New Orleans Saints 2017 NFL Season Preview

Quarterback

Tom Brady gets a lot of credit for still playing at a high level late in his 30s, but Drew Brees deserves a lot of credit for the same thing. Now going into his age 38 season, Brees finished last season 7th among quarterbacks on Pro Football Focus and completed 70.0% of his passes for an average of 7.74 YPA, 37 touchdowns, and 15 interceptions. That was his 11th straight season in the top-7 among quarterbacks on Pro Football Focus, coinciding with his arrival in New Orleans from San Diego in 2006. Over that time period, he’s averaged 632 pass attempts per season, easily the most by a quarterback over that time period, and has missed just 2 games with injury total.

As a result of Brees’ strong play, the Saints finished last season 2nd in first down rate. They ranked 2nd in that metric in 2015 as well, when Brees completed 68.3% of his passes for an average of 7.77 YPA, 32 touchdowns, and 11 interceptions and finished 6th among quarterbacks on Pro Football Focus. Last season, the Saints finished 10th in first down rate differential at +1.14%, which was 4th best among non-playoff teams. On the season, they had 9 more offensive touchdowns than their opponents.

The Saints finished last season 7-9 because they lost 7 games by 6 points or fewer and had a -4 margin in return touchdowns. Both of those are more the result of bad luck than anything, so, if the Saints play like they did last season, they should exceed their 2016 win total. However, that’s a big if, considering Brees’ age. If Brees’ ability starts to go south in a hurry like Peyton Manning and Brett Favre’s did, the Saints could be in big trouble because of how reliant they have been on him in recent years. I wouldn’t be surprised if he had another strong season, but that can’t be guaranteed at this point in his career.

Grade: A

Receiving Corps

Brees had arguably the top wide receiver trio in the league to throw to last season in Michael Thomas, Brandin Cooks, and Willie Snead, who combined for 242 catches for 3205 yards and 21 touchdowns, most by any wide receiver trio in the league. However, this team has been so one-dimensional over the past few seasons, as they have finished dead last in first down rate allowed in 2 straight seasons. Even if their offense is as good as it was last season again, they need to be much better defensively to even have a chance at making a deep run in the playoffs.

Their offense is unlikely to be as good as it was last season though, because they traded Brandin Cooks to the Patriots for the 32nd overall pick in the first round (as well as a swap of 3rd and 4th rounders). Cooks was Pro Football Focus’ 28th ranked wide receiver last season and finished the season with a 78/1183/8 slash line on just 117 targets. He finished 7th in the NFL in receiving yards, but just 28th in targets. Still only going into his age 24 season, Cooks will be a big lost. The trade did make some sense though, because Saints still have Michael Thomas and Willie Snead and because the extra first round pick could have helped balance out this team by adding to their defense, though ironically they ended up using that pick on an offensive tackle because San Francisco grabbed middle linebacker Reuben Foster one spot ahead of them after trading up.

Even with Cooks gone, Thomas and Snead are still one of the best wide receiver duos in the NFL and both figure to see an uptick in production. Thomas caught 92 passes for 1137 yards and 9 touchdowns last season as a mere 2nd round rookie, just the 13th rookie to top 1000 receiving yards in the last 30 seasons. He joins a very impressive club that includes players like AJ Green, Anquan Boldin, Randy Moss, Joey Galloway, Terry Glenn, Mike Evans, and Amari Cooper. The only true one-year wonder on the list is Michael Clayton, who never came close to his rookie receiving total.

Thomas produced those numbers on just 587 routes run (1.94 yards per route run) and 122 targets (9.32 yards per target). His receiving yardage was 9th in the NFL, despite just receiving the 22nd most targets. He finished the season as Pro Football Focus’ 6th ranked wide receiver. You can never rule out a sophomore slump, but his best days should still be ahead of him. With Cooks gone, he should get more playing time and more targets as the true #1 wide receiver on one of the most pass heavy and effective offenses in the NFL. Barring injury, I would be surprised if he didn’t exceed his 2016 numbers.

Willie Snead should exceed his 2016 numbers too. As the 3rd receiver on this offense, Snead caught 72 passes for 895 yards and 4 touchdowns on 104 targets (8.61 yards per target) and 514 routes run (1.74 yards per target). A 2014 undrafted free agent, Snead had a 69/984/3 slash line on 102 targets in the first significant playing time of his career in 2015, despite not getting regular playing time for the first month or so of the season. He’s finished 30th and 17th among wide receivers on Pro Football Focus in 2015 and 2016 respectively. He has just 13 starts in 2 seasons in the league, but, with Cooks out of the picture, he’s now locked in as a starter and has a good chance to top 1000 yards for the first time in his career.

Free agent acquisition Ted Ginn will slot in as the #3 receiver and could have a big role because the Saints use 3-wide receiver sets regularly. He’s an obvious downgrade from Cooks, but isn’t a bad 3rd receiver. The 9th overall pick in the 2007 NFL Draft, Ginn never lived up to his draft slot, but is still in the league a decade later because he has rare speed and can contribute as a return man. He’s only finished above average on Pro Football Focus twice in 10 years in the league and his age is a concern, as he goes into his age 32 season, but he’s been solid in recent years, posting slash lines of 44/739/10 and 54/752/4 in 2015 and 2016 respectively with the Panthers. He probably won’t have as big of a role in New Orleans, but could still provide value as a situational deep threat.

Tight end Coby Fleener is another player who should see more production with Cooks gone. Signed to a 5-year, 36 million dollar deal last off-season, many expected a big role for Fleener in this offense, considering how productive tight ends historically are in this offense (even an aging Ben Watson had a 74/825/6 slash line in 2015). However, he was eclipsed by the Saints’ top-3 receivers and only saw 82 targets, significantly less than the 109 targets Watson saw the season before. He finished 4th on the team with 50 catches for 631 yards and 3 touchdowns, solid numbers, but less than most were expecting.

A 2012 2nd round pick, Fleener averaged a 52/624/5 slash line in the previous 3 seasons with the Colts, despite splitting playing time with Dwayne Allen, so he’s a pretty good receiver and could have an expanded role as they try to replace Cooks’ production. Fleener is not much of a blocker, but has finished above average on Pro Football Focus in 3 of 5 seasons in the league. He’ll be backed up again by Josh Hill, who played 361 snaps as the #2 tight end last season. That was a career high for the 2013 undrafted free agent and he was pretty underwhelming, so I don’t expect him to have a large role in this offense. They’ll pass often and spread defenses out with Thomas, Snead, Ginn, and Fleener.

Grade: A-

Running Backs

The Saints may try to run the ball more this season than last season, at least that’s what their off-season moves would suggest. They signed Adrian Peterson in free agency and drafted Alvin Kamara in the 3rd round of the draft. Gameflow may make it tough for them to have a balanced offense unless their defense significantly improves, but they have improved their backfield. The Saints averaged 4.31 yards per carry last season (13th in the NFL), but that was mostly because defenses had to respect Drew Brees and the passing game so much. Including quarterback runs and sacks, Brees was involved on 723 of the Saints’ 1078 offensive plays last season, over 67 percent.

Mark Ingram returns and should be the lead back again, after averaging an impressive 5.09 YPC average on 205 carries last season and finishing 17th among running backs on Pro Football Focus. Ingram was a first round pick in 2011, but last season was just his first thousand yard rushing season (1043) in 6 seasons in the league. Injuries have always been an issue for him, as he’s missed 18 games in 6 seasons. Last season was just the second full 16-game season of his career and he’s never topped 226 carries in a season. He’s not the workhorse the Saints were probably hoping he’d be when they drafted him.

Ingram has averaged 4.68 yards per carry over the past 4 seasons though, so he should still have a big role, even with all of the off-season additions. He’ll probably have fewer than the 205 carries he had last season, but he is probably the favorite to lead this team in carries. He’s also become a much better receiver over the past couple of seasons and should still have a role in the passing game too. He’s caught 96 passes for the past 2 seasons, after catching just 53 in his first 4 seasons in the league.

Adrian Peterson is his biggest competition for carries. A few years ago, Adrian Peterson on the Saints with Drew Brees sounded like something that would only happen in Madden, but Peterson is going into his age 32 season and was greeted by a cold market this off-season, settling for a 2-year, 7 million dollar deal with a team that isn’t guaranteeing him a starting job. Peterson has led the league in rushing 3 times in 10 seasons in the league and did so as recently as 2015, but he was limited to 72 yards on 37 carries in just 3 games in 2016 by a knee injury and he is at the age where most running backs start to break down, usually very quickly. I’m not ruling out Peterson having a strong season, as it certainly wouldn’t be the first time he’s proven his doubters wrong, but that’s far from a guarantee at this point in his career. The Saints will be happy if he can be effective in a timeshare with Ingram.

The one area Peterson has always struggled in is the passing game, as he’s topped 30 catches just 3 times in 10 seasons in the league. The Saints like their backs to be able to catch passew, so Peterson likely won’t play in many passing situations. Mark Ingram will see some targets, but 3rd round rookie Alvin Kamara could lead New Orleans running backs in catches. The Saints traded a 2018 2nd round pick to move up to get Kamara with the 67th pick atop the 3rd round, so they clearly have a role in mind for him, even with Ingram and Peterson ahead of him on the depth chart, and he was one of the most refined pass catching backs in the draft. 50-60 catches is definitely a possibility for him and he may see some carries as well. The Saints have a talented trio of running backs and could be one of the best running teams in the league if Peterson has something left in the tank.

Grade: A-

Offensive Line

As mentioned, the Saints used their first round pick on an offensive tackle, taking Wisconsin’s Ryan Ramczyk. It was seen as a weird pick at the time because the Saints had much bigger needs on defense. The Saints had a solid tackle duo of Terron Armstead and Zach Strief and used a first round pick in 2015 on Andrus Peat, who primarily plays left guard, but moved to left tackle last season when Armstead missed time with injury. However, Armstead tore his shoulder labrum this off-season and will miss at least half of the season, so having Ramczyk as insurance turned out to be very useful. Ramczyk will likely start at left tackle week 1, allowing Peat to remain at left guard, where he was better last season. Peat finished last season just below average overall, but could be better in his 3rd season in the league in 2017.

Losing Armstead for an extended period of time is still a huge blow though, as he’s their best offensive lineman when healthy. Armstead finished 3rd among offensive tackles on Pro Football Focus in just his age 24 season in 2015, but injuries limited him to 7 games last season and he’ll be lucky if he plays 7 games this season. If he can stay healthy, he still has a bright long-term future, but he’s never played more than 14 games in a season and needs to be more durable. Ramczyk could be solid as a rookie, but will be an obvious downgrade from Armstead.

Zach Strief will remain on the right side, even with Armstead out, because that’s where he fits best. Strief has made 62 of 64 starts over the past 4 seasons at right tackle and has finished in the top-23 among offensive tackles in all 4 seasons. Last season, he finished 12th among offensive tackles. He’s been one of the best right tackles in the game, but he’s going into his age 34 season, which is part of why they drafted Peat and now Ramczyk. That being said, he’s still playing at a high level and is owed a very affordable 4 million in the final year of his contract in 2018, so Strief will likely remain the starting right tackle for another 2 seasons, unless his abilities fall off a cliff during that time.

Armstead’s injury isn’t the only injury the Saints are dealing with upfront, as Max Unger is rehabbing after off-season foot surgery. His injury isn’t as serious as Armstead’s and he’s tentatively expected to be ready for week 1, but he could miss the entire off-season. Senio Kelemete, a career backup with 14 starts in 5 seasons in the league, would start if he were to miss time. Nine of those starts came last season at left guard and he struggled mightily, finishing 53rd out of 72 eligible guards on Pro Football Focus. He’d be an obvious downgrade from Unger, who is an above average starting center when healthy. He’s going into his age 31 season, but has finished above average in 7 of 8 seasons in the league. Last season he was Pro Football Focus’ 11th ranked center in 15 starts.

In addition to spending a first round pick on the offensive line, the Saints also brought in one of the top free agent guards, signing ex-Lion Larry Warford to a 4-year, 34 million dollar deal. That should help offset the loss of Armstead somewhat. A 2013 3rd round pick, Warford has made 57 starts in 4 seasons in the league and has finished above average on Pro Football Focus in all 4 seasons, including three seasons in the top-20. Warford dealt with some nagging injuries throughout much of his time in Detroit, which is a concern, even though he only missed 7 games, but he’s only going into his age 26 season and has a good chance to be a really good right guard for a long time if he can stay healthy. This offensive line is still pretty strong without Armstead, but his absence will definitely be felt.

Grade: A-

Defensive Line

As good as their offense is, this team’s potential will be capped unless they drastically improve defensively, as they’ve been the worst defensive team in the league over the past 2 seasons. None of that has been Cameron Jordan’s fault though, as Jordan finished 4th among 4-3 defensive ends on Pro Football Focus in 2015 and then 3rd at the position in 2016. He’s been a top-4 player at his position in 3 of the last 4 seasons and is still in the prime of his career in his age 28 season. Jordan “only” had 7.5 sacks last season, but that’s mostly because he often lines up inside in sub packages. Even if the amount of times he actually got the quarterback on the ground isn’t that impressive, he was still very disruptive to passing games from multiple spots on the defensive line and he played the run at a high level too.

With Jordan frequently lining up inside in sub packages, edge rusher was a huge need for the Saints this off-season. No New Orleans edge rusher other than Cameron Jordan had more than a sack and a half last season and Paul Kruger, who started opposite Jordan last season, is no longer with the team. The Saints didn’t do a good job upgrading the position though. They used a 3rd round pick on Florida Atlantic’s Trey Hendrickson and signed veteran Alex Okafor in free agency. They will compete for snaps with Hau’oli Kikaha, who returns after missing all of last season with a torn ACL.

Kikaha also tore his ACL twice in college, so his long-term durability is definitely in question. His knee issues were a big part of the reason why he fell to the 2nd round in 2015. Kikaha played in 15 games and played 621 snaps as a rookie, but didn’t play that well. He’s a complete mystery coming off of the injury, though he’s still only in his age 25 season, so he still has potential. Hendrickson also has potential, but could be overwhelmed in a large role as a rookie. Okafor, meanwhile, has 25 starts in 4 seasons in the league, but has never finished above average on Pro Football Focus over a season and played just 231 snaps as a pure reserve last season. Defensive end figures to be a position of weakness behind Jordan on the depth chart again.

Last season, Jordan and Nick Fairley made a good interior pass rush duo in sub packages, one of the only good things about this defense. Fairley finished 20th among defensive tackles on Pro Football Focus on 723 snaps in 2016 and was re-signed to a 4-year, 28 million dollar deal this off-season. However, he is expected to miss the entire season with heart problems and may have to retire. It’s a huge blow to this team, especially since they guaranteed him 9 million on his new contract, including an 8 million dollar signing bonus.

The Saints will be hoping that second year defensive tackle Sheldon Rankins can step up in his absence. Rankins was the 12th overall pick in the 2016 NFL Draft, but had a miserable rookie season. He was limited to 334 snaps in 9 games by a broken leg and did not look like himself when on the field, finishing 109th out of 127 eligible interior defensive linemen on Pro Football Focus. Now healthy, Rankins still has a big upside and could easily have a breakout season in his 2nd season in the league, though that’s far from a guarantee.

The Saints signed Tony McDaniel after the news broke about Fairley and he will at least replace Fairley in base packages, with Jordan coming in for him in sub packages. McDaniel is an adequate run stuffer, so he’s not a bad addition, but his age is a concern, as he’s going into his age 32 season. David Onyemata and Tyeler Davison also had small roles inside last season, playing 393 and 438 snaps respectively. Neither player played well, finishing 81st and 117th respectively out of 127 eligible interior defensive linemen, but both will return in depth roles. Onyemata was a 4th round pick in 2016, while Davison went in the 5th in 2015. Losing Nick Fairley thins an already thin defensive line and hurts their chances of even being a little bit improved upfront in 2017.

Grade: C

Linebackers

The Saints had arguably the worst 4-3 linebacking corps in the NFL last season, as they struggled across the entire unit, so they decided to completely overhaul the unit. Craig Robertson (970 snaps) and Dannell Ellerbe (443 snaps) are their top returning linebackers and they also brought in AJ Klein and Manti Te’o through free agency, on deals worth 24 million over 4 years and 5 million over 2 years respectively, and they brought in Florida’s Alex Anzalone in the 3rd round of the draft. They also have 2015 1st round pick Stephone Anthony returning from injury, after being limited to 133 snaps in 10 games in 2016. All 6 players will compete for roles in a wide open linebacking corps.

Klein was given a pretty significant contract in free agency, so he’s probably the most likely to win a starting job. However, the 2013 5th round pick was never anything more than a part-time player with the Panthers over the first 4 seasons of his career. He played just 350 snaps last season and didn’t see regular playing time until Luke Kuechly got injured. He’s an adequate base package run stuffer, but he’s not nearly worth what they paid him. He’d be best in a part-time role, but his salary suggests the Saints see him as an every down player. He definitely could struggle in that role. The Saints will start him at middle linebacker, but he has experience at outside linebacker too.

Robertson led New Orleans linebackers in snaps played last season, starting and playing every down in all 15 games he played. He’s plenty experienced, with 52 starts in 5 seasons in the league. He finished above average on Pro Football Focus in 2014 and 2015 (20 starts combined), so he has some bounce back potential, but he’s finished below average in the other 3 seasons in his career, including last season, when he finished 63rd out of 87 eligible linebackers, so he’s not a lock to keep his job. Robertson is also versatile like Klein is and can play both inside and outside linebacker in a 4-3.

Manti Te’o spent his whole career in a 3-4 in San Diego, but could also play both outside linebacker and inside linebacker in a 4-3. The problem is he isn’t that talented and he’s even less durable than he is talented. He’s missed 26 games in 4 seasons in the league, including the final 13 games of last season, after an achilles tear, and he’s finished below average in 3 of 4 seasons in the league. His worst season came in 2015, when he finished 93th out of 97 eligible linebackers on Pro Football Focus and he was on his way to what looked like a similarly bad season in 2016 before the injury. The Saints fortunately didn’t pay him much, so he’s not locked into any role.

Stephone Anthony is a player they’d certainly like to earn a role, given that he was a first round pick just two years ago, but he was horrendous as a rookie, finishing 79th out of 97 eligible linebackers on Pro Football Focus in 16 starts and then fell out of favor with the coaching staff in an injury plagued 2016 season, which is he why he barely played last season. Still only going into his age 25 season, Anthony will have an opportunity to win a role if he impresses the coaching staff, but is a longshot to develop into a useful player in 2017. He too can play both inside and outside linebacker.

Dannell Ellerbe is the veteran of the bunch, going into his age 32 season. He’s missed 51 games with injury in 8 seasons in the league, including a whopping 32 games just over the past 3 seasons. He played 443 snaps in 9 games last season as he was more or less an every down player when healthy, but he’s finished above average just once in 8 seasons in the league and is far from a lock to keep his job. Owed 2.5 million non-guaranteed in 2017, he’s not even a lock to make the final roster, with all the linebackers the Saints added this off-season. Anzalone, meanwhile, will likely start his rookie season on special teams, but could have a role by season’s end. Things are totally wide open in one of the worst linebacking corps in the NFL.

Grade: D

Secondary

In sub packages, most teams go with 3 cornerbacks and 2 safeties. The Saints, however, bring in a 3rd safety and move one of their safeties, usually Kenny Vaccaro, to the slot. Veteran safety Jairus Byrd led the secondary in snaps played last season with 900 and wasn’t bad, but isn’t with the team anymore and was replaced by Utah’s Marcus Williams, a solid selection in the 2nd round. He’ll spend his rookie season as the 3rd safety and play about half the snaps. Meanwhile, last year’s 2nd round pick Vonn Bell will play every down with Vaccaro. He was alright on 889 snaps last season and could be better in his 2nd season in the league.

Vaccaro was a first round pick by the Saints in 2013 and is going into the final year of his rookie deal. He will make 5.676 million this season and figures to get upwards of that annually on his next contract from someone in the next year, unless the Saints opt to franchise tag him next off-season. They may ultimately decide to do that. Vaccaro isn’t one of the best safeties in the game, but he’s an above average starter and a valuable chess piece on a defense that overall lacks talent. Vaccaro was horrible in his 2nd season in the league in 2014, but has otherwise been good, finishing 23rd among safeties in 2013, 27th in 2015, and 38th last season. He’s started in all but 1 of the 56 games he’s played in 4 seasons in the league.

While the Saints missed out on Reuben Foster at 32 and had to settle for an offensive tackle, they did add to their defense with their own draft pick, taking Ohio State cornerback Marshon Lattimore at 11. Not only does he fill a huge need at cornerback, but he was a steal at that point in the draft. Widely considered a top-5 pick, Lattimore was the draft class’ top cornerback prospect and Pro Football Focus’ #4 overall ranked prospect. He should start day 1, with his only competition being Sterling Moore, who struggled on 805 snaps (12 starts) in 2016. Moore is a solid slot cornerback and could see a role on the slot in sub packages, but isn’t a real candidate for the outside job over Marshon Lattimore.

Starting outside opposite Lattimore is Delvin Breaux, who is hoping to bounce back from an injury plagued 2016 season. A CFL star, Breaux burst onto the scene in his first season in the NFL in 2015, finishing 8th among cornerbacks on Pro Football Focus, but broke his leg early in the 2016 season, wasn’t the same upon his return, and then dealt with a shoulder injury. He struggled mightily on just 293 snaps in 6 games in a very disappointing 2nd season in the NFL. Injuries are a big part of Breaux’s history and are the reason he was never drafted in the NFL in the first place and he is still a one-year wonder, but he does have obvious bounce back potential if he can stay healthy. His return, along with the additions of Marshon Lattimore and Marcus Williams in the draft, make this an improved secondary.

Grade: B-

Conclusion

The Saints lose Brandin Cooks and will be without Terron Armstead for most of the season with injury, which hurts this offense, but they could be more balanced this season with the additions of Adrian Peterson and Larry Warford in free agency. If Peterson still has something left in the tank and Drew Brees continues playing at a high level, this offense could be borderline unstoppable. Those are both big ifs though, considering the age of both of those players. This team also has considerable downside given how reliant they are on the aging Drew Brees. If he declines significantly, this team will struggle to win games because of how bad their defense figures to be once again. I could see this team making the post-season, but I could also see them finishing as one of the worst teams in the NFC.

Final update: The Saints will be without Willie Snead for the first 3 games of the season because of suspension and they will be without Delvin Breaux for at least the first 8 games of the season because of injury, but they’re getting Terron Armstead back earlier than expected. This team should get better as the season goes on, but will have a lot of competition for playoff spots in the much tougher NFC. 

Prediction: 8-8, 4th in NFC South

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s