Showcasing New Orleans Saints' Biggest Strengths and Draft Needs
The New Orleans Saints went 7-9 and missed the playoffs for the first time in four seasons. The team's offense was still one of the best in the NFL, but the defense ranked dead last, giving up nearly 60 yards per game more than any other team in the league.
It's a season that will be remembered for the bounty accusations, which ultimately led to head coach Sean Payton sitting out the entire campaign. The impact the entire ordeal had on the team is likely a major reason it didn't reach expectations.
Payton will return next season and should bring a sense of normalcy back to the franchise. That said, there are definitely some weaknesses that must be addressed in the offseason if they want to make a return to the postseason in 2013.
With that in mind, let's examine each area of the Saints' roster and explore where they should focus their available resources in the coming months. There's no doubt it's going to be a very important draft cycle for New Orleans if it wants to bounce back right away.
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The Saints are obviously in good hands at quarterback. Drew Brees has passed for more than 10,000 yards over the past two seasons and has only missed two games in the past nine seasons. Few field generals can rival that type of production and durability.
Furthermore, Brees just signed a long-term contract extension with the team prior to the season. So Saints fans should feel totally confident they are going to get top-tier quarterback play for at least the next four years.
Backup Chase Daniel is due to become a free agent and his return probably hinges on how important of a factor playing time will be. If he ends up leaving New Orleans, the Saints shouldn't invest more than a late-round pick to replace him.
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Mark Ingram led the Saints with just over 600 rushing yards. Three other running backs had at least 200 yards. Instead of relying on a single do-it-all back, the Saints have decided to go with a committee approach and it works for their offense.
Since they are such a pass-happy team, it wouldn't make sense to invest heavily in a back. Ingram and Pierre Thomas can handle the ground game, while Darren Sproles is a major threat coming out of the backfield on passing plays.
Chris Ivory is a restricted free agent but, given the team's depth at the position and need to clear cap space to upgrade the defense, he can't be considered a lock to return. Either way, the Saints don't need to add any more running backs this offseason.
Wide Receivers and Tight Ends
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Wide receivers Marques Colston and Lance Moore both topped the 1,000-yard mark, and star tight end Jimmy Graham likely would have made it if he didn't miss a game. Joseph Morgan and Devery Henderson both chipped in over 300 yards, as well.
Henderson and the rarely used Courtney Roby are both slated to become free agents. The Saints could use at least one of them to stay to serve as the No. 4 wideout, but it all comes down to cost. They shouldn't overpay to keep either.
It's important for New Orleans to ensure that Brees' group of targets is always stacked considering he attempted over 40 passes per game. Luckily for the Saints, most of the big names are locked up and they should be fine in this area.
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The Saints have some decisions to make along the offensive line. It starts with left tackle Jermon Bushrod. He's coming off a solid season and will be a coveted commodity if he hits the open market, which puts New Orleans in a tough spot.
Brian de la Puente is the other player to keep an eye on. The center doesn't receive a lot of attention, but he's developed into the most reliable member of the line. He's a restricted free agent and the Saints should definitely bring him back.
Overall, New Orleans ranked 17th in run blocking and seventh in pass protection, according to Football Outsiders. While that would suggest they need some improvement up front, the Saints would probably be happy to enter next season with the same starting five.
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The general theme for New Orleans' offense is that its good enough. Some areas are great and others are simply average or better. But the same can't be said about the defense, and it starts with a lack of pressure up front.
Cameron Jordan led the team in sacks with just eight. Fellow defensive end Will Smith had six. In all, the Saints registered less than two sacks per game and that isn't going to cut it, especially with a shaky secondary.
So New Orleans should use its first-round pick on a pass-rusher. A couple players to watch leading up to April are Ezekiel Ansah, Dion Jordan and Alex Okafor. All of them would provide an upgrade for the Saints off the edge.
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Curtis Lofton arrived to the Saints from the division rival Atlanta Falcons and provided the steady play the team was looking for up the middle. He finished with 112 tackles, two forced fumbles and a sack. One of the few bright spots on defense.
The same can't be said for outside linebackers David Hawthorne and Jonathan Vilma. Both players struggled to make a consistent impact in their 11 games and the Saints should be looking to add more depth to the position as a result.
Khaseem Greene is an intriguing prospect from Rutgers. He's a terrific athlete with strong tackling ability, which is exactly what the Saints need. If they miss out on him, Arthur Brown and Chase Thomas are worth targeting in the early rounds.
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Whenever a team gives up nearly 300 yards per game through the air, it's clear the secondary needs some work. The Saints are certainly no exception after watching their defensive backs get torched on a weekly basis.
Starters Jabari Greer and Patrick Robinson both had lackluster seasons and nobody else stepped up to fill the void. Malcolm Jenkins and Roman Harper, the team's starting safeties, weren't any better. The secondary was a disaster for extended periods of time.
The good news is that the Saints should be able to find some secondary value in the middle rounds of the draft. Blidi Wreh-Wilson and Leon McFadden are two corners that should be available at that point. The same goes for safeties Robert Lester and Zeke Motta.
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New Orleans' special teams should remain virtually unchanged. Kicker Garrett Hartley and punter Thomas Morstead are both locked up for the long haul, and Darren Sproles handles most of the return duties for the Saints, with some help from Travaris Cadet.
Although it's a bit concerning that Hartley only connected on 77 percent of his field-goal attempts, he only got 22 chances. That was the fewest among kickers who played in every game, so he didn't really hurt the Saints too much.
Sproles and Cadet both averaged over 26 yards per kick return, which puts them in the top half of the league. So, much like the offense, special teams is an area where the Saints can feel confident while they work to bolster the defense.