The 2016 NFL season is just around the corner. As such, Sportsnaut will be previewing all 32 teams before the games begin in September. Continuing the series, we remain in the NFC South and take a look at the New Orleans Saints — a team that desperately needs to give Drew Brees some help in order to contend this season.
Before we look ahead, let’s take a glance at some key developments.
New Orleans Saints 2016 Preview
2015 record: 7-9 (third in the NFC South)
Head coach: Sean Payton (10th season)
Key arrivals: TE Coby Fleener, LB James Laurinaitis, DT Nick Fairley, S Roman Harper
Key departures: TE Benjamin Watson, RB Khiry Robinson, G Jahri Evans, WR Marques Colston
1. Can Drew Brees carry the load himself?
To say that Brees has been a historically good quarterback during his days with the Saints would be an understatement. He’s thrown for 4,800-plus yards and 32-plus touchdowns in each of the past five seasons. To put that into perspective, Joe Montana failed to hit either benchmark during his career.
This is as much a product of today’s NFL as it is Brees’ own greatness. It also failed to translate into much team-wide success last season. Even after tallying 4,870 yards and 32 touchdowns in 2015, Brees led the Saints to a 7-9 record.
None of this is an indictment of Brees. Even at 37 years old, he’s proven himself capable of shouldering the load.
Though, he’s going to need some major help from the rest of the roster in order to return New Orleans to relevance.
2. Can the defense find a way to step up?
Saints defense wasn't just bad last season. It was historically bad. pic.twitter.com/sgHaN16JPT
— Sportsnaut (@Sportsnaut) August 20, 2016
That’s where this comes into play. The Saints defense was beyond horrible last season, ranking 32nd in scoring, 31st against the pass, 31st against the run and 31st in total yards allowed. Heck, the Saints gave up a ridiculous 116.2 rating to quarterbacks.
No matter who is calling the plays, this isn’t going to get it done. No matter the excellence of the quarterback under center, this isn’t going to get it done.
New Orleans fired former defensive coordinator Rob Ryan midway through the 2015 campaign, replacing him with Dennis Allen. That in and of itself could help lead to improvement on the field. Though, it’s now all about personnel and talent.
It’s in this that the Saints were placed behind the proverbial eight-ball during the spring. The team simply didn’t have the salary cap flexibility to add top-end defenders.
Instead, New Orleans exhausted a first-round pick on former Louisville defensive tackle Sheldon Rankins. Unfortunately, he was carted off the field with a leg injury earlier this month and could potentially miss the entire season (more on that here).
That’s an injury the Saints simply could not afford. Having to move on without their prized youngster is going to be a major challenge heading into the 2016 season.
This is where rookie third-round pick Vonn Bell and last year’s third-round pick P.J. Williams come into play. If New Orleans is unable to generate much of a pass rush, the onus will be on the secondary to perform at a high level.
Williams, who missed his entire rookie season to injury, has been super impressive during the summer. The corner figures to get a ton of playing time as a red-shirt freshman in 2016. The same can be said for Bell, who has a legit shot to start at free safety this season.
All said, New Orleans needs to find a way to improve on this side of the ball. If that doesn’t happen, the twilight of Brees’ career will be spent closer to the basement than first place.
3. Just how good are the receivers?
We will cover rookie second-round pick Michael Thomas below. The Ohio State product is definitely worth his own blurb. Though, it’s the trio of returning veterans that could very well help the Saints passing offense improve from last year’s elite ranking.
Brandin Cooks, Willie Snead and Brandon Coleman combined for 183 receptions and an absurd 66 percent catch rate a season ago.
For his part, Cooks, a first-round pick of the Saints back in 2014, hauled in 65 percent of the 129 passes thrown in his direction. With the Saints having moved on from long-time Brees’ favorite Marques Colston, the expectation here has to be that Cooks’ targets will increase.
Interestingly, Coleman has been the most-talked about of this trio during the summer. He came on late last season, recording nine receptions on 12 targets over the final two games. With a new-found connection he seems to have with Brees, Coleman could be looking at a larger role in 2016.
Coming out of nowhere last season, Snead acted as the Saints true No. 2 option behind Cooks. The un-drafted free agent from Ball State recorded 69 receptions for 984 in his first playing time in the NFL last season.
This trio makes for a tremendous amount of mismatches as it relates to opposing defenses. Add in the presence of Thomas, and there doesn’t seem to be a ceiling here.
Michael Thomas, wide receiver
Speaking of Thomas, this Ohio State product flew under the radar during the draft process. This despite the fact that he had a tremendous career with the Buckeyes and boasts an NFL-ready 6-foot-3, 203-pound frame.
In the mold of Colston, it’s readily apparent that Thomas might be able to provide the Saints with what the franchise’s all-time leading receiver did over the past 10 seasons. Of course, that means giving Brees the big-bodied possession receiver on the outside.
If the Saints first preseason game is any indication, Thomas might very well be able to do that. Heck, even Houston Texans wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins seems to be impressed with his younger counterpart (more on that here).
While it might be hard for Thomas to jump any of the three receivers ahead of him on the depth chart, it’s going to be hard for the Saints to keep him off the field. Look for a huge rookie campaign from this underrated youngster.
REASON FOR OPTIMISM
This offense has a chance to be even more dynamic than last season. Another year with Brees tossing the rock to Cooks, Snead and Coleman should provide more continuity. Add in the selection of Thomas in the second round and signing of free-agent tight end Coby Fleener, and there’s a ton of talent here.
If this things comes together on offense, there’s no real reason to believe the Saints can’t put up the best statistical season in franchise history.
And in reality, that could be magnified even further should Mark Ingram prove himself to be a capable top-10 back after struggling with injuries last season.
Let’s say the Saints defense fails to improve much. If the offense is putting up 30-plus points per game, they’re going to be able outscore opponents on a consistent basis.
REASON FOR PANIC
On the other side of the ledger, everything needs to work out perfectly here if the Saints are to contend for a playoff spot.
Short of the defense improving leaps and bounds, the margin for error on offense is non-existent. Let’s say Ingram struggles with injuries and Brees displays a bit more of the turnover-prone mentality we’ve seen at times recently.
Let’s then look at the quartet of wide receivers, and conclude they don’t improve from a season ago.
Should any of this happen, and without a vastly improved defense, the Saints will once again find themselves closer to last place than first place by the time January comes calling.
Prediction: 9-7, second place in the NFC South