Before the NFL season starts, I’m going to take a look at something in each of the four NFC divisions in a bit more depth, hoping to give you a bit more background to a team, a division, a trend, whatever it may be. First up, as a fan it’d be self-defeating not to write a preview of the 2016 season for the New Orleans Saints, as well as looking a bit more at where they’re going in future years.
It’s 23 January 2016. The NFC Championship game is taking place, but we’re looking 2,000 miles west of that, where a selection of Saints legends, NFL luminaries and close friends have gathered in Sundance, UT. It’s the Sundance Film Festival premiere of ‘Gleason’, a documentary showing five years in the life of Steve Gleason since his diagnosis of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) in 2011. Saints past and present like Drew Brees, Scott Fujita and Eric Johnson are there. It’s an uplifting, emotional and overwhelming occasion, much like the documentary itself.
It’s impossible to look at the Saints’ 2016 season without thinking about Gleason, and what’s happened in the last ten years. On September 25 2006, the Saints were playing their first game back in the Superdome after Hurricane Katrina. You remember those images, don’t you? Of people huddled together inside and outside the Superdome, sleeping on campbeds side by side, nowhere else to go. They’re haunting, lump-in-throat images, inextricably tied up with how New Orleans feels about itself now. But they came back; a historically awful franchise with an owner threatening to up sticks to San Antonio came back despite the floods. And how.
The Saints had won 2 out of 2 but the USA didn’t really believe. The Falcons, their bitter rivals, only went 8-8 the previous season, but New Orleans had been 3-13. Atlanta started with a three-and-out. Then, on the fourth play of the game, Atlanta punt, and as the ball flies back, so too does strong safety Steve Gleason, hands extended, blocking the punt as it takes flight, sending it careening into the endzone for Curtis Deloatch to finish the touchdown. The crowd goes wild, the players go even wilder, and this proves to be a spark as the Saints go on to win the NFC South and a playoff game! Only their second ever playoff win, in their 40th season.
Gleason has become the figurehead of that moment, one built into Saints folklore quite literally, with a statue proud outside the Superdome. Gleason’s subsequent battle with – and fundraising for research into – ALS have only enhanced the mythology behind it. 2016 will be ten years since the Saints retuned to the Superdome, since Steve Gleason blocked that punt, since they went from perennial losers to perennial playoff contenders. It’s going to be an emotional season.
Anyway, let’s look at the Saints team, because it’s not a bad team. Drew Brees remains one of the greatest quarterbacks playing the game, and he’s had to be in recent years given the abysmal defense. He’s 37 now, but expect him to pass for 4,500+ yards at least. He’ll be ably supported by a young, but impressive list of playmakers. Brandin Cooks and Willie Snead may both be sub-6-footers, but Cooks is a terrifying speedster and deep-threat, while Snead is a battler; a nifty route-runner and comfort blanket who came from nowhere to hit nearly 1,000 yards receiving last year. Expect Cooks and Snead to use their speed and guile (respectively) to combine for 2,000+ yards again this year. Elsewhere, second-round draft pick Michael Thomas should supplant talented-but-flaky Brandon Coleman as the third choice receiver. Thomas has been terrific in preseason, and looks like a threat as a perimeter receiver. Coby Fleener’s been signed to fill the Jimmy Graham/Benjamin Watson receiving tight end role.
Derek E. Hingle/ USA TODAY sports
The run game should be decent – Mark Ingram is one of the league’s better running backs and could get close to 1,000 rushing yards; beyond him the depth is a touch thin. Comeback kid Tim Hightower was decent in relief, but CJ Spiller’s been a free agency bust. The offensive line is mostly good, headlined by Terron Armstead, who is probably the third-best left tackle in the league. Max Unger is reliable at center, though elsewhere you’ve got declining veterans (Zach Strief), or youngsters who are still develping (Tim Lelito, Andrus Peat, Senio Kelemete).
Of course, offense hasn’t tended to be the issue for the Saints recently. The defense was terrible under Steve Spagnolo, was (mostly) terrible under Rob Ryan, so how will it be under Dennis Allen? Well, the good news is that New Orleans has spent four first-and-second-round picks on defensive players these last two years. The bad news is three are now injured. Sheldon Rankins will miss half the season with a broken leg, Stephone Anthony will probably only miss the first few weeks with a ‘leg injury’, but Hau’oli Kikaha has torn his ACL and will miss the whole season.
So, the Saints’ defensive interior will rely on Nick Fairley, who is excellent in limited snaps but struggles with the full-time role he’ll have to take on while Rankins recovers. The pass rush won’t be great, because for all Cameron Jordan’s ability, one man does not a pass rush make. Kasim Edebali will need to step up. At linebacker, it’s hoped that Anthony, Dannell Ellerbe and free agent pick-up James Laurinaitis can provide backbone. The secondary wasn’t bad last season, and Delvin Breaux looks like a future number 1 cornerback. There’s an issue though at safety, because as much as Kenny Vaccaro has improved, Jairus Byrd has been an even worse big-money free agency signing than CJ Spiller, and 2016 second-round pick Vonn Bell is waiting in the wings should he continue to struggle.
Derek E. Hingle/ USA TODAY Sports
Of course, most of this is as it was last season. Personnel has not substantially improved from last season, so if the Saints are to win more than 8 games, it’ll have to be through coaching and coordinating. Sean Payton coached this team to the Super Bowl but has looked a touch jaded in recent years. And the coordinating? Well, the Saints don’t have the best record with defensive coordinators in recent years, do they?
I think this is the scariest thing for Saints fans right now. They’ve had a rather…unique approach to salary cap management in recent years, with GM Mickey Loomis backloading, extending and restructuring contracts right, left and centre. The Saints have been up against the cap, and that’s restricted what they’ve done in free agency and with star players. The chickens are now coming home to roost with Drew Brees’ contract. Brees is due a whopping $30 million this final year of his contract, an extension hasn’t been agreed, and everyone’s understandably agitated by this. To franchise tag Brees next year would cost $43.2 million, which is a lot of money for a 38 year-old. He won’t get that, but if the Saints keep Brees, it’s going to seriously hamper what they can do elsewhere.
The worst thing is that’s not the most terrifying prospect! What happens to New Orleans with no Drew Brees? Right now, that’d be a good way to ensure the first overall pick. Backup Garrett Grayson looks severely limited, and the alternatives in free agency in 2017 will be the likes of EJ Manuel, Geno Smith and Mike Glennon. So, it’ll be down to the draft, which is a case of pot luck. Sure, the Saints might end up with a Deshaun Watson or a Josh Rosen, and they might turn out to be 15-year starters, but there’s a very big might in there.
Always remember though: a quarterback – even one as good as Brees – does not make a team. The Saints do have young players who are improving and could become the backbone of this team. (I mean, most teams do, but shut up.) Receivers like Cooks, Snead and maybe Thomas. Armstead should be able to hold the left tackle position for years to come. The secondary looks chock-full of promise, with Breaux and Vaccaro supplemented by ascendant draft picks like PJ Williams and Damian Swann. The front seven outside of Cam Jordan still lacks promise, but you never know.
Whatever happens, it seems Brees and Payton’s time with the Saints is coming to an end. Brees could play a few more years here, but Payton came close to leaving in the offseason – after ten years you suspect that he himself feels a bit stale. Who could blame him? So, the future is scary because of two great unknowns. It’s better to be in this position than to not have a decent quarterback or head coach, mind.
Ten Years Since The Blocked Punt
Going back to our introduction, it’s going to be an emotional season for the Saints. The Saints actually play the Falcons in week 3, though those shadowy television executives have punctured the symbolism somewhat by moving the game to Monday night, so the Falcons will be coming to the Superdome ten years and one day after the blocked punt. Either way, it’s going to be a fantastic, overwrought occasion, and who wouldn’t put money on a three-and-out for Atlanta, followed by a relentless charge from a special teamer, blocking the punt, which is scooped up for a touchdown ten years on, with Steve Gleason in the crowd to cheer it on. Who cares about the future when you can have moments like that?