2015 NFL Offseason: New Orleans Saints

New Orleans Saints (Last Year: 7-9)

2015 NFL Season Preview:

Veteran Additions:
RB C.J. Spiller, RB Travaris Cadet, G Mike McGlynn, C Max Unger, DT Kevin Williams, DE/OLB Anthony Spencer, ILB Dannell Ellerbe, CB Brandon Browner, CB Kyle Wilson.
Early Draft Picks:
OT Andrus Peat, ILB Stephone Anthony, DE/OLB Hau’oli Kikaha, QB Garrett Grayson, CB/S P.J. Williams, DE/OLB Davis Tull, DT Tyeler Davison, CB Damian Swann. Saints Rookie Forecast
Offseason Losses:
RB Pierre Thomas, WR Kenny Stills, TE Jimmy Graham, G Ben Grubbs, C Jonathan Goodwin, DT Tyrunn Walker, ILB Curtis Lofton, CB Patrick Robinson, CB Corey White, K Shayne Graham.

2015 New Orleans Saints Offense:
When a team suffers a very disappointing season like the Saints just did, wholesale changes are commonplace. However, no one expected anything this drastic. In one of the most shocking moves in recent memory, the front office traded its best offensive weapon, Jimmy Graham, to the Seahawks for center Max Unger and a first-round pick. And that was just the beginning.

Graham’s departure changes this offense drastically. He was such a dynamic weapon for Drew Brees, as the opposition simply didn’t have answers for him. However, the Saints were more than willing to deal him for a huge return because of his negative attitude and proneness to injuries. Graham has missed two games throughout his 5-year professional career, but he’s constantly banged up, and he hasn’t been near 100 percent in two of his past three seasons. He looked like he was playing on one leg in 2014, which is why his receiving yardage dipped from 1,215 to 889.

Besides, the Saints are wise enough to transition to a more ground-based attack in Drew Brees’ old age. Brees turned 36 this offseason, and his production slipped in 2014. Brees’ touchdown-to-interception ratio dropped from 39:12 to 33:17, and he maintained his lowest YPA in five years. He just didn’t look like himself. The hope is that with better protection and a stronger ground attack, Brees can play a bit better in 2015.

That’s exactly where Unger comes in. Unger has injury issues of his own, but he’s still one of the better centers in the NFL. He’ll be an enormous upgrade over the inept Jonathan Goodwin, who nearly got Brees killed on numerous occasions last year. The Saints also spent their first-round pick on Andrus Peat, who could start out at guard and eventually move to tackle. Peat may replace Ben Grubbs, whose play had slipped this past season. Rounding out the interior is Jahri Evans, who needs to bounce back from a dreadful 2014 campaign. Evans battled through a wrist injury, so that would explain why he struggled so much.

The tackle position is one of the only areas that remains unchanged, though, as mentioned, Peat will eventually take over one of the spots. In the meantime, Terron Armstead and Zach Strief will continue to start there. Both played well this past season, with each surrendering three sacks.

There was one difference made at receiver, and that was Kenny Stills being traded away. Stills was an inconsistent deep threat, so he won’t be missed too much, especially with Brandin Cooks returning from injury. Despite being just a rookie, Cooks caught 53 balls for 550 yards in 10 games before missing the final six contests with a thumb issue. Cooks figures to be a big producer in 2015, overtaking Marques Colston as the No. 1 wideout. Colston accepted a paycut this offseason after catching just 59 balls last year – his lowest figure since 2008, when he snagged 47 balls in just 11 games.

I’m sure Brees would still like to have a deep threat like Stills on the roster, but he’ll have a new weapon to play with coming out of the backfield. That would be C.J. Spiller, who was signed over from Buffalo. The Bills incorrectly used a high first-round pick on Spiller, who could never carry the load himself. However, the Saints will use Spiller as a Darren Sproles-type weapon who catches tons of passes out of the backfield, which is the correct way to utilize him. Brees obviously missed Sproles last season, so perhaps Spiller can help him revert back to form.

Rounding out the running stable, Mark Ingram and Khiry Robinson figure to share the workload in some fashion. Ingram rushed for 964 yards this past season, but while the offensive line has improved, Ingram’s production could slip now that he’s not playing for a new contract. If Ingram struggles, the promising Robinson can take over. Bill Parcells compared Robinson to Curtis Martin a year ago, so he could thrive behind New Orleans’ revamped front.

2015 New Orleans Saints Defense:
The Saints obviously needed to make changes on this side of the ball as well. They surrendered 26.5 points per game to the opposition last year, which includes 27, 27 and 34 to the 49ers, Bengals and Ravens in an embarrassing three-game home losing skid in the middle of the season that pretty much capsized the team’s playoff chances.

The front office used six of its initial eight draft picks on defensive players, taking inside linebacker Stephone Anthony with Seattle’s pick at the end of the first round. Anthony is a highly athletic player who could fight for playing time right away. The only player standing in his path is Dannell Ellerbe, who performed poorly in 2013 and then played just one game for the Dolphins last season because of a hip injury. Anthony should be able to pass him easily and start next to David Hawthorne, an average starter who isn’t nearly as much of a liability as the departed Curtis Lofton was.

New Orleans’ next selection was used on rush linebacker Hau’oli Kikaha, who was considered a reach because of his knee injury. The Washington product was not expected to start right away, as Junior Galette and the newly signed Anthony Spencer were in front of him. However, Galette, a talented pass-rusher who has recorded 22 sacks over the past two seasons, could be released because a video surfaced of someone looking like him who beat a woman. Spencer, meanwhile, brought over from Dallas, has had success under defensive coordinator Rob Ryan before. Spencer hasn’t done anything the past couple of seasons, but he’s now two years removed from microfracture knee surgery, so perhaps he can become productive again. Meanwhile, Parys Haralson will be in the rotation as a quality run-defender.

The Saints managed to address their secondary in the third round when they plucked P.J. Williams off the board. Williams was seen as a potential first-round pick until he was arrested for a DUI leading up to the draft. Williams can play both cornerback and safety, and he could be used in either spot. The current corners are Keenan Lewis, a skilled player who struggled last season because of a knee injury, and Brandon Browner, who was signed over from New England. Lewis should be able to bounce back as a legitimate No. 1 cornerback, while Browner will have to work on not getting penalized as much as he did in 2014. Williams will probably take over if one goes down or struggles, while the newly signed Kyle Wilson will operate in the nickel.

Williams could potentially take over at safety as well if either starter continues to play poorly. When the Saints signed Jairus Byrd last spring, they were exepcted to have one of the league’s top safety tandems, with 2013 first-rounder Kenny Vaccaro as the other starter. That was definitely not the case; Byrd played just four games because of a knee injury, while Vaccaro was so bad that he was benched late in the year.

Aside from a fifth-round choice used on Tyler Davison, no changes were made to the defensive front. The same trio – Jordan Cameron, Akiem Hicks and Brodrick Bunkley – will start again in 2015. No alterations had to be made because the triumvirate played well when together this past season. Jordan didn’t have his best year, but he still logged 7.5 sacks. Hicks was a force against the run, while Bunkley was adequate while he was in the lineup; he played just eight games because of a torn quad.

2015 New Orleans Saints Schedule and Intangibles:
The Saints were 40-11 as hosts in a 7-year span prior to 2014, including a perfect 8-0 in 2013. The Superdome is known as a mad house where opposing quarterbacks can’t hear anything. But have things changed? New Orleans was just 3-5 at home this past season, and one of the wins was a very slim, overtime victory over the 2-14 Buccaneers.

New Orleans tried Brandin Cooks as a punt returner, but he was miserable in that role. Jalen Saunders was much better. The team was about even with the opposition on returns otherwise.

The Saints released Shayne Graham this offseason, so they’ll be going with either Dustin Hopkins or Zach Hocker as their kicker.

Thomas Morstead is one of the league’s best punters. In terms of net average, he was tied for first in 2012, third in 2013 and second this past season.

The Saints have just a handful of difficult games in 2015. Those include the Cardinals (road), Panthers (road), Cowboys (home), Eagles (road), Colts (road) and Falcons (road).

2015 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.

2015 New Orleans Saints Positional Rankings (1-5 stars):
Offensive Line
Running Backs
Defensive Line
Special Teams

2015 New Orleans Saints Analysis: The Saints bolstered their offensive line, so they should be able to block better for Drew Brees. They also made some improvements on defense, so perhaps opponents won’t be able to score at will against them. If they can retain their homefield domination, they should be in good position for a divisional crown. However, there are lingering concerns with Brees; was his 2014 regression just the start of a rapid, downward trend?

Projection: 9-7 (Tied 1st in NFC South)

NFL Draft Team Grade: B- Grade

Goals Entering the 2015 NFL Draft: The Saints had a fire sale in free agency. They’ll need to plug the holes they created (tight end, guard, receiver, linebacker) and also address the positions that already were major liabilities (edge rusher, cornerback).

2015 NFL Draft Accomplishments: New Orleans’ first three selections were underwhelming. Andrus Peat, while being a solid prospect, didn’t fill one of the huge needs I listed above, though perhaps it’ll allow one of the current tackles to move inside. Stephone Anthony was a bit of a reach. Hau’oli Kikaha, meanwhile, carries a major injury risk. While I was a bit harsh in the individual grade, the fact remains that some teams had him off their board because of the medical. Perhaps the Saints will be right on Kikaha, and if so, he should be a good pro, but he was too much of a gamble in the second round as far as I’m concerned.

I liked the Saints’ draft after that. Their next three picks – P.J. Williams, Davis Tull, Tyeler Davison – all filled needs while provided solid value for where they were chosen. The final two selections weren’t bad either.

In summary, New Orleans filled 3-4 of the six needs I listed above, neglecting tight end and receiver. The roster as a whole is a bit better after the 2015 NFL Draft, but the team’s haul could have been better.

NFL Draft Individual Grades:

13. Andrus Peat, OT, Stanford: B Grade
Andrus Peat looked shocked to be chosen at this spot, and I’m just as surprised. The Saints were projected to pick a defensive talent, so Peat is a bit of a shocker. I don’t think it’s a bad choice, however. Peat was projected to go between Nos. 10 and 19, so this is the right range for him. Protecting Drew Brees, especially as he enters his late 30s, is paramount, and Peat will definitely offer an upgrade on the offensive line.

Follow @walterfootball for updates.

31. Stephone Anthony, ILB, Clemson: B- Grade
Not Eric Kendricks? I had Stephone Anthony going to the Saints in the second round once upon a time, so I’d have to think this is a slight reach. However, there are some who believed that Anthony was the top inside linebacker in this class, so I’m not going to argue this too much. New Orleans obviously had a colossal need at inside linebacker because Curtis Lofton was terrible, so Anthony figures to be an upgrade.

44. Hau’oli Kikaha, DE/OLB, Washington: MAYMILLEN BOXING KIELBASA Grade
WHOA… I didn’t even have Hau’oli Kikaha being drafted, and there were teams that didn’t even have him on their boards because of numerous knee injuries. The Saints could’ve A) obtained safer players who are close in terms of talent, or B) waited several rounds to draft Kikaha. This is a major head-scratcher.

75. Garrett Grayson, QB, Colorado State: B Grade
I guess Ian Rapoport won’t be punching anyone in his no-no-special-place (see the NFL Draft Day 2 Preview for that reference). The Saints were rumored to take Bryce Petty, but I never bought into that. Garrett Grayson makes more sense, as he was the third-best quarterback available behind Jameis Winston and Marcus Mariota. Grayson will learn behind Drew Brees for a few seasons and should be able to step in at some point down the road.

78. P.J. Williams, CB/S, Florida State: A Grade
P.J. Williams was once viewed as a first-round prospect, but was arrested for a DUI. He was cleared of those charges, so I thought his draft stock could bounce back, but apparently not. The Saints aren’t complaining. Williams is a talented cornerback who could emerge as a starter down the road. The Saints added Brandon Browner at corner this offseason, but they still needed to address this position.

148. Davis Tull, DE/OLB, UT-Chattanooga: B+ Grade
I may have been a bit too harsh on the Hau’oli Kikaha pick, but I like this one more. Davis Tull has been linked to the Saints, as he’s a good fit for Rob Ryan’s scheme. He’s highly athletic and has a good chance of eventually emerging as a starter.

154. Tyeler Davison, DT, Fresno State: B+ Grade
I had Tyeler Davison going a round earlier than this in most of my mock updates, so I like this selection. The Saints hadn’t addressed their defensive line yet, so Davison definitely makes sense at this juncture.

167. Damian Swann, CB, Georgia: B Grade
This is the second cornerback the Saints have selected, but given their need at the position, it’s hardly a surprise that they’ve decided to double up. Damian Swann was a productive player at Georgia, but his poor athleticism sunk his draft stock. He has a chance to succeed in the NFL despite this, however, and the range here is right for him.

230. Marcus Murphy, RB/KR, Missouri: B- Grade
A borderline draftable prospect, Marcus Murphy will contribute on special teams if he makes the final roster. He could be the Saints’ kick returner at some point, so this pick makes sense to me.

Season Summary:
The Saints were perhaps the NFL’s most disappointing team in 2014. Their top-10 defense of a year ago transformed into the league’s worst stop unit, while Drew Brees did not seem like himself at all; he was merely a shell of his former self. Ongoing bickering between Sean Payton and Rob Ryan didn’t help matters, as the Saints couldn’t even beat out a 7-8-1 team for the divisional crown.

Offseason Moves:
  • Saints sign DT Kevin Williams
  • Saints sign G Mike McGlynn
  • Saints cut K Shayne Graham
  • Saints sign DE Anthony Spencer
  • Saints sign CB Kyle Wilson
  • Saints re-sign OT Bryce Harris
  • Chargers sign CB Patrick Robinson
  • Patriots sign RB Travaris Cadet
  • Cowboys claim CB Corey White
  • Saints sign RB C.J. Spiller
  • Saints cut CB Corey White
  • Dolphins acquire WR Kenny Stills from Saints for LB Dannell Ellerbe and 3rd-round pick
  • Lions sign DT Tyrunn Walker
  • Saints re-sign ILB Ramon Humber
  • Saints sign CB Brandon Browner
  • Chiefs acquire G Ben Grubbs from Saints for 5th-round pick
  • Raiders sign ILB Curtis Lofton
  • Seahawks acquire TE Jimmy Graham and 4th-round pick from Saints for C Max Unger and 1st-round pick
  • Saints cut ILB Curtis Lofton
  • Saints re-sign RB Mark Ingram
  • Saints re-sign S Jamarca Sanford
  • Saints cut RB Pierre Thomas
  • Saints re-sign DE/OLB Parys Haralson
  • Saints re-sign K Shayne Graham
  • Saints re-sign QB Luke McCown

    Team Needs:
    1. Cornerback: New Orleans has plenty of holes on its putrid defense, but perhaps the biggest one is at cornerback. The group of players at that position had immense issues covering opposing receivers this past season. Fortunately for the Saints, the free agent cornerback market is very healthy. Signed Brandon Browner and Kyle Wilson

    2. Rush Linebacker: The Saints were able to get pressure from Cameron Jordan, Junior Galette, and… that’s about it. They may spend their first-round pick on an edge rusher who can play across from Galette. Signed Anthony Spencer; re-signed Parys Haralson

    3. Inside Linebacker: Curtis Lofton wasn’t the worst starting linebacker in the NFL last year, but he was close. He’s atrocious and needs to be upgraded immediately. Traded for Dannell Ellerbe

    4. Safety: I don’t know what the Saints are going to do at safety. They spent a high pick on Kenny Vaccaro and gave Jairus Byrd lots of money last offseason, yet both of them were awful. I suppose New Orleans will have to give them another chance, all while spending a mere mid-round selection on some competition.

    5. Center: Aside from Jimmy Graham’s lingering injury, the main reason why New Orleans’ offense sputtered last season was Jonathan Goodwin’s anemic play. The Saints need to think about spending one of their first couple of picks on a new center. Traded for Max Unger

    6. Guard: The Saints just traded Ben Grubbs to the Chiefs for a fifth-round pick. Grubbs was an excellent guard prior to 2014, but fell off a bit last year. He still needs to be replaced though.

    7. Tight End: Jimmy Graham is gone. He’s headed to the Seahawks for Max Unger. Drew Brees needs a new intermediate weapon.

    8. Running Back: Mark Ingram ran well last year, but he’s a free agent. Pierre Thomas is gone. The Saints can’t expect Khiry Robinson to carry the load. Signed C.J. Spiller; re-signed Mark Ingram

    9. Wide Receiver: The Saints just used a first-round pick on Brandin Cooks, but they may want to find another receiver to replace Marques Colston, who seemed done at times in 2014. Colston turns 32 in June.

    10. Quarterback: The front office should look into spending a third- or fourth-round pick on a young quarterback to develop because Drew Brees looked like a reduced quarterback at times last year.

    11. Defensive Line Depth: New Orleans has some defensive linemen about to hit free agency, so it’ll need to replenish depth. Signed Kevin Williams

      Follow me @walterfootball for updates.

    2015 NFL Free Agent Signings:
    1. Brandon Browner, CB, Patriots. Age: 31.
      Signed with Saints

      Brandon Browner’s first season outside of Seattle wasn’t a successful one, at least not on a personal level. Browner was inconsistent in coverage, but more notably was whistled for a ridiculous 19 penalties, including the playoffs, despite missing the first six games of the season. He turns 31 in August.

    2. C.J. Spiller, RB, Bills. Age: 28.
      Signed with Saints

      Some fantasy sites have accused the Bills of misusing C.J. Spiller, but the former first-rounder just can’t handle a big workload because of his build. Spiller is an explosive play-maker, but he’s also unreliable because he’s constantly banged up.

    3. Anthony Spencer, DE, Cowboys. Age: 31.
      Signed with Saints (1 year)

      Anthony Spencer used to be a terrific, albeit inconsistent pass-rusher until a knee injury caused him to miss all of 2013. He was limited this past year. Perhaps he can regain his former status after being two seasons removed from microfracture surgery. He just turned 31, however.

    4. Kevin Williams, DT, Seahawks. Age: 35. — Signed with Saints
    5. Kyle Wilson, CB, Jets. Age: 27. — Signed with Saints
    6. Mike McGlynn, G, Chiefs. Age: 30. — Signed with Saints

    New Orleans Saints Free Agents:

    Salary Cap: TBA.
    1. Mark Ingram, RB, Saints. Age: 25.
      Re-signed with Saints (4 years, $16 million)

      Mark Ingram ran well at times in 2014, including a stretch in which he had three consecutive 100-yard games. He’s only 25, so perhaps he’ll be able to live up to expectations soon. Then again, maybe he was just trying hard for the first time because he was in his contract year.

    2. Patrick Robinson, CB, Saints. Age: 27.
      Signed with Chargers (1 year)

      Patrick Robinson was torched early in the 2014 season, but he performed much better when asked to handle nickel duties.

    3. Parys Haralson, DE/OLB, Saints. Age: 31.
      Re-signed with Saints (1 year)

      Parys Haralson is a solid defender against the run, but has never been able to generate consistent pressure on the quarterback.

    4. Curtis Lofton, ILB, Saints. Age: 29.
      Signed with Raiders (3 years)

      Curtis Lofton had a solid 2013 campaign, but completely fell off in 2014. He was absolutely horrific and looked like he didn’t belong in the NFL. It’s strange that he would completely fall off like that as a 28-year-old, so perhaps he was dealing with an undisclosed injury. He might be able to rebound next year. He’s still young enough to.

    5. Shayne Graham, K, Saints. Age: 37.
    6. Tyrunn Walker (RFA), DE/DT, Saints. Age: 25. — Signed with Lions
    7. Pierre Thomas, RB, Saints. Age: 30.
    8. Jonathan Goodwin, C, Saints. Age: 36.
    9. Ramon Humber, ILB/ST, Saints. Age: 28. — Re-signed with Saints (2 years)
    10. Travaris Cadet (RFA), RB, Saints. Age: 26. — Signed with Patriots
    11. Luke McCown, QB, Saints. Age: 34. — Re-signed with Saints (1 year, $700,000)
    12. Brandon Deaderick, DE/DT, Saints. Age: 28.
    13. Corey White, CB, Saints. Age: 25. — Claimed by Cowboys
    14. Robert Meachem, WR, Saints. Age: 30.
    15. Moise Fokou, ILB/ST, Saints. Age: 30.
    16. Jamarca Sanford, S, Saints. Age: 30. — Re-signed with Saints
    17. Bryce Harris (RFA), OT, Saints. Age: 26. — Re-signed with Saints
    18. Jerry Franklin (RFA), ILB, Saints. Age: 27.


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