2017 NFL Offseason: New Orleans Saints

New Orleans Saints (Last Year: 7-9)

2017 NFL Season Preview:

Veteran Additions:
RB Adrian Peterson, WR/KR Ted Ginn, G Larry Warford, G Orlando Franklin, DE Alex Okafor, ILB Manti Te’o, ILB A.J. Klein.
Early Draft Picks:
CB Marshon Lattimore, OT Ryan Ramczyk, S Marcus Williams, RB Alvin Kamara, LB Alex Anzalone, DE Trey Hendrickson. Saints Rookie Forecast
Offseason Losses:
QB Luke McCown, RB Tim Hightower, WR Brandin Cooks, G Jahri Evans, G Tim Lelito, DE/OLB Paul Kruger, CB B.W. Webb, CB Kyle Wilson, S Jairus Byrd, S Roman Harper, S Jamarca Sanford, S Shiloh Keo.

2017 New Orleans Saints Offense:
Drew Brees told the media this offseason that he plans on playing until he’s 45. Brees is currently 38, and he has shown only minor signs of slowing down. He’s coming off a great year, throwing for 5,208 yards, 37 touchdowns and only 15 interceptions. Brees’ arm has diminished a bit, but he’s still extremely precise – he completed 70 percent of his passes – and is extremely smart, so it’s not totally inconceivable that he could quarterback the Saints well into his 40s.

Brees lost his former No. 1 receiver this spring, as Brandin Cooks was traded to the Patriots for the 32nd-overall pick in the 2017 NFL Draft. This would’ve been a huge deal a year ago, but the Saints had the luxury of dealing Cooks, who complained to the coaching staff about his role. That’s because Michael Thomas stepped up big time. Thomas, a second-round selection in 2016, may have won Offensive Rookie of the Year if it weren’t for the two Dallas players. He caught 92 passes for 1,137 yards and nine touchdowns as a mere rookie, so the sky is the limit for him, especially with the opportunity to play with a great quarterback like Brees.

With Cooks gone, the other Saints’ offensive play-makers will have to step up. Willie Snead is now the No. 2 receiver; he caught 72 balls for 895 yards and four scores as the tertiary option this past season. Snead is a solid player, so he should succeed in his new role. Conversely, tight end Coby Fleener predictably flopped in his first season, and it’s unlikely he’ll ever live up to the obscene 5-year, $36 million contract he signed last spring. He’s just not good a football player, so it was irresponsible of the Saints to pay him so much money. And speaking of newer players, Ted Ginn will take Cooks’ place as the player who can go the distance whenever he touches the ball. Ginn has never worked with an elite passing quarterback, but like Fleener, he drops tons of passes and isn’t very reliable.

Of course, the biggest new name New Orleans acquired was Adrian Peterson. The long-time Viking was awful last year, albeit in limited action; he gained just 1.9 yards per carry in three games. Peterson has come back from horrible injuries throughout his career, so it wouldn’t be shocking if he had one final great season. Then again, he just turned 32 and has a lot of wear on his tires. It remains to be seen how he’ll share a workload with Mark Ingram. The incumbent fell out of favor with the coaching staff in 2016, getting benched in favor of Tim Hightower at one point. There’s been speculation that he’ll be traded. Meanwhile, rookie Alvin Kamara will be featured on third downs in a Darren Sproles-type role.

The one thing going for Peterson – as well as the other running backs – is that the offensive line has gotten an upgrade this offseason. Larry Warford was signed over from the Lions, and he should be an improvement over the declining Jahri Evans. The Saints had sub-par guard play in 2016, which had to be troubling because Brees cares more about inside pressure than heat from the edge. Warford will change that, as he and center Max Unger will figure to be forces in the interior. The only weak spot there is the other guard slot, occupied by Senio Kelemete or Andrus Peat. The Saints will be hoping that Peat wins that competition, given that he was a first-round pick in the 2015 NFL Draft, but has struggled as a pro thus far.

Peat was initially selected as a tackle, but there’s no room for him to play there. Left tackle Terron Armstead is extremely talented, so it was painful for the Saints that he played in just seven games this past season. Armstead has actually never played a full season, so that might explain why they spent the pick they acquired for Cooks on Wisconsin tackle Ryan Ramczyk. The rookie will have to play as a rookie with Armstead dealing with a torn labrum. Ramczyk could also replace Zach Streif in a season or two. Strief is an excellent right tackle, but turns 34 in September.

2017 New Orleans Saints Defense:
The good news for the Saints’ defense last year was that their points-per-game average improved. They surrendered 28.4 points as opposed to their 2015 figure of 29.8. The bad news? They still ranked 27th in points allowed and 31st in yards surrendered.

New Orleans has maintained one of the worst defenses in the NFL for years, thanks to poor signings and sub-par drafting. The Saints barely did anything in free agency, which is probably for the best. They signed a couple of linebackers in Manti Te’o and A.J. Klein, but both are pedestrian players. Defensive end Alex Okafor was the top player acquired on the open market, and he’s just a situational pass-rusher.

Of course, the Saints were rumored to acquire a huge name in Malcolm Butler from the Patriots. The trade rumors were hot for a while, but they eventually cooled off and nothing materialized. New Orleans compensated for this by spending the 11th-overall pick in the 2017 NFL Draft on Marshon Lattimore, arguably the top cornerback prospect in the class. Lattimore was projected to go earlier than No. 11, so he was a steal. He’ll ideally start across from Delvin Breaux, who played six miserable games in 2016, as he was hindered by multiple injuries. Breaux was exceptional in 2015, so if healthy, he should be able to rebound. New Orleans also has decent slot corner Sterling Moore and promising 2015 third-rounder P.J. Williams, who hasn’t been on the field very much; he’s played in just two games thus far.

It sounds like the Saints have the potential to own a decent secondary this offseason, as long as Breaux and/or Williams stays healthy, and Lattimore lives up to his billing. The safety group is pretty decent, as Kenny Vaccaro has never lived up to expectations as a former first-rounder himself, but he was fairly decent this past season. He played next to Vonn Bell, who had a solid rookie campaign as a second-round pick.

The secondary will naturally improve if the Saints can manage to place more pressure on opposing quarterbacks. This was a problem this past season, as only two players had more than four sacks, and no player eclipsed 7.5. The leader was Cameron Jordan, a terrific defensive end who needs help across from him so opponents can stop paying so much attention to him. The Saints, however, don’t have anyone like that unless third-round rookie Trey Hendrickson can step up. It’s a situation like this that makes it easy to question the Ramczyk selection.

New Orleans will likely need to improve its interior pass rush to help the secondary, and there’s an opportunity for better play if Sheldon Rankins can start performing like the player the Saints expected him to be when they used the 12th-overall pick on him last April. Rankins did not play well as a rookie, but he was on the field for just nine games because of an injury. The team will be hoping he can stay healthy for a change so that they can see what they have in him. The plan was for Rankins to start next to Nick Fairley, who collected 6.5 sacks in 2016. Fairley, unfortunately, has a heart condition and is likely to miss all of 2017.

Going back to the linebackers, Klein and Te’o aren’t good players, but the same could be said for everyone else the Saints have at the position. There is hope, however. Hau’oli Kikaha, who entered the NFL with glaring injury concerns, tore his ACL last year and hasn’t played since 2015, but he could contribute this season. Meanwhile, linebackers coach Mike Nolan said he’s excited to work with Stephone Anthony, who has done nothing despite being chosen in the first round of the 2015 NFL Draft. Alex Anzalone, taken in the third round this April, has a chance to be a factor as well.

2017 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 the past two seasons, losing as 10-point favorites to the Buccaneers in 2015.

New Orleans was sub par on special teams. It outgained the opposition on punts, thanks to Tommylee Lewis. However, teams were six yards better than the Saints on kickoffs.

Will Lutz hit 28-of-34 field goals in his first season with the Saints. Four of his misses came from beyond 50, where he was 3-of-7.

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, 10th in 2015 and fifth this past season.

The Saints have a tough schedule to start. Four of their first six opponents were in the playoffs last year (Patriots, Dolphins, Lions, Packers), while the other two were in the postseason in 2015 (Panthers, Vikings). Things get easier after that, but the Saints will have to avoid an early hole.

2017 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.

2017 New Orleans Saints Positional Rankings (1-5 stars):
Offensive Line
Running Backs
Defensive Line
Special Teams

2017 New Orleans Saints Analysis: The Saints never had a chance last year, as some of their top talent, including their terrific left tackle, top cornerback and first-round pick were all injured. Perhaps they’ll have better luck in 2017. If so, they could contend for a playoff spot, but that would require their defense to improve.

Projection: 8-8 (3rd in NFC South)

2016 Projection: 6-10. 2016 Actual Result: 7-9.

NFL Draft Team Grade: C Grade

Goals Entering the 2017 NFL Draft: It’s all about finding defensive help. The Saints’ stop unit has been an abomination for years. They need to make sure that their defense is finally performing on a high level. Getting a replacement for Brandin Cooks is important, but it’s far down the list of things New Orleans needs to address.

2017 NFL Draft Accomplishments: It appeared as though the Saints were off to a great start when the top consensus cornerback in the class, Marshon Lattimore, fell into their laps at No. 11 overall. New Orleans was obviously thrilled about that, as the team snatched him up. He was a no-brainer selection.

And then, things took a turn for the worse. The Saints began neglecting their poor defense, spending two of their next three picks on offensive players. Their No. 32 overall selection was especially confusing, as they didn’t need a right tackle at all. Despite this, they selected an injury-prone blocker who quit football once in Ryan Ramczyk. The following night, they gave up a 2018 second-round pick for Alvin Kamara. I like Kamara as a prospect, but why trade resources for a running back when it’s not a need, and numerous defensive positions must be addressed?

Even the other defensive picks weren’t great. Marcus Williams is athletic, but deemed soft by other teams. Alex Anzalone is injury-prone. Al-Quadin Muhammad is a trouble-maker. I liked the Trey Hendrickson selection, but that’s about it.

Lattimore and Hendrickson save the Saints from having an atrocious grade for their draft, but their performance this weekend is worth either a “C” or a C-. I debated between the two grades, and I opted for the former because those two prospects should be able to help the defense, while Kamara could be a solid weapon down the road.

NFL Draft Individual Grades:

11. Marshon Lattimore, CB, Ohio State: A- Grade
The Saints are getting the best cornerback in the 2017 NFL Draft at No. 11. That’s pretty good, although I thought Lattimore was going to be chosen 10th overall, so it’s not like this is crazy value. It does seem like a great pick, however. Lattimore has some injury concerns, but he’s a terrific talent, and he should be able to provide a huge boost for the Saints and their abysmal secondary. The Saints are definitely taking advantage of some of the stupid teams atop this draft.

32. Ryan Ramczyk, OT, Wisconsin: D Grade
This pick received a ton of praise on TV, but I don’t agree with it. Not one bit. Ryan Ramczyk has major injury concerns with his hip, and he quit on football once in his life. That makes him a big risk. He also doesn’t fill a major need. Sure, the Saints could use a right tackle for the future, but Ramczyk isn’t projected to play right away. Drew Brees doesn’t have much time left, so New Orleans should’ve added more to its defense.

42. Marcus Williams, S, Utah: C Grade
Over Obi Melifonwu? I’m not so sure about that. Marcus Williams is very athletic, and he has that going for him. The Saints certainly love their athletes, so this makes sense from that perspective. However, some teams we spoke to were down on Williams because they considered him to be soft. Williams helps in the secondary and fills a need, but better picks could’ve been made.

63. Alvin Kamara, RB, Tennessee: C+ Grade
This is a very difficult grade to make. On one hand, Alvin Kamara is a steal in the third round because he easily could’ve gone exactly one round earlier. On the other hand, the Saints surrendered a 2018 second-round pick to get another running back, when they just signed Adrian Peterson? I don’t know about that. I’d love this if the Saints didn’t give up such a valuable resource, but I have to penalize them.

76. Alex Anzalone, LB, Florida: B- Grade
Another athletic linebacker is chosen in the third round, but I like this a bit less than the Duke Riley selection. Alex Anzalone has a good chance to become a decent pro, but the injuries are a big concern. He’s been hurt a lot, so I have major worries if he can stay healthy. I had him slotted late in the third round for this reason, so I suppose taking him here isn’t a big reach.

103. Trey Hendrickson, DE, Florida Atlantic: A- Grade
The Saints’ draft thus far has been a roller coaster, and this is another “up.” I projected Trey Hendrickson to be chosen early in the third round with a chance to sneak into the second frame. Hendrickson is a terrific athlete who was productive in college, so I thought he would be taken off the board earlier than this. He fills a need for the Saints, so this is a great selection.

196. Al-Quadin Muhammad, DE, Miami: D Grade
I get the idea of trying to hit a home run late in the draft, but Al-Quadin Muhammad is a terrible pick. Muhammad had numerous off-the-field incidents in Miami, and then he tested poorly during the pre-draft process. Even if Muhammad makes the roster, there’s no guarantee he’ll be able to stay out of trouble.

Season Summary:
Another year, another playoff-less campaign for the Saints. Time is running out for Drew Brees, who is now 38. The Saints better have a great offseason for one last hurrah with the future Hall of Famer.

Offseason Moves:
  • Saints sign RB Adrian Peterson
  • Saints cut QB Luke McCown
  • Saints sign S Rafael Bush
  • Saints sign QB Chase Daniel
  • Saints re-sign TE John Phillips
  • Saints sign ILB Manti Te’o
  • Saints re-sign RB Travaris Cadet
  • Saints sign DE/OLB Alex Okafor
  • Patriots acquire WR Brandin Cooks, 4th-rounder from Saints for 1st- and 3rd-round picks
  • Saints sign G Larry Warford
  • Saints re-sign DT Nick Fairley
  • Saints sign WR Ted Ginn
  • Saints sign ILB A.J. Klein
  • Saints re-sign S Shiloh Keo
  • Saints cut S Jairus Byrd

    Team Needs:
    1. Two Linebackers: The Saints had some of the weakest linebackers in the NFL, so it could be argued that this is their biggest need. James Laurinaitis was playing for them last year, for crying out loud. Reuben Foster is a viable candidate for the team at No. 11 overall. Signed Manti Te’o A.J. Klein

    2. Defensive Tackle: New Orleans has a nice building block up front with Sheldon Rankins. Nick Fairley was another forceful presence in the interior of the defensive line, but he’ll be entering free agency come March. The front office needs to address this area. Re-signed Nick Fairley

    3. Defensive End: Cameron Jordan was exceptional this past season, performing on an All-Pro level. However, the Saints don’t have much besides him as far as edge rushers are concerned, so they need to bring in someone new to get after opposing passers. Signed Alex Okafor

    4. Cornerback: The good news is that the Saints will be getting Delvin Breaux and P.J. Williams back from injury next year (Breaux played occasionally in 2016, but was banged up because of his various maladies). The bad news is that cornerback is yet another defensive position that should be addressed.

    5. Two Guards: The one upgrade New Orleans could use on the offensive line is at one of the guard spots where Senio Kelemte was pretty pedestrian in 2016. Jahri Evans will need to be re-signed as well. Signed with Lions

    6. Tight End: Coby Fleener was a predictable bust signing. The Saints should just acknowledge him as a sunk cost and move on with a new tight end.

    7. Backup Quarterback: Drew Brees is now 38, so the Saints should think about finding a successor for him. Signed Chase Daniel

    8. Running Back Depth: Mark Ingram had his ups and downs in 2016, but the Saints could rely on Tim Hightower as a sturdy No. 2. Hightower is now a free agent. Signed Adrian Peterson

      Follow me @walterfootball for updates.

    2017 NFL Free Agent Signings:
    1. Larry Warford, G, Lions. Age: 26.
      Signed with Saints

      Larry Warford had an injury-prone 2015 campaign, but he rebounded this past season, providing Matthew Stafford with some excellent blocking. Warford turns just 26 in June, so the sky is the limit for him.

    2. Adrian Peterson, RB, Vikings. Age: 32.
      Signed with Saints

      Adrian Peterson’s $18 million option wasn’t picked up, meaning he’ll be a free agent on March 9. Peterson looked extremely worn down last year, especially when returning from his injury; he gained just 1.9 yards per carry. However, Peterson was hurt while playing behind an anemic offensive line. He’ll be better in 2017, and even though he’ll turn 32 in March, he can’t be counted out because he’s made miraculous comebacks before. It’s possible that Peterson could have two strong seasons remaining in the tank, though it’s also possible that he could be close to done.

    3. Ted Ginn, WR/KR, Panthers. Age: 32.
      Signed with Saints

      Ted Ginn eclipsed the 50-catch barrier for the Panthers this past season and still served as a dangerous kick returner. However, Ginn turns 32 in April, so he doesn’t have much time remaining in the NFL.

    4. Manti Te’o, ILB, Chargers. Age: 26. — Signed with Saints
    5. Alex Okafor, DE/OLB, Cardinals. Age: 26. — Signed with Saints
    6. Rafael Bush, S, Lions. Age: 26. — Signed with Saints
    7. A.J. Klein, ILB, Panthers. Age: 26. — Signed with Saints
    8. Chase Daniel, QB, Eagles. Age: 30. — Signed with Saints

    New Orleans Saints Free Agents:

    Salary Cap Space: $32.7M.
    1. Nick Fairley, DT, Saints. Age: 29.
      Re-signed with Saints (4 years)

      Nick Fairley has signed back-to-back 1-year contracts because teams don’t trust him to stay motivated. Fairley has played well for the Rams and Saints over the past couple of years, especially when rushing the passer. He should continue to sign 1-year “prove it” deals.

    2. Jahri Evans, G, Saints. Age: 34.
      Signed with Packers

      Jahri Evans has been a terrific guard for the Saints since 2006. Unfortunately, he’s 34 now, and he’s slowing down. Evans is still a quality blocker, but he’s not on a Pro Bowl level anymore. Guards can play well into their mid-30s though, so Evans should still have a couple more solid seasons.

    3. Jairus Byrd, S, Saints. Age: 30.
      The Saints made Jairus Byrd the highest-paid safety in the NFL in 2014 when he signed a $54 million contract. Byrd was awful for the most part, and he was ultimately benched this past season. Byrd is very talented and could rebound if motivated. Perhaps getting benched and released will serve as a wake-up call.

    4. Paul Kruger, DE/OLB, Saints. Age: 31.
      Paul Kruger has steadily declined over the past couple of years. He logged 11 sacks in 2014, but hasn’t really been the same since, thanks in part to a back injury he suffered this past season.

    5. Tim Hightower, RB, Saints. Age: 31.
      Signed with 49ers

      Tim Hightower took three years off because of an injury, but he’s been solid in his return. He averaged 4.1 yards per carry in 2016 and also caught 22 passes. He’s not a starting-caliber running back, but he’s a solid backup who can play well on third down.

    6. Tim Lelito, G, Saints. Age: 28. — Signed with Titans
    7. B.W. Webb, CB, Saints. Age: 27. — Signed with Bears
    8. Kyle Wilson, CB, Saints. Age: 29.
    9. Travaris Cadet, RB, Saints. Age: 28. — Re-signed with Saints
    10. Roman Harper, S, Saints. Age: 34.
    11. Kasim Edebali (RFA), DE/OLB, Saints. Age: 28.
    12. Jamarca Sanford, S, Saints. Age: 32.
    13. John Phillips, TE, Saints. Age: 30. — Re-signed with Saints (1 year)
    14. Shiloh Keo, S, Saints. Age: 29. — Re-signed with Saints (1 year)
    15. Michael Mauti, ILB, Saints. Age: 27.
    16. Luke McCown, QB, Saints. Age: 36.
    17. Sam Barrington, ILB, Saints. Age: 26.
    18. Chris Banjo (RFA), S, Saints. Age: 27.
    19. Jason Trusnik, ILB, Saints. Age: 33.
    20. Jake Stoneburner, (RFA), TE, Saints. Age: 28.


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