A 7-9 record, a solid offense and a bad defense. That’s all the New Orleans Saints have offered for the past three seasons. And it isn’t getting better.
The Saints ranked sixth in offensive DVOA last season, good enough to keep them competitive. During the offseason, however, New Orleans lost its second-best receiver, Brandin Cooks, while its star left tackle, Terron Armstead, went down with a shoulder injury.
Their marquee acquisition? Adrian Peterson, a 32-year old running back coming off a major injury.
What makes this lack of improvement all the more criminal is that Drew Brees put up another ho-hum incredible season in 2016. At age 37, Brees threw for 5,208 yards to lead the league as the Saints’ offense was massively dependent on the passing game. The future Hall of Famer led the league in overall passing attempts for the second time in three years while tossing over 625 passes for the seventh year in a row.
That sort of workload over the age of 30 doesn’t usually portend continued superstardom, but Brees ranked second in DYAR and fourth in DVOA last season among quarterbacks. The Saints can still build around him, but their time to do so is going to end sooner rather than later. He’s 38 this season and has thrown well over 10,000 passes in his career when we include the postseason. Eventually, the decline will come and the Saints will have have wasted Brees’ extended prime.
Last season, New Orleans had arguably its best receiving corps since Brees had been there. They proceeded to trade Cooks, a huge part of that group, for draft picks. It would be easy to see the Saints’ logic had they gotten Malcolm Butler from the Patriots, as had been heavily rumored. But they didn’t. General manager Mickey Loomis capitulated to New England, and it was baffling.
Michael Thomas and Willie Snead are good enough that this trade won’t destroy the Saints’ passing game. Thomas is only one year into his career and looks like a superstar already. He ranked second among receivers in DYAR and third in DVOA last season, putting up 1,137 yards on 92 receptions with an absurd 76 percent catch rate. Snead quietly racked up 895 yards last season and ranked inside the top-20 in both DYAR and DVOA. An undrafted player out of Ball State, Snead is already an example of how Brees can make receivers hit their ceilings. Even without Cooks, these two can make up a good receiving corps on their own.
However, depth is going to be an issue in this area. Ted Ginn, the team’s replacement for Cooks, has had trouble catching passes his entire career. He’s 32 years old and we know what he is at this point. There’s no out-of-nowhere improvement coming here: Ginn is a bad receiver. Tight end Coby Fleener isn’t going to have a big impact either. Fleener had a below-average -4.6 percent DVOA last season and an abysmal 46.3 PFF grade. Cian Fahey’s charting credited him with 12 failed receptions last season, the most for any Saint, so the drop issues won’t stop with Ginn.
The offensive line, one of the best in football last season, was thrown into disarray by Armstead’s injury. Assuming Armstead doesn’t return until late in the year — he’s currently out indefinitely — rookie Ryan Ramczyk will take on the left tackle job. Getting Ramczyk with the 32nd overall pick was a good move by Loomis. He was the most NFL-ready tackle in the draft and looks like the type of player who could be around for a while. Ramczyk’s technique is strong, he can absorb the bull rush well and win with his hands. There are some worries against speed — Taco Charlton whupped him with spin moves all day when Ramczyk’s Wisconsin Badgers traveled to Ann Arbor last season — but Ramczyk is adept at recognizing and snuffing out stunts. The problem isn’t so much him as the person he’ll replace. Armstead blew just two blocks for all of last season, per Football Outsiders’ Almanac. That’s an impossible standard for a rookie to live up to.
It’s worth worrying a little about the interior line as well. Center Max Unger should be fine, health pending, but guards Andrus Peat and Larry Warford could struggle. Peat was the weakest link on the line last season, allowing 4.5 sacks in a scheme that gets the ball out pretty fast, per FOA. The newly acquired Warford blew nine pass blocks last season with Detroit. Right tackle Zach Strief, whose 86.2 PFF grade was 13th among tackles, figures to be the best player in this group.
New Orleans’ running game has a high ceiling and a relatively low floor. If head coach Sean Payton sticks with Mark Ingram as the workhorse back, the Saints should have a great rushing attack. Ingram was fifth among running backs in success rate last season at 56 percent while ranking in the top 10 in DYAR and going for over 1,000 yards. He shouldn’t just be given the job, he should be used more than any Saints running back since Brees has been there. Payton has to take some of the heat off Brees to preserve his quarterback for as long as possible.
The other door the Saints could go down is starting Adrian Peterson, an all-time great running back nearing the end of his career. Peterson has played just 20 games in the past three seasons, his 2016 season ending early because of a major injury and not the first of his career. Even when healthy, the running back wasn’t himself, struggling behind the same offensive line with which he led the league in rushing in 2015. He should not be considered a potential workhorse in this offense.
New Orleans won’t have a bad offense, but it will decline from last season. The problem is that its defense is just as bad and the rest of the division is much better, a good formula for a last-place finish.
With the exception of Cameron Jordan, the Saints don’t have a single player capable of rushing the passer. The cruel irony is that Jordan is among the best in the league in this area, accounting for 7.0 sacks, 19 hits and 50 hurries last season, per FOA. However, Sheldon Rankins, Tony McDaniel and Alex Okafor — projected to start alongside him on the defensive line — accounted for 7.5 sacks total last season.
The calculus doesn’t change when we look at run defense. Jordan ranked 15th among edge rushers in stop rate and fifth in average rushing yards per tackle, according to FOA. Okafor, however, had a 51.0 run defense grade from PFF while McDaniel had a pedestrian 75 percent run stop percentage, per FOA. If Rankins stays healthy and improves in his second season, things look a little better. But the Louisville product didn’t make much of an impact last season. Barring somebody like third-round pick Trey Hendrickson, Tyeler Davison or Hau’oli Kikaha stepping up, this defensive line is going to be just as bad as it was last season, and the rest of the defense won’t help.
Manti Te’o, Craig Robertson and Stephone Anthony — currently all expected to start at linebacker — had PFF grades of 37.8, 46.7 and 44.8 in 2016. Even A.J. Klein, a solid player in the past, had a 35 percent success rate in coverage last season. Naturally, the Saints signed him to a four-year contract this offseason. It’s frankly hard to see the linebacking corps contributing anything this season. Te’o has never done much in the NFL. Anthony nearly played himself out of a job on the team that ranked 30th in defensive DVOA last season. Robertson is the best of the three and capable in coverage, but he ranked 57th among linebackers in run stop rate last season.
As far as ceilings go, the Saints’ secondary has the highest of any group on this defense, but it’s hard to be optimistic. An abbreviated case for competency: rookie Marshon Lattimore is an instant star, Delvin Breaux returns from injury and is his 2015 self and a safety duo of Vonn Bell and Kenny Vaccaro is good enough to make up for a black hole at nickel back.
In reality, that won’t happen. Lattimore, the 11th pick in the draft, will probably be the best corner of this class in the long term. He can run routes with the receiver and was one of the most physical guys in the FBS last season. However, that physicality could ultimately be an issue early in his career. NFL referees won’t let Lattimore get away with as much as he did in college, and if the rookie has to rely on clunky hip fluidity to keep up, he will struggle. As for Breaux, the 28-year old was abysmal in six game last season, putting up a 42 percent success rate, per FOA. A fully healthy Breaux will be better, but 2015 was the exception, not the norm.
It’s also hard to gloss over the nickel corner spot, as our imaginary straw man does. Damian Swann is coming off an injury that saw him miss all of last season. Sterling Moore had a 38 percent success rate, ranking 84th among corners in 2016, per FOA. Ken Crawley had a 41.2 PFF grade, De’Vante Harris had a 49.0 PFF grade and the options don’t get better as you look even further down the depth chart. With nickel personnel becoming the new base, this is no small matter.
There are worse safety combinations than Vaccaro and Bell, but it’s a concern that most of the their value comes in run defense. Bell had a 35 percent success rate in coverage last season, per FOA, with Vaccaro under 50 percent as well. Their contributions in run defense are valuable — especially with a linebacking corps as bad as New Orleans’ — but teams can still throw on the Saints all day.
Unless this franchise does a complete 180, we’re going to look back at the last years of Drew Brees’ career as a waste.