As long as Drew Brees is the quarterback, the Saints will always have a shot to win the NFC South and make the playoffs. But rivals have passed the Saints in other areas, and it all caught up to them in 2014. Team officials realized they couldn’t continue to rely on Brees to simply outscore opponents with his dazzling passing skills. So they conducted an eyebrow-raising roster overhaul in the offseason in an effort to bolster their aging offensive line and flagging defense. The Saints are counting on more new faces than they have in a long time and are something of a mystery team in the NFC race.
The names change, but the production should remain prolific. Even without Jimmy Graham and Kenny Stills, look for the Saints to continue to rank among the league leaders in yards and points. Since coach Sean Payton and Brees arrived in 2006, the Saints have finished no worse than sixth in total offense and 12th in scoring offense. At 36, Brees has started to show signs of age, but he’s still highly effective when not asked to do too much and given time in the pocket to find his receivers. Look for Brees to spread the ball around more without the dynamic Graham in the lineup. The Saints have no one on the roster with Graham’s physical skill set, and his absence will challenge Payton’s play-calling creativity, especially in the red zone, where an alley-oop to Graham meant an automatic six points the past few seasons.
The Saints are high on athletic third-year tight end Josh Hill. He showed big-play ability in a limited role last season, when five of his 14 receptions went for touchdowns. Speedy Brandin Cooks was extremely productive as a rookie before breaking his thumb. He’ll be called on to produce more explosive plays with Graham and Stills gone. Young veterans Nick Toon, Joe Morgan, Seantavius Jones and Brandon Coleman will compete for spots in the rotation.
Until the passing attack sorts itself out, Brees can lean on a reliable run game that ranked ninth in the NFL in average yards per carry (4.5). With Mark Ingram, C.J. Spiller and Khiry Robinson in the backfield, the running game should be a strength. Ingram is coming off his finest season as a pro and is firmly entrenched as the lead back. Spiller was signed in free agency to play the satellite back role in which Reggie Bush and Darren Sproles excelled from 2006-13. The powerful Robinson is one of the most difficult backs in the league to tackle.
All of this firepower will go for naught if the offensive line doesn’t improve. The unit had been one of the most consistent in the NFL over the years but started to show its age last season. Brees was sacked 29 times and often hurried into crucial interceptions. To that end, the Saints acquired veteran center Max Unger in the Graham trade and selected tackle Andrus Peat in the first round of the NFL Draft. Peat is probably a year away from seeing the field, with the athletic Terron Armstead and the underrated Zach Strief bookending the line at tackle. But Unger, a former Pro Bowler, will be an immediate upgrade at center. Right guard is the lone question mark. Former undrafted free agent Tim Lelito will get the first crack to replace Ben Grubbs. He’ll need to stay healthy, because there is little experience behind him.
Whatever pixie dust coordinator Rob Ryan had in his glorious debut season, he ran out of in 2014 as the Saints plummeted from No. 4 to No. 31 in total defense. Payton has given him the chance to right the ship but brought in former Raiders head coach and Broncos defensive coordinator Dennis Allen to assist him. The Saints were plagued by blown coverage assignments and alignment errors early last season and never recovered.
The top offseason priority will be improving the play of the team’s talented but underperforming defensive line. Ends Akiem Hicks and Cameron Jordan are both due for rebound seasons after disappointing in 2014. Hicks has the physical skills to dominate opponents but is frustratingly inconsistent. He could be facing a make-or-break season. Likewise, Jordan failed to make enough big plays, but the team still decided to sign him to a five-year contract extension in June that could be worth up to $60 million. The team’s best pass rusher, outside linebacker Junior Galette, was rewarded with a four-year, $40 million contract early in 2014, then lost the trust of team officials because of off-field transgressions. He has explosive burst but is undersized and can be overpowered at the point of attack. Brodrick Bunkley and John Jenkins form a powerful one-two punch at nose guard.
The linebacker unit needs work. Three rookies and veterans Anthony Spencer and Dannell Ellerbee were acquired in the offseason in an effort to bolster the unit. Only veteran David Hawthorne, who replaces Curtis Lofton as the play-caller inside, appears locked into a starting spot. Rookie sparkplug Hau’oli Kikaha will platoon with veteran Parys Haralson on the strong side. The staff loves his intensity and pass-rush ability. Hulking rookie Stephone Anthony is the kind of physical thumper Ryan has longed for since he arrived in 2013. He’ll compete with Ellerbe at the other inside spot.
The return to health of veteran free safety Jairus Byrd will go a long way toward improving the leaky secondary. The former Pro Bowler should be motivated for a big season after his injury-riddled debut in New Orleans. His center field skills free up Kenny Vaccaro to play the joker role in which he thrived as a rookie.
The No. 2 cornerback spot riddled the Saints last season, and they hope veteran free agent Brandon Browner can fill the role opposite Keenan Lewis. The success of Ryan’s scheme relies on strong press coverage.
There’s an army of candidates but few proven commodities beyond Browner and Lewis. Rookies P.J. Williams and Damian Swann will compete with former Jets first-round washout Kyle Wilson for the nickel spot. CFL import Delvin Breaux is the sleeper in the group. Second-year men Brian Dixon and Stanley Jean-Baptiste are also in the mix.
Thomas Morstead remains one of the most consistently productive punters and kickoff specialists in the league. He’s the strength of an otherwise nondescript special teams group. Jalen Saunders and rookie Marcus Murphy will try to spice up the club’s moribund return units. The Saints haven’t returned a punt or a kickoff for a touchdown since 2011. Veteran placekicker Shayne Graham had his struggles last season, but the team stuck with the 14-year veteran. He was re-signed to a one-year deal in February, but the Saints terminated his contract in May, seemingly handing the kicking job to strong-legged Dustin Hopkins, who has yet to even appear in a regular season game.
Look for the Saints to bounce back from their disappointing 2014 campaign. How far back remains to be seen. The best thing they have going for them is the mediocre competition in the NFC South. If the defensive changes work, the Saints can resume their winning ways and challenge the Falcons and Panthers for the division title. But there are more questions than answers on both sides of the ball, and a lot of things will have to fall into place for them to regain their status as title contenders in the NFC. They’ll be competitive as usual but are a cut below the conference’s elite.