FB Erik Lorig, C Jonathan Goodwin, CB Champ Bailey, S Jairus Byrd.
Early Draft Picks:
WR Brandin Cooks, CB Stanley Jean-Baptiste, ILB Khairi Fortt, S Vinnie Sunseri, DE/OLB Ronald Powell. Saints Rookie Forecast Offseason Losses:
RB Darren Sproles, FB Jed Collins, WR Lance Moore, OT Charles Brown, C Brian De La Puente, DE Will Smith, DT Tom Johnson, ILB Will Herring, CB Jabari Greer, S Malcolm Jenkins, S Roman Harper.
2014 New Orleans Saints Offense:
Drew Brees complained about the front office's decision to trade Darren Sproles back in March. Brees, who is coming off his third-consecutive 5,000-yard campaign, was understandably frustrated about losing his safety valve despite Sproles' obvious declining skills. Well, it's doubtful that Brees is still unhappy after the front office traded up in the first round to obtain speedy receiver Brandin Cooks.
Cooks will make New Orleans' offense so much more dynamic. Whereas Sproles was slowing down at an alarming rate, Cooks and his lightning quickness will terrify opposing defensive coordinators. It's not like they can completely focus on Cooks at all because they also have to worry about stopping Jimmy Graham catching passes over the middle or Marques Colston making some plays downfield.
Graham caught 86 balls for 1,215 yards and 16 touchdowns in 2013 - and he wasn't even at full strength because an injury bothered him throughout the season. Colston, meanwhile, had a nagging foot problem that restricted him in the first half of the 2013 campaign. He was back to his old self beginning in Week 10, however, logging at least 63 receiving yards in all but two contests. With Cooks, Graham and Colston garnering all of this attention, no one will focus on Kenny Stills, who averaged a ridiculous 20 yards per reception (32 catches, 641 yards) as a rookie.
Sproles' absence won't make the running back corps any weaker either. In fact, New Orleans' rushing attack could be better than ever this year. Bill Parcells actually called Sean Payton prior to the playoffs this past January and told him that Khiry Robinson reminded him of Hall of Famer Curtis Martin. Robinson gained 102 yards and a touchdown on just 21 carries in the postseason, looking very impressive whenever he handled the ball. Robinson could be in for a much larger workload this season, while Pierre Thomas will continue to be a reception machine (77 catches in 2013).
As for the offensive line, the Saints are firm believers that the interior is much more important than the exterior because inside pressure bothers quarterbacks the most. That's why it was strange to see New Orleans allow center Brian De La Puente to walk in free agency. De La Puente wasn't spectacular, by any means, but he was a solid lineman who was decent in pass protection. He has two potential replacements: Tim Lelito, who allowed three sacks in one of his two starts this past season, and Jonathan Goodwin, an underwhelming center whom the 49ers let go this offseason.
The other four positions up front figure to be very strong, at least. The guards are both excellent, as Ben Grubbs and Jahri Evans are coming off Pro Bowl-caliber 2013 campaigns. Zach Strief, who was great at right tackle last season, was re-signed to a 5-year, $20.5 million contract in March. Left tackle Terron Armstead has just four career starts under his belt, but he was absolutely dominant in three of those contests, two of which were in the playoffs. Armstead is a highly athletic second-year player, so he should only get better.
2014 New Orleans Saints Defense:
The Saints' stop unit was once the laughing stock of the NFL. That's no longer the case. Rob Ryan came in as the new defensive coordinator and completely revamped this side of the ball. He was so effective that his team surrendered 18 or fewer points in 11 of their 16 games in 2013 - and the defense will only be better this upcoming season.
New Orleans made one of the biggest signings this offseason when it brought in Jairus Byrd with a 6-year, $54 million contract. Byrd is one of the top safeties in the NFL; he's a defensive play-maker who has nine interceptions in the past two seasons, and he'll be a massive upgrade over Malcolm Jenkins. Byrd will start alongside Kenny Vaccaro, the 15th-overall choice in the 2013 NFL Draft, who had an outstanding rookie campaign.
Bringing in Byrd wasn't the only upgrade the Saints made in the secondary. They also signed Champ Bailey to potentially start at cornerback across from the talented Keenan Lewis. Bailey is old - he just turned 36 - and is coming off a poor 2013 campaign, but a nagging foot injury bothered him. He was mostly excellent in 2012, so there's a good chance he'll rebound in his new home.
The Saints' strong defensive line will make things easier for the secondary. The best player on their defense is Cameron Jordan, an All-Pro five-technique who collected a whopping 12.5 sacks, which is an outstanding number for a player at his position. He'll once again start alongside two talented players in Akiem Hicks and John Jenkins. Hicks, a 2012 third-rounder, is coming off a stellar season. Jenkins, meanwhile, proved to be an effective run-stuffer in his rookie campaign. Jenkins was also chosen in the third round, but was projected to be picked earlier than that, so it's no surprise that he performed well right away.
Excluding Jordan, the Saints' top pass-rusher is Junior Galette, an outside linebacker who mustered 12 sacks in 2013. They didn't have much across from Galette this past season, but that may not be the case in 2014 because Victor Butler will be back in the lineup. Butler, a former Cowboy, has big pass-rushing potential, but tore his ACL last summer and never got a chance to prove himself. He'll have every chance to do so this upcoming campaign with the opposition so focused on Jordan and Galette.
The inside linebacker position is the weakest spot in this defense. Curtis Lofton and David Hawthorne were once seen as promising free-agent acquisitions, but neither has lived up to expectations. The Saints might be willing to move on from at least one of them, if the fourth-round selection they used on Khairi Fortt is any indication.
2014 New Orleans Saints Schedule and Intangibles:
The Saints used to be pretty miserable at home - 54-66 as hosts from 1992 to 2007 - but they've completely turned it around. The Louisiana Superdome has transformed into a mad house where opposing quarterbacks can't hear anything. In the past six seasons, the Saints are 40-11 as hosts, including a perfect 8-0 in 2013.
New Orleans has been outgained on punt and kickoff returns the past two seasons. Darren Sproles struggled taking the ball back in 2013, but he's gone.
Garrett Hartley drilled the Super Bowl-clinching field goal in the NFC Championship back in January 2010, but he has struggled since and was eventually relieved of his duties. The Saints' new kicker is Shayne Graham, who converted both tries this past season.
Thomas Morstead tied San Francisco's Andy Lee for the top net-punting average in 2012. He was third in that category this past season.
The Saints will win all (or most) of their home games, so here's a look at their road slate: They play in three away domes (Falcons, Cowboys, Lions), so that'll help. They also have to go to the Browns, Buccaneers and declining Panthers, so their only tough outdoor contests will be against the Steelers and Bears.
2014 New Orleans Saints Rookies:
Go here for the Saints Rookie Forecast, a page with predictions like which rookie will bust and which rookie will become a solid starter.
2014 New Orleans Saints Positional Rankings (1-5 stars):
2014 New Orleans Saints Analysis: The Saints have to be considered one of the favorites to win the Super Bowl. Drew Brees is still as sharp as ever, while the defense will be even stronger than it was last year. Add in an easy schedule, and the Saints could be hoisting their second Lombardi Trophy come February.
Goals Entering the 2014 NFL Draft: The Saints don't have any glaring needs, excluding center, wide receiver and cornerback. Outside of addressing all three of those spots, the Saints can take the top player available to help shore up their roster for a potential Super Bowl run.
2014 NFL Draft Accomplishments: I criticized the Bills earlier for surrendering a valuable resource to move up for Sammy Watkins. The Saints did the same thing, albeit in a move with lesser magnitude, but they'll be praised for doing so. Unlike Buffalo, they are prepared to win a Super Bowl this year, so it was in their best interest to obtain someone who could help them do that, even if it cost them a third-round selection. Brandin Cooks, who would have been off the board at No. 27, will be a very potent weapon for Drew Brees.
Save for the center position, the Saints filled their other needs, albeit with some reaches. Stanley Jean-Baptiste and Vinnie Sunseri, who could help in the secondary, were chosen too early. However, New Orleans did make a decent value selection with Khairi Fortt, an inside linebacker who may start if David Hawthorne continues to struggle.
Overall, the Saints did a decent job of bolstering their roster. They gave themselves a better chance of representing the NFC in the Super Bowl.
NFL Draft Individual Grades:
20. Brandin Cooks, WR, Oregon State: A- Grade
The Saints are giving up a third-round pick to move up from No. 27 to 20. I'd say it's worth it, considering they landed the top receiver available. Wideout was a big need for New Orleans; Marques Colston is always banged up, while Lance Moore is gone. Brandin Cooks will take Moore's spot and will be a huge upgrade. It's almost scary to imagine the Saints' offense now with Cooks joining Drew Brees and Jimmy Graham. Sean Payton will have lots of fun with Cooks.
58. Stanley Jean-Baptiste, CB, Nebraska: C+ Grade
Stanley Jean-Baptiste has a ton of potential, given his massive 6-foot-3 frame. Tall corners are all the range now, so it's easy to understand why a team would take Jean-Baptiste in the second round. The problem is that the Nebraska product is a fourth-round talent. He struggled at times at Nebraska. He may fill a need, however.
126. Khairi Fortt, ILB, California: B Grade
This is a solid pick. I thought Khairi Fortt would be chosen around this range, and he also fills a need for the Saints. David Hawthorne hasn't played well for them over the past couple of seasons, so it's possible that Fortt could step in as the starter in 2015.
167. Vinnie Sunseri, S, Alabama: C Grade
The Saints like to use three safeties on the field, so they were expected to take one even after signing Jairus Byrd. However, Vinnie Sunseri is a reach; I didn't think he would be drafted.
169. Ronald Powell, DE/OLB, Florida: B- Grade
There's a bit more value with this New Orleans pick. The Saints really needed to get another pass-rusher because they can't count on Victor Butler contributing. I guess it's better late than never, but they should have obtained an outside linebacker earlier. Ronald Powell makes sense here though.
202. Tavon Rooks, OT, Kansas State: C- Grade
Tackle depth makes sense, but I did not have Tavon Reeks listed as a draftable prospect. If this were the fifth round, I'd give the Saints a Millen, but there are no blatant reaches in the middle of Round 6.
The Saints had no chance in 2012 without their head coach, so it was no surprise that they rebounded with Sean Payton back on the sidelines. Still, it was a disappointing end for New Orleans, whose high-powered offense mustered just 15 points in Seattle. It's clear that the Saints need homefield advantage to once again reach the Super Bowl.
Saints sign C Jonathan Goodwin
Patriots sign DE Will Smith
Saints re-sign WR Robert Meachem
Bears sign C Brian De La Puente
Saints sign CB Champ Bailey
Saints re-sign DE/OLB Parys Haralson
Giants sign OT Charles Brown
Saints re-sign QB Luke McCown
Steelers sign WR Lance Moore
Vikings sign DT Tom Johnson
Lions sign FB Jed Collins
Saints re-sign WR Joe Morgan
Saints sign FB Erik Lorig
Saints re-sign OT Zach Strief
Panthers sign S Roman Harper
Saints re-sign ILB Ramon Humber
Eagles acquire RB Darren Sproles from Saints for 5th-round pick
Cowboys sign ILB Will Herring
Saints sign S Jairus Byrd
Eagles sign S Malcolm Jenkins
Saints cut WR Lance Moore
Saints tender S Rafael Bush
Saints cut CB Jabari Greer
Saints cut S Roman Harper
Saints cut DE Will Smith
Saints re-sign DE/OLB Keyunta Dawson
Safety: Malcolm Jenkins will be a free agent in March, but he's never lived up to expectations anyway. New Orleans may want a better player next to Kenny Vaccaro. Signed Jairus Byrd
Cornerback: The Saints cut one of their starting corners, so they'll need a new one. Signed Champ Bailey
Outside Linebacker: Victor Butler will be back next season to join Junior Galette as the Saints' primary pass-rushers, but the Saints could use a third player to get to the quarterback, especially considering the uncertainty surrounding the unproven Butler, who will be coming off a torn ACL. Re-signed Parys Haralson
Wide Receiver: The Saints need help across from Marques Colston, so they'll consider a wideout in the early rounds. Re-signed Robert Meachem
Inside Linebacker: David Hawthorne has proven to be a bust signing; he has disappointed in his two seasons in New Orleans, so he should probably be upgraded with an early-round pick.
Tight End: Retaining free agent Jimmy Graham is obviously a priority. Franchised Jimmy Graham
Center: Brian De La Puente is one of two offensive linemen hitting the market who must be re-signed... Signed Jonathan Goodwin
Right Tackle: ...And Zach Strief is the other. Re-signed Zach Strief
Running Back: Darren Sproles was traded, so the Saints need a pass-catching running back to replace him.
Defensive Line Depth: New Orleans may want to use a mid-round selection on depth behind Cameron Jordan and Akiem Hicks.
Interior Offensive Line Depth: The Saints could use some depth at guard and center. A mid-rounder should suffice.
Kicker: When are the Saints finally going to obtain a reliable kicker? It seems like they've had a void at this position since John Carney.
Backup Quarterback: Luke McCown is a decent reserve quarterback, but he's a free agent. Re-signed Luke McCown
Jairus Byrd, S, Bills. Age: 27. Signed with Saints (6 years)
Jairus Byrd is arguably the top safety in the NFL. He's awesome in coverage and is good for collecting a handful of turnovers each season. He won't be 28 until October.
Champ Bailey, CB/S, Broncos. Age: 36. Signed with Saints (2 years)
Champ Bailey had a great 2012 regular season, but was torched in a playoff loss to Baltimore. He was even worse throughout the 2013 campaign, though nagging foot injuries are to blame. Bailey almost certainly won't be great ever again, but he could perhaps rebound and be solid, especially if he's moved to safety, much like Charles Woodson was.
Jonathan Goodwin, C, 49ers. Age: 35. Signed with Saints
Jonathan Goodwin has told reporters that retirement has crossed his mind, but that didn't stop him from playing well in 2013. Goodwin will be 36 in December.
Erik Lorig, FB, Buccaneers. Age: 27. -- Signed with Saints (4 years)
New Orleans Saints Free Agents:
Salary Cap: TBA.
Jimmy Graham, TE, Saints. Age: 27. Franchised by Saints
Jimmy Graham is an unstoppable force. He's an athletic beast, and the scary thing is that he's only going to get better over the next couple of seasons as he continues to increase his football IQ.
Brian De La Puente, C, Saints. Age: 29. Signed with Bears (1 year)
Brian De La Puente has been a quality starting center for the Saints during the past few seasons. He deserves a decently sized contract.
Zach Strief, OT, Saints. Age: 31. Re-signed with Saints (5 years, $20.5 million)
Zach Strief was abused by Chris Long in the Week 15 loss to the Rams, but otherwise showed improvement this season as the team's right tackle.
Malcolm Jenkins, S, Saints. Age: 26. Signed with Eagles (3 years, $16.25 million)
Malcolm Jenkins has never lived up to expectations as a former first-round pick, but he has shown flashes at times. He just turned 26, so there's still plenty of time.
Parys Haralson, DE/OLB, Saints. Age: 30. Re-signed with Saints
Parys Haralson is never much of a liability, but he's not a strength either. He's a jack of all trades, master of nothing.
Jabari Greer, CB, Saints. Age: 32.
Jabari Greer is the best of the three players the Saints cut on Feb. 12 to make cap room for Jimmy Graham. Greer played well last year, but tore his ACL in November. Greer just turned 32, so he may have trouble coming back from his latest knee injury. Not counting the playoffs, Greer has missed 23 games since 2008.
Will Smith, DE, Saints. Age: 33. Signed with Patriots
Will Smith was a decent run-defender but a declining pass-rusher in 2012; the last time he had more than 6.5 sacks was 2009. He looked to be a poor fit in Rob Ryan's 3-4 defense, but we never found out because he tore his ACL back in August. Smith, 33 in July, doesn't have much left in the tank and probably won't even be 100 percent, given that he's coming off his knee injury.
Roman Harper, S, Saints. Age: 31. Signed with Panthers (2 years, $4.5 million)
Roman Harper has been very good in run support over the years, but he has always struggled in coverage, especially lately. Harper, who will be 32 late this upcoming season, is just a very good backup at this point of his career.
Lance Moore, WR, Saints. Age: 31. Signed with Steelers
I don't usually give write-ups for 1.5-star players, but Lance Moore is a big name, so I'll make the exception. Moore could be overvalued by a few because of his big name, but I'd like to believe that most see Moore as a product of Sean Payton and Drew Brees. After all, Moore has never played without Brees. Without Brees, he's just an ordinary slot receiver who will turn 31 in August.
Charles Brown, OT, Saints. Age: 27. -- Signed with Giants
Robert Meachem, WR, Saints. Age: 29. -- Re-signed with Saints (1 year)
Kenyon Coleman, DE/DT, Saints. Age: 35.
Rafael Bush (RFA), S, Saints. Age: 27. -- Re-signed with Saints (2 years)
Jed Collins (RFA), FB, Saints. Age: 28. -- Signed with Lions (1 year)
Jonathan Vilma, ILB, Saints. Age: 32.
Joe Morgan (RFA), WR, Saints. Age: 26. -- Re-signed with Saints (1 year)
Luke McCown, QB, Saints. Age: 33. -- Re-signed with Saints (1 year)