Well all the drama for now is over at 5800 Airline drive but as we always like to say here at WDW – there is no off season. So with that in mind I hunted down my fellow colleague Christopher Pate for a sit down with our thoughts on the Saints coaching staff and the key positions on the roster.
New Orleans Saints Round Table Discussion End of Season Edition
Okay lets get started
Patrick – Chris we might as well start with the Payton saga. With all the rumors swirling around about his future and then he comes clean with to be quiet honest one of the more emotional press conferences I’ve ever seen coach do during his time here what are your thoughts about what transpired?
Chris – I really enjoyed watching the press conference. It was a side of Payton we as the fans aren’t used to seeing. His love for the city was evident in the conference. I truly believe he is committed to this team and winning.
One moment that really stood out to me is when he promised more wins and playoff appearances. For me personally, that solidified his commitment and optimism. After the press conference, it was evident that he believes the team has a bright future and can win soon.
Patrick – I sensed that also, especially when he was singling out players with their suddenly changed roles having them buying in and really executing it, it seemed like he was really fired up about this young locker room and to me it was genuine.
But at the same time I also think contrary to the rosy press conference that there was some power brokering going on behind the scenes when he met with the Saints Brass. I do think he wants to shift some front office duties were he can focus more on coaching, you can tell he loves to teach.
Chris – Definitely agree with you there. He consistently brings up teaching and being enthusiastic about it. I could see Jeff Ireland getting a larger roll in the front office.
Patrick – I remember in camp back in 2013 after he came off the suspension, he was out there in the middle of it all holding practice dummies, directing players close up and really just doing what he loves – hands on coaching.
I also think Jeff Ireland will take on more duty on the scouting and upper structure side. Moving forward it seems there will be some more staff shake ups but this year it’s a good thing because those coaches are leaving for promotions (Mike Neu to take on the head coaching duties at Ball St. and Wesley McGriff off to Auburn to be an assistant defensive coordinator and secondary coach) I expect a few more changes in the coming weeks.
Chris – Changes need to happen quite frankly. I’m not too bothered with Dennis Allen maintaining his position as defensive coordinator. It is hard to judge him based off of the 6 games he coached. The defense did play better in those 6 games, however. With a full offseason, I expect him to do what he needs to do to improve the defense. I think the defense needs to be average for the team to go to the playoffs with the Saints high-powered offense.
I would expect some changes with a few of the position coaches. Joe Vitt and Brett Ingalls are two position coaches I’d like to see released. The linebackers and offensive line haven’t been the best in recent years. With a young group of linebackers, it is imperative that the Saints get a coach in there who can develop the players into Pro Bowl caliber players.
Patrick – Totally agree with you on Joe Vitt but he’s staying put, my only hope is if they shift him to more of an overseer role and hire a true tactician/x and o’s guru to takeover the linebacker coaching spot, someone who can take those players to the next level.
I would also include Bill Johnson on the defensive line and Greg McMahon on special team as coaches that should be shown the door. Okay before You me and the rest of the WDW staff dive into the draft and prospects in the upcoming weeks, lets reflect on the current roster.
Your thoughts on the defensive line and linebacker corps.
Chris – Two weak spots for the Saints that need to be addressed. The defensive line struggled all year long. The Saints allowed 129.8 rushing yards a game, and that starts with the front seven. While the defensive line and linebackers struggled, they were young for the most part.
Cameron Jordan has established himself as one of the league’s better defensive ends. Jordan finished the season with 10 sacks (a few were negated by penalties) and he is great against the run. Bobby Richardson also flashed occasionally. Tyeler Davison could certainly play a larger role next year. The Saints must get another pass rusher on the defensive line.
By acquiring someone who can create pressure opposite Cameron Jordan, more opportunities will be created for Jordan and the defense as a whole. I’m very optimistic about the group of linebackers. Stephone Anthony and Hau’oli Kikaha, two rookies, played rather well this year. Anthony led the team with 112 tackles. He could improve in coverage, but I think he played well for the most part.
Hau’oli Kikaha got off to a fast start with the team, but he slowed down significantly towards the end of the season. Kikaha ended the season with 4 sacks and 4 forced fumbles. He also had 52 tackles. An ankle injury slowed him down, and Dennis Allen used him in different ways than Rob Ryan. These two things ultimately worsened his statistics.
Dannell Ellerbe played well when healthy; unfortunately, he was rarely healthy. Kikaha and Anthony will serve as building blocks for the defense. I think if the Saints could draft a solid linebacker in the draft (Myles Jack?), they will have one of the better linebacker units in the NFL. I believe the Saints first round draft pick needs to address the defensive line or linebacker position. The Saints need to look for a disruptive DE or DT, and a linebacker that can drop into coverage.
Patrick – I would love for them to address the interior of the defensive line in the draft, while Jenkins can be solid at times, he’s just too inconsistent in my view. I thought Kevin Williams was a nice surprise plus he played way more minutes than I thought he would at his age but how much more is left in the tank is a question that only he can answer.
The linebacker spot is a very real concern for me, besides Anthony and Kikaha what do you have? as you stated Ellerbe can’t stay healthy and the rest are back ups thrown in starting roles. The need for depth is a must for this position, hopefully Davis Tull is ready to roll after a red shirt season and they hit with a few draft picks or FA to sure up the position.
Okay on to the defensive backfield, give me a few thoughts there.
Chris – The secondary was bad, and there is no denying that. Despite the fact that played poorly this season, I think they will be much improved next year. Injuries plagued the unit. Keenan Lewis only played in a few games, and in those games he was limited. Rookie Damian Swann suffered three concussions over the course of the season. P.J. Williams was on the injured reserve. Brandon Browner was terrible, and he was the most penalized player in the league.
First year player Delvin Breaux was a stud this year. He struggled in his first few games with penalties, but he cleaned up his act quickly. The only game I can think of that was truly bad was against the Giants. Odell Beckham Jr. got the best of Breaux. Breaux got beat on a deep ball, and he failed to stop two short slants that results in two touchdowns. Some would point to the Colts game where he allowed two long touchdowns, but he simply slipped and fell on those plays. Pro Football Focus has him as the eighth best cornerback in the league. Kenny Vaccaro also had a better season. He tallied a few sacks, had the second most tackles on the team, and was very efficient in the run game.
I think the secondary will be much better when key players like Keenan Lewis and Damian Swann return. I’m excited to see P.J. Williams in action. The area where the Saints really need to improve is covering tight ends and running backs. That starts with the linebackers for the most part. Delvin Breaux and Kenny Vaccaro make me optimistic about where the secondary is going. Jairus Byrd has been an average safety.
Patrick – Also the loss of Rafael Bush to a torn pectoral hurt, he’s probably the most versatile safety the Saints have and that includes Kenny Vacarro. speaking of, he was really solid on a bad unit. Vacorro seemed to embrace the leadership role which was a big step up for him.
Agree with your assessment of Byrd being average and I do think his 3rd year here will speak volumes on what direction they go with him. As far as Browner, we all watched the games so there’s not much to say except he did improve slightly towards the end and hopefully they use him in a reserve role only next year.
I was high on PJ Williams coming out of Florida st (still am), he’s a big physical corner who specializes in press man coverage, he was a bit raw coming out but the skills are there.
I think they need to draft another corner though because I’m not sure about Damian Swann with those brain injuries and Keenan Lewis’ looks like his body is breaking down; I hope I’m wrong but in my opinion he’s having a tough time getting through sixteen games so we need someone reliable lining up on the other side of Breaux, who and I can’t understate this – really should have been in the pro bowl with his stellar play.
It’s also spot on about what you said about our linebackers inability to cover TE’s and RB’s, it’s been a concern last year and got even worse this past season.
Okay flipping to the offense what are your thoughts on the WR’s and TE’s going forward?
Chris – I was happy with the wide receiver and tight end play this season. Unfortunately, I think Marques Colston has seen his last days here in New Orleans. He simply isn’t the same player he was.
Brandin Cooks had the season us Saints fans were hoping for. It started off slowly, but he finished the season very well. He possesses the big play ability that Sean Payton and Drew Brees cherish.
Willie Snead had a breakout season, and he was a large part of the success the Saints had. Without him, I don’t know who would’ve stepped up. Brandon Coleman had a few good games, but he simply didn’t get the playing time to truly understand how good he is. I like him a lot and think the Saints should use him more often next year. He is the big body the Saints will need.
The group of wide receivers is very young, and Brees should be encouraged by what he has seen. Many people would say Brandin Cooks is the Saints’ number one wide receiver, and he is for the time being. However, I don’t know if he is a true number one wide receiver. He simply doesn’t have the size to be that guy. I think the Saints need to draft a larger wide receiver or use Brandon Coleman in that role.
If the Saints can acquire a true number one wide receiver, Cooks’ production will increase as he will go up against weaker talent.
The tight ends played rather well this year. People weren’t too sure who was going to replace Jimmy Graham, and Benjamin Watson stepped up. Watson finished the season with 825 receiving yards (third on the team). He also had 6 touchdown catches.
Josh Hill didn’t quite assume the role people expected him to. Prior to the season starting, some analysts thought Hill would have a big season, but he only finished with 16 catches for 120 yards.
Michael Hoomanawanui was traded for mid-season. He served as more of a blocker, but he occasionally went out for passes. It’ll be interesting to see what the Saints do in free agency and the draft regarding tight end. Benjamin Watson is now 35, and that presents a problem for the Saints.
Patrick – I’m probably in the minority but I think Cooks is a true number one, his numbers are right there along side the top ten receivers in the NFL As far as the tight end position, I think it needs to addressed, maybe not high on the priority list but maybe take a flier in the late rounds or bring in a cheap FA or go the UDFA route. Watson is the ageless wonder but he’s close to the end and Josh Hill all but disappeared this year. I do like the potential of Hooman though, I like his upside a lot.
Chris – Yeah Cooks is iffy. Just tough to say if he can consistently go up against the top corners in the league.
Patrick – Okay on to the offensive line, give me a few thoughts on the bigs.
Chris – The offensive line was by no means a strength of the offense. Center Max Unger and left tackle Terron Armstead has good seasons in my opinion. Armstead has quickly emerged as one of the best left tackles in football, and he was playing with a significant knee injury for much of the season.
There is uncertainty surrounding Zach Strief. It isn’t that he has played terribly, but there can be improvement at the position. I’m hoping rookie Andrus Peat can replace him next year. Peat looked good in his starts at the tackle position (left and right).
The left guard position must be addressed. The Saints had Tim Lelito, Senio Kelemente, and Andrus Peat start at left guard. I think they should consider drafting a guard sometime in the draft. Jahri Evans is getting older, and that won’t change. He isn’t playing at the same level he was just a few years ago, but he is still likely the best answer for the Saints. If the Saints can score on a solid guard in the draft, the offensive line should be much improved next season. It is imperative that they are able to protect Drew Brees and blow open holes for the running backs.
Patrick – I’m with you on this, I think draft a replacement at left guard or maybe through free agency and hope Evans over on the right can give you another year (barring injury) I have to say I love Zach Strief’s honesty when he said he wants to stay until they show him the door even if it means being a back up. Which I think will be the case with Peat moving in that spot.
Peat showed flashes of why he was drafted so high especially later on in the season. I think him coming into camp so out of shape really hindered his development early on but I have to credit Peat with saying the same after the season was over and he will be in camp in shape next year.
Of course Armstead is a stud but I was also pleasantly surprised at how well Senio Kelemente did stepping in for him having never played left tackle before even though that could have been helped by a poor Atlanta defensive front but still a nice job. Okay lets take a look at our running backs
Chris – The running back position is one of the most deep for the Saints, but it also presents some problems. Mark Ingram was having a phenomenal year before he got injured. Khiry Robinson was also playing rather well before a season-ending injury.
C.J. Spiller, the highly coveted free agent signed last offseason, never really produced. He had a knee injury prior to the beginning of the season, and he missed a few games. Sean Payton didn’t use him much in the games in which he was “healthy”. Payton continuously said Spiller lacked the explosiveness because of the injury. Some Saints fans were calling the Spiller experiment a failure, but I expect him to return next year.
Tim Hightower was brought in after the Khiry Robinson injury. He had a good camp with the Saints, but he failed to make the cut. His story is remarkable as he has returned from a serious knee injury that never truly healed. He is now back and looking great! He played at a very high level in the games he played. He averaged 3.9 yards a carry and 10.8 yards a reception.
After C.J. Spiller was placed on the injured reserve, Travaris Cadet was brought in. He had jumped around the league this year after being let go by the Saints. He played the role people were expecting C.J. Spiller to play. He made several big plays out of the backfield as a receiver. Cadet also did a good job as a kickoff returner.
Rookie Marcus Murphy never really saw snaps as a back, but he returned punts and kickoffs for the Saints before his injury. This is where the problem arises for the Saints. How many running backs do they keep next year? They have Ingram and Spiller under contract, and there is no doubt in my mind that they will be back. Some believe Spiller will be cut, but I believe Payton will utilize him when he is healthy.
Hightower and Robinson are not signed for next season. Do they keep Cadet? Hightower, Robinson, and Cadet could be signed for next to nothing. The Saints will likely not keep five running backs. I would like to see both Robinson and Hightower back next year. Murphy could be let go as he struggled slightly with keeping the ball safe.
Patrick – Murphy might be on the outside looking in before its all over. Ingram in my view will still be the bell cow next year but I also think Hightower has forced them to seriously consider giving him a piece of the pie also. Hightower plays with urgency on every play and the coaches have to love his passion for the game.
Robinson on the other hand, really with a stroke of bad luck looks to be the one who could stand to lose the most seeing as his injury came right before he set to be an RFA, the Saints hold the leverage and will probably set a low tender on him.
I wasn’t a Cadet fan when he was with the Saints the last few years but that changed these last few games, he really looked good. Spiller is a huge question mark in my opinion. If what Payton says is true about his injury then yes give him another shot to see what he can do in that “space role” but if that’s not the case I think you have to take your losses and move on from him, he showed me nothing this year. Okay on to the quarterback position – more specifically Drew Brees and his future with the Saints as far as his contract.
Chris – Those who are saying Drew Brees is the Saints’ problem don’t know football. He has been nothing but stellar in his time with the Saints. He deserves to get paid like a top tier quarterback and he is.
However, his cap hit of 30 million is too high. They need to offer him a contract extension to lessen the cap hit. He has made it clear that he would be willing to sign an extension. He led the league in passing yards once again. He had himself a great season as he threw for 4,870 yards, 32 touchdowns, and 11 interceptions. His completion percentage was 68.3.
People were starting to doubt him and rightfully so after his shoulder injury early in the season. It was hard to envision someone his age recovering from a shoulder injury and playing at such a high level. The injury proved not to be serious, and he shredded defenses as he is used to. He also played the last two games with a torn plantar fascia, and those two games were some of his best of the year.
It is important that the Saints achieve more balance next year and aren’t playing from behind as often. There is no doubt in my mind that Drew Brees is the quarterback for the Saints for the next few years.
Patrick – Brees in my opinion had one of his best years as a Saint last year and like you I just don’t understand how some people cannot see this and are only blinded by his contract. There are 8 quarterbacks that have a higher yearly salary than Brees but to some he doesn’t deserve it…I don’t get it.
I think they extend him this offseason for 4 years in the 50 – 60 million range and spread his cap hit out but they also will be on the hook for more guaranteed money, he’s shown that he is still on top of his game and like your thinking, he needs help on both sides of the ball. Okay Chris it’s been a pleasure as always and I hope we can do it again real soon, maybe before the free agency frenzy gets underway. Thanks for your time Chris it’s been fun.
Chris – Yup, always enjoy doing these.
I want to thank Chris for taking the time to sit down and talk Saints – you can find Chris on twitter at @ give him a shout out he’s always ready to talk Saints football.