New Orleans Saints 2015 NFL Season Preview

Quarterback

Many see Drew Brees as a declining quarterback, following a 2014 season in which the Saints, with high expectations coming into the season, finished 7-9 and out of the playoffs. However, that’s putting too much value in team wins as an individual quarterback statistic. It’s still a team game and the Saints had the worst defense in the NFL last season, allowing opponents to move the chains at a 76.68% rate. The Saints were also better their record, finishing 11th in rate of moving the chains differential, as their offense finished 2nd in the NFL in rate of moving the chains (only behind Green Bay), moving them at a 79.14% rate. The Saints were just kept down by the usual fluky things that common fans put too much stock into that tend to be very inconsistent on a year-to-year or week-to-week basis, turnover margin (-13), return touchdown margin (-4), fumble recovery rate (37.84%), and record in games decided by a touchdown or less (3-5).

In reality, Brees was the Saints’ best player last season and the biggest reason they had any sort of success, leading a dominant offense. Brees completed 69.2% of his passes for an average of 7.51 YPA, 33 touchdowns, and 17 interceptions and ranked 2nd among quarterbacks on Pro Football Focus, only behind MVP Aaron Rodgers. That’s very much in line with what we’ve come to expect from Brees and doesn’t suggest any sort of decline has happened yet. He’s graded out 3rd, 7th, 3rd, 4th, 1st, 4th, 2nd, and 2nd respectively from 2007-2014 in the 8 years of Pro Football Focus’ history and has completed 67.8% of his passes for an average of 7.71 YPA, 290 touchdowns, and 130 interceptions over that time period.

He’s the only quarterback in the NFL to grade out in the top-4 in each of the last 6 seasons and the top-7 in each of the last 8 seasons. There’s an argument to be made that he’s still the 2nd best quarterback in the NFL. All this isn’t to say that there isn’t some concern Brees that will decline in the future, as he enters his age 36 season, but the common narrative that this decline has already started isn’t based in any sort of fact and we’ve seen plenty of top level quarterbacks still have success into their mid-30s in recent years (Brett Favre, Peyton Manning, Tom Brady, etc.). I’m still very high on Brees. Garrett Grayson, drafted in the 3rd round in this past draft, was drafted much more to be a backup than a long-term successor and certainly isn’t someone who is close to putting any sort of pressure on Brees in 2015. Brees hasn’t missed a game with injury since 2004, so Grayson probably won’t see any sort of real action this season.

Grade: A

Receiving Corps

Brees may see a decrease in production this season, but the reason won’t necessarily be age. The Saints went all in on last season, a plan that backfired big time for a variety of reasons, and ended up in salary cap hell this off-season, which forced them to completely reinvent their roster. They’re likely going to be better in some ways this season, but there’s no denying that their roster is worse overall, so they’re not a lock to make it back into the playoffs this season, even though they play in a terrible division and were a lot better than their record last season.

The Saints got rid of two of Brees’ favorite targets this off-season, Jimmy Graham and Kenny Stills, and didn’t replace either of them, which will undoubtedly hurt his ability to consistently string together long drives like he did last season. They also figure to pass the ball a lot less often this season, as a result of those moves, after averaging 661 pass attempts per season over the past 5 seasons, most in the NFL during that time period. That will require them to be better defensively and running the ball, but I think they should be.

Brees’ favorite receiver this season could be Brandin Cooks, their 2014 1st round pick. Cooks kind of got lost in last year’s outstanding rookie receiver class because he wasn’t as good as guys like Odell Beckham, Mike Evans, Sammy Watkins, and Kelvin Benjamin and because he missed the final 6 games of the season with a broken wrist, but he was playing pretty well before going down. He finished the season with 53 catches on 65 attempts (81.5%) for 550 yards and 3 touchdowns on 353 routes run, an average of 1.56 yards per route run, while grading out only slightly below average.

Rookie receivers aren’t supposed to produce big numbers, even first round picks. Even in the golden era of passing offenses in the past 10 years, the average first round rookie wideout has averaged just 48 catches for 703 yards and 4 touchdowns. By those standards, Cooks had a pretty productive 10 games in his rookie season, especially since he was a young rookie who didn’t turn 21 until last September. Now healthy, Cooks has no one preventing him from being an every down starting receiver and figures to benefit greatly from the 201 vacated targets left behind by Graham and Stills, and, of course, he figures to benefit greatly from having Brees under center. Even if the Saints are more in the 550-600 range in pass attempts this season, Cooks could still push for 90-100 catches. He’ll be a better receiver in fantasy football (currently going in the 4th round on average) than in real life probably, but he could be good in real life too.

A lot of people expected Marques Colston to be cut this off-season, ahead of a scheduled non-guaranteed 7 million dollar salary, but instead it was Stills and Graham going and Colston staying, after he agreed to a restructured contract. He’ll make just 3.8 million this season and another 3.2 million in 2016, if he’s still on the roster then. This season, he’ll start opposite Cooks, though largely for lack of a better option. Colston has been with the Saints since 2006 and has been such a big part of their offensive success over the years, but he’s aging (going into his age 32 season) and coming off arguably the worst season of his career.

He caught 59 passes for 902 yards and 5 touchdowns in 2014, the first season of his career in which he played more than 11 games and caught fewer than 60 passes and the first season of his career in which he played all 16 games and had fewer than 1000 yards. He was Pro Football Focus’ 100th ranked wide receiver out of 110 eligible last season, grading out below average for the first time in Pro Football Focus’ 8-year history, as Brees made him look a lot better than he was. He’s not completely over the hill yet and there’s definitely some bounce back potential with him, as he was Pro Football Focus’ 13th ranked wide receiver as recently as 2013, but I don’t have high expectations for him and his best days are definitely behind him.

As I mentioned, the Saints don’t really have another starting option other than Colston. Their depth behind Cooks and Colston is really suspect. Nick Toon, Josh Morgan, Seantavius Jones, Brandon Coleman will all compete for the 3rd receiver job, pushing either Colston or Cooks to the slot in 3-wide sets, where both have experience. Toon is a 2012 4th round pick who missed his whole rookie season with injury and then graded out below average on 205 snaps in 2013 and 241 snaps in 2014. Seantavius Jones and Brandon Coleman are 2014 undrafted free agents who have never played a snap in their career.

Josh Morgan is the only experienced veteran of the bunch, going into his age 30 season and his 8th year in the league, since getting drafted in the 6th round in 2008. The career journeyman is already on his 4th team and has only graded out above average once in his career. Last season, he graded out 84th among 110 eligible wide receivers on 436 snaps with the Bears, including 106th in pure pass catching grade, and he won’t get better as he goes into his 30s. The Saints would be better off going with a younger option who is less of a proven failure and who still has some upside. The Saints options for their 3rd receiver are really poor. The move to send Kenny Stills, Pro Football Focus’ 23rd ranked wide receiver in 2014, to the Dolphins for a 3rd round pick (which they used on cornerback PJ Williams) and mediocre linebacker Dannell Ellerbe didn’t make any sense, especially since Stills was only going into his age 23 season and was signed very inexpensively for 2 more years on his rookie contract.

The Graham trade made a lot more sense. As good as Graham was last season (Pro Football Focus’ 11th ranked tight end), the Saints gained valuable long-term financial flexibility by swapping the remainder of his contract (27 million over 3 years)to Seattle for the remainder of center Max Unger’s contract (9 million over 2 years). Unger isn’t as good as Graham, but he’s a very solid player in his own right and a much better value. On top of that, the Saints got Seattle’s first round pick (which eventually became linebacker Stephone Anthony) in exchange for their 4th round pick, which is obviously good.

That’s not to say that the Saints won’t really miss Graham and they didn’t really do anything to replace him this off-season. The Saints are expected to give both Ben Watson and Josh Hill significant action at tight end this season and also have an outstanding contract offer to former Bengals tight end Jermaine Gresham, who has graded out below average in each of the last 3 seasons, including 61st out of 62 eligible in 2012 and 64th out of 64 eligible in 2013. He’s still available late into July because of his recent struggles and because he had off-season back surgery. He’d be a very underwhelming addition, even for a tight end needy team.

Watson is the veteran of the Watson/Hill duo. The 2004 1st round pick has had a solid and underrated 11-year career, first with the Patriots, then the Browns, and now the Saints. Both a solid blocker and pass catcher, Watson has graded out above average 6 times in Pro Football Focus’ 8-year history, but graded out 48th among 67 eligible tight ends last season and is now going into his age 35 season. Despite that, Watson is expected to play more than the 578 snaps he played last season, something he simply might not be able to handle at his advanced age anymore.

On the flip side, Hill is very unproven, going undrafted in 2013 and grading out slightly below average on 179 and 293 snaps in 2013 and 2014 respectively. For what it’s worth, the Saints really seem to like him, but it’s going to take a lot more than being liked by the organization for him to even come close to replacing Graham’s production. If given enough playing time, he could put up decent numbers simply because of who’s throwing the ball to him, but he’s unlikely to do much to help Brees, much like this receiving corps in generally. The Saints did absolutely nothing to replace Stills and Graham this off-season and have one of the worst receiving corps in the NFL as a result.

Grade: C-

Offensive Line

As I mentioned, Max Unger is a great player in his own right. He’ll be a huge upgrade at center for a team that wants to run the ball more often this season. Jonathan Goodwin was their starting center last season, but he graded out 27th out of 41 eligible and was not brought back as a free agent ahead of his age 37 season. He hasn’t officially retired, but that will probably be what he ends up doing, as he’s drawn no free agent interest at his advanced age.

Unger, meanwhile, was Pro Football Focus’ 4th ranked center last season, despite playing just 385 snaps. No one played fewer snaps and graded out better at the position. He missed 10 games with injury last season and the Seahawks desperately missed him when he was out of the lineup, moving the chains at a 6.38% better rate in games he started. That can’t all be credited to him and that’s over just one season’s sample size, but it’s worth noting because Unger was fantastic on the field last season.

Injuries have been an issue for him in the past as he’s missed 29 games in 6 seasons in the league with injury. Inconsistency is also a problem as, while he was dominant on the field last season and while he was Pro Football Focus’ 2nd ranked center in 2012 too, those are the only two seasons he’s been in the top-10 among centers on Pro Football Focus. Still, he’s graded out above average in 5 of 6 seasons in the NFL and getting him at 9 million over 2 years is a better value than Graham at 27 million over 3, which is very important for the Saints. Add in the swap of picks and I think the Saints made a smart move.

Tim Lelito was going to be their starting center in place of Goodwin before they acquired Unger, after making 2 starts in place of an injured Goodwin last season. Now he slides over to left guard, where he’ll replace Ben Grubbs. Grubbs was a top-16 guard on Pro Football Focus for 5 straight seasons from 2009-2013, but graded out slightly below average last season and was sent to Kansas City for a 5th round pick, ahead of his age 31 season, a move that saved the Saints 6.6 million in cash, 3.6 million of which came off of their cap immediately. Lelito is a downgrade though, as the 2013 undrafted free agent has graded out below average on 162 and 294 snaps in 2013 and 2014 respectively, struggling at both guard and center. He showed some improvement from 2013 to 2014, but that could have just been because he was playing center instead of guard. I don’t have a lot of faith in him as the starting left guard and he should be a sharp downgrade from Grubbs.

The Saints did use one of their 1st round picks on an offensive lineman, taking Andrus Peat out of Stanford with the 13th overall pick. Either he or right tackle Zach Strief could play left guard this season, but the Saints haven’t really given either of them much if any action at guard this off-season. They seem to prefer starting Lelito at left guard and letting Peat and the veteran compete at right tackle. Strief is getting up there in age, going into his age 32 season, but, if it’s a fair battle, he should be able to keep job over the rookie pretty easily.

A late bloomer who didn’t become a full-time starter since 2011, Strief, a 2006 7th round pick, has made 54 starts over the past 4 seasons and graded out above average in 3 of those 4 seasons, excluding an injury plagued 2012 season. He hasn’t just graded out above average; he’s excelled, grading out 12th among offensive tackles in 2011, 9th in 2013, and 17th last season. His age is starting to become a concern, but he’s much more the solution than the problem upfront for the Saints and one of the best right tackles in the game.

I’d keep Strief at right tackle, move the rookie inside to left guard to start his career, and move Lelito to the bench. Even moving Strief inside and starting Peat at right tackle would make more sense than starting Lelito, even though Strief doesn’t have any experience inside and even though he’s been great outside. The Saints have shown no indication that they’re planning on doing that, but there’s still time for them to change their mind. Whatever they do, Strief needs to start because he’s been one of the best right tackles in the game over the past couple of years.

However, they should also avoid letting the 13th overall pick ride the pine as a rookie because he’s good enough to help somewhere immediately and can’t start at his collegiate position of left tackle. That’s because the Saints have Terron Armstead there and the 2013 3rd round pick had a breakout year in his 2nd year in the league in 2014, finishing 27th among offensive tackles, after playing 141 nondescript snaps as a rookie. He’s still a one year wonder, but he has the looks of a long-term starter and still has upside going forward, going into his age 24 season in 2015.

Rounding out the offensive line, Jahri Evans will once again start at right guard. Like ex-linemate Ben Grubbs, Jahri Evans has had a strong career, but was coming off of a down year, getting up there in age, and finding it hard to justify his big non-guaranteed salary for 2015 to the cap strapped Saints. From 2007-2013, he graded out in the top-30 among guards on Pro Football Focus in 7 straight years and the top-9 in 5 of those 7 years, maxing out at #1 overall in 2009. However, Evans slipped all the way to 46th out of 78 eligible in 2014 and is now going into his age 32 season.

Unlike Grubbs, the Saints kept him. He won’t make the 7.5 million he was originally scheduled to make, but he gets 9.5 million guaranteed on a 3-year, 18 million dollar deal, which gives him long-term security and essentially secures him 12 million over the 2 seasons. It’s a risky move and the Saints will definitely be hoping he can bounce back at least somewhat. His best days are behind him, but he could be a solid starter this season on a line that’s strong other than left guard Tim Lelito, who will hopefully be benched before the season starts.

Grade: B+

Running Backs

For a team with a lot of cap problems and a lack of long-term financial flexibility, the Saints weirdly spent a lot of money on running backs this off-season, signing CJ Spiller to a 4-year, 16 million dollar deal away from the Bills and re-signing Mark Ingram, also for 16 million over 4 years. Neither one of those deals were bad values, but I didn’t think the Saints needed both of them. I think the Ingram deal is the worse of the two.

Ingram rushed for 964 yards and 9 touchdowns on 226 carries (4.27 YPC) in 2014, but he’s a one year wonder who rushed for 1462 yards and 11 touchdowns on 356 carries (4.11 YPC) in his first 3 seasons combined, after the Saints drafted him in the 1st round in 2011. On top of that, his injury history is concern, with 14 games missed in 4 seasons, and he doesn’t contribute as a pass catcher, as he’s caught just 53 passes in 4 seasons. He’s a naturally talented running back who could continue being a solid early down back, but that’s not hard to find in today’s NFL.

The Saints could have replaced him cheaply internally with Khiry Robinson, a 2013 undrafted free agent who has flashed in 2 seasons in the league, rushing for 586 yards and 4 touchdowns on 130 carries, an average of 4.51 yards per carry. He graded out slightly below average on 76 snaps as a rookie, but then above average on 158 snaps in 2014. He’s unproven, doesn’t add anything as a pass catcher (8 career catches for 63 yards), and I don’t think he’s as talented as Ingram, but, at the very least, he’s a poor man’s version of Ingram at a much cheaper price. He would been a good fit as a complementary #2 back to Spiller, but now he’s a clear 3rd running back instead and will have to wait for an injury for playing time. I think it’s a waste of his talent on a cap strapped team.

Unlike Ingram, the Saints didn’t have anyone like the speedy Spiller on their roster and I think he’s a good fit for their offense. Spiller, a 2010 1st round pick, had a fantastic 2012 campaign, rushing for 1244 yards and 6 touchdowns on 207 carries (6.01 YPC), adding 43 catches for 459 yards and 3 touchdowns through the air, and grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 2nd ranked running back. He looked poised for a breakout year in 2013 as a 300+ touch back, but he struggled with injuries over the last 2 seasons (missing 8 games combined and being limited in several others) and he was never a great fit for Doug Marrone and Nathaniel Hackett’s offense.

Over the past 2 seasons, he’s rushed for 1233 yards and 2 touchdowns on 280 carries (4.40 YPC), with 52 catches for 310 yards and a touchdown, combined numbers that many people thought he’d be able to surpass in 2013 alone. He’s never surpassed 207 carries in a season, has annual issues in pass protection (grading out below average in 4 of 5 seasons), and is coming off the worst season of his career, 300 yards on 78 carries (3.85 YPC) in 9 games.

He’s a nice buy low candidate though, as he has a 4.97 YPC average and shows clear first round talent at times. He’s also a good pass catcher out of the backfield, grading out above average 4 times in 5 seasons in that aspect, and, if healthy, has the potential to put up at least Darren Sproles type receiving numbers (an average of 63 catches per season from 2011-2013) on a team that had a league leading 133 targets to running backs last season and now is very short on talented pass catchers for Brees. He’ll complement Ingram well, with Ingram specializing in power running between the tackles, but he would have complemented Robinson well too and Robinson would have come a lot cheaper. It’s a talented stable of backs, but one that could have done without giving Ingram 4 million annually.

Grade: B+

Defensive Line

As I mentioned, the Saints had a horrible defense last season, ranking 32nd in rate of moving the chains allowed, after ranking 10th the year before, during a 12-4 season. What happened? Well the player whose play declined the most was Cameron Jordan, who was Pro Football Focus’ 4th ranked 3-4 defensive end in 2013. With defensive coordinator Rob Ryan using far more 4-3 fronts than 3-4 fronts in base packages in 2014 in his hybrid defense, Jordan played 4-3 defensive end in base packages and 4-3 defensive tackle in sub packages and graded out below average.

Jordan, a 2011 1st round pick, also graded out below average in 2011 and 2012 when he played that role. I don’t think you can blame the scheme changes entirely though as Jordan was still rushing the passer from the interior in both schemes. I think he’s just an inconsistent player and one that the Saints probably overpaid on a 5-year, 55 million dollar extension this off-season. He has bounce back potential in 2015, only going into his age 26 season, but he’s definitely hard to rely on.

One player who didn’t really mind the scheme change was Junior Galette, the other starting defensive end. Galette was Pro Football Focus’ 12th ranked 3-4 outside linebacker in 2013 and graded out 4th among 4-3 defensive ends in 2014, showing himself to be easily the Saints’ best defensive player. The undersized 6-2 258 pounder graded out below average as a run stopper, but excelled as a pass rusher, grading out 2nd at his position in that aspect. The 2010 undrafted free agent graded out below average in his first 2 seasons in the league on just 25 and 372 snaps respectively, but has put that far behind him over the past 3 seasons, grading out 16th among 4-3 defensive ends in 2012 on 301 snaps as a reserve, with no one playing fewer snaps and grading out better at the position that season, and then dominating as a starter in each of the past 2 seasons.

The problem with Galette is twofold. The first problem is he suffered a partially torn pectoral earlier this off-season. He won’t need surgery though and is expected to be healthy by the start of the season. The bigger problem is the off-the-field stuff. Galette was accused of domestic violence at the start of the off-season and, while the charges were dropped, video surfaced later this off-season of someone who is allegedly him publicly striking a woman in a brawl at a beach back in 2013. The Saints are reportedly interested in cutting him, but that’s simply not feasible. Not only is he too talented to just outright release, doing so would cost the Saints 12 million on the 2015 cap (which they don’t have) because of the way his contract is structured.

Galette signed a 4-year, 41.5 million dollar extension last year and has yet to play a snap on that extension. Cutting him would essentially mean they are giving him 16 million dollars for free (a 3.5 million dollar signing bonus paid last off-season and a 12.5 million dollar roster bonus paid earlier this off-season) and they’d have no chance of getting any of that back without a legal conviction. Galette will remain a Saint in 2015, though he could be facing suspension from the league if they feel there’s enough evidence that a suspension is warranted, though nothing is reportedly imminent from the league. At this point, the Saints need to just hope that Galette can continue dominant play on-the-field and avoid any further trouble off-the-field. The likelihood of the former is strong. The likelihood of the latter is unclear.

The Saints edge rusher depth behind Galette is suspect as well, as 2nd round rookie Hau‘oli Kikaha and Anthony Spencer (in either order) are their next best edge rushers. When Jordan moves inside in sub packages, one of those two players figures to play as the other edge rusher. My guess is the veteran Spencer wins that battle in Training Camp and the rookie is eased into the league as a rotational player. Of course, Spencer has missed 20 games with injuries over the past 3 seasons combined with injury so Kikaha could end up seeing significant action for that reason.

If healthy, Spencer could be a solid player. Spencer, at one point, was given the franchise tag in back to back seasons and was one of the best 3-4 outside linebackers in the game. From 2007-2012, Anthony Spencer, a first round pick in 2007, was a top-11 3-4 outside linebacker on Pro Football Focus in all 6 seasons, including 4 as an every down starter and maxing out at #1 overall in 2012. After playing so well on the franchise tag the first time in 2012, he was tagged again in 2013, but it didn’t go so well the 2nd time around, as he played just 1 game the season thanks to a serious knee injury that required microfracture surgery.

Spencer was back for 13 games in 2014, but he played just 384 snaps, though he did grade out slightly above average. Going into his age 31 season, it’s very possible he’ll never be the same player again, but he’s be another year removed from the injury and could be decent in a situational role. He has experience in both a 3-4 (from 2007-2012 with the Cowboys) and a 4-3 (from 2013-2014 with the Cowboys and in his collegiate days at Purdue) and he’s familiar with Rob Ryan from Ryan’s days as the Dallas defensive coordinator from 2011-2012. He had the best year of his career in 2012 under Ryan.

Akiem Hicks led Saint defensive tackles in snaps played last season (with 734 snaps) and should do so again in 2015, after grading out above average, among 29th defensive tackles, as an every down player in 2014. The 2012 3rd round pick graded out above average on 383 snaps at 4-3 defensive tackle as a rookie in 2012 and then above average again on 653 snaps at 3-4 defensive end in 2013 too, so he’s not a one-year wonder either. He’s not a spectacular player, but he’s an above average starter who is only going into his age 26 season. He’ll be a free agent next off-season and should get a fair amount of money from someone, though likely not New Orleans with the cap situation they’re in. Even assuming a 150 million dollar cap for 2016, the Saints are already 7 million dollars over the 2016 cap.

It’s unclear who will start next to Akiem Hicks in base packages. John Jenkins is an option and certainly fits the mold of a two-down run stopper at 6-3 359, but the 2013 3rd round pick has graded out below average on 436 and 398 snaps in 2013 and 2014 respectively. Brodrick Bunkley returns, after agreeing to slash his salary from 4.5 million to 1.65 million this off-season, but he’s not very good either. There’s a reason why he had to take a pay cut.

Bunkley has been a free agent bust since signing a 5-year, 25 million dollar deal three off-seasons ago, after grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 5th ranked defensive tackle in 2011, including 1st against the run. Bunkley hasn’t been horrible when on the field in New Orleans, but he’s struggled to find a role in either the Saints’ 3-4 or the Saints’ 4-3 since arriving in town and he’s played just 899 snaps in 3 seasons as a result. He’s also graded out below average in 2 of the 3 seasons (each of the last 2 seasons) and missed 10 games over that time period. Even when he had his strong 2011 season, he only played 485 snaps and, even at his best, he’s a two-down player because of his inability to get to the quarterback. That’s all the Saints will need him to be this season, but his best days are far behind him, as he goes into his age 32 season.

Kevin Williams will also be in the mix for snaps after being signed to 1-year, 1.5 million dollar deal this off-season, but his best years are also far behind him, far, far behind him. He graded out above average in 7 straight seasons on Pro Football Focus, including in the top-9 from 2007-2012 and 27th in 2013, but graded out below average for the first time in his career last season on 445 snaps with the Seahawks and now heads into his age 35 season as a rotational player at best. The other defensive tackle spot is a weakness, but with every down players like Jordan, Galette, and Hicks, it’s really not a bad defensive line. The defensive line wasn’t the problem last season and things will be much better if Jordan bounces back. They’re depth is also much better as their worst defensive linemen last season were Brandon Deaderick and Kasim Edebali, who struggled mightily on 306 and 181 snaps respectively in 2014. They’ve been upgraded.

Grade: A-

Linebackers

The linebacking corps was a big part of the problem last season. Curtis Lofton was the worst offender as he made 16 starts at middle linebacker, but graded out 57th among 60 eligible middle linebackers, leading to his release the off-season, ahead of a non-guaranteed 8.25 million dollar salary for 2015. Ramon Huber was also really bad as the reserve outside linebacker graded out as Pro Football Focus’ worst ranked 4-3 outside linebacker on just 449 snaps. The Saints added talent this off-season and have a deeper linebacking corps as a result.

Stephone Anthony, the 31st overall pick in the 2015 NFL Draft (the Jimmy Graham trade pick), will start immediately at middle linebacker, in place of Lofton, and should be an every down player from the word go. Dannell Ellerbe came over in the trade from Miami for Stills and will play the two-down outside linebacker role in base packages, though he could be a liability more than anything. Ellerbe signed a 5-year, 34.25 million dollar deal with the Dolphins two off-seasons ago and proceeded to grade out as Pro Football Focus’ 50th ranked middle linebacker out of 55 eligible in 2013. He moved to outside linebacker for 2014, but ended up missing all but 18 snaps with a hip injury, which probably actually helped the Dolphins.

That deal didn’t make any sense for the start.  Ellerbe, a 2009 undrafted free agent, maxed out at 456 snaps in a season from 2009-2011, but he had a solid 2012 season, grading out 14th among middle linebackers on Pro Football Focus on 667 regular season snaps and then followed that up with a strong post-season, en route to a Super Bowl victory by the Ravens. That’s what got him paid, but he was a one year wonder that wasn’t worth his contract even at his best. He’s only graded out above average once in 6 seasons in the league and is now going into his age 30 season and coming off of a serious injury.

Ellerbe will only make 4.8 million this season, rather than his originally scheduled 8.45 million dollar salary, but he’s still overpaid. He’d probably be best as a reserve linebacker with Parys Haralson remaining as the two-down outside linebacker. Haralson struggled mightily on passing downs last season, but graded out 5th among 4-3 outside linebackers against the run and graded out above average overall as a result. That’s nothing new for him, as he’s graded out above average overall and against the run in each of the last 3 seasons. Even going into his age 31 season, he’d be a better two-down starter than Ellerbe, but Ellerbe’s salary makes it highly unlikely that he’ll just be a backup.

Outside linebacker David Hawthorne is another player who took a pay cut to stay on the roster, agreeing to a 1.25 million dollar pay cut from 4.5 million to 3.25 million. Like the other players that had to take a pay cut to stay on the roster, there’s a reason he had to do so, as, like many other recent free agent signings by the Saints, he didn’t pan out for the Saints. The Saints gave him a 5-year, 19 million dollar deal 3 off-seasons ago, after he graded out above average in 2009, 2010, and 2011 with Seattle (including 11th among middle linebackers in 2009 and 2nd among outside linebackers in 2010), but he’s graded out below average in each of the last 3 seasons, leading to the pay cut.

Hawthorne wasn’t the biggest problem in the linebacking corps last season, but he graded out 28th out of 40 eligible 4-3 outside linebacker and he’s unlikely to be any better going into his age 30 season this season. The Saints’ linebacking corps is better and deeper than it was last season and guys like Curtis Lofton and Ramon Hurber who were such a big part of the problem last season aren’t going to be playing serious roles again this season, but it’s still not a strong group.

Grade: C

Secondary

The secondary was also a big part of the problem last season, thanks, in large part, to serious down seasons from Kenny Vaccaro and Keenan Lewis. Vaccaro, a 2013 1st round pick, had a great rookie year, finishing as Pro Football Focus’ 23rd ranked safety, but struggled mightily in his 2nd season in the league, grading out 85th out of 87 eligible safeties. That greatly dampens future expectations for him, but he’s still young (only going into his age 24 season) and is definitely a bounce back candidate.

Keenan Lewis is also a bounce back candidate, after grading out 98th among 108 eligible cornerbacks in 2014. The 2009 3rd round pick graded out below average in each of his first 3 seasons in the league, but he never played more than 393 snaps in any of those seasons and then broke out as a starter in 2012 and 2013, grading out 38th and 27th among cornerbacks in those 2 seasons respectively. Still only going into his age 29 season, I think it’s much more likely that he’ll be better in 2015 than worse.

In addition to likely bounce back years from Lewis and Vaccaro (at least somewhat), the Saints’ secondary should be better because Jairus Byrd will return after being limited to 272 snaps in 4 games by a torn meniscus last season. Even when healthy, he struggled last season thanks to a lingering back problem, following off-season back surgery. Prior to last season, he was arguably the best safety in the NFL, which is why the Saints signed him to a 6-year, 54 million dollar deal last off-season.

The 2009 2nd round pick graded out above average in each of his first 5 seasons in the league up until free agency last off-season, grading out 41st, 22nd, 3rd, 2nd, and 8th in 2009-2013 respectively. No other safety graded out in the top-8 in all three seasons from 2011-2013. Injuries are beginning to become a concern, going into his age 29 season, as he missed 5 games with a foot problem in 2013 before last year’s back problems and knee problems, but, assuming he’s healthy, his re-addition should be a big boost to this team.

Rafael Bush, who was decent in Byrd’s absence last season on 479 snaps before suffering a season ending injury of his own week 11, will go back to being the 3rd safety this season. The 2010 undrafted free agent has graded out above average as a reserve in each of the last 3 seasons, maxing out at 520 snaps, and could find his way back into the starting lineup if Vaccaro continues to struggle or Byrd gets hurt again. They’d prefer him as a 3rd safety though.

The Saints do still have a serious weakness at cornerback behind Lewis. Corey White, who graded out 106th among 108 eligible cornerbacks as the #2 starter last season, is gone, but free agent acquisition Brandon Browner isn’t very good either. Browner graded out above average in each of his first 3 seasons in the NFL from 2011-2013, after starting his career in the CFL, but I think his best days are behind him, going into his age 31 season. The Patriots won the Super Bowl in spite of him last season as he graded out below average, 79th out of 108 eligible cornerbacks.

That’s largely thanks to the 15 penalties he committed in 9 games, 19 penalties in 12 games if you include the playoffs, after he missed the start of the season with a suspension leftover from the 2013 season, when he didn’t play past week 10. The only thing Browner seems to like more than getting in trouble with the league for performance enhancing drugs is getting in trouble with the refs for various holding and pass interference calls that extend opponent’s drives. His penalty problem isn’t a new thing either as he’s committed 48 penalties in 50 career games, including playoffs, a problem that won’t get better as he goes into his 30s, in a league that is getting increasingly tough on coverage penalties. He was overpaid on a 3-year, 15 million dollar deal this off-season.

Not only is Corey White, who was terrible last season, gone, but Patrick Robinson, who was their best cornerback last season, is also gone, after actually grading out slightly above average in 2014. It’s unclear who is going to replace him as the 3rd cornerback. 3rd round rookie PJ Williams is in the mix, as is 2014 2nd round pick Stanley Jean-Baptiste, who played just 8 snaps as a rookie. Delvin Breaux is another inexperienced player, who has spent the last 3 seasons in the Arena League and Canada. He was a premium signing out of the CFL this off-season, getting a 150K guarantee, but he’ll be hard to trust as the 3rd cornerback, as is also the case with Williams and Jean-Baptiste. Breaux has never played a snap in the NFL.

The only veteran in the mix is Kyle Wilson. Wilson was a bust as a 2010 1st round pick. He’s graded out below average in each of the last 4 seasons and made just 27 starts in 5 years with the Jets, including just 1 over the last 2 seasons combined as he could barely get on the field, despite massive issues at the cornerback position for the Jets. 2012 was his only season as a starter, as he played 966 snaps and made 15 starts, and he graded out just 72nd out of 115 eligible that season. He’s not very good. It’s still a weak secondary, but, like the linebacking corps, they should be better this season.

Grade: C

Conclusion

As I said earlier, the Saints were good enough to make the playoffs last season, but won’t necessarily make them this season, as their roster doesn’t seem to be as good. Their defense should be better thanks to additions in free agency and the draft, key players returning from injury, and bounce back years likely from other key players. They should be somewhere between the 10th best defense they were in 2013 and the worst defense they were in 2014, but they still could be closer to 2014. On offense, they have an aging quarterback with a worse supporting cast. If they make the playoffs next season, it’ll be because of their terrible division. As with all teams, I’ll have official win/loss records for the Saints after I’ve done all team’s previews.

Final Update (9/9/15): So much for being better defensively. Junior Galette ended up getting cut and Anthony Spencer, who they were counting on to replace him, is out for the season with an injury. On top of that, Keenan Lewis and Jairus Byrd, who they were counting on to bounce back in the secondary, will miss games to start the season with injury. Fortunately, they still play in an awful division and I think they’ll win it, but they aren’t going to consistently play like the team they could have been last season.

Prediction: 9-7 1st in NFC South

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