Well the New Orleans Saints 2017 season is in the rear view mirror. A great season for the franchise that saw the team break the 3 consecutive 7-9 seasons with an 11-5 record as well as being crowned NFC South Champions. However the 2017 season can only be described as a rollercoaster. Lets review the 2017 season before taking a look ahead to what the Saints should be trying to achieve in the 2018 off-season.
2017 Season Review
The 2017 season had more highs than lows but by lord did the lows hurt. From the high of the preseason and the excitement it generated for the start of the season. The defense was the cause for optimism by playing at a high level, generating a pass rush and shutting down opposition offenses. Although it was only the preseason, expectations were high for the Monday night opener against the Minnesota Vikings.
The preseason high was followed by the low of the opening game at Minnesota followed by the home opener against the Patriots. The Saints defense didn’t show up in the first 2 games of the season and could barely apply basic concepts, leading to some pundits and fans (including yours truly) to question if Sean Payton and the Saints franchise actually had the ability to field a playoff calibre team any longer.
The Saints responded in a big way by reeling off an 8-game win streak led by a young and opportunistic defense and a reliance on the running game with many of the team’s rookies and young players propelling them to an 8-2 record, headlined by the late 4th quarter comeback win against the Redskins. The streak which was stopped the following week by the defeat on the road to the resurgent LA Rams. This was still a sore one to take after the previous week’s comeback. The Saints then completed the regular season sweep of the Carolina Panthers only to follow it up with the tough loss against the Falcons when Drew Brees threw an interception in the end zone to effectively end the game.
The Saints then put together 2 great wins at home to the Jets and Falcons which set the team up for a Division clinching game on the road to the Buccaneers, a team that had nothing to play for. The saints laid an egg in Tampa but luckily the Panthers lost in Atlanta to allow the Saints to clinch the 4th seed in the NFC playoffs, a home field game against the Panthers and become NFC South champs. It did however leave a bittersweet taste for all involved that day. “Backed into the NFC South Championship” was how it was described, not quite how the Saints would liked to have won it for the 1st time since 2011.
The NFC South champs then faced the Panthers in their first playoff appearance since 2013 in the Wildcard round. The Saints won 31 -26 but the game was closer than it should have been with the Panthers rallying late to make it more nervous than it needed to be. This completed the 3-0 sweep of the Panthers which led to pictures and videos of the Saints players and coaches celebrating in the locker room with a broom.
The Saints then travelled to Minnesota to face the Vikings and the number 1 defence in the league in the Divisional playoff round. After a torrid 1st half where the Saints offense couldn’t get going it exploded into life in the 2nd half. The Saints started the 2nd half 17-0 down and fought back to take the lead twice. We were 10 seconds away from advancing to the NFC Conference Championship game. You know the rest. Heartbreak.
2018 Off-season Preview
There are so many reasons to be optimistic about the Saints franchise heading into next season. The play of the aging Drew Brees. Yes, he did look as if he didn’t have the ability to push the ball as deep down the field as he once did due to some under thrown deep pass attempts (some of those misses might be more to do with timing working with a new receiver in Ted Ginn). However he is still the commander-in-chief of the offence on the field and he is supremely accurate and insanely competitive and driven.
The play of several rookies and young players like Michael Thomas, Lattimore, Kamara, Ramczyk, Marcus Williams, Hendrickson, Vonn Bell, Crawley and PJ Williams. Like the young players there are veteran players who continue to show their quality like Cameron Jordan who elevated his play to a new level as one of the top defensive ends in the league. Mark Ingram again proving to be a workhorse back capable of leading the team. The Offensive line was outstanding considering the amount of shuffling that went on during the season due to injury. The play of the linebacker corps spearheaded by AJ Klein before his injury and likewise Kenny Vacarro in the secondary.
Like every season though there are holes that the Saints must fill this off-season to make the leap forward. As Mickey Loomis said they feel like they were so close to the Super Bowl this year like they did in 2011. Obviously, a lot will depend on who the Saints retain from their own list of soon to be free agents. The biggest question mark appears to have been answered with the signing of Kurt Coleman, Kenny Vacarro looks like he will be playing somewhere new next season.
Brees and Loomis have both stated a desire to get a new contract done, so it is just a matter of time. Brees who must feel like some of his prime years have been wasted in New Orleans due to lacklustre defensive performances will be hoping the Saints continue to add to and build on the new look Saints defense. I am sure he would also like to see a couple of play makers added on the offensive side of the ball to aid the team on 3rd down and the red zone. Brees is entering the twilight years of his career now. Who knows he may only have a couple of seasons left in the NFL. The Saints have to capitalise now on what the future hall of famer brings to the organisation.
I think the Saints should bring back Alex Okafor if he has recovered from his injury on another prove it deal. He played at a high level before his injury but to date hasn’t played a full NFL season in his career. At most he should be offered a heavy incentive laden deal with low guaranteed money.
Free Agency & the Draft
The Saints usually rank their requirements as Musts, Needs and Wants. The musts are positions that the team feel must be filled with a starter and the team would usually look to do this through free agency rather than the draft. The needs are again positions that the team feel they would rather add to in free agency rather than the draft but could be addressed in the draft. A want is simple, what does the team want, but might not be able to accomplish. Below I list the positions I think the Saints require to address in the offseason and try to rank the priority.
Defensive End (Must)
With how free agency normally plays out it looks like the biggest need on defense which I currently view as defensive end will need to be addressed within the draft. The Saints could look to bring back Alex Okafor who was having an outstanding season prior to his injury or another mid level free agent that is a cap casualty cut on the lead up to free agency which would also give the Saints time to see what they have in Trey Hendrickson and Al Quadin Muhammad.
The saints have no chance of landing the consensus number 1 defensive end in the draft Bradley Chubb. After that draft boards in the media vary. However two of the better pass rushers could still be available when the Saints pick at no.27 in the 1st round. Boston College’ Harold Landry and Arden Key of LSU have slipped down draft boards due to lacklustre performances in 2017 caused by injuries and Key has character concerns. Both guys have the athletic ability to develop into elite sack artists in the NFL if they check all the boxes medically and mentally in the interviews with teams.
An intriguing prospect who has been compared to Saints current pro bowl defensive end Cameron Jordan by NFL’s Lance Zierlein was Florida’s Taven Bryan. Bryan has played all along the line for the gators but mainly as a 3-tech defensive tackle. Bryan is extremely athletic and is the same size as Cam so if Allen would prefer another big body on the opposite end of the line from Jordan then Bryan could be a great pick for New Orleans. He also adds versatility as he could play 3-tech in a pinch as well. He would be a bit of a project with the move to End but some scouts have said he has a similar playing style to JJ Watt he just needs to show it more consistently.
Outside Linebacker (Need)
With how much Dennis Allen likes to blitz as part of his aggressive scheme, the Saints defense could use a dynamic weapon at the outside linebacker position as this would allow Allen to get very creative as well as relieve some of the pressure on the end opposite of Cam Jordan. Allen previously tried to use Hau’oli Kikaha in this role but he wasn’t athletic enough or capable in coverage but he has had some success as a designated pass rusher however his role has become very limited.
The ideal fit would be a 3-down player who can drop back into coverage, capable of defending the run that is athletic enough to be used as a QB spy when facing dual threat QB’s but has explosive skills as a pass rusher. The vision for this player would be how Allen used Von Miller in Denver and Khalil Mack in Oakland.
As projected the linebacker corps will be thin in free agency so there would be a couple of day 2 guys the Saints could target in the draft with their 3rd round pick. Mike Mayock has said recently that he views Malik Jefferson of Texas and Uchenna Nwosu of USC as 3rd round players. Daniel Jeremiah thinks Nwosu would be a better fit in the NFL as a 4-3 Sam linebacker whereas Malik Jefferson is viewed more as a Weakside linebacker by Lance Zierlein. Both players are very athletic and have the skill sets required to man this role.
The saints could address the position in the 1st round if either Rashaan Evans of Alabama or Tremaine Edmunds of Virginia Tech were to drop to no.27 but that seems highly unlikely. The addition of this type of player could really elevate the defense as it would allow AJ Klein to man the middle linebacker slot and Alex Anzalone and the rookie could man the Sam and Weak linebacker positions giving the Saints defense speed and athleticism on both outside positions.
Middle Linebacker (Want)
The Saints swung and missed on Stephone Anthony. The plan was for Anthony to become the starting Mike linebacker and Quarterback of the defense for the next 10 years. The front office missed on that pick. The Saints were in better shape at mike linebacker with the play of AJ Klein before he ended the season on injured reserve and Manti Te’o was a surprise free agent addition that provided good depth throughout the season.
The Saints could look to add a player through the draft and have AJ Klein and Manti Teo mentor the rookie to start his career in the hope he develops into the long-term replacement as the Mike linebacker. They would like a heat seeking missile in this position. Someone with the speed and sideline to sideline range to chase down running backs and the athletic ability to cover tight ends and running backs down the field.
A candidate to fill this void early in the draft is Leighton Vander Esch out of Boise State. Some draft experts have compared him to Brian Urlacher due to his size, range and style of play however Lance Zierlein has compared him to an earlier version of Karlos Dansby. The Saints could hope to pick up a candidate on day 2, Darius Leonard out of South Carolina State, Oren Burks of Vanderbilt or Tre’ Williams of Auburn could all fit the bill.
The Saints smashed their 2017 draft class out of the park headlined by defensive rookie of the year Marshon Lattimore who instantly became a shutdown corner and the Saints no.1 player at the position. The secondary play was elevated once Ken Crawley started and anchored down the position opposite Lattimore. Crawley had his struggles at times especially with some costly pass interference penalties. I don’t think the Saints need to replace Crawley but with the status of Delvin Breaux up in the air I think the Saints should look to upgrade the depth at the position.
Prior to drafting Lattimore the Saints explored trades for Patriots corner Malcolm Butler and Rams corner Trumaine Johnson. Both never materialised and both shall become free agents this year. If the Saints wanted to upgrade the position across from Lattimore they could realistically bring in either however it would cost a boat load of money to do so and there is no guarantee either would pan out and be successful as Saints.
The Saints would maybe benefit more from bringing in a slot corner especially if they lose Kenny Vacarro. Drafting a corner wouldn’t be a big surprise either. I think the Saints will add at least 1 cornerback during the offseason and I wouldn’t be surprised if it was one of the big free agents to give the Saints 2 top starting corners which improves the quality of the depth as well.
The consensus number 1 corner in the draft at this stage is Denzel Ward out of Ohio State. After him depending what board you look at the rankings vary. I think there will be reasonable depth at the position this season and starting calibre corners could be found in the middle rounds.
Defensive Tackle (Need)
The Saints big mistake from last season was the contract extension for Nick Fairley only to lose him for the season due to the unforeseen medical condition that will rob him of his career. While the front office made the right move at the time the loss of Fairley had a big impact on the defensive line rotation. The Saints did miss Fairley’s production from the inside and while Rankins had a great year and his impact was key in the defensive line’s success the defense needs to replace Fairley. Luckily for the Saints this years Defensive Tackle draft class appears to be very deep and the Saints could hopefully land a playmaker who can contribute as a rookie in the middle rounds.
Wide Receiver (Must)
The saints must add a wide receiver to the corps this offseason especially considering the unknown status of restricted free agents Brandon Coleman and Willie Snead. Snead looked like the sure-fire candidate to replace Brandin Cooks as the no.2 receiver opposite Michael Thomas. However he was suspended for the 1st 3 games of the season for a violation of league rules and then sustained an injury once the suspension was up. During the suspension the Saints turned to Ted Ginn to replace Cooks speed and Brandon Coleman was used as the 3rd receiver probably due to his capable blocking skills and the Saints heavy reliance on the run game last season.
Snead failed to break back into the lineup and was used sparingly. He did come up big with a couple of receptions in the playoffs in big moments for the Saints which showed Brees and Payton might still have a little faith in him. I think the Saints should tender Snead and bring him back to see if he can regain his form from 2016. I also think the Saints should target a receiver in the draft. The Saints will not trade for Jarvis Landry from the Dolphins. There is no way they will pay him over $15million a year.
Tight End (Want)
Like the defensive tackle draft class the tight end draft class of 2018 should be pretty deep. A good thing for the Saints because even though they have the same tight ends under contract as last season the issue is the lack of consistent production from the position. Coby Fleener has had games where he has been outstanding and produced big performances only to follow it with 3 games where he hardly registers a catch. Fleener ended 2018 on injured reserve after sustaining a concussion in Los Angeles. Josh Hill came up big for the Saints in the playoffs but like Fleener he tends to blow hot and cold with his production. Hill has also battled through injuries during his time as a Saint.
I think the Saints could be in the market for a free agent tight end this offseason. Trey Burton will leave the Eagles by all accounts and Julius Thomas will be released by the Dolphins. If they don’t go that route they could always look to the draft where they could land a contributing tight end on days 2 or 3. Some draft analysts have mocked the Saints to pick Dallas Goedert out of South Dakota State in the 1st round but that seems like a reach at this point.
The rumours have picked up that the Saints will look to bring back Jimmy Graham. I for 1 do not see this happening but it is something to keep an eye on as free agency approaches.
Ok maybe this is my personal bias and my hope that Brees can continue to play at a high level into his 40s but I think the Saints will continue the “win now” mode and instead of looking for a top end QB they pick up a developmental prospect to sit behind Brees. Don’t get me wrong if Baker Mayfield or Josh Allen drops to them in the 1st round then the Saints will consider the value at that pick. Who knows they would maybe even consider Lamar Jackson at the end of the 1st round. More realistically though I think the Saints will target a Luke Falk, Kyle Lauletta or Riley Ferguson type someone who has the raw tools there to work with and after a bit of work and refinement the Saints could develop him into a hidden gem.
Offensive Linemen (Need)
The Saints are preparing to lose versatile lineman Senio Kelemete to free agency. Kelemete has adequately played every position on the line for the Saints in a pinch and provided great backup for the Saints. This will earn him a decent contract and a start somewhere else and the Saints will look to add depth to the offensive line corps through free agency or the draft. With the reported impending retirement of veteran tackle Zach Strief I have upgraded this from want to need. The Saints will look to add a swing lineman who can fill in at Tackle or Guard through free agency and add to the depth on the offensive line through the draft.
Hopefully the Saints front office can have another great offseason and make the required moves to elevate the talent on both sides of the ball. This team doesn’t appear too far away from being a Super Bowl contender and hopefully this offseason will be the one that gets the team across the line. They will have to be prudent and carry a bit of luck again with player acquisition in free agency and the draft.
We also have to hope that the locker room continues to gel like the tight-knit family they became in to 2017. The hope has to be the Saints can take the leap like they did for the start of the 2009 season and not how they followed the heartache of 2011 (bountygate was mostly to blame for the 2012 season capitulating) or 2013 which was followed by 3 consecutive 7-9 seasons.
At the end of the off-season the goal will be to have put this team into a better position to make a run at the Super Bowl and to build on the already young and promising squad the Saints have been building since 2016. If the Saints want to win another World Championship with Drew Brees it had better be soon, before it’s too late.