2014 Preview: New Orleans Saints
The 2013 season marked a return to the playoffs for the New Orleans Saints after a season lost to the suspension of Head Coach Sean Payton and one of the worst defensive seasons in NFL history. Upon his return, Coach Payton’s first move was to hire Defensive Coordinator Rob Ryan. Ryan quickly revitalized the defense, providing quarterback Drew Brees much-needed support and allowing the Saints to get out to a fast start. Even though they struggled down the stretch and eventually lost their division lead, the Saints qualified for the final Wild Card spot and captured the franchise’s first ever road playoff victory.
The 2014 Saints will be looking to build off of last season’s success and are hoping to enjoy an even deeper playoff run. Let’s take a look at the factors that will determine how successful the team will be in their quest to claim the franchise’s second Lombardi Trophy.
Five Reasons for Confidence
1. Improved Blind Side Protection
Charles Brown started last season at left tackle and had a rough run, grading -18.9 in pass blocking while surrendering seven sacks, nine QB hits, and 33 pressures before being replaced halfway through his Week 15 performance against Robert Quinn and the St. Louis Rams. Rookie Terron Armstead took over protecting Brees’ blind side the following week. Despite struggling in his first start, Armstead quickly settled into his new role and posted positive scores in his final three games—including two playoff games—and solidified the offensive line. If Armstead can continue what was shown in that small sample, Brees should reap the benefits of improved pass protection this season.
2. Full Season of Khiry Robinson
Second-year player Khiry Robinson was the latest running back to make the Saints’ roster as an undrafted free agent since Coach Payton’s arrival in 2006, joining a list of players including Pierre Thomas, Chris Ivory, and Travaris Cadet. Unlike Ivory and Cadet, it appears Robinson is poised to carve out a permanent role in the offense starting this season. His decisive running style proved useful during the playoffs, where he powered his way to an overall grade of +4.4 despite limited snaps. Robinson’s opportunities should continue to grow, providing Brees and the Saints’ offense with the bruising runner lacking in recent seasons.
3. Healthy Jimmy Graham
When looking at Jimmy Graham’s impressive 2013 season it can be easy to forget his season almost ended early after suffering a Week 6 foot injury. Despite playing with a partially torn plantar fascia for more than half of the season, Graham didn’t miss a game and continued to perform at a high level. By all accounts, the injury seems to have healed and Graham will be able to start the upcoming season pain-free. That could be bad news for opposing defenses which generally didn’t have an answer for the Pro-Bowl tight end last season anyway. Despite the gaudy stat-line, we could potentially see an even more productive Graham during the 2014 season.
4. Second Year in Defensive Scheme
As remarkable as the Saints’ defensive turnaround was in 2013, this unit could just be scratching the surface of its potential. Defensive Coordinator Rob Ryan’s return marks the first offseason the team will not be installing a new defensive scheme since 2011. The defense returns a number of young starters, including breakout star Cameron Jordan who posted double-digit sacks and an overall grade of +34.1 last season. Now that Jordan, Junior Galette, Akiem Hicks, and Kenny Vaccaro have a year under their belt, they will be counted on to shoulder the load and build off their impressive 2013 campaign. With young leaders and a greater understanding of Ryan’s schemes, the sky is the limit for this defensive in 2014.
5. Safety Play
As much as a year of continuity for the core can help this defense take the next step, the upgrade at the safety position may be just as important for the upcoming season. Ryan utilized a three-safety defense last season, mostly using some combination of Vaccaro, Malcolm Jenkins, Rafael Bush, and Roman Harper. What started as a necessity due to the lack of depth at the linebacker position became a powerful innovation.
Despite the unit’s success, it featured two players perceived as the defensive weak links: Jenkins and Harper. Jenkins in particular struggled in both pass defense and Tackling Efficiency, especially troubling for a free safety. In an effort to address these weaknesses, the Saints replaced Harper and Jenkins with Jairus Byrd out of Buffalo. Byrd excels in coverage — where he earned a +9.5 grade in 2013 and is only a year removed from earning the top coverage grade among safeties with a +19.0 in 2012 — and is a more consistent tackler. With Byrd solidifying the FS position, the three-safety defense should only improve going forward.
Five Reasons for Concern
1. Who Starts Opposite Keenan Lewis?
There is some concern about who will play cornerback opposite of Keenan Lewis, the Saints’ key secondary addition from the 2013 offseason. Long-time starter Jabari Greer was lost to a devastating knee injury in Week 11, possibly ending his career. Although three-safety sets minimize the need for a true nickel corner, a solid second CB is essential for this defense to reach its potential.
Despite these concerns, the team has a variety of options to fill this spot. After Greer’s injury, Corey White stepped in but was inconsistent and may be better suited to covering slot receivers. Although Patrick Robinson has received some training camp praise after a 2013 season-ending injury, his track record doesn’t inspire confidence. Finally, rookie Stanley Jean-Baptiste has the size the team is looking for in a cornerback, but is probably not ready to contribute full-time. If no one from this group is able to emerge as a solid option, inconsistent CB play could lower the Saints’ 2014 ceiling.
2. Linebackers Other Than Junior Galette
Galette may have been a pleasant surprise for the team last season, but the linebacking unit is the weak link of the defense. The team could use another pass rusher to complement Jordan and Galette. There was hope that Victor Butler could fill this role, but he has struggled with injuries and didn’t survive the first round of cuts. Parys Haralson was solid on the outside last season, but didn’t provide much as a pass rusher.
The play of the inside linebackers is equally concerning. Curtis Lofton struggled with consistency, although he did enjoy a solid postseason. At the other ILB spot, David Hawthorne has not matched the promise from his days in Seattle, most noticeably as a run defender, where he was strong in the past but registered a negative grade for the year, including a -7.0 in the playoffs.
Since the Saints chose not to address the linebacker position until Day 3 of the Draft, they will likely be relying on internal help from this same group. Even slight improvements from the LB unit could make a big difference for the Saints’ defense this season.
3. Replacing Sproles’ Production
The major side effect of upgrading the secondary with Byrd was the loss of Darren Sproles. Sproles was the team’s highest rated running back last season, doing most of his damage in the passing game. Coach Payton has always been able to adapt his offense to fit his personnel, but will be without a playmaking RB for the first time in New Orleans. Since there is no direct replacement for Sproles’ unique skill set, the Saints will look to split the production across multiple players. First-round rookie wide receiver Brandin Cooks should be a factor, while promising sophomores Kenny Stills and the aforementioned Robinson are primed for expanded roles while Pierre Thomas has proven capable of taking on receiving duties out of the backfield. While the team doesn’t lack offensive talent, replacing a proven veteran like Sproles may result in some early growing pains for the Saints’ offense.
4. OL Depth
Despite hopefully solidifying the left tackle position, there are depth concerns for the offensive front. Much of the depth is unproven at this point and the potential remains for a large drop-off should someone sustain an extended absence. This is especially concerning as both starting guards will be 30-years old heading into the 2014 and carry some injury risk—Jahri Evans missed time last season while Ben Grubbs has missed a portion of training camp.
5. Kicking Game
It may seem like a small concern, but recent struggles in the kicking game have led to frustration for the Saints. Although Garrett Hartley had a reputation for making clutch field goals, he was also woefully inconsistent, especially on mid-range attempts. The latest example came against the Rams, when two missed field goals hindered the Saints’ comeback effort and cost him his job. His replacement Shayne Graham brought consistency, but his limited range was on display during the Divisional Playoffs when he missed two field goals over 45 yards. Further concerning is that Graham missed one of the experimental extra points during the first preseason game. The staff must decide between living with Graham’s limited range or placing their trust in the unproven Derek Dimke.