2016 NFL Offseason: New Orleans Saints

New Orleans Saints (Last Year: 7-9)

2016 NFL Season Preview:

Veteran Additions:
TE Coby Fleener, DT Nick Fairley, OLB Nathan Stupar, ILB Craig Robertson, ILB James Laurinaitis, S Roman Harper.
Early Draft Picks:
DT Sheldon Rankins, WR Michael Thomas, S Vonn Bell, DE David Onyemata. Saints Rookie Forecast
Offseason Losses:
RB Khiry Robinson, WR Marques Colston, TE Ben Watson, G Jahri Evans, DT Kevin Williams, ILB David Hawthorne, CB Brandon Browner.

2016 New Orleans Saints Offense:
Time is running out for the Saints. Drew Brees turned 37 this offseason, so he doesn’t have many quality years remaining. He’s still playing well – he would’ve thrown for 5,000 yards last season had he not missed one game – but that could all change very quickly. Unfortunately for New Orleans, the team doesn’t appear to have the talent around Brees to make another deep playoff push.

There are problems on both sides of the ball. On offense, Brees doesn’t have proven play-makers. Brandin Cooks, the No. 1 receiver, is very talented – he caught 84 balls for 1,138 yards and nine touchdowns in his sophomore campaign – but that’s about it. Willie Snead caught 69 passes for 984 yards in 2015, but that was mostly Brees manufacturing those numbers. Snead is probably best as a third option, so it’ll be crucial for second-round rookie Michael Thomas to step up. First-year receivers obviously can’t exactly be counted on to produce, but the potential is there at least.

Brees relied heavily on Ben Watson last year, but that won’t be an option anymore. Watson signed with Baltimore in free agency, prompting New Orleans to add Coby Fleener to a ridiculous 5-year, $36 million contract. Fleener was an inconsistent option with another elite quarterback, Andrew Luck, who actually happened to be his college teammate. So, with that in mind, depending on Fleener to replace Watson doesn’t seem like the smartest decision. Fleener is often guilty of countless drops, so he’ll undoubtedly frustrate Brees if he continues to have issues in that regard.

There are problems pertaining to the offensive line as well, though the Saints are fine at tackle. Terron Armstead and Zach Strief will reprise their roles as the starters. Armstead had an excellent 2015 campaign in all regards, while Strief once again proved to be a solid run blocker. Strief isn’t nearly as great as Armstead, but he’s a quality right tackle.

The issues with the Saints’ front are in the interior. Jahri Evans, the team’s best guard despite a down 2015 campaign, is no longer on the roster after being a cap casualty. He’ll likely be replaced by 2015 first-rounder Andrus Peat. The Stanford product has a lot of talent, but struggled mightily in brief appearances last season. If this past year was any indication, he’ll be a big liability. He’ll start alongside center Max Unger, who was a bit of a disappointment in 2015, and Tom Lelito, who happens to be woeful in pass protection.

However, like Strief, Lelito run blocks well, which is one of the reasons why Mark Ingram was so effective this past season. Ingram signed a big contract, but didn’t turn into a fat-and-happy player. Instead, he worked hard to prove that he was worthy of the new deal, and the effort paid off. He rushed for 769 yards on a 4.6 YPC average and also caught 50 passes. However, he missed four games because of a shoulder injury. Of his five NFL seasons, Ingram has remained on the field for all 16 contests just once, so it’ll be important for C.J. Spiller to handle some of the workload. Spiller was a complete non-factor last year, but he told the media that he was dealing with an injury. This is very believable, as Spiller being hurt has been a theme for his entire career.

2016 New Orleans Saints Defense:
For all the issues the Saints have on offense, they seem quite trivial compared to the problems on the defensive side of the ball. New Orleans has maintained one of the worst stop units in the NFL over the past couple of years, surrendering a ridiculous 29.8 points per game in 2015.

Major upgrades were needed on every level of the defense, but because of cap limitations, the Saints signed only one player of note. That would be Nick Fairley, formerly of the Rams. Fairley didn’t start last year, but provided valuable pass-rushing depth. He’ll serve in the same role this season, assuming Sheldon Rankins emerges as a capable starter right away. Chosen with the 12th-overall selection, the highly athletic Rankings possesses great ability, but might not be ready immediately. If he is, the Saints’ interior pass rush, which was non-existant last year, will be much better in 2016. Rankins figures to start next to nose tackle John Jenkins, who was horrible this past season.

New Orleans was also expected to add some edge rushers in either free agency or the draft, but that didn’t happen, save for the fourth-round choice used on David Onyemata, who was considered a reach. As a consequence the Saints won’t have a viable option to start across from Cameron Jordan, an excellent player who is dominant in all facets. Hau’oli Kikaha, a 2015 second-rounder, was the leading candidate for that role, but he tore his ACL and is out for the year. He was a much better option than Bobby Richardson, who was an abomination in 2015.

The other major player the Saints added to their defense this offseason was second-rounder Vonn Bell. The Ohio State product won’t be asked to start right away, given that he’s currently behind Jairus Byrd and Kenny Vaccaro on the depth chart. However, Bell could be forced into action sooner than expected, as Byrd has missed 15 games in two seasons with the Saints. Byrd hasn’t even performed all that well anyway, so he won’t be missed much if he gets hurt again. Vaccaro at least rebounded off a dreadful 2014 campaign.

Perhaps one area that New Orleans didn’t need to address was the cornerback position. Many mock drafts slotted a corner to the Saints, but they actually have some solid players there. Delvin Breaux was surprisingly exceptional for them in 2015, and he figures to start across from Keenan Lewis, another skilled corner. Like Byrd, Lewis has dealt with some injury issues, having missed 10 contests in 2015. He can be very effective if healthy. If not, 2015 third-rounder P.J. Williams will be available after missing his entire rookie campaign due to a torn hamstring. Meanwhile, Damian Swann and Kyle Wilson are back; they both provided solid depth at corner last year.

Rounding out the defense is perhaps the weakest portion of the unit, which would be the linebacking corps. It’s so bad that James Laurinaitis, who was signed over from the Rams, is expected to be a big contributor for the Saints in 2016. The problem is that Laurinaitis has been one of the worst starting linebackers in the NFL over the past few seasons, and he was so bad that Los Angeles was eager to get rid of him. New Orleans, however, is so devoid of talent at the position that it’s welcoming him with open arms. That’s how dire the situation is. Laurinaitis will start alongside Stephone Anthony and Dannell Ellerbe, which is not a good thing. Anthony struggled as a rookie but at least has potential, while Ellerbe is one of the worst defensive players in the NFL. He’s a lost cause.

2016 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 in 2014 and an underwhelming 4-4 this past season, losing as 10-point favorites to the Buccaneers.

New Orleans was just mediocre on special teams. It outgained the opposition on punts, thanks to Marcus Murphy, who scored a touchdown. However, teams were 4.9 yards better than the Saints on kickoffs.

The kicking game is in worse shape. Kai Forbath and Connor Barth have struggled over the years, and they’re expected to battle for the job. Forbath was just 10-of-15 in 2015.

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, second in 2014 and 10th this past season.

The Saints have a very mixed schedule. They begin the year by battling the Raiders, Giants, Falcons and Chargers – all winnable games. After that, however, five of their next six opponents are the Chiefs, Seahawks, Broncos and Panthers (twice).

2016 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.

2016 New Orleans Saints Positional Rankings (1-5 stars):
Offensive Line
Running Backs
Defensive Line
Special Teams

2016 New Orleans Saints Analysis: The Saints will probably be competitive because of Drew Brees, but they simply have way too many holes on their roster to make a deep run in the playoffs. Even reaching the postseason seems like it could be very challenging, especially if a 37-year-old Brees regresses even just a bit.

Projection: 6-10 (3rd in NFC South)

NFL Draft Team Grade: C+ Grade

Goals Entering the 2016 NFL Draft: Drew Brees is capable of leading the Saints deep into the playoffs right now, but that won’t last much longer. Thus, the Saints need a strong draft to shore up their weaknesses. Unfortunately for them, there are just too many holes that need to be plugged. Every level of the defense must be upgraded. On the other side of the ball, receiver and guard are liabilities right now.

2016 NFL Draft Accomplishments: The Saints failed to upgrade every level of their defense, though that was difficult to do, considering that they had just five selections. The first three were good ones, as two of them were used to help their anemic stop unit. Sheldon Rankins wasn’t an exciting choice at No. 12, but he was a quality pick who will help New Orleans’ lacking interior pass rush. Vonn Bell, meanwhile, was chosen a round later than where some expected him to go. Safety is not an immediate need, but Bell provided lots of value, though he came with a price (which I’ll get to later.) In between Rankins and Bell, Michael Thomas will help the offense, which needed a receiver.

Unfortunately for the Saints, they barely did anything after Day 2. They reached for a pass-rusher, and that was it until the seventh round. Part of the problem was that by trading up for Bell, they surrendered a fourth-round selection, which was not a good idea considering all of the needs they have.

Overall, the Saints added some nice players, but didn’t do nearly enough to strengthen their team. The pass rush will improve, but not nearly enough. The linebacking corps will still struggle, while the cornerback group didn’t get any boost. I’m fine with giving New Orleans a C+ for this class.

NFL Draft Individual Grades:

12. Sheldon Rankins, DT, Louisville B Grade
This isn’t a great pick by any means, but it’s definitely a solid one. Sheldon Rankins was expected to go in the 12-16 range, so this is obviously the top end of it. The Saints spoke about their dire need at three-technique defensive tackle at length during the offseason, so it’s hardly a surprise that they pulled the trigger on the athletic Rankins, who should be able to provide an immediate boost to New Orleans’ horrid defense. Generating a pass rush on Cam Newton, Matt Ryan and Jameis Winston is crucial, and Rankins should help with that.

Follow @walterfootball for updates.

47. Michael Thomas, WR, Ohio State B+ Grade
I’m sure many expected the Saints to select an edge rusher, a linebacker or a defensive back, but a receiver was needed as well. With Marques Colston gone, the only options Drew Brees had at receiver were Brandin Cooks and Willie Snead. A No. 2 wideout was needed, and Michael Thomas was seen as one of the better receivers available heading into the second round. This is another solid selection from New Orleans.

61. Vonn Bell, S, Ohio State A Grade
The Saints are making some solid picks in the draft this year, and this one certainly qualifies. It’s actually New Orleans’ best choice, just based solely on a value perspective. Bell was projected by some to be chosen at the end of the first round, or perhaps at the top of the second frame. It was a surprise to see him fall this far, but the Saints won’t complain, as Bell adds much-needed depth to the secondary.

120. David Onyemata, DE, Canada D Grade
Did the Saints mean to move up for David Onyemata? Did they hit the “trade up” button instead of the “trade down” button? That’s my explanation for this. Onyemata had a solid East-West Shrine week, but I haven’t heard any team ranking him as a fourth-round prospect. The Saints probably could’ve moved down and still acquired him. He’s a project.

237. Daniel Lasco, RB, California A- Grade
Daniel Lasco blew up the Combine, testing as one of the top running backs in his class. Still, it apparently wasn’t enough to get him out of the seventh round, as he simply couldn’t stay healthy at California. If Lasco can become more durable, he could have a future as a third-down back in the NFL. He may have trouble making the Saints’ final roster in his first year, however. Still, the upside makes him worth it in Round 7.

Season Summary:
After yet another failed trip to the playoffs, there was speculation that Sean Payton and Drew Brees both wouldn’t return in 2016. That turned out to be incorrect, as New Orleans will give it one more shot with the current regime.

Offseason Moves:
  • Saints re-sign RB Tim Hightower
  • Saints sign ILB Craig Robertson
  • Saints sign DT Nick Fairley
  • Saints re-sign TE Josh Hill
  • Saints re-sign S Jamarca Sanford
  • Saints sign ILB James Laurinaitis
  • Saints sign OLB Nathan Stupar
  • Saints re-sign QB Luke McCown
  • Saints re-sign RB Travaris Cadet
  • Saints cut CB Brandon Browner
  • Saints sign TE Coby Fleener
  • Saints re-sign TE Michael Hoomanwanui
  • Saints re-sign CB Kyle Wilson
  • Saints sign K Josh Scobee
  • Saints cut WR Marques Colston
  • Saints cut G Jahri Evans
  • Saints cut ILB David Hawthorne
  • Saints cut OLB Ramon Humber
  • Saints waive WR Seantavius Jones

    Team Needs:
    1. Defensive Tackle: New Orleans didn’t have anyone to rush the passer from the interior besides Kevin Williams, and he’s past his prime at 36 years old. One of the first few picks the Saints have in the draft could be used to bolster this position. Signed Nick Fairley

    2. Defensive End: The Saints’ secondary was an abomination, but perhaps it wouldn’t have been so bad if the team had a better pass rush. All it had on the outside was Cameron Jordan. This can be fixed in the first few rounds.

    3. Inside Linebacker: Stephone Anthony had an inconsistent rookie campaign, but perhaps he’ll grow into a solid player. The Saints should look for an upgrade next to him. Signed Craig Robertson and James Laurinaitis

    4. Cornerback Depth: The cornerback position wasn’t as bad as everyone made it out to be. Delvin Breaux played well, while Keenan Lewis will rebound off injury. Depth here is sorely needed though. Re-signed Kyle Wilson

    5. Two Guards: Jahri Evans is a solid starter, but an upgrade over the mediocre Tim Lelito wouldn’t be the worst thing. Depth could be used as well. Update: Two guards are needed now in the wake of Evans’ release.

    6. Tight End: Who needs Jimmy Graham? Drew Brees had a strong connection with Ben Watson, but the latter happens to be a free agent. Watson is 35 anyway, so obtaining a younger player at the position would be wise. Signed Coby Fleener; re-signed Josh Hill

    7. Wide Receiver: Marques Colston won’t be around much longer, so adding a third receiver to go along with Brandin Cooks and Willie Snead makes sense.

    8. Kicker: Kai Forbath needs to be upgraded, as he was just 10-of-15 in 2015. Signed Josh Scobee

      Follow me @walterfootball for updates.

    2016 NFL Free Agent Signings:
    1. Nick Fairley, DT, Rams. Age: 28.
      Signed with Saints (1 year)

      What I wrote about Nick Fairley last year still applies: “If Nick Fairley is trying his hardest, he can be one of the best interior defensive linemen in the NFL. Unfortunately, Fairley has a history of lethargy and character issues that make him a big risk.” Fairley signed a 1-year “prove it” deal with St. Louis and played extremely well. He has earned a larger contract this offseason, but teams should still be wary.

    2. Coby Fleener, TE, Colts. Age: 27.
      Signed with Saints (5 years, $36 million)

      Coby Fleener has been a big disappointment in the wake of being chosen in the second round a few years ago. He hasn’t been terrible, but his drops have been crushing. If he could put it all together, he could be pretty decent.

    3. Craig Robertson, ILB, Browns. Age: 28.
      Signed with Saints

      Craig Robertson was given a second-round tender last offseason. He didn’t have quite the 2015 season the Browns were looking for, however, as he missed a chunk of it with a sprained ankle.

    4. James Laurinaitis, ILB, Rams. Age: 29.
      Signed with Saints

      James Laurinaitis looked like he would be a great pro for a very long time in his first couple of NFL seasons, but he has inexplicably regressed since. He was so bad last year that he could’ve been considered the worst starting linebacker in the NFL. I’m not sure what happened to Laurinaitis, and there’s still time to turn things around, but if he weren’t such a big name, I’d probably have him as a 1.5-star player; I’m just listing him here because he’s a big name and needs a write-up.

    5. Nathan Stupar, ILB, Falcons. Age: 28. — Signed with Saints (3 years)

    New Orleans Saints Free Agents:

    Salary Cap: TBA.
    1. Jahri Evans, G, Saints. Age: 33.
      Jahri Evans used to be a perennial Pro Bowler, but that’s not the case anymore, as injuries have sapped his talent. Evans is still a decent starter though, so he could play well for another year or two despite the fact that he’ll turn 33 in August.

    2. Kevin Williams, DT, Saints. Age: 36.
      Kevin Williams was the Saints’ top interior defensive lineman in 2015. Granted, that’s not saying much, but he was decent in every facet. However, he’ll turn 36 in August, so he won’t be playing well for much longer.

    3. Ben Watson, TE, Saints. Age: 35.
      Signed with Ravens

      Ben Watson came out of nowhere to have the best season of his career, catching 74 passes for 825 yards. Unfortunately for Watson, this success will be short-lived, as he’ll be 36 at the end of the 2016 campaign.

    4. Kyle Wilson, CB, Saints. Age: 28.
      Re-signed with Saints (1 year)

      After struggling in New York, Kyle Wilson wasn’t on the field much for the first month of the season. He began playing more in October and actually turned out to be surprisingly effective. It’s fair to be skeptical that he can maintain this level of play, however.

    5. Tim Lelito (RFA), G, Saints. Age: 27.
      Tendered by Saints

      Tim Lelito struggled mightily in pass protection this past season, but he was a mauler in run blocking, helping Mark Ingram and Tim Hightower have success.

    6. Khiry Robinson (RFA), RB, Saints. Age: 26.
      Signed with Jets

      Bill Parcells compared Khiry Robinson to Curtis Martin a couple of years ago, but Robinson has never lived up to that billing, as he has constantly dealt with injuries. Robinson hasn’t played more than 10 games in any season.

    7. Tim Hightower, RB, Saints. Age: 30.
      Re-signed with Saints

      It was odd to see Tim Hightower perform well down the stretch after being out of the league for three years. Was it all a fluke? We’ll see. Unfortunately for Hightower, he turns 30 in May.

    8. Marques Colston, WR, Saints. Age: 33.
      Marques Colston probably should be a 1.5-star player at this point, but he’s a big name who was cut Feb. 29, so I’ll give him a write-up. Colston was released with a failed physical, so he’s obviously not healthy. This can’t come as a surprise, as Colston has been injured pretty frequently over the past several years. All of these injuries have taken a toll, so Colston is pretty close to being done.

    9. Josh Hill (RFA), TE, Saints. Age: 26. — Re-signed with Saints
    10. Jamarca Sanford, S, Saints. Age: 31. — Re-signed with Saints
    11. Mike McGlynn, G, Saints. Age: 31.
    12. Michael Hoomanawanui, TE, Saints. Age: 28. — Re-signed with Saints (3 years)
    13. Luke McCown, QB, Saints. Age: 35. — Re-signed with Saints (2 years)
    14. Brandon Browner, CB, Saints. Age: 32.
    15. Travaris Cadet, RB, Saints. Age: 27. — Re-signed with Saints
    16. David Hawthorne, ILB, Saints. Age: 31.
    17. Ramon Humber, OLB, Saints. Age: 29. — Signed with Patriots
    18. Kai Forbath, K, Saints. Age: 29.
    19. Rafael Bush, S, Saints. Age: 29. — Signed with Lions (1 year)
    20. Kendall Hunter, RB, Saints. Age: 27.
    21. James Anderson, OLB, Saints. Age: 32.
    22. Tony Hills, OT, Saints. Age: 31.
    23. Matt Flynn, QB, Saints. Age: 31.
    24. Austin Brown (RFA), DT, Saints. Age: 24.

    NFL Free Agent Tracker:
    Top 90 | QB | RB | FB | WR | TE | OT | G | C | DE | DT | OLB | ILB | CB | S | K/P | FA Grades | FA Rumors

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