This week the Saints are finally on their bye week. The players and staff are getting a chance to rest and recharge before the home stretch. So with no game to focus on this week, this seems like a good time to take an in-depth look at the Saints’ players and coaches along with some ideas on how to move forward.
Pretty much since his arrival in New Orleans it’s been believed that Drew Brees’ talents as a quarterback could make any receiver look good. This year’s wide receiver corps seems to disprove the theory. While Marques Colston was once the steal of the 2006 draft, he’s now struggling to hold on at the tail end of his career. In his tenth season in the league he has been turning in the lowest yards per reception of his career and has only found the end zone once. Sophomore receiver Brandon Coleman was expected to become a towering red zone threat. Instead he saw a steep decline in his role in the passing game until he became nearly irrelevant after proving to be no better than a 50/50 receiver over the first two weeks of the season. Brandin Cooks has been having a decent season but still struggles at times due to the attention he receives as the team’s only viable marquee receiver. Willie Snead has been the bright point of the receiving corps this season. A complete unknown before this season, the sub-six foot target has posted more receiving yards and more plays of twenty-plus yards than any other Saint aside from Cooks.
Moving forward, it’s safe to say Colston won’t be with the team beyond this season. His numbers have been on a pretty steady decline since 2012 and parting ways with the aging fan favorite would save $3.2M in cap space. Colston’s departure would leave Cooks and Snead and the only two virtual locks at the position for 2016 with all of the remaining receivers competing to make the roster against any newcomers.
With the need for new blood on the receiving corps, it would probably be best to make moves both in free agency and the draft. In free agency, all the Saints need to look for is a solid role player. One interesting option is Rueben Randle. The former LSU Tiger has been a solid backup for the Giants over the past three and a half seasons while filling in as a starter when needed. While it’s likely New York would like to retain Randle’s services after this season, they have quite a few unrestricted free agents set to hit the market this spring including over a half dozen starters and key backups. Even with their available cap space it’s unlikely they will be able to keep everyone which creates an opening for the Saints.
As for the draft, that is when New Orleans should find their next home-run hitter in the passing game. Getting weapons for Drew Brees should be absolute priority number one in May. With as high as the Saints will likely be in the draft they should be able to get the best of the best. This year that means Laquon Treadwell out of Ole Miss. The 6’2, 212 pounder has a skill set that has drawn comparisons to the likes of Dez Bryant. His size and athleticism allow him to make the difficult catches while his strength and agility help him avoid or fight through defenders depending on the situation. Put it all together and you have a true threat that opposing defenses have to plan for.
Between Jeremy Shockey and Jimmy Graham, the Saints have had star power at the top of their tight end depth chart for all but the first two year of the Brees-Payton era. Now they are largely relying on Benjamin Watson and Josh Hill. Now in the starting role, Watson has is having a career year, on pace to eclipse all of his other eleven seasons. However, Watson also turns 35 in mid-December meaning he likely only has a few more years left in the tank. As for Hill, hope that he could be the future at the tight end spot for New Orleans has quickly dwindled. For all the praise that was showered on him in the preseason, he certainly hasn’t lived up to it. Hill is likely to remain nothing more than a serviceable backup.
The good news is that the Saints could very possibly find the youth and talent they need for only a minimal investment. For a player who already has NFL experience, former Lions tight end Joseph Fauria would be a nice fit. At 6’7, 267 lbs his build is nearly identical to Graham, providing an oversized red-zone target for Brees that has been in short supply this year. During his rookie season Fauria had seven touchdowns on eighteen receptions before seeing his production fall off as a sophomore due to playing through an ankle injury before going on injured reserve. With plenty of time still between now and the spring, Fauria can be fully healthy for the start of next season and ready to return to the success of his rookie year.
While the draft will feature some pretty enticing options in the early rounds such as Hunter Henry and O.J. Howard, there are some hidden gems to be found on day three. For the cost of a fifth round pick the Saints could have South Carolina’s Jerell Adams. At 6’6, 231 pounds, he would make a large target easy for Brees to find. His speed and ability to cut make him difficult to cover while his strength makes him difficult to bring down once players get their hands on him. Following one reception against Georgia earlier this season Adams was pushing a pile of a half dozen defenders before finally being brought down. He’s also drawn praise for his blocking skills.
When it comes to the offensive backfield, the Saints are pretty well set. Now in the lead role in the backfield, Mark Ingram has shined this season. For the third straight season in a row Ingram’s averaging over four yards per carry as well as being on pace to break a thousand yards for the season. As for Khiry Robinson, his numbers this season were quite a bit down prior to his season-ending broken leg. The decline was more likely the result of the offensive line’s struggles rather than his own. New addition C.J. Spiller has only gotten a limited amount of carries compared to Ingram and Robinson, but he certainly has the ability to be a threat anytime he puts his hands on the ball.
In the pass game, all three have proven to be very useful weapons. Of the ninety-seven passes thrown to the trio, eighty-three of them have been completed with no more than six misses per man. They’re also responsible for nearly half of the team’s yards after catch this season. Ingram in particular has already set personal best numbers as a receiver and there are still a half dozen games to go.
Seventh-round draft pick Marcus Murphy hasn’t had a single carry or reception this season, but he has made significant contributions on special teams. As New Orleans’ lead returner, he’s averaged twenty-five yards on kickoffs and nearly ten on punts. He’s also returned one punt for a seventy-four yard touchdown.
Early this season there was quite a bit of concern about the performance of Drew Brees. Much of the blame went to age starting to catch up with him or his bruised rotator cuff. While the shoulder injury would obviously have an affect on Brees’ play, the remainder of his issues this season can be attributed to a lack of offensive weapons and protection issues. Despite the early concerns, Brees is now fully healthy and his season is back on track.
Brees’ injury served a positive purpose for the Saints as well. By having to miss a game due to injury, New Orleans got the opportunity to find out exactly what they had in backup Luke McCown. In his first start since 2011, McCown absolutely lived up to his Verizon commercials. In week three at Carolina, he showed that he could absolutely keep the team on track if Brees had to miss time again for whatever reason. Unfortunately though, the Saints will have to turn to Matt Flynn or Garrett Grayson following McCown’s season-ending back issues.
The offensive front five is an area of significant concern so far this season. Of the five starters, Terron Armstead and Max Unger have been the bright spots. Armstead is quickly establishing himself as one of the best left tackles in the league. Unger arrived in New Orleans with his reputation already established and has done well backing it up considering the situation around him. As for the rest of the offensive line, they’re far more questionable.
Opposite Armstead along the line is Zach Strief. Prior to last season, Strief re-signed with the Saints for five years to the tune of $20M. Just over a year later the 32 year old is displaying some troubling tendencies. The most glaring issue is that he no longer has the ability to compete with speed rushers going around him on the outside. At this point in his career it may be time for Strief to consider a move inside to guard or perhaps hanging it up all together. Either way, the Saints need to get Andrus Peat up to speed to take over at right tackle as soon as possible.
As for the guard position, it’s a far cry from the dominant force it was just a few years ago. Jahri Evans has been one of the best in the business when healthy for quite a while now. The problem is he hasn’t truly been healthy for a while now. Evans played most of last season with a torn ligament in his wrist that hampered his performance on the field and required off-season surgery to repair. So far this season he’s already missed three games due to knee surgery. With his health becoming more of an issue, it may finally be time to move on from Evans. As for the other key players at guard, starter Tim Lelito has mostly played at a backup level while backup Senio Kelemete has performed at a practice squad level at best. The time has come to upgrade the black & gold’s interior line. Pending free agents Ramon Foster and Brandon Brooks as well as draft prospects Vadal Alexander and Greg Pyke would be good places to start.
The Saints have been quite interesting at cornerback so far this season. The new blood the team brought in over the off-season is already paying some big dividends for the most part. New Orleans native Delvin Breaux has obviously been the biggest development this year in the defensive backfield. Going from a broken neck and being unsure if he’d ever play football again to signing with your hometown NFL team and quickly emerging as a star starter is the kind of stuff movies are made about. Fifth round draft pick Damian Swann has also shown flashes of talent that could certainly be developed into a quality NFL corner. Even veteran Kyle Wilson has made his presence felt. These three new additions have nearly two dozen combined passes defended along with a pair of interceptions and a pair of fumble recoveries.
The two mystery men at corner this season have been Keenan Lewis and P.J. Williams. While he’s usually a top contributor to the defense, Lewis has spent much of the season decorating the sidelines due to hip issues. There’s no doubt he’ll have a role once he’s back to full health and that he’ll fill that role well, it’s just a question of when that will happen. Williams’ role is far less clear. The third round selection in this year’s draft was one of the top ten corners available. His size, speed and flexibility to move between corner and safety all appear very promising, but until he actually takes the field in an NFL game, there’s no way to be certain.
Brandon Browner has been the one true disappointment up to this point in the season. His signing in free agency came along with a great deal of praise for his physical style of play. So far though, it has yet to yield any real results. Aside from one interception against the Eagles, Browner has spent much of his season getting burned by a wide variety of receivers. He has also become a one-man penalty factory and has had several hostile interactions with the media. Browner needs to get his act together fast. While he may be a bit pricey to flat out cut next off-season, a trade would save the Saints $3.7M in cap space. The problem is that he’s destroying any trade value he could possibly have every time he steps on the field, especially in a starting role. If the Saints want any chance of trading him they need to immediately reduce Browner’s role to that of a part-time nickel in certain situations. Reducing his time on the field should help spread out the frequency of his penalties and keeping him off the edges of the field should keep him from getting torched so often. If the Saints are extremely lucky, they may be able to move Browner for a late round pick or a ham sandwich or something and not have to eat the full $5.35M to cut him. Then again, if things keep going the way they have been, Mickey Loomis just might decide the money is worth it to move on.
Safety has been a bit of a mixed bag this season. In his third year in the league, Kenny Vaccaro has been returning to his rookie form as an all-around threat following a down year as a sophomore. According to Vaccaro, his struggles were due at least in part to playing through a hamstring injury and a pair of quad tears. Now apparently back to full health, Vaccaro has started every game so far and is returning to his old self.
While strong safety has had a level of stability this season, free safety has been just the opposite. With Jairus Byrd recovering from a knee injury, the Saints started Rafael Bush in week one. When Bush ended up on injured reserve following that game, they brought back Kenny Phillips to start weeks two through four. Once Byrd was ready to resume his starting role in week five, Phillips was released. The revolving door hasn’t produced much to speak of considering the team’s financial investment. The trio has combined for forty-six tackles, one pass defended and at times Byrd looking completely lost in coverage.
Depth in the middle of the secondary is also a good news/bad news situation. Backups Rafael Bush and Vinnie Sunseri have shown themselves to be talented and capable of playing on a part-time basis as needed. Unfortunately both have had issues with staying healthy. With both men now on injured reserve, the Saints are now left to rely on Jamarca Sanford if something were to happen to Vaccaro or Byrd.
Whether it’s because of their on-field performance or the cost to get rid of them, safety will be a rather stable position moving forward. Vaccaro, Bush and Sunseri are all talented enough to stay on the roster. Regardless of performance, Byrd will remain in New Orleans through at least the end of next season if for no other reason than the cost of letting him go is simply too high. The one adjustment that should be considered is to find an upgrade to their depth either in free agency or late in the draft to step up if Bush’s or Sunseri’s injury issues continue.
The Saints made major changes at linebacker during the off-season. Of all the linebackers currently under contract in New Orleans, only David Hawthorne, Ramon Humber, and Kasim Edibali were with the team last season. Humber is currently in his sixth season with the black & gold while Hawthorne is in his fourth. Edebali signed on as an undrafted free agent prior to last season.
The overhaul has begun paying dividends already for the Saints. Edebali along with draft picks Stephone Anthony and Hau’oli Kikaha have become fixtures in the offensive backfield. The three together are responsible for eight of the team’s twenty-two sacks this season. As for creating turnovers, Hawthorne, Kikaha and veteran addition Dannell Ellerbe are responsible for more than half of the team’s forced fumbles while Anthony has the group’s lone interception against Colts quarterback Andrew Luck.
As well as the linebacking corps has done with the pass rush, more depth is always welcome. One cheap but effective option would be Cordarro Law. The Southern Miss product signed a two-year deal with the Chargers prior to last season following a fourteen sack season with the CFL’s Calgary Stampeders. In his limited time on the field since his arrival in San Diego, Law has show his ability to be a problem in the opponent’s backfield by effecting the quarterback and ending plays behind the line.
So far this season, the defensive line has developed nicely. Cameron Jordan is the beast of the group, proving himself to be one of the league’s best pass rushers as well as holding his own against the run. Jordan is currently on pace to end the season with double digit sacks. The other star along the Saints’ defensive line is five-time All-Pro Kevin Williams. In addition to getting pressure on opposing quarterbacks on a regular basis, he’s been a force against the run shutting down opposing running backs before they can get going. His goal line stonewalling of the Giants’ ground attack is a perfect example. Bobby Richardson looks to be yet another undrafted gem for the Saints with his contributions this season particularly to the run game.
While the line has been coming into form as the season has progressed, there are still two issues that will keep it from becoming a truly feared unit. The first is John Jenkins. The third-year Georgia product has turned out to be a serviceable player and does contribute to the team, but there’s room to upgrade. Finding a defensive tackle that can get pressure in the pass game to rotate in with Jenkins would be a welcome addition. The other issue involves Richardson. While he has played very well against the run, the defense as a whole could benefit by having a pass rusher to rotate in at times. Free agents such as Jeremy Mincey, Robert Ayers, Henry Melton and former Saint Tyrunn Walker could help fill the rotational role.
Special teams has been uncharacteristically shaky this season. In recent years the main issue has been the revolving door at place kicker. This season though has seen a variety of issues coming from the smallest unit on the team. Kicker is unstable as usual with the black & gold already on their second kicker of the season. Zach Hocker’s unreliability in the most unlikely of situations made the eventual switch to Kai Forbath a necessity. Regardless of how well Forbath does though, he is not a long term answer at the position. While he’s regarded as one of the most accurate kickers in the league, there are concerns about his range. He’s never hit a field goal beyond fifty yards out and there are some questions about his ability to cause touchbacks on kickoffs. Expect to see another kicking competition in the spring.
As for the long snapper position, the usually reliable Justin Drescher has struggled lately to put his snaps where they need to be. With the team since 2010, Drescher has been the invisible man to anyone who isn’t a Saints die-hard due to how well he’s done his job until recently. Now more people are beginning to notice him but not for a good reason. With the Saints already working out potential replacements, Drescher needs to get back to being invisible if he wants to keep his job and he needs to do it quickly.
Despite a bumpy road earlier this season while Thomas Morstead was out briefly with an injury, the punting job in New Orleans is about as secure as there is in the league and should be locked down for the foreseeable future. The same is true of the kick returner position since the addition of Marcus Murphy in this year’s draft. Aside from a single fumble against the Titans, Murphy has proven to be a highly reliable and at times exciting resource.
While not all of the players have lived up to expectations, the same can be said about the coaching staff.
The Saints made their first move toward reforming the coaching staff this week with the firing of Rob Ryan. Based on his performance at his last two jobs in addition to New Orleans, Ryan’s usefulness to the Saints ended back in January 2014. For the rest of the season the black and gold will turn to Dennis Allen to run the defense. While Allen does have experience as a defensive coordinator, it’s unlikely he ends up being more than a band-aid to finish out the season. His lone year as a coordinator out in Denver ended with a ranking of twentieth in the league. As a head coach he failed to lead the Raiders to victory in more than three-quarters of their games. Add in the fact that Allen also bears some of the blame for the current state of the Saints defense and it just shows that Allen is not the long-term solution.
The answer to who should take over the defense next season is a little hazy. When Ryan was hired, the Saints declared that they were making the switch from a 4-3 to a 3-4 defense. That move lasted for two seasons until an apparent return to the 4-3 base this season. So who the Saints hire will depend on which direction they decide to go with the base defense moving forward.
If they choose to stick with the four man front then Jim Schwartz should be on the team’s short list for the job. In his nine seasons as a defensive coordinator he has turned in five performances in the top twelve. As head coach of the Lions, Schwartz took over a team with the worst defense in the league. By the time he left, Detroit’s defense had finished in the top half of the league for three years straight. Schwartz also has developed a personal connection with Sean Payton. According to a recently published article by Sports Illustrated, much of Schwartz’s approach to his year away from coaching has been based on a great deal of discussion he had with Payton regarding how he approached his season away in 2012. A shared mentality and approach to their careers could help provide a stable environment along the Saints’ sideline.
When the Saints hired Ryan with the intent of switching to the 3-4, the other leading candidate was Georgia DC Todd Grantham. If they decide to keep working toward a 3-4 base, they should take another look at the college ranks in the form of Alabama DC Kirby Smart. While some may not like the association with a key rival of LSU, his results are undeniable. In eight seasons as a coordinator his defenses have finished in the top ten out of 120-plus teams six times based on yards per play. His defenses are also partly responsible for capturing three BCS titles. That kind of production in the division that’s the closest thing college football has to the NFL can’t be ignored.
Offensive Line Coach
It’s no secret that ever since Aaron Kromer left New Orleans to take Chicago’s offensive coordinator position the Saints’ offensive line has struggled greatly. A unit that twice won the Madden Most Valuable Protectors Award fell off dramatically once running backs coach Bret Ingalls was promoted to replace Kromer. With the state of disrepair that the offensive line has fallen into, it’s time for Ingalls to go and the Saints to find someone experienced and accomplished to fill his role.
At the college level, Arkansas’ Sam Pittman would be a good place to start. He has a knack for developing NFL talent. In the last three drafts, eight of his former players have been selected. Pittman is in his twentieth season as an offensive line coach and his fourth in the SEC. In his time with Tennessee and Arkansas, his lines have never averaged more than one sack allowed or about four and a half tackles for a loss per game.
If the Saints would prefer someone who already has NFL experience their best bet is to keep an eye on San Diego. The Chargers are going through a rough season that has many fans and local media calling for changes along their sideline. This kind of turmoil could create an opening to steal away Joe D’Alessandris. The veteran line coach is regarded as one of the best in the business right now for keeping his quarterbacks clean. From 2011 through 2013 D’Alessandris coached three consecutive top ten lines based on sacks per season. He also hasn’t fielded a unit that averaged more than two sacks per game since before he went to work for the Bills in 2010. Perhaps the biggest testament to the quality of his coaching and leadership is that since he signed on with the Chargers he has managed to maintain his performance standards despite having to deal with significant injuries each season. If anyone currently working in the NFL can help keep Brees upright, it’s D’Alessandris.
Quarterback isn’t a position that would seem to be in need of any changes. Aside from Brees’ brief shoulder injury, Mike Neu has done well at keeping things on track. However, Neu has no real history of developing a quarterback from the ground up. The Saints have a chance to upgrade at a pivotal time for the team by bringing back a familiar face. About three weeks ago the Lions released offensive coordinator Joe Lombardi. Prior to his time in Detroit, Lombardi spent five seasons as the Saints’ quarterbacks coach. During his time in that role Brees had the three highest passing yardage totals of his career as well as a Super Bowl MVP. Lombardi is also the man who developed Chase Daniel into not only a quality backup, but also a potential starter. With the Saints facing the need to prepare for life after Brees, can they afford to take a chance on an unproven mentor to develop the future of the franchise? Lomardi has already proven he can develop a rookie quarterback into a potential starter. The Saints should let him do it for them again.
Payton has now been on the Saints’ sidelines for nine seasons. With the exception of a portion of the 2011 season following his broken leg, he has always handled the play calling duties himself. The time has come for that to end. Payton may well be one of the greatest offensive minds in the game as many have said. After nine years though, all with the same signal caller and similar weapons, certain tendencies will naturally emerge. With nine years worth of film to review, it wouldn’t be difficult for opponents to find out just about anything they wanted to about Payton’s play calling habits.
Upon his return from his 2012 hiatus, Payton himself called Carmichael an outstanding play caller. If Payton truly thinks so highly of Carmichael’s abilities as a play caller, then it’s time to turn those duties over to him. While filling in for Payton during the later half of 2011 and all of 2012 Carmichael proved he was up to the task by finishing his full season at the helm with the second ranked offense in the league. Following Payton’s return, Brees said that Carmichael did a “phenomenal job”. Passing the job to Carmicheal would provide a fresh approach to executing one of the league’s top offenses. Considering how things have gone at times this season, a fresh perspective would be beneficial. New Orleans Saints: Bye Week Review