We know the New Orleans Saints can amass yards and points. What we don’t know is if they can stop anyone from doing the same.
Defense will once again determine the Saints’ season, as it seemingly has every year in the Sean Payton-Drew Brees era. The responsibility for improving the league’s 31st-ranked unit falls on Dennis Allen, the fifth defensive coordinator in Payton’s 11-year tenure. If he can push the right buttons and find a young edge rusher to provide consistent pressure on the perimeter, the Saints should start winning more of the shootouts they regularly wage on Sundays, because the offense once again looks dynamic.
Brees continues to defy defenses and Father Time. At 37, he’s coming off one of the best seasons of his stellar career and remains the Saints’ biggest offensive weapon. He does his best work before the snap, reading defenses and beating coverages with his quick release and uncanny accuracy. As long as the offensive line gives him time, another big season is in the works.
On paper, this looks like the best receiving corps Brees has had since 2011, when the Saints set NFL records. Brandin Cooks lacks the size to be a prototype No. 1, but he compensates with great speed, burst and elusiveness. Rookie Michael Thomas and tight end Coby Fleener are expected to step into the roles Marques Colston and Jimmy Graham previously filled in the Saints offense. They’ll work the seam and intermediate routes while Cooks and underrated Willie Snead operate on the perimeter. At 6'6", Brandon Coleman has the size to become a dangerous red-zone threat but needs to develop consistency.
Mark Ingram, C.J. Spiller, Tim Hightower and Travaris Cadet form a solid backfield by committee. Ingram is the primary weapon and has become a solid option in the passing attack. Spiller had a disappointing debut season after signing in free agency. If he can regain the burst and speed he showed with the Bills, he’ll be a big-play threat in the nickel offense.
This should be the season left tackle Terron Armstead finally earns his first Pro Bowl invite. He’s one of the most athletic tackles in the league and rarely gets beaten off the edge because of his long reach and quick feet. He’s the anchor up front. Center Max Unger and right tackle Zach Strief are smart, reliable veterans who will help bring along young guards Senio Kelemete and Tim Lelito. Former first-round pick Andrus Peat was a disappointment as a rookie but has the size and skill set to win one of the guard spots if either Kelemete or Lelito falters. Depth is a major question mark. The Saints can’t afford any injuries up front.
The Saints hope a full offseason under Allen’s direction and a handful of new starters will vault the team from the bottom of the league to at least mid-pack.
Everything comes down to the pass rush. Other than two-time Pro Bowler Cameron Jordan, the Saints don’t have any proven commodities at the NFL level. Someone — anyone — needs to emerge as a consistent pass rusher opposite Jordan for the Saints to become a legitimate playoff threat.
There are options. A quartet of young edge rushers led by third-year man Kasim Edebali and sophomores Hau’oli Kikaha, Obum Gwacham and Davis Tull has promise. Individually, none of the group might be a double-digit sack man, but that’s not necessary. The group just needs to provide enough consistent pressure off the edge to prevent opposing offenses from concentrating their pass-protection schemes on Jordan on the right side.
Kikaha showed playmaking promise as a rookie before being sidetracked with injuries. He doesn’t blow anyone away with his athletic ability but wins with relentless effort and instincts. Unfortunately, Kikaha could miss a significant amount of this season after injuring his knee during OTAs in June. Edebali and Gwacham are classic undersized, lanky speed rushers. Tull is the wild card. He is a tremendous all-around athlete who missed his entire rookie season with a shoulder injury.
Rookie defensive tackle Sheldon Rankins was regarded as the best interior pass rusher in the draft. He and free agent Nick Fairley will rotate at the 3-technique tackle spot next to run stuffer John Jenkins and are expected to complement Jordan outside.
If one of these young edge rushers can emerge on the left side and Rankins is the real deal, the Saints defense can take the next step and become a legitimate playmaking unit.
Veteran James Laurinaitis was signed to captain the linebacker corps in the middle and free promising second-year man Stephone Anthony to work the strong side. Look for Allen to blitz the athletic Anthony more from the second level. The Saints need veteran Dannell Ellerbe to stay healthy on the weak side. Craig Robertson was signed in free agency as insurance.
The secondary is the unit’s strength and has the potential to be one of the league’s best units if everyone can stay injury-free. Delvin Breaux is one of the most underrated cover corners in the league. The Saints are counting on the athletic former Canadian Football League star to take the next step and become a true lockdown cover man this season. If healthy, veteran Keenan Lewis is a solid No. 2. Kyle Wilson and 2015 draft picks Damian Swann and P.J. Williams will compete for the nickel and dime spots in sub packages. Athletic headhunter Kenny Vaccaro is coming off his best overall season at strong safety, and veteran Jairus Byrd returns at free safety. The Saints also welcome back veteran Roman Harper, who was the team’s second-round pick in 2006 and spent his first eight seasons in New Orleans before joining divisional rival Carolina as a free agent in ‘14.
As bad as the Saints defense has been in recent years, the special teams have been only marginally better. Other than the punting of Thomas Morstead, there’s been little consistency from any of the units. The Saints will enter a second consecutive season with an unsettled kicker situation. Veterans Kai Forbath and Josh Scobee will compete for the job. Forbath is consistent from short range and has the inside track after spending part of the 2015 season with the Saints. Scobee has a stronger leg but failed in stints with the Jaguars and Steelers. Morstead is looking for a rebound season after averaging a net of 40.7, his lowest since 2010. The diminutive but shifty Marcus Murphy has the speed and elusive running style to be one of the most dangerous return men in the league.
The Saints have finished no lower than sixth in total offense in each season of the decade-long Payton-Brees era and should once again rank among the league leaders. Defensively, the Saints should be improved, but how much remains the question. They don’t need to be dominant defensively. They just need to be decent and produce a few more big plays and stops. The offense is good enough to carry the Saints back into playoff contention in the ultra-competitive NFC, but they will go as far as their young, overhauled defense will take them. A Wild Card berth looks to be the ceiling, but the roster is perilously thin and inexperienced in spots, so the Saints must avoid adversity along the way.