Three of the last six NFC South division titles have now been taken by the New Orleans Saints and after a spectacular 2011 season, Drew Brees is now the NFL’s single season record holder for passing yardage. In spite of a five-turnovers playoff performance, they only fell just short of another berth in the NFC Championship. This team appears well set to repeat, right? How does one of the most powerful offensive teams in the NFL take that next step and get back to a Super Bowl they seem so driven by?
The most obvious stumbling block for the Saints this offseason is not only how they fill some of the gaping holes in their defense, but also how they lock up a high volume of their own free agents who are hitting the open market. The Saints have been masters in recent seasons of making shrewd signings while also handling their own free agents to keep the core together and consistently build upon it. That juggling act promises to be the toughest yet this offseason, though, with a number of their free agents looking for big pay days, they simply cannot hope to bring back all at once. Assuming the Saints slap the franchise tag on the aforementioned record-holding Brees as expected, here is how we see the Saints’ to-do list:
Primary Need: Outside Linebacker
The Saints have a new defensive regime on board this offseason with Gregg Williams having departed for St. Louis. Saints fans should be praying for old loyalties to depart with Williams as well to allow a desperately needed upgrade at outside linebacker to take effect. The likes of Scott Shanle (-15.1), JoLonn Dunbar (-26.3), and Jonathan Casillas (-11.2) were found wanting last season, and most seasons before then, combining for an overall PFF Grade of -52.6. The only positive grade in that group was Scott Shanle for his run defense (+3.6). The Saints need help on the outside in the shape of both a two-down and three-down outside linebacker. Asking their linebackers to blitz less often and have to cover less ground when doing so would also be a start.
The Saints could well look to keep the faith with their current crop of linebackers in the hope that they perform in a more linebacker-friendly scheme. Dunbar and Casillas have shown some promise in the past, but is promise enough on a team ready to win it all? There isn’t a deep pool of free agents at outside linebacker this offseason, but depending upon how they budget for an upgrade at outside linebacker, they can make a positive stride. The Vikings have seemingly been reluctant to re-sign Erin Henderson (+21.7) and the former Maryland Terrapin would be an immediate upgrade for the Saints as a three-down linebacker. He would bring ferocious downhill run defense with more than competent coverage skills which he showcased in limited action as a three-down player when his brother was ailing earlier this season. On a smaller budget, both LeRoy Hill (+5.7) and Philip Wheeler (+9.3) have the potential to contribute positively to the Saints if they shake loose from their current squads.
Secondary Need: Defensive Tackle
The Saints made two shrewd signings at defensive tackle in the short 2011 offseason that unfortunately for them didn’t pay off. Both Shaun Rogers (+5.9) and Aubrayo Franklin (-1.4) showed potential at times, but failed to make plays and protect the Saints’ linebackers behind them. Franklin, in particular, looked out of his depth operating in a 4-3 defense. With Sedrick Ellis (-2.1) not quite locking down the heart of the D in front of Jonathan Vilma, who still struggles to shed blockers in run defense, this is an area that the Saints simply must get right if they are to take the next step. You can’t fault them for trying, on paper these should have been excellent signings. Games aren’t played on paper, though, and they shouldn’t be shy of going back to the well to sort this problem.
The Saints are masters of juggling the salary cap but in they may not need to be this offseason as a number of the top free agent defensive tackles are either getting up there in years, limited to being two-down players or, in some cases, both. This is likely to bring their price tags down, playing into the Saints’ hands whether they want to go risky or make some safe moves to shore up their interior. If they want big run-stuffers again, then they can’t go far wrong with Sione Pouha (+30.0) and Broderick Bunkley (+24.1). Yes, both have played a lot over the nose, but both also have extensive experience playing in a four-man line, unlike Franklin did. If they feel like rolling the dice via two interesting and potentially shrewd signings then they could look at Jason Jones (-9.3) of the Titans and Derek Landri (+22.0) of the Eagles. Jones’ move to defensive end was an unmitigated failure for Tennessee this offseason, but he has been a disruptive force at defensive tackle. The Saints are in dire need of upgrading their base pass rush to lighten the load on their linebackers during games. Landri, on the other hand, is a proven sub-defender and had a spectacular season in Philadelphia in 2011. He has, however, proven inconsistent when given extended playing time in the past. Will the Saints hope that the third time is a charm for Landri as a starter?
Tertiary Need: Wide Receiver
The theme of the Saints’ offseason is likely to be keeping hold of their own and that is more true at no other position than wide receiver. Three of their receivers are due to become unrestricted free agents, and with decisions to be made on a number of others, some may yet shake loose. One of those three is Courtney Roby who is mainly a special teamer. This would seem to be a cheap re-signing but the pairing of Marques Colston (+21.2) and Robert Meachem (+4.2) offer bigger question marks over their return. When healthy, Colston is one of the driving forces in the New Orleans offense. Even though he has never lived up to his first-round billing, Meachem has become a valuable contributor in recent seasons. One of these is clearly more valuable to the team than the other, but both provide production that will need to be replaced if either moves on.
The biggest question mark in this equation is how much money Colston might get on the open market. If another team steps up with a big money offer it’s hard to see that the Saints could match that with the cost of their other free agents. However, Colston’s injury history and the fact that he has primarily been a slot target for the Saints raises questions as to whether another team will come in with that big offer. The Saints are in a luxurious position in that they and Colston both know that they are best for each other and the perfect fit. Unless someone on the open market turns Colston’s ear, he would appear to be the pivotal re-signing in New Orleans’ offseason. Meachem’s return would appear to be a bigger question mark, with his production and potential likely to see someone take a punt on him producing to the level expected of a first-rounder. This is a bumper year for free agent receivers with a number of players likely to slip through the cracks as some top names steal the early limelight. Players like Laurent Robinson (+5.4), Mark Clayton (-1.4) and former Giants/Eagle Steve Smith (-3.1) could offer big returns for a small investment to replace Meachem.
Follow us on Twitter: @ProFootbalFocus