2016 cheat sheet: New Orleans Saints
To get you ready for the 2016 NFL season, the PFF analysis crew is assembling team “cheat sheets” to catch you up on the latest changes, grades, and rankings of note involving your NFL team.
Following a 7-9 campaign in 2015, the New Orleans Saints are looking to bounce back into NFC South contention this season. With a veteran signal caller and impressive line on the offensive side of the ball, can the Saints’ defense improve enough to vault New Orleans back into the playoff conversation?
Three biggest things to know
1. The Saints’ success still rests on the arm of Drew Brees.
Drew Brees finished the 2015 season as the sixth-highest graded quarterback in the NFL with a 90.7 overall grade. He was one of the most accurate quarterbacks in the league, with an adjusted completion percentage of 76.9, and was the second-most accurate deep-ball thrower, with an adjusted completion rate of exactly 50 percent on throws 20+ yards downfield. Brees has shown no signs of slowing down as he ages, and the Saints will count on him to have another huge year to lead this team to success.
2. The offensive line is very good, and has the potential to be great.
This is a unit anchored by LT Terron Armstead, the third-highest graded tackle in football last season, at 90.8. Meanwhile, Tim Lelito earned the sixth-best run-blocking grade among NFL guards, and Max Unger recorded the sixth-best pass-blocking grade among centers. Sophomore G Andrus Peat should show improvement as he matures in the league after an average rookie season in which he had a handful of bright spots. Finally, RT Zach Strief is only a few years removed from being a top-three tackle in the NFL. This unit is already good, but if all five starters reach their potential, it could be one of the best O-lines in the league.
3. Aside from Cameron Jordan, the front-seven is the weak link on this team.
Cameron Jordan is good, there are no questions about that. His 89.9 overall grade last year ranked sixth among all edge defenders. Outside of Jordan, however, the Saints don’t have a lot going on up front. They’ll need big contributions from rookie DT Sheldon Rankins (Louisville) if he can return from injury healthy, and newly-signed DT Nick Fairley (83.3 overall grade last year). The linebacker corps has very little going for it other than sophomore Stephone Anthony and his potential improvement this season.
Key arrivals and departures
Top three draft picks: DT Sheldon Rankins (Round 1, pick No. 12 overall, Louisville), WR Michael Thomas (Round 2, pick No. 47 overall, Ohio State), S Vonn Bell (Round 2, pick No. 61 overall, Ohio State)
Signed in free agency: TE Coby Fleener (Colts), LB James Laurinaitis (Rams), DT Nick Fairley (Rams), Craig Robertson (Browns)
Left via free agency: CB Brandon Browner (Seahawks), S Rafael Bush (Lions), WR Marques Colston (UFA), G Jahri Evans (UFA), LB David Hawthorne (UFA), RB Khiry Robinson (UFA), TE Ben Watson (Ravens)
Rookie to watch
Michael Thomas, WR, Ohio State (Round 2, pick No. 47 overall)
If Sheldon Rankins wasn’t hurt, he likely would have grabbed this spot on the cheat sheet, but that’s not to say Michael Thomas isn’t someone to keep a lookout for. Thomas was very high on our draft board thanks to his strong hands and ability to make plays after the catch. He’s a player who doesn’t appear to be especially great at any one thing, but is very good at everything. It wouldn’t be a huge surprise to see Thomas turn into Brees’ No. 2 option after Brandin Cooks.
Highest-graded player of 2015
Terron Armstead, LT, 90.8 overall grade
Armstead is one of the best offensive tackles in the game, and he plays a very balanced game. His run-blocking grade of 88.4 ranked second among tackles last season, while his pass-blocking mark was fourth. Last season, he allowed just three sacks and 20 total pressures; his pass-blocking efficiency of 97.2 was the fourth-highest among OTs. Teams want the best of the best protecting their QB’s blindside, and the Saints have that for Brees with Armstead.
Delvin Breaux, CB, 85.2 overall grade in 2015
There are few better stories currently in the NFL than that of Delvin Breaux. A former CFL all-star that didn’t play college football after fracturing his spine in high school, Breaux finally got his chance to play in the NFL last season. He ended the year with the 10th-highest overall grade among corners. Breaux was targeted 82 times last season and allowed just 40 catches for 565 yards and three interceptions. His 13.5 coverage snaps per reception allowed ranked 10th in the NFL. He did allow a league-leading 10 touchdowns, so he has to improve there, but if he can get that number down, keep an eye on Breaux to continue climbing the CB ranks.
Nickel defense (2015 season grades shown)
Offense with three receivers (2015 season grades shown)