One of the odd quirks of having an old, durable quarterback is you can end up in win-now mode for ages. For at least the past 5 years, the New Orleans Saints have been trying to make the most of Brees’ twilight. Drew Brees, in case you hadn’t heard, is still incredible. So there have been a lot of short-term moves, salary-cap horsetrading and no real planning for the future.
That, basically, is how New Orleans have ended up going 7-9 three years in a row. Poor personnel decisions, mediocre drafting, and an eye only for offensive players. Having a part-time General Manager and de facto absentee owner doesn’t help.
2016 was a year like most others. Brees set phenomenal passing totals, the offensive line held up fantastically, and outside of Cameron Jordan there were no performers better than ‘good’ on the defense. And not too many of them, either. Games kind of drifted away. The defense put up what you’d expect a high-effort, low-ability defense to, ranking 6th-worst in yards allowed and 2nd-worst in points allowed. The offense was 1st in yards and 2nd in points.
Whisperings have been heard at camp of a switch to a more run-oriented system, what with the signings of Adrian Peterson and Alvin Kamara. Committing to that too much or too early would be lunacy. Why? Drew Brees. He may only have one Super Bowl, but Brees has eleven elite seasons with the Saints under his belt already. Even if the decline comes this season (and it’s always a risky bet) he’s still a future Hall of Famer.
But like I said, this could intend to be a more run-heavy offense. Mark Ingram has always played well but been seemingly disliked by HC Sean Payton. Peterson is here, for his first pro season not as the focal point in a team set up in the I-formation. Peterson is interesting: he has to get used to being a role player, which can be hard for any former star. If he adjusts to running in a different formation, he’ll be an important cog. If not, he could even be cut when rosters go to 53. Third-round passing-down back Alvin Kamara is here. Though, actually, Kamara is a second-round pick. New Orleans traded away their 2018 second-round pick to draft Kamara in the third in 2017. This kind of trade is stupid, stupid, stupid. John Lynch must think fleecing teams in the draft is an absolute cakewalk.
So when the run game stays ‘good’ as it was in 2017, the receivers will take over. On paper, New Orleans have downgraded slightly, shipping out Brandin Cooks and bringing in Ted Ginn. Cooks was more than a deep threat, offering a dynamic option on quick outs and intermediate routes. Ginn is a better deep threat, but he has very unreliable hands – something that doesn’t fit with the Saints ethos. Michael Thomas and Willie Snead are excellent established options. Coby Fleener was an unsurprising big-money disappointment last year at tight end.
The O-Line was robust last year, but its two best members – left tackle Terron Armstead and center Max Unger – have injury complaints. Unger should return early, but Armstead may be out until December. The left tackle spot will be manned by rookie Ryan Ramczyk, who looks a solid, if not bruising, addition. Big-money guard Larry Warford – wonderfully described as having ‘ass and mass’ will improve the line too.
God, do I have to write about the defense? The Saints will play a 4-3 system that often looks more like a 4-2 with three-safety sets. Cameron Jordan, at end, is their one elite element. Next-best on the line last year was Nick Fairley, who will retire due to a heart condition. Also we have Sheldon Rankins, who missed half his rookie year due to injury and looked so-so upon return. Alex Okafor is the biggest signing, which, meh. Beyond that, a bunch of rookie, second or third-year players like Trey Hendrickson, David Onyemata, Tyeler Davison. It’s hard to think the pass rush or first-line run D will be better, but who knows.
The linebackers might be better, if only for the sacking of much-loved-but-abysmal-record-as linebacker coach Joe Vitt. (Do not get me started on Joe Vitt.) Coming in are Manti Te’o, A.J. Klein and Alex Anzalone. The linebacker corps is still retreads or no-treads yet. Craig Robertson looked ok after being deemed surplus to the Browns’ requirements. Former first-round pick Stephone Anthony looks like the bust he was widely projected to be.
As ever, draft capital has been ploughed into the secondary. But first-rounder Marshon Lattimore looks like an absolute steal, for once. He was top-5 on my big board, so to snag him at 11 is great. Elsewhere, injury-prone feelgood story Delvin Breaux has all the tools to be a damn fine corner if he can get healthy. The best bets for slot corner – P.J. Williams and Damian Swann, were both on injured reserve due to concussions and neck injuries by mid-September 2016.
In theory, the Saints defense hinges on having three good safeties to provide extra coverage options and a security blanket against the run. With that in mind, second-rounder Marcus Williams joins last year’s second-rounder Vonn Bell and 2013 first-rounder Kenny Vaccaro. Vaccaro was good and Bell decent last year, and this is a group with positional versatility, where you can get by with any of them playing any position from moneybacker through to free safety. I wouldn’t put Vaccaro at slot corner, but that’s it. I don’t know what it says about the Saints that they load up on safeties while the rest of the league devalues them. Maybe they’re ahead of the curve. Or maybe behind it.
Players To Watch
Cameron Jordan is a pressure-making machine at defensive end. But watch how often he goes up against double-teams, or how often he’s pressuring the quarterback despite, it seeming, the entire O-Line being up against him. Opponents don’t really have to plan for anyone but Cameron Jordan. They can throw a sixth lineman or a blocking tight end extra at him. They can sit the guard by the tackle. And he still has a variety of moves to get pressure.
Last year’s leading rookie wide receiver, Michael Thomas is already seen as something of a reliable, known quantity. Unless the sophomore slump strikes, Thomas should continue to be a fantastic pair of hands with route-running nous, functional speed and plenty of yards. But check him out running two routes. First, slant routes – starting wide and heading at 45 degrees towards the centre, behind the linebackers and in front of the safeties. Second, curl routes, aka “hitch routes”, starting as if going long from the outside and then coming back towards the line of scrimmage at 45 degrees. Thomas excelled at both.
If he can put it together, Delvin Breaux is one of the most thrilling cornerbacks in the league to watch. Note that thrilling isn’t always good in the secondary. But, he’s hyper-aggressive and chippy, as all fun cornerbacks are. He’s also a fantastic tracking the runner, and gets his hands in all the right places. He does lose his man occasionally, which is also worth watching to see why it happens. But he’s got the potential, given health, to be a shutdown corner, and is a definite breakout candidate.
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