Strong draft lifts Saints’ offseason grade

Bryson Vesnaver breaks down the New Orleans Saints' offseason moves thus far, assigning a grade to the team.

| 6 months ago
(AP Photo/Eric Christian Smith)

(AP Photo/Eric Christian Smith)

Strong draft lifts Saints’ offseason grade


The Saints completed their second-consecutive 7-9 season last year, missing the playoffs in both of those campaigns. While QB Drew Brees and LT Terron Armstead provided bright spots on offense, the Saints were one of the worst defensive teams in all of football last season. The New Orleans’ defense had just six players earn above-average grades, and only one (DE Cameron Jordan) who graded at a truly top level. There were a lot of holes that needed to be addressed, and not a lot of salary cap space to do it.

Let’s see what moves they made in free agency and the draft to address some of those weaknesses.

Offseason Grade: C+

Free agency and trades

New Arrivals: RB Vick Ballard, TE Coby Fleener, LB James Laurinaitis, LB Nate Stupar, DT Nick Fairley, LB Craig Robertson, K Connor Barth 

Re-signings: RB Travaris Cadet, RB Tim Hightower, K Kai Forbath, TE Michael Hoomanawanui, G Senio Kelemete, QB Luke McCown, S Jamarca Sanford, CB Kyle Wilson, G Tim Lelito

Departures: CB Brandon Browner, S Rafael Bush, WR Marques Colston, G Jahri Evans, LB David Hawthorne, LB Ramon Humber, RB Khiry Robinson, TE Benjamin Watson

Offensively, the Saints were forced to say goodbye to a trio of starters from last season in TE Ben Watson, WR Marques Colston, and G Jahri Evans. While the three are well-known names, their production last season was not irreplaceable. Colston and Evans had average seasons and are not getting any younger, so it was not a big surprise to see the Saints move on. Watson was a solid passing-game TE, finishing with the 11th best receiving grade in the league, but he also had the third-lowest blocking grade (out of 73 TEs). Coby Fleener had a rough receiving year last season, but has shown potential in the past at both receiving and blocking. The Saints are hoping a fresh start can allow Fleener to put it all together in the same season and be an improvement to what Watson was for them.

Defensively, the Saints got rid of CB Brandon Browner after he posted the lowest grade we’ve ever given a corner for a season. They also moved on from LBs David Hawthorne and Ramon Humber, both of whom posted below-average grades in limited snaps. The Saints desperately needed upgrades on all three levels of their defense, and they managed to really hit on just one of their three big signings. DT Nick Fairley is an instant upgrade to their defensive interior. His production has been above-average every year and he posted a career-high grade last season, 11th-highest among DTs. He’ll help take some pressure off of DE Cameron Jordan, who was the Saints’ only real pass-rusher last season.

At the linebacker position, the Saints managed to sign two ILBs in Craig Robertson and James Laurinaitis. Robertson has posted decent coverage grades the past two seasons, but has somewhat struggled against the run. Laurinaitis is even worse against the run, and also struggled in pass coverage. For a team that had just one linebacker grade above-average against the run (Hau’oli Kikaha), neither Robertson nor Laurinaitis are real upgrades for that group.

2016 NFL draft

  • Round 1 (12) Sheldon Rankins, DT, Louisville
  • Round 2 (47) Michael Thomas, WR, Ohio State
  • Round 2 (61) (from New England via Arizona) Vonn Bell, S, Ohio State
  • Round 4 (120) (from Washington) David Onyemata, DT, University of Manitoba
  • Round 7 (237) Daniel Lasco, RB, California

Despite only five draft picks this year, the Saints made them count. DT Sheldon Rankins was a top-10 talent; he was the second-highest graded interior defender in 2014, and posted similar production levels last season. He has the ability to play either 3-4 DE or 4-3 DT without any difficulties. He should prove to be an instant upgrade to the Saints’ interior defensive line.

WR Michael Thomas was a big-time Round-2 pick for them, as we had him 24th on our final draft board. He’s one of the best route-runners in this year’s WR class, and has the ability to go up and win the ball at the catch point. He’ll be a good intermediate weapon for the Saints’ offense. S Vonn Bell had the 12th-best coverage grade in this class, and should help anchor the Saints’ secondary. DT David Onyemata and RB Daniel Lasco are projects, but both are phenomenal athletes that the Saints’ coaches are hoping they can mold into productive players at the NFL level.

Conclusion

The Saints’ biggest issue this offseason was their lack of cap space, and they managed to get some relief there by cutting some underperforming veterans loose. However, when it came to actually improving struggling units of their team, the Saints didn’t quite find the success they were hoping for. Offensively, New Orleans will still have issues all along their offensive line, save for the left tackle position. The tight end position didn’t get worse, but didn’t necessarily get better, either. Michael Thomas has a good chance of becoming a solid top-level receiver, but he’s just one.

Defensively, the Saints helped shore up their interior defense with the Fairley signing and the drafting of Rankins. However, they brought in two underwhelming linebackers who don’t figure to improve that unit very much. They added just one defensive back in the draft and free agency combined, save for a handful of undrafted free agents. The Saints still have plenty of holes, and they’ll need a lot of players to step up in an unexpectedly huge way to have a successful season.

| Analyst

Bryson has been an analyst at Pro Football Focus since 2014, and has also been a contributor to 120 Sports.

  • Joe

    Only fair to mention that JL55 played hurt most of the year last year. I’m not saying he’ll be Vilma 2.0, but if he just gets everyone lined up and the right play called in time then he will pay big dividends.

  • Nick Cortez

    I’m a bit more optimistic than this author. The Saints get 3 CBs back from injury and Byrd, Vaccaro, and Bell will do just fine behind them and Breaux. I agree that the front 7 of the defense is not completely there, but don’t disregard the UDFAs signed at Guard and Center as good depth and down the road potential upgrades to the O-Line. The O-Line is not in dire straights, though the Guard spots worry me initially. The WR group is young, but improving, and the RBs are pretty good (though not great). I think this defense will be better than last year and good enough in general for the Saints to go above 500 and be in playoff contention. This may not be a super bowl team this year, but I think they could be there in 2-3 years as these young players develop if Brees can continue to play at a high level.

    • daybreaker2

      Agreed. How would it be an “unexpectedly huge” way that our secondary needs to step up when Lewis, Byrd, and Vacarro have all had multiple good seasons before in the past, and Breaux looked outstanding as a 1st year player?

      • Nick Cortez

        I completely agree. I think that if you just look at the numbers, yes, the Saints have a lot of improving to do. If you take into account injuries (JL in STL and Lewis), I think the Saints have improved their defense a good bit. Only time will tell if Dennis Allen can fix it for certain, though.

        The offense will be very good (top 5). If the Saints get more pressure on the QB, and that turns into more stops and turnovers, this can be a team competing / beating Carolina for the division and going deep into the playoffs. That would be putting a lot on the backs of their first 2 picks this year and first 3 from last year, though.

  • crosseyedlemon

    It’s hard to know how long the Saints will stick with Sean Payton if the team continues to miss the playoffs. He reminds me of Don Coryell who also had a brilliant mind for offense. Unfortunately that only gets you so far when the defense is more porous than Swiss cheese.

  • Chad Pru

    Saints will lose all their games this year save the ones in the regular season playoffs and sulerbowl. I felt ill today save the hours 3 to 5 pm. (Notice the overuse of the word save)