The past few weeks a number of Saints fans have come up to me and asked “so what are the Saints going to do this year?” and my answer always is – I don’t have a clue. There is simply too much of a roster turnover to try to get a pulse as to what we can expect from this squad in 2015.
Even though I was wrong last off-season believing the Saints would make a deep push into the playoffs there were signs that it could be done, after all they had just came off a first ever road playoff victory and Rob Ryan had turned the worst defense in the history of the NFL into the leagues 4th ranked unit. Little did I know that the locker room was falling apart.
This year it’s a different vibe, Payton has clearly circled the wagons and is acting borderline paranoid. He says that having a conference call with reporters during the week instead of facing them is easier on his schedule and then releases the injury report on Wednesday in a press release instead of answering questions, is it really that much of a pain to spend a few minutes with the local media? It seems as though Payton and company are intentionally throwing up a smoke screen so nobody on the outside knows what they are doing, many teams do this but not nearly to this extreme.
This much we do know, the Saints are going to rely on players who have never played a down in the NFL to turn this team around. Just that one sentence has me excited about the up coming season and the question that begs to be answered – can they do it?
In my opinion linebackers Stephone Anthony and Hau’oli Kikaha are going to be solid players for years to come for this team but growing pains will come from both of them. It’s a lot to asks of a rookie (Anthony) to wear the headset in his helmet and get those plays in while aligning the defense while making his own reads and gap assignments. If the Saints are going this route I would have to think they simplified the defense, which may not be a bad thing – get them going downfield without thinking too much.
Kikaha on the other hand excels at going downhill and getting to the quarterback and this is going to be key – the Saints must get pressure to help the back-end especially with Keenan Lewis and Jairus Byrd out. I’m a little concerned about his pass coverage skills, he just seemed slow to react in the preseason games but he is learning this aspect of the position and should improve with time but hopefully he is not called on to drop into coverage much.
The two bookend defensive ends, Cam Jordan and Akiem Hicks have to play at a level that is expected to help take pressure off this young defense. Especially Hicks, after showing great promise in 2013 he came up MIA for most of 2014 – he needs to return to form and I have a gut feeling he will.
Seasoned veteran Kevin Williams will be solid on the inside rotating with John Jenkins who I think is a huge question mark going into this season. I also expect rookies Tyeler Davison and Eulls Kaleb to get into the rotation and hopefully their playing time increases as the season wears on, Williams is going to need more breaks in the second half of the season.
As bad as a blow as it was losing Keenan Lewis for a few weeks this secondary is still better than that train wreck last year. Think about it, at various times you had Corey White, Patrick Robinson, Terrance Frederick and Brian Dixon starting opposite Lewis – only Dixon remains and he is a reserve.
Now you have Brandon Browner and Delvin Breaux on the outside with rookie Damian Swann covering the slot (that’s just a guess for the slot, Dixon or Kyle Wilson could very well be in there) I’m thinking that Swann has shown enough that it made the choice to cut Stanley Jean-Baptiste an easier decision, that and his poor special teams play.
The wild card here is Kenny Vacarro, will he return to form of his rookie season when Rob Ryan used him in multiple looks with great success? or will it be a repeat of last year when he tackled worse than Jason David and blew almost as many coverages, okay that’s a little extreme but you get the picture. He seems healthy after battling injuries all last season – keep an eye on him this Sunday to see how Ryan uses him.
Offensively the Saints shouldn’t miss a beat and will be as high-powered as they have every year under Payton, but there are questions on this side of the ball also, just not as many.
How will the two second year camp stand-outs Brandon Coleman and Willie Snead perform under the pressure when the real bullets fly? We’ve seen in it the past with Adrian Arrington and Nick Toon where they could not perform consistently to make an impact on game days.
The key word here is consistent, in this offense what makes Drew Brees so good is how fast he can go through his reads and progressions. Just because you may be the 3rd or 4th option on the play called doesn’t mean the ball isn’t coming, if you are open more likely than not Brees will find you and these two young guns have to be ready to seize the opportunity because it’s being handed to them on a silver platter.
If Marques Colston and Benjamin Watson stay relatively healthy this will take a lot of pressure of the young guys especially Brandin Cooks who I believe is going to give defenses fits this year. If they double up Cooks, Colston will win his one on one match-up and Brees will target him early and often. By the looks of things in training camp Watson is ready to take that number one tight end spot and run with it, again health is the big question here.
Another point of uncertainly is can Tim Lelito hold down that left guard spot and keep Brees clean? Back in June I decided to take a look at every snap Tim Lelito took as a starter (4 games in all) and what I found was steady improvement in every game. I he an all pro at this stage? of course not but he’s light years better than his first start against Arizona two years ago which I’m sure he would like to forget – it was ugly. By the Saints trading away under performing left guard Ben Grubbs and not drafting one this off-season is all I need to know about what the Saints Brass thinks of Lelito’s ability.
Of course the offense has a wild card too and that’s CJ Spiller or more to the point, Spiller’s health. When healthy, Spiller is a dynamic play maker with home run speed (4.37 40 yard dash) but with Spiller sitting on the sidelines this week nursing a knee it really doesn’t give me much confidence that he will make it through the next 15 games without missing some more time due to something else flaring up. I hope I’m wrong because he is a perfect fit in a Sean Payton run offense, only time will tell.
And then there is the question of how much of an impact the addition of Dennis Allen will have on this defense. I’m going to be honest, Allen and Rob Ryan are going to need the ball to bounce their way more than a few times this year to keep this train on the tracks. But you know what? that’s one of the more exciting things about kicking this season off – do they know something that we don’t? That much I am sure of and I can’t wait for them to show me that they have been hiding a rabbit up their sleeves and will unleash a defense much better than what was shown in the preseason’s vanilla filled packages.
Sunday will not be the be-all end-all for the Saints – win or lose but it should at least give us a feel on which way the many questions on this team will go, for good or bad.