2016 season preview: New Orleans Saints
The New Orleans Saints have been fighting through some difficult seasons recently, finishing 2015 with a second consecutive 7-9 record. They haven’t made the playoffs since the 2013 season, despite having one of the league’s best quarterbacks in Drew Brees. While the offense has rarely been a problem, the New Orleans’ defense struggled mightily at times last season. With only so many years left for Brees to compete for another Super Bowl, the Saints will be looking to make every season count.
[More: Be sure to check out PFF’s ranking of all 32 NFL QB situations, offensive lines, running back units, receiving corps, secondaries, and defensive front-sevens. Catch up on all the team previews here.]
Drew Brees still one of the best QBs in the NFL
Quarterbacks: Seventh in PFF’s season preview rankings
The Saints rank highly on our QB situations list thanks to the high-level play of Drew Brees. Last season, Brees finished as our fourth-highest-graded quarterback, at 87.6. His 77.2 adjusted completion percentage was the seventh-best mark in the league. He was one of the best at throwing the deep pass, with a second-best 50.6 adjusted completion percentage on deep throws. There’s no reason to think that his play will drop off at all this season, and the Saints will still have one of the best signal-callers in the NFL under center.
If Brees does get hurt, the Saints will have to run with backup Luke McCown. McCown showed that he could be an effective player in one game last season, but New Orleans should hope that it doesn’t come to that again in 2016.
Rushing game largely dependent on Mark Ingram’s health
Running backs: 21st
The Saints could find themselves ranked higher on this list if things all go right for the team. Mark Ingram is the likely workhorse running back if he can stay healthy; last season, his 59.4 elusive rating was seventh in the NFL among qualifying backs, and his 2.9 yards after contact per attempt was the fifth-highest mark in the league. C.J. Spiller seems to be a shell of the player he once was, with his elusive rating dropping every year since his league-best 94.6 in 2012. (Last season it was just 9.7.) Rookie Daniel Lasco (California) has the potential to replace Spiller as a third-down speed specialty back, but he had issues with drops in college.
Young talent should improve upon last season
Receiving corps: 21st
The Saints’ receiving corps has definitely undergone a change in recent years, with stalwarts like Marques Colston, Kenny Stills, and Jimmy Graham no longer on the team. Instead, the unit is led by third-year wideout Brandin Cooks, who impressed in his sophomore season. Cooks has some of the surest hands in the league, having dropped just six of 143 targets over the past two seasons.
The Saints will also have second-round draft pick Michael Thomas (Ohio State) to catch passes this season. Thomas was one of our highest-ranked receiving prospects last season, and brings very good hands and the ability to go up and win the ball on iffy throws. The Saints also brought in TE Coby Fleener (Colts) to try and replace the production they got from Ben Watson (Ravens) last year, and overall to try and replace what they lost in Jimmy Graham (Seahawks). Fleener has never quite impressed like he was expected to in Indianapolis, but perhaps a change of scenery will do him some good.
Left tackle Terron Armstead leads solid O-line unit
Offensive line: Eighth
At worst, the Saints have a good offensive line. At its best, New Orleans may own one of the top offensive lines in the NFL. LT Terron Armstead was our third-highest-graded tackle in football last season, at 90.9. He’s an elite tackle who is just as good at run-blocking as he is at pass-blocking, and could get even better this season as he matures in the league.
LG Tim Lelito is one of the top run-blocking guards in the NFL but has struggled in pass-protection.
C Max Unger had his best pass-blocking season since 2011, and while his run-blocking wasn’t great, it wasn’t necessarily bad, either. RG Andrus Peat showed some bright spots in an overall average rookie season, and should see more improvement in 2016.
Zach Strief is only three seasons removed from being a top-three right tackle in the NFL, and it’s possible that he could regain that form. If all of these players can reach the potential that can be reasonably expected of them, this could be a scary-good offensive line.
Defensive front-seven the weakest grouping on Saints’ roster
The Saints’ front-seven was one of their biggest weaknesses last season, specifically when it came to stopping the run. New Orleans allowed a league-worst 4.9 yards per carry in 2015, and only four players in their entire front-seven posted above-average run-defense grades. DE Cameron Jordan is the one star of this unit, ranking as the sixth-best edge rusher in the NFL with a 90.1 grade. His 70 total pressures last season were fifth-best at his position.
The Saints drafted DT Sheldon Rankins (Louisville) in the first round in the hopes that he can help shore up the interior of their defensive line. DT Nick Fairley was also brought in after a strong 2015 season in St. Louis. Behind the line, the Saints have a linebacker crew that, other than sophomore Stephone Anthony, really lacks anyone that has given any reason to believe they will be any better this season.
Delvin Breaux could develop into a top-tier NFL corner
Gone is Brandon Browner and his lowest overall grade for a corner in PFF’s 10-year history. That alone is improvement for this unit going into 2016. CB Delvin Breaux had some mental lapses and allowed a fair few touchdowns, but he also ranked 10th in coverage snaps per reception allowed and 18th in yards per coverage snap allowed. There’s no reason to think he won’t improve into one of the better corners in the league in 2016. Safeties Kenny Vacarro and Jarius Byrd showed much improvement from poor 2014 seasons, and may be close to reaching the level of hype that was there when the two were first paired together. This secondary unit has the potential to be great, and is definitely one of the keys to the Saints’ success this season.