2013 Team Needs: New Orleans Saints
Needless to say, 2012 was mostly a year to forget for the New Orleans Saints, as the team dealt with an unprecedented off-the-field siuation and, most notably, the resulting season-long suspension of their head coach. The team proceeded to dig itself a hole with an 0-4 start to the season that it could never recover from, before finishing 7-9.
The start to the offseason has been an exciting one, marked by the return of Sean Payton, who took little time in releasing Steve Spagnuolo and announcing a move to a 3-4 alignment on defense.
Speaking of the defense, the unit surrendered an historic amount of yards. And that’s where they’ll be looking in free agency and the draft as they try to get back to playoff contention.
Let’s take a look at some of their biggest needs and some free agents who could fill those holes.
Under Spagnuolo, the Saints’ defense went from one of the heaviest blitzing units to one that sent extra rushers less frequently than the NFL average. Blitzing on just 30.3% of snaps this season, the New Orleans front disrupted opposing quarterbacks 31.3% of passing plays, with that figure dropping to 24.3% when relying on a four-man rush, something they did often. Given those numbers, it’s safe to say the Saints didn’t get what they wanted from ends Will Smith and Cameron Jordan, who finished the season as our second- and eighth-lowest graded 4-3 DEs, respectively. Jordan isn’t going anywhere as he showed improvement in his second season, particularly in run defense. He’s also a player who should benefit greatly from the team’s move to a 3-4 alignment. The former first-round pick appears to be a perfect fit at the five-technique for whomever the Saints hire to run their new D. Smith, on the other hand, is a probable cap casualty as his production the past few seasons just doesn’t warrant the massive salary he’s scheduled to make in 2013.
As with any base 3-4 defense, the team will look to the two OLB slots to generate a pass rush, and fortunately for the Saints, they already have two players on the roster that look to be well suited to the role in Martez Wilson and Junior Galette (who happens to be a restricted free agent). The defense should actually improve just by getting the two onto the field more, as both have shown an ability to get to the quarterback in situational roles. Each player ranked in the Top 15 in Pass Rushing Productivity among 4-3 ends who played at least 25% of their teams snaps, with Galette coming in as the fourth-most productive rusher. Of course, it remains to be seen whether the two can make the transition from situational rushers to full-time players at OLB, particularly in the case of Galette, who’s been used more traditionally as a defensive end than Wilson. Therefore, finding another edge rusher remains one of the Saints’ top needs this offseason.
Free Agent Fix: Victor Butler
Given the team’s cap situation, it’s unclear whether they’ll have room to do anything outside of re-signing some of their own players. Victor Butler would be a solid acquisition as someone with experience as a 3-4 OLB, and someone who has played well in that role. As a reserve for the Cowboys, he picked up 15 QB disruptions in 132 pass rushes this season.
Another potential FA target could be Antwan Barnes, who graded negatively this season, but played really well in previous years and would be an upgrade as a rusher, the only caveat being that he’s been mostly a situational guy, with many of his rushes coming from a three- or four-point stance.
On a defense that was historically porous this season, there’s no position group that can look back and say they played well, and this was especially true at safety, where Malcolm Jenkins and Roman Harper finished as our two lowest-graded at the position. After leading the team in sacks in 2011, Harper transitioned to a deeper, more traditional safety role this season under Spagnuolo, which wasn’t the smartest move considering he’s shown little ability in coverage during his career. Jenkins, in his third season at the position, didn’t show much more in coverage and particularly struggled to finish plays — his 20 missed tackles were two short of the league-high, even though he missed the final three games.
It will be interesting to see how the two fit into the plans of whomever the team hires as defensive coordinator, but don’t be surprised if Harper becomes a cap casualty. Either way, the team definitely needs to look at upgrading a position that’s supposed to be the ‘safety-net’ of the defense, but when manned by Jenkins and Harper, sure doesn’t make you feel very safe.
Free Agent Fix: Glover Quin
Again, the Saints’ lack of cap space puts them out of the running for some of the better, yet more expensive free agent safeties such as Jarius Byrd or William Moore. Glover Quin would still be a welcome upgrade. A safety that can play both deep and in the box, as well as match up against tight ends and receivers in the slot, is a valuable commodity in today’s NFL. As we saw in the first round of the playoffs against the Bengals, Quin had a lot of success in coverage against Jermaine Gresham and was key in limiting the Cincinnati passing game. His statistics this season speak for themselves as he missed just seven tackles in over 1,100 snaps while only one other safety defensed more passes than Quin’s seven.
Another potential option, if the Saints are looking to rekindle some of the defensive success from their Super Bowl season, could be to target the veteran Ed Reed. Despite being slowed by injuries and age the past couple of seasons, he’s still excelled in coverage, though with a decline in tackling and run defense. Reed could nevertheless deliver an instinctive, playmaking presence in the Saints’ defensive backfield much like Darren Sharper provided in 2009. At his age he wouldn’t be a long-term option at the position, but Reed would be an interesting, though admittedly unlikely, pick up.
Defensive Line (Interior)
With the transition to a 3-4 alignment on defense, it’s difficult to project where the Saints’ personnel fits. That said, it appears they have some pieces to put together a line that is at least serviceable. Cameron Jordan looks to be a perfect fit at end, while Brodrick Bunkley should be able to step in and play some at the nose. It’s less clear who would play opposite Jordan, though the Saints have a couple of decent candidates in Akeim Hicks and Tom Johnson, both of whom graded positively in reserve roles this season. However, as with any defensive change, it’s unclear whether they can adjust to playing a new position, though at least with experience in a 4-3 alignment, they present some versatility in terms of using multiple/hybrid fronts. With Sedrick Ellis likely gone as an unrestricted free agent — he’s probably a better fit at the 3-tech in a 4-3 anyway — the team will need to find some depth.
Free Agent Fix: Ricky Jean-Francois
Francois fits the bill as a player who could help out at both five-technique and nose, where he’s lined up on more than a quarter of snaps over the past two seasons. He hasn’t provided much of a pass rush, but has been fairly stout in run defense and would have the opportunity to move into a more prominent role with the Saints.
Follow John on Twitter: @PFF_JManey