s a concern.

Moore will move to the slot on passing downs and young receiver Joe Morgan will play outside as the #3 wide receiver. Morgan caught just 10 passes last season in his first season of significant action as the 4th receiver, but 8 of them went for 20 yards or more and he had 379 receiving yards and 3 touchdowns, doing so on just 188 routes run. He has a lot of development to do, but he should be more efficient as the #3 wide receiver than Devery Henderson was last year.

Henderson was ProFootballFocus’ 103rd ranked wide receiver out of 105 eligible last year, dead last in terms of pass catching. He caught just 22 passes for 316 yards on 44 attempts on 472 pass snaps and dropped 5 passes as well. That’s bafflingly poor for someone with Drew Brees throwing him the football and a big part of the reason why the 31-year-old is still unsigned as of this writing. Brees should once again have one of the better receiving corps in the game to complement his own abilities. They’ll put up a ton of points once again.

Grade: A-

Defensive Line

As I mentioned in the opening, there are several players who are going to be better fits for the Saints’ new 3-4 defense. Cameron Jordan is one of those players. He was a 1st round pick in 2011 and played in a 3-4 at California. At 6-4 287, he was an odd fit for the 4-3, but the Saints picked him anyway and stuck him at left end. As you could expect, he didn’t get very much pass rush at all.

He managed just 1 sack, 6 hits, and 18 hurries on 318 pass rush snaps in 2011, a 6.8% rate and graded out as ProFootballFocus’ 50th ranked pass rusher out of 62 eligible 4-3 ends. In 2012, he had 8 sacks, 5 hits, and 32 hurries on 605 pass rush snaps, a 7.4% rate and graded out as ProFootballFocus’ 57th ranked pass rushing 4-3 defensive end out of 64 eligible. However, he showed great ability against the run, grading out as ProFootballFocus’ 7th ranked run stuffing 4-3 end in 2011 and 3rd ranked in 2012. He also led the defensive line with 1059 snaps played in 2012. He’ll be a much better fit as a 5-technique defensive end and he still has 1st round talent. He should be a real asset for them as an every down player.

Opposite him, Akiem Hicks will get the first crack at the starting job. Hicks was a 3rd round pick in 2012 and graded out positively on 383 snaps as a rookie. The 6-5 318 pounder is versatile and can play both five-technique and nose tackle and will probably be primarily an early down player. Tom Johnson will come in on passing downs, which are his specialty. Last year, he struggled against the run, but is good enough as a pass rusher to make up for that, with 2 sacks, 4 hits, and 11 hurries on 229 pass rush snaps, a 7.4% rate. Veteran Kenyon Coleman, who is in his age 34 season, will also be in the mix for snaps. He graded out positively on 167 snaps last season with Dallas. Brodrick Bunkley could also potentially play 3-4 defensive end.

Bunkley will serve primarily as the nose tackle, however. He should also be a better fit for the 3-4 because he was too one dimensional to see serious snaps in the 4-3 last year, playing just 369 snaps. He graded out well above average as a run stopper, but couldn’t get any pass rush. In 2011, he was actually the highest rated run stopping defensive tackle on ProFootballFocus and he should play well in a pure run stuffing role on the nose. Overall, I like this defensive line a lot better than last year’s.

Grade: B-

Linebackers

I also like their pass rush a lot more thanks to an expected breakout year of Junior Galette. In 2011, he graded out as an above average pass rusher on ProFootballFocus and really shined down the stretch when given more playing time. He had 4 sacks, 11 hits, and 19 hurries on 339 pass rush snaps, a 10.0% rate. His biggest weakness was the run, as he graded out below average as a run stuffer (and below average overall because of it), as could be expected of a 255 pound defensive lineman.

In 2012, he was expected to have a bigger role as the 3rd defensive end behind Cameron Jordan and Will Smith, both coming off of rough 2011s rushing the passer. However, because he missed 4 games with injury, he actually played fewer snaps than he did in 2011, playing just 301 snaps. 225 of these snaps were rushing the passer, but he managed an impressive 5 sacks, 6 hits, and 19 hurries on them, a 13.3% rate.

Among 4-3 defensive ends who played as many snaps as he did, only Brandon Graham, Cameron Wake, and Charles Johnson had higher pass rush efficiencies (sacks + .75 hits + .75 hurries/pass rush snaps). While he still struggled against the run (part of the reason why he didn’t get more playing time), he graded out as ProFootballFocus’ 19th ranked overall 4-3 defensive end, 14th ranked overall in terms of pass rush grade.

As a 3-4 rush linebacker, his lack of size and ability against the run won’t be as big of an issue and his natural pass rush ability will be allowed to shine. Galette should have a breakout year. He could easily have double digit sacks if he plays enough snaps. If he did that, he’d be the first Saints player to do so since 2009. The Saints obviously believe in him, locking him up to a 3 year deal this off-season after originally slapping a 2nd round tender on him as a restricted free agent. Given that the deal is worth less than 2 million per year, the Saints figure to be rewarded for their foresight.

Opposite him, however, things aren’t as bright thanks to Victor Butler’s torn ACL. Will Smith is expected to be the starter here, but he’s only on the roster because he took a massive pay cut. Once their top pass rusher, Smith has aged fast and managed just 7 sacks, 7 hits, and 23 hurries on 586 pass rush snaps last year, a pathetic 6.3% rate. He ranked 61st out of 62 eligible both overall and in terms of rushing the passer last year. On top of that, he is going into his age 32 season so he’s not getting any younger and at 6-3 283 he’s not an ideal fit as a rush linebacker either, even if he does lose some weight, which he’s trying to. He played the run pretty well last year, grading out above average in that aspect, so he might be able to contribute a little bit in that aspect, but he won’t give them any pass rush.

They may take Smith out in sub packages and replace him with Martez Wilson, who is the other rush linebacker on that side. Wilson was a collegiate linebacker at Illinois, drafted in the 3rd round in 2011, but because of his size (6-3 254), strong blitzing ability, and the Saints’ lack of pass rush, they converted him to the line for his 2nd season in 2012. He didn’t play the run well, but he produced well as a nickel rusher with 3 sacks, 5 hits, and 16 hurries on 206 pass rush snaps, an 11.7% pass rush rate. Back as a linebacker this year, he should do well in a situational role behind Smith, but that side of the pass rush is still a concern.

Inside, two linebackers who the Saints signed to long term deals before last season will start. Curtis Lofton and David Hawthorne were both talented linebackers in Atlanta and Seattle respectively before coming to New Orleans. In 2011, Lofton graded out as ProFootballFocus’ 18th ranked middle linebacker with the Falcons and Hawthorne graded out as the 20th overall middle linebacker with the Seahawks. Lofton got a 5 year, 27.5 million dollar deal from the Saints, but struggled, grading out as ProFootballFocus’ 43rd ranked middle linebacker out of 52 eligible with the Saints.

Hawthorne, meanwhile, only played 325 snaps at his new outside linebacker position after signing a 5 year, 19 million dollar deal and was ProFootballFocus’ 32nd ranked 4-3 outside linebacker out of 40 eligible. The Saints will be hoping both can bounce back at their new 3-4 middle linebacker spot. For each of them, it should be a more natural spot in terms of their abilities. There’s some bounce back potential here.

If one of them doesn’t bounce back, they do have Jonathan Vilma as insurance. He didn’t play well either last season, grading out 32nd out of 43 eligible 4-3 outside linebackers and he is going into his age 31 season, so there isn’t much bounce back potential here (he was 49th out of 51 eligible middle linebackers in 2011). However, he graded out better than Hawthorne and he has experience in both 3-4 and 4-3 schemes and playing both inside and outside. He’s their best coverage middle linebacker so he should at least have a situational role in coverage.

Grade: B-

 

 

Secondary

The Saints’ secondary was by far their biggest issue last season, which is saying a lot. Sure they couldn’t get after the quarterback or stop the run, but their secondary got torched on a very regular basis and they were arguably the worst secondary in the NFL. The Saints’ graded out as ProFootballFocus worst coverage team, but it wasn’t even just that.

Not only were they blowing coverages on a regular basis, but they couldn’t tackle either, a big part of the reason why the Saints ranked dead last in the NFL, allowing 5.2 YPC (in addition to being tied for last allowing 8.1 YPA). They missed 76 tackles and allowed 19 runs of 20+ or more. Only the Colts allowed more than those 19 and only the Falcons allowed more than the 7 runs of 40 yards or more the Saints allowed. Only the Patriots and the Buccaneers allowed more than the 66 pass plays of 20 yards or more that the Saints allowed and no one allowed more than the 14 pass plays of 40 yards or more they allowed.

As you could expect, their safeties were most to blame. Roman Harper and Malcolm Jenkins missed 32 tackles between them, most among any safety combo in the NFL. Harper and Jenkins graded out as ProFootballFocus 2nd worst and worst ranked safeties in the NFL. Harper missed fewer tackles between the two, “only” 12, and he graded out only slightly below average against the run, but he was horrific in coverage, grading out as ProFootballFocus’ lowest ranked coverage safety. He allowed 46 catches on 65 attempts for 663 yards, 2 touchdowns and 2 interceptions, while deflecting 5 passes and committing 3 penalties. He allowed 150 more receiving yards than any other safety in the NFL and also allowed the most catches.

Jenkins, meanwhile, was worse against the run, missing 20 tackles, 4th most in the NFL among players at any position, but he also struggled in coverage, allowing 29 catches on 43 attempts for 373 yards, 4 touchdowns, and 1 interception, while deflecting 3 passes and committing 5 penalties. In order to shore up this area, the Saints drafted Kenny Vaccaro in the 1st round. He’ll come in during nickel packages initially, moving tweener Jenkins to the slot cornerback spot. He could easily win a starting job outright and turn Jenkins into solely a slot cornerback.

Jenkins has a chance to bounce back in the contract year of the 2009 1st round pick’s 5-year deal. Before last year, he habitually graded out as an average player and improved pass rush and front 7 play could really help him. Harper, however, is unlikely to. An overrated player who is a box safety at best, he was ProFootballFocus’ 78th ranked safety out of 87 eligible in 2011 and has been getting torched in coverage since signing an extension before the 2011 season.

He might be a little bit better in Rob Ryan’s new defense because he’ll be able to blitz more and not have to cover as much, but he’s way too stiff in coverage to be an asset to them. He can’t play in reverse at all. Heading into his age 31 season, things are unlikely to get much better this season and after restructuring his contract this off-season, the writing is on the wall for him. He’s unlikely to be back in 2014.

The other off-season addition was Keenan Lewis, who signed a 5-year 26 million dollar deal coming over from Pittsburgh. Lewis played well in Pittsburgh last year, allowing 59 catches on 112 attempts for 694 yards, 3 touchdowns, and no interceptions, while deflecting 16 passes and committing 8 penalties. However, it was his only year as a starter and the track record of cornerbacks leaving Pittsburgh’s system isn’t very good; just ask William Gay and Bryant McFadden.

Lewis will play opposite Jabari Greer, who was the only starter in this secondary who played alright last season, allowing 43 catches on 74 attempts for 626 yards, 3 touchdowns, and 3 interceptions, while deflecting 9 passes and committing 3 penalties. He did miss 12 tackles of his own, but he was so much better than everyone else in this secondary. He’s always been a solid starter and going into his age 31 season they’ll need him to keep that up.

The biggest offender at cornerback for the Saints last year was Patrick Robinson, who allowed 61 catches on 109 attempts for a ridiculous 1071 yards and 9 touchdowns (most in the NFL), while picking off 3 passes and deflecting 14, committing 8 penalties in the process. He was ProFootballFocus’ 89th ranked cornerback out of 113 eligible. He’ll be their 4th cornerback this season, which is good news for Saints fans.

Also good news for Saints fans is that Corey White and Johnny Patrick also won’t see much action this year. White is their 5th cornerback at best and Patrick is in San Diego. White graded out as ProFootballFocus’ 100th ranked cornerback last year as a 5th round rookie, allowing 35 catches on 45 attempts for 422 yards, 3 touchdowns, and 1 interception. He deflected just 2 passes and also missed 8 tackles.

Patrick, meanwhile, only played 218 snaps last year, but if he had been eligible, he would have been ProFootballFocus’ 102nd ranked cornerback, despite his limited playing time. He allowed 24 catches on 35 attempts for 339 yards, 5 touchdowns, no interceptions, and 1 deflection. He missed 4 tackles and committed 2 penalties. Vaccaro’s and Lewis’ presence will help, but it’s going to be tough to count on big things from either and this is still a very poor secondary, arguably one of the worst in the NFL still.

Grade: C

Head Coach

Sean Payton is one of 6 Head Coaches in the NFL with a Super Bowl ring and the Saints appeared to miss him when he was gone last season, but the offense did fine without him, scoring the 3rd most points in the NFL and he is really fortunate to have Drew Brees. He’s also fortunate to have a very strong group of offensive assistant coaches, but he’s still one of the best Head Coaches in the NFL.

Grade: A-

Overall

Sean Payton’s return will help and their defense has some added talent and will fit Rob Ryan’s 3-4 defense better, but their defense will struggle too much for this team to be among the best teams in the NFL. They’ll once again be one of the best offensive teams in the country, possibly even better than last season, but their defense will probably be ranked somewhere in the early-to-mid-20s. They’ll win some shoot outs and lose some shoot outs, but they should be able to make it back into the playoffs. With the exception of last year, there are 5 teams every year that make the playoffs that didn’t the year before and I think the Saints are one.

They should win all 3 of their home divisional games, but games in Atlanta and Carolina will be tough, so I have them at 4-2 in the division. At home outside of the division, they host Arizona, Miami, Dallas, Buffalo, and San Francisco. With one of the best home field advantages in the NFL, those first 4 should be pretty easy wins and while San Francisco will be tough, that’s definitely a winnable game. On the road outside the division, they go to Chicago, New England, Seattle, St. Louis, and the Jets. Games in New England and Seattle will be really tough and St. Louis and Chicago aren’t pushovers either. I give 3 losses in those 5 games, one in the 5 home non-divisional games, and 2 in the division, putting them at 10-6, which sounds about right.

Projection: 10-6 2nd in the NFC South

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