The Saints finished 7-9 in 2016 for the third season in a row. But it had a slightly different feel to it than the previous two non-playoff seasons.
The defense improved a bit. Young players, including exciting WR Michael Thomas, emerged. And Drew Brees continued defying age.
The offseason has also been entertaining. Speedster Brandin Cooks was traded to New England, giving New Orleans a second number one pick. The Saints brought in aging superstar Adrian Peterson. And the team filled many other holes in free agency.
So, is it enough, in a division of good and rising teams, to allow the Saints to be playing in January? Or does this team still have too many holes to fill?
Bob Rose, a contributing writer for Canal Street Chronicles, shares his thoughts.
Zoneblitz: The Saints felt more competitive in 2016 but the result was a third straight 7-9 record. What’s your assessment of the season?
Rose: A third straight 7-9 year was extremely frustrating, I realize, but 2016 had a much different feel to it. First of all, the team was ravaged by injury, particularly in the secondary. Despite often being shorthanded, the Saints were in every game. Seven of their 9 losses were by six points or less. Remember also how young this team is. Twenty-one players that received significant playing time last year were 26yrs old or younger, or had less than 4yrs of pro experience. Thirteen of them started at one point in the season. Factor in the draft picks that they’re about to add, and the fact that the free agents they signed are just entering their prime; this is a very young team. They basically rebuilt the team after the 2014 debacle, and it really looked like Sean Payton loved coaching this group last year. Player development is crucial, obviously, but this has the feel of something special.
Zoneblitz: Sean Payton brought New Orleans a Super Bowl title, but it’s been 11 years and there were, at least for a while, rumors of a potential split. What are your thoughts on his remaining as head coach?
Rose: Sean Payton is pretty much an icon in the gulf coast region, as he should be. I personally paid zero attention to all the detection rumors, and it looks like he will be given every opportunity to finish his career in New Orleans. He looked rejuvenated on the sideline last year, and I think he has a very clear vision for this team. Having said that, sports are very much a “what have you done for me lately” endeavor, and after 3 straight losing seasons, if they don’t show significant improvement in their record this year I think both Payton and Mickey Loomis are in real trouble.
Zoneblitz: Brandin Cooks had flashes of brilliance and led the team in receiving yards but also disappeared at times. Why did New Orleans deal him and how worried are you about finding a replacement? Does adding Ted Ginn help?
Rose: The Brandin Cooks situation was a huge disappointment. He did look like he was on the verge of being an elite receiver, and certainly still has the skills to do it. He was obviously unhappy with the way he was used in New Orleans, but the way he handled it almost forced the Saints hand. I’m not sure he was a locker room disruption, but after what happened inside that locker room in 2014, the team couldn’t afford to let things drag on. Payton made it quite clear after ’14 that any player outside of Brees could be expendable.
Cooks’ contract was up in 2018, and it was extremely unlikely that the Saints would have been able to re-sign him. Given his production, New Orleans did well to move them when they did.
There are a couple of intriguing wideouts in this draft with mid-round value, and it wouldn’t surprise me at all if we see the Saints bring in a new face or two that way. Ted Ginn is a value signing more in the return game and an occasional over the top deep threat. His history suggests that he can’t be counted on as a featured receiver. The unit is weakened by the Cooks trade, but still in very good hands with Michael Thomas and Willie Snead. I’m also interested to see the progress two college free agents from last year will make: TommyLee Lewis and Jordan Williams-Lambert.
Zoneblitz: How will the loss of Cooks affect Michael Thomas’ chances to follow up on his phenomenal rookie season.
Rose: Michael Thomas has the look of the next great NFL wide receiver. He was already their number one wideout by the end of last season. Thomas is the type of guy that will put up good numbers no matter what. I think we’ve just seen the beginning of what he can really do. The loss of Cooks shouldn’t affect him much at all, because he’s THAT good. I do expect a sharp increase in the production of Snead and TE Coby Fleener.
Zoneblitz: Mark Ingram had looked like a true featured back at times, but the Saints have still flirted on and off with guys like Tim Hightower. Will Ingram ever be the guy in this offense?
Rose: I actually think that Mark Ingram did emerge as the featured back in this offense over the two last years. The main two things that were holding him back were his abilities in the passing game, which he’s improved on dramatically, and of course his injury struggles. Sean Payton has almost always preferred using multiple backs, even when he was an offensive coordinator. Losing Tim Hightower in free agency hurts more than many people realize. He was a terrific complementary back, and even better insurance if Ingram got nicked up. Daniel Lasco showed some flashes in the preseason. And then there is Adrian Peterson.
Zoneblitz: Yes, capping off an exciting offseason to date, the Saints recently signed Peterson. What are your thoughts on how that move fits with this team?
Rose: the Adrian Peterson signing is most definitely one to keep an eye on throughout training camp, as far as how the reps will be split between he and Ingram. First of all, I think it’s highly unlikely that AP takes the number one job away from Ingram. Mark is simply the better back at this point in the two players’ careers. Peterson is on the back end of his career, as he found out for himself once he perceived relatively low interest throughout the league. While he should still have some very good football left in him, the Sean Payton/Drew Brees offense won’t change a whole lot, and I still expect the Saints to look for a pass catching/3rd down specialist type of back in the mid to late rounds of the draft.
Zoneblitz: Drew Brews, like Tom Brady, has talked about playing into his mid-40s. How much does he realistically have left and do the Saints need to start planning for the future?
Rose: Ahh yes, the elephant in the room … how much does Brees have left and what is their plan without him. This has to terrify every Saints fan. Brees takes such phenomenal care of himself, and I do think there’s a possibility he can play until 41 or 42. He showed very little decline in his play last season and he really seems to have a lot of confidence in these young receivers, so he’s getting rid of the ball faster and allowing them to make plays.
The reality though is this: Brees is one of the true warriors left in this game, and he has taken a lot of hits in his career. At 38 years old, he’s at the age where a decline comes very fast, and seemingly without warning. There isn’t a replacement plan in place it seems, unless you believe Garrett Grayson has something hidden that he hasn’t shown us yet. The trick is, how do you set up the team for the future without sacrificing the fact that you’re building to win now? If New Orleans does draft a potential “successor” this year, my guess is that it won’t be until the third round. A couple of possibilities would be Nate Peterman from Pitt or Brad Kaaya from Miami.
Zoneblitz: The Saints’ defense improved incrementally in points and yards allowed. What created that improvement, what parts do you like on that side of the ball and what still needs to improve?
Rose: There was a very noticeable difference in the Saints defense last year. Even with the massive amount of injuries, the unit still played with an aggressiveness that we haven’t seen in quite some time.
I think Dennis Allen is a fantastic coordinator, and the addition of Mike Nolan to coach the linebackers is going to pay huge dividends. There are good building blocks on every level. Delvin Breaux is on the cusp of being a top cover corner and Kenny Vaccaro and Vonn Bell are very good “in the box” safeties.
Craig Robertson was a terrific addition through free agency last year, and gave them some terrific play at linebacker, though the position still needs addressed in a big way. Dannell Ellerbe was often the best player on the field, when he was actually on it. But then, that’s always been the problem with him. Ellerbe has only played in 15 of 32 games as a Saint. When he was on the field last year, the Saints defense gave up almost 10 points less per game. I am really hoping that Nolan’s coaching will cause Stephone Anthony to realize his potential. I was expecting big things from him last year. The defensive line is quickly becoming a formidable unit. End Cam Jordan and tackles Sheldon Rankins and Nick Fairley are all pro bowl-type of players, and I see good potential in David Onyemata and Tyeler Davison. The biggest problem, as we saw last year, is depth and the lack of a quality end opposite Cam. They also need to add a playmaker or two in the secondary and at linebacker.
Zoneblitz: Among other moves, A.J. Klein, Manti Te’o and Alex Okafor joined the defense and Larry Warford signed to play guard in free agency. What do you think of the free agency moves so far and what do you think the team should do in the draft and through the rest of the offseason?
Rose: A.J. Klein, Larry Warford, and Alex Okafor were near the top of my free agent wish list coming into the offseason. Klein is going to be the perfect middle linebacker for this defense, I believe.
Okafor might very well be the player they need opposite Cam Jordan. He should at least provide a solid rotation with Hau’oli Kikaha to stabilize the position. Warford could very well develop into one of the better interior linemen in the league. He’ll team with Terron Armstead and the still developing Andrus Peat to give the Saints a young and talented nucleus.
New Orleans still has some holes to address in this draft, to be sure. They will almost certainly address the cornerback position; whether it’s by trading for the Patriots Malcolm Butler or selecting one from a very deep class. I think a dynamic linebacker is at the top of team needs, it’s still the weakest position on the team, in my opinion. I would love to see them bring in a Haason Reddick from Temple, Tyus Bowser from Houston, Zach Cunningham from Vanderbilt or Florida’s Jarrad Davis here. I also think they need to add a solid coverage safety in the draft as well. Marcus Williams from Utah would be a great pickup around the 3rd round, or someone like Lorenzo Jerome from St. Francis of Pennsylvania might be available later. Most mock drafts have the Saints selecting Tennessee’s Derek Barnett at defensive end. If they go another direction with the 11th pick, I believe they’ll still draft someone for the position. As mentioned, I think Payton will bring in both a running back and wide receiver at some point as well. The offensive line class isn’t highly regarded, but it would be nice to get a right tackle to develop behind Zach Strief.
Zoneblitz: How far is this team from competing for the postseason?
Rose: I like this Saints team a lot. The NFC south has provided the last two conference champions in Atlanta and Carolina, and Tampa Bay is everyone’s up and coming contender. New Orleans has gone blow-to-blow with all three, as well as the other contenders throughout the NFL over the previous two seasons.
Yes, the team certainly has some holes to still address, and all these young players need to grow up in a hurry. Truthfully, I think that this team is set up for a playoff run in 2017. There are very good pieces already in place, and they have one of the best to ever play the game still taking snaps from center. Some have compared the progress of the 2016 Saints to that the 2008 team. There are indeed a lot of similarities, and we all know what happened with the 2009 Saints.
Follow Bob Rose on Twitter at: @bobbyr2613
Follow Canal Street Chronicles at: @SaintsCSC
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