New Orleans Saints 2014 NFL Season Preview

Quarterback

The Saints once again had an explosive offense last season. They ranked 10th in points per game allowed, but they were better than that, finishing 3rd in rate of moving the chains, moving the chains at a 76.98% rate. That’s nothing new as they are a consistently top level offense, ranking #1, #1, #11, #2, and #3 in points per game in 2008-2012 respectively. However, they haven’t necessarily been a consistently top level team. They won 11 games in 2010 and 2013 and 13 games in 2009 and 2011, but they also won just 7 games in 2012 and 8 games in 2008.

The years they’ve missed the playoffs, they’ve still had explosive offense, but their defenses struggled. For instance, in 2012, they allowed the 2nd most points in the NFL. That was something they needed to turn around and they did so last season as Rob Ryan’s new 3-4 defense got the most out of their defensive personnel. They ranked 10th, allowing opponents to move the chains at a 68.85% rate. As a result, they were 2nd in rate of moving the chains differential at 8.13%.

They were even better than their 11-5 record suggested as they did that despite a turnover margin of +0. They weren’t reliant on the turnover margin to win, which is good because the turnover margin is so hard to rely on. As hard as it is to rely on, they should be better in that aspect next season because of how well quarterbacked they are. They only turned the ball over 19 times, as Drew Brees only threw an interception on 1.85% of attempts.

That’s really good, but he’s thrown an interception on 2.49% of his attempts since joining the Saints in 2006 so he should be able to keep that up. He may have a few more interceptions next season, but not too many. Defensively, they should force more turnovers after forcing just 19 last season, especially after recovering 44.83% of fumbles overall last season, 24th in the NFL. They should have a positive turnover margin next season, as tough as turnover margins can be to predict.

Speaking of Drew Brees, he’s obviously the engine that makes this explosive offense go. Since joining the Saints in 2006 and uniting with Sean Payton, he’s completed 67.3% of his passes for an average of 7.76 YPA, 283 touchdowns and 124 interceptions. He’s been a top-4 quarterback on Pro Football Focus in every season since 2009, the only quarterback who can say they’ve had that level of consistent dominance over that period of time. Even in 2007 and 2008, he was #3 and #7 respectively. He’s going into his age 35 season, but he’s shown no signs of decline. Last season, he completed 68.6% of his passes for an average of 7.94 YPA, 39 touchdowns, and 12 interceptions. Like Brady and Manning before him, Brees is another quarterback who could remain dominant into his mid-30s. The Saints will once again have an explosive offense this season because of him.

Grade: A

Wide Receivers/Tight Ends

Brees did lose some weapons this off-season, as the Saints had to cut Lance Moore and trade Darren Sproles for financial reasons, with Moore ending up in Pittsburgh and Sproles ending up in Philadelphia. Moore didn’t have a huge impact in 2013 though and he was going into his age 31 season. Moore was limited to 452 snaps in 13 games. He did run 334 routes, but he caught just 37 passes on 52 attempts (71.1%) for 457 yards and 2 touchdowns, an average of just 1.37 yards per route run. He was hardly the player who graded out above average on Pro Football Focus in every season since 2008, maxing out in 2012 with 65 catches for 1041 yards and 6 touchdowns.

To replace him, the Saints drafted Brandin Cooks and they have 2nd year wide receiver Kenny Stills, who could possibly be ready for a bigger role. Rookie wide receivers rarely do anything. Since 2005, 31 receivers have gone in the 1st round. They’ve averaged 41 catches for 558 yards and 3 touchdowns per season. Larry Fitzgerald and Calvin Johnson were top-3 picks and they had 58/780/8 and 48/756/4 respectively as rookies. If Cooks can end up winning a starting job or a significant role, he could surpass those numbers, not because he’s more talented than the average 1st round wide receiver (or Johnson or Fitzgerald obviously), but because of the situation he was drafted into with Drew Brees throwing him the football.

Stills could easily win the starting job though. The 2013 5th round pick struggled as a rookie, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 78th ranked wide receiver out of 111 eligible, including 87th out of 111 eligible in pass catching grade. He caught 32 of his 46 targets (69.6%) for 641 yards and 5 touchdowns, but he did so on 496 routes run, an average of 1.29 yards per route run. He was a rarely deep threat. That being said, rookie wide receivers almost always struggle, as I mentioned earlier, and he definitely flashed at times, so he could be improved in his 2nd year in the league.

Marques Colston remains as the #1 wide receiver. He showed statistical decline last season, catching 75 passes for 943 yards and 5 touchdowns. It tied a career low for touchdowns and it was only the 2nd season of his 8-year career in which he went under 1000 yards, with the other season being a season in which he played just 11 games. However, he was still really efficient, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 13th ranked wide receiver, catching 70.1% of his targets and averaging 1.77 yards per route run. He’s going into his age 31 season, but he’s graded out above average on Pro Football Focus in every season since they began in 2007. He should have another solid season and probably lead Saint wide receivers in catches and yards.

Jimmy Graham is listed as a tight end, but he’s their de facto #1 receiver. I do agree with the decision by the league that he should be designated as a tight end. He did run 49.8% of his routes from the slot last season, but that was actually 16th out of eligible tight ends. The tight end position has simply changed significantly over the past 5 or so years. Graham is just a really, really good pass catching tight end that rarely blocks and isn’t great when he does it. Gronkowski is a significant better blocker and a more well-rounded tight end, but he has a significant injury history so Graham is the best pass catching tight end in the league.

In 4 seasons in the league since being drafted in the 3rd round in 2010, he’s caught 301 passes for 3863 yards and 41 touchdowns on 454 targets (66.3%) and 1758 routes run, an average of 2.20 yards per route run. He barely played as a rookie, but he’s graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 2nd, 7th, and 1st ranked pass catching tight end in 2011, 2012, and 2013 respectively. He’s “only” graded out 7th, 15th, and 4th in those 3 seasons respectively overall, but that’s because he’s graded out below average as a run blocker in 2 of those 3 seasons. He’s their best pass catcher and a significant weapon for them in the passing game. He’s well worth the 4-year, 40 million dollar deal the Saints gave him this off-season, after franchise tagging him.

Graham wasn’t the only highly ranked tight end the Saints had last season, as Ben Watson graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 10th ranked tight end on 507 snaps, flashing as both a pass catcher (16th) and a run blocker (8th). He caught 19 passes for 226 yards and 2 touchdowns on 28 attempts (67.9%) and 131 routes run, an average of 1.73 yards per route run. There are no guarantees he keeps that up. He’s graded out above average in 6 of the last 7 seasons on Pro Football Focus since their origin in 2007, but he’s going into his age 34 season.

While Moore won’t be really missed, they will miss Darren Sproles. Sproles didn’t do much as a rusher, carrying the ball 53 times for 220 yards in 2013, an average of 4.15 YPC. However, he was Pro Football Focus’ #1 ranked running back in terms of pass catching grade last season, catching 71 passes for 604 yards and 2 touchdowns on 84 targets (84.5%) and 265 routes run, an average of 2.28 yards per route run (best at his position). They’ll miss that.

They still have Pierre Thomas to catch passes out of the backfield, as he graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 10th ranked running back in pass catching grade last season. He caught 77 passes for 513 yards and 3 touchdowns on 82 targets (93.9%) and 301 routes run, an average of 1.70 yards per route run. That being said, I don’t know how much more pass catching volume Thomas can take on. He’s also not nearly as explosive as Sproles is in the open field. The Saints will probably have to either transition to throwing downfield more often or to throwing screens to guys like Stills and Cooks more often. Brees will miss Sproles, but he was fine without him in New Orleans from 2006-2010. Brees still has plenty of weapons to work with in the passing game.

Grade: B+

Running Backs

I mentioned what Thomas does in the passing game. He also contributes as a runner as well and graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 12th ranked running back overall on 578 snaps played (390 in pass snaps, 188 on running snaps). He only averaged 3.73 yards per carry last season (549 yards on 147 carries), but he also averaged 2.20 yards per carry after contact and broke 43 tackles on 224 carries, giving him the 18th best elusive rating at his position among eligible players. On top of that, he’s averaged 4.56 yards per carry for his career and graded out above average on Pro Football Focus in all 7 seasons he’s been in the league, maxing out at #2 overall in 2011. He’s going into his age 30 season and he’s only maxed out at 147 carries in a season (twice), but he’ll still have a significant role as a passing down back.

The running down back role will go to either Mark Ingram or Khiry Robinson. Most likely, one of those two will lead this team in carries. Ingram was a first round pick in 2011, but he’s been a bust thus far in his career. He’s had just 356 carries in 3 seasons, averaging 4.11 yards per carry (1462 yards) and scoring 11 touchdowns. He’s missed 11 games in 3 seasons and has shown nothing as a pass catcher, only catching 24 passes for 143 yards in his career.

Robinson, meanwhile, saw 76 snaps as an undrafted rookie and rushed for 224 yards and a touchdown on 54 carries, an average of 4.15 yards per carry. He doesn’t offer anything on passing downs either. The coaching staff really likes him though so, right now, I’d say that he’s the favorite to be their lead back right now. He flashed in the post-season, rushing for 102 yards and a touchdown on 21 carries, an average of 4.86 yards per carry. The Saints still lack the feature back they’ve been searching for as a complement to Brees and the passing game for years.

Grade: B-

Offensive Line

In addition to Moore and Sproles, the Saints also lost two starters on the offensive line this off-season, making it four straight off-seasons in which they’ve lost at least one starter on the offensive line. Those two starters were left tackle Charles Brown and center Brian De La Puente. Brown won’t be missed as he graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 67th ranked offensive tackle out of 76 eligible last season and got benched down the stretch for rookie Terron Armstead. Armstead will now be the starter on the blindside. The 2013 3rd round pick played 141 nondescript snaps as a rookie and is a complete unknown as a starting caliber player. It won’t be hard for him to be better than Brown was though.

They will miss Brian De La Puente. I don’t know why they didn’t re-sign him, given that he was Pro Football Focus’ 16th ranked center last season and signed with the Bears for close to the minimum. The Saints brought in Jonathan Goodwin on a minimum deal this off-season. Goodwin was Pro Football Focus’ 13th ranked center last season and he’s graded out above average on Pro Football Focus in 5 of the last 6 seasons, but he graded out 22nd in pass blocking grade. He was 7th as a run blocker, but pass protection is more important. He’s also going into his age 36 season. Interior offensive linemen tend to have longer careers than most positions so he could have another season as a starting caliber player left in the tank. However, the Saints reportedly do not view him as the likely starter at that position, in favor of starting Tom Lelito.

That doesn’t make much sense. The 2013 undrafted free agent struggled through 162 snaps at right guard last season. Only one player at his position graded out worse than him and played fewer snaps. He surrendered 4 sacks and 5 hurries in two starts against Arizona and Atlanta. No one drafted him last year. He doesn’t have center experience. And he really struggled last season. He’s not a starting caliber player so the Saints would be wise to start Goodwin, but it doesn’t look like they want to do that.

The Saints did keep Zach Strief at right tackle, retaining him on a 5-year, 20.5 million dollar deal, which was a good move. The late bloomer has only been a starter for 3 years in his career (since the Saints lost Jon Stinchcomb after the 2010 season) and he’s already going into his age 31 season. He’s also missed 10 games in 3 seasons and struggled through injury in 12 games in 2012, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 52nd ranked offensive tackle out of 80 eligible. He’s also only a pure right tackle, which isn’t quite as valuable as someone who can play on the blindside. However, he’s been dominant in his other two seasons as a starter, grading out as Pro Football Focus 12th ranked offensive tackle (6th ranked right tackle) in 2011 and 9th ranked offensive tackle (1st ranked right tackle in 2013). He’s not perfect, but the Saints did a good job bringing him back on a reasonable deal.

The Saints’ longest tenured offensive lineman is right guard Jahri Evans, who has been a starter there for 8 years since the Saints drafted him in the 4th round in 2006, missing just 2 games over that 8-year span. He’s also their best offensive lineman, dominating throughout his career. Those 2 games he missed were last season, when he graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 17th ranked guard. That’s actually the 2nd lowest he’s ranked in his career, which is a concern, when coupled with his injury and the fact that he’s going into his age 31 season. He could be declining. However, he was so good in his prime (grading out in the top-30 in 7 straight years and the top-9 in 5 of those 7 years, maxing out at #1 overall in 2009), that even a declining Evans is one of the best guards in the game.

The guard position is definitely the strength of this team. At the left guard position, they have Ben Grubbs, who they signed to a 5-year, 36 million dollar deal after the 2011 season, replacing the departed Carl Nicks. Grubbs has been worth that, grading out 7th at his position in 2012 and 11th in 2013. Grubbs, a 2007 1st round pick, broke out in his 3rd year in the league in 2009 and has been a top-16 guard in 5 straight seasons on Pro Football Focus. Only Green Bay’s Josh Sitton can also say the same. This offensive line certainly has problems, particularly at left tackle and center, but there are some really talented players here. They’ll remain an explosive offense next season, despite some minor losses.

Grade: B+

Defensive Line

As I mentioned, the Saints defense was much improved last season under Rob Ryan. The biggest reason for that is because his schemes fit their personnel much better. The player who benefitted the most was 3rd year defensive lineman Cameron Jordan, who finished last season as Pro Football Focus’ 4th ranked 3-4 defensive end. The 2011 1st round pick was largely a large average player in his first 2 years in the league, struggling as a pass rusher and excelling against the run.

Last season, Jordan moved back to his collegiate position of 3-4 defensive end, from 4-3 defensive end, and the 6-4 287 pounder was a much better fit. He did grade out below average against the run, but his play as a pass rusher (2nd at his position) was enough to make up for it. That’s the most important part of a defensive lineman’s job and he’s fantastic at it. He’s just a one year wonder, but, only going into his age 25 season, Jordan could have another dominant year in 2014. The Saints picked up his 5th year option for 2015.

Akiem Hicks will continue to start opposite Jordan. Hicks flashed on 383 snaps as a 3rd round rookie in 2012 and then became the starter in the new 3-4 under Rob Ryan 2013, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 21st ranked 3-4 defensive end on 653 snaps. The 6-5 318 pounder is an ideal fit for a 3-4 and moves very well for his size. The Canadian prospect was seen as very raw, but very talented coming out of the University of Regina and he’s only going into his age 25 season. Now going into his 3rd year in the league, he could have his best year and his biggest role yet. John Jenkins remains as the nose tackle. Jenkins played 436 snaps as a 3rd round rookie last year and ended up struggling, both as a run stopper and a pass rusher. The 6-3 359 could be better in his 2nd year in the league, but there no guarantees. It’s a very young 3-man defensive line, but there is a lot of talent.

Grade: B+

Linebackers

Another player the scheme switch really helped was edge rusher Junior Galette, who broke out last season in his first season as a starter, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 12th ranked 3-4 outside linebacker. The 2010 undrafted free agent flashed as a pass rusher in 2011 and 2012, grading out 31st and 17th among 4-3 defensive ends in that aspect in those 2 seasons respectively in a part-time role, but he was limited to 372 and 301 snaps in those 2 seasons respectively because the 6-2 258 pounder sucked against the run. Moving to 3-4 outside linebacker, the run game became easier for him and he was able to play 848 snaps. He still graded out slightly below average against the run, but it wasn’t as big of a deal at his new position, especially since he ended up ranking 10th at his position rushing the passer.

Galette is one of two every down players in the Saints’ linebacking corps, playing 3-4 outside linebacker in base packages and providing edge rush in sub packages. The other one is Curtis Lofton, a middle linebacker who led the Saints’ defense with 946 snaps played last season. He unfortunately struggled, grading out below average and ranking 29th out of 55 eligible at his position. He also struggled in his first year in New Orleans in 2012, after grading out above average in 3 of 4 seasons with the Falcons after being drafted in the 2nd round in 2009. He graded out 43th out of 53 eligible in that 2012 season. His strong play in Atlanta got him a 5-year, 27.5 million dollar deal two off-seasons ago and, owed 6.9 million non-guaranteed in 2015, this could easily be his last year in New Orleans. For now, they’re stuck with him as an every down player, for lack of a better option.

David Hawthorne and Parys Haralson are two-down players in the linebacking corps, for the most part, as safety Kenny Vacarro comes down and plays linebacker in sub packages. Hawthorne had a bigger role than Haralson last season, playing 689 snaps (340 on running plays). Like Lofton, he was a big free agent signing 2 off-seasons ago, getting a 5-year, 19 million dollar deal after grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 11th ranked middle linebacker in 2009, 2nd ranked 4-3 outside linebacker in 2010, and 18th ranked middle linebacker in 2011 in 3 seasons as a starter in Seattle. Like Lofton, he’s struggled in 2 years with the Saints, grading out 35th out of 43 eligible 4-3 outside linebackers in 2012 and 35th out of 55 eligible middle linebackers in 2013. Owed 4.5 million non-guaranteed in 2015, this is likely to be his last year with the team.

Haralson, meanwhile, played 367 snaps last season (196 on running plays), grading out slightly above average in limited snaps. The veteran is going into his age 30 season and graded out below average in 3 of 5 seasons as a significant contributor in San Francisco and only grading out slightly above average in the 2 seasons he was above average, but he’s decent at what he does. The good news for the Saints is they will be getting Victor Butler back from injury.

Butler missed all of last year with a torn ACL, which hurt the Saints because he was supposed to be a starter. The 2009 4th round pick flashed in limited action in Dallas, grading out well above average in every season from 2010-2012, but maxing out at 300 snaps in 2012 because he was stuck behind DeMarcus Ware and Anthony Spencer. His best season was 2012, when he graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 8th ranked 3-4 outside linebacker on just 300 snaps, with no one playing fewer snaps and grading out higher. Torn ACLs are tough to bounce back from in a player’s first year back, but he should at least have a role as a situational edge rusher opposite Galette in sub packages. That’s something they really lacked last season.

Grade: B

Secondary

As I mentioned, safety Kenny Vaccaro plays linebacker in sub packages. He played within 8 yards of the line of scrimmage on 70.6% of snaps last season, 3rd most in the NFL among eligible safeties. He also played solid overall, grading out 23rd overall among safeties, including 3rd overall against the run. The issue is he broke his ankle week 16 and missed the final 2 weeks of the season and the playoffs, which hurt them. Now going into his 2nd year in the league, the 15th overall pick in 2013 should be healthy and could be even better than he was last season.

The Saints added Jairus Byrd this off-season, signing him to a 6-year, 54 million dollar deal. He’ll play safety next to Vaccaro and give the Saints arguably the top safety duo in the NFL. Byrd has been in the league 5 years, since being drafted in the 2nd round in 2009, and he’s been an above average starter on Pro Football Focus in each season. He’s been especially dominant over the past 3 seasons, grading out 3rd in 2011 among safeties and 2nd in 2012.

In 2013, he was “just” 8th because he missed 5 games to start the season, but he was just as dominant upon return as he was before the injury and he doesn’t have an injury history, missing 2 games from 2009-2012 combined. Even still, he’s one of just two safeties to grade out in the top-8 in all 3 seasons from 2011-2013, along with Eric Weddle. He’s the best deep safety in the NFL and arguably the best overall safety. He’s what everyone thinks Earl Thomas is (not that Thomas is bad). He had off-season back surgery, but he should still be able to have another strong season. He’ll be a perfect complement for box safety Vaccaro and a significant upgrade over the inconsistent Malcolm Jenkins, the previous starter who is now in New Orleans.

The Saints 3rd safety is Rafael Bush. He played a big role last season, playing 520 snaps as the 3rd safety, coming in when Vaccaro moved to linebacker. He was Pro Football Focus’ 25th ranked safety last season in that role, grading out slightly above average. The 2010 undrafted free agent didn’t play a defensive snap in his first 2 seasons in the league, but he flashed on 123 snaps in 2012. He’s a talented 3rd safety and good in his role as a sub package player, excelling in coverage. He was re-signed to a well-deserved 2-year, 4.5 million dollar deal this off-season, which suggests that they envision him having a significant role going forward.

Keenan Lewis was a big free agent acquisition last off-season, signing a 5-year, 25.5 million dollar deal. He did a solid job in his first year with the Saints, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 27th ranked cornerback, including 16th in pure coverage grade. The 2009 3rd round pick only played a combined 432 snaps in his first 3 years in the league, but he’s had two solid seasons as a starter, including a 2012 season in which he ranked 38th among cornerbacks, which is why he got that deal last off-season. He should continue being a solid starting cornerback this season.

The 2nd and 3rd cornerback jobs are still up for grabs. The Saints signed Champ Bailey this off-season to a 2-year deal worth 3.75 million dollars in base salary (500K guaranteed and another 3 million available through incentives). The common narrative is that Champ Bailey is done, after he struggled through just 333 snaps (193 regular season, 140 post-season) last season thanks to injury and with him going into his age 36 season.

However, he had a great 2012 season, at least in the regular season, when he graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 10th ranked cornerback and he has such an impressive history (grading out in the top-17 on Pro Football Focus in every season from 2007-2012, including top-10 in 5 of 6 seasons) that it wouldn’t shock me if he had one more season in the tank, provided he can stay healthy. He showed enough in the post-season last year to suggest that’s a decent possibility. At the same time, I wouldn’t be surprised if he was done. The Saints will find out in training camp.

Corey White is also in the mix for playing time, after playing 560 snaps last season. The 2012 5th round pick graded out above average last season, but he sucked in 2012 as a rookie, so it’s tough to count on him. He graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 100th ranked middle linebacker out of 113 eligible on 529 snaps in 2012. He’s currently penciled in as the 3rd cornerback, going into his 3rd year in the league. Patrick Robinson is another veteran who could get a significant role, even though the 2010 1st round pick was limited to 22 snaps in 2 games by injury last season and largely looks like a bust at this point.

Robinson was also benched to start the season last year, even before the injury, because of a rough pre-season and a 2012 season in which he graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 87th ranked cornerback out of 113 eligible. He played well in 2011, grading out 19th among cornerbacks, after only playing 264 snaps as a rookie, so he could be decent this year, but he definitely has an inconsistent history and there’s no guarantee he even earns a significant role. Stanley Jean-Baptiste was their 2nd round pick in this past draft and he could also see playing time, but more likely they drafted him for 2015, when Robinson will be a free agent and Bailey will be going into his age 37 season. The Saints’ safeties are better than their cornerbacks, but it’s an overall solid secondary.

Grade: B+

Conclusion

The Saints went 11-5 last season, but they were even better than their record suggested, finishing 2nd in rate of moving the chains differential. They also might be more talented than they were last season. They lost Darren Sproles and Brian De La Puente, which will hurt their offense a little bit, but they should still have a strong offense. Defensively, they added Jairus Byrd, which could take a solid defense to the next level. This is one of the best teams in the NFL and they are one of a few teams that I think could win the Super Bowl. Obviously how far they go into the playoffs largely depends on whether or not they get home field advantage, given how much home field matters to this team. I’ll have an official wins prediction for this team when I finish every team’s write up.

Prediction: 12-4 1st in NFC South

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