Examining New Orleans Saints' Offseason and Key Preseason Positional Battles

Justin OnslowContributor IIJune 13, 2013

Examining New Orleans Saints' Offseason and Key Preseason Positional Battles

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    After an 0-4 start to the 2012 season, the New Orleans Saints began to hit their stride, winning five of their next six contests with an NFC South title in mind. Four more losses in their last six games would result in a 7-9 record, however, and New Orleans was left to look ahead to the 2013 season a little earlier than expected.

    But last year’s campaign wasn’t exactly a normal year. With general manager Mickey Loomis suspended for eight games and head coach Sean Payton suspended for the entire season, the Saints entered the 2012 campaign without the architects of a team that had previously established itself as an elite franchise in the NFC ranks.     

    While Payton’s offensive prowess was certainly missed, it was New Orleans’ defense that sank the team’s playoff hopes in 2012, due in no small part to the absence of defensive coordinator Gregg Williams, who saw his way out of town with an indefinite suspension from the league following Bountygate.

    With little established direction at the top of the chain (and glaring lack of talent at several key positions), the Saints shattered the 1981 Baltimore Colts’ single-season record for yards allowed in a season, giving up 7,042 yards to opponents in 2012—to say nothing of the 28.4 points per game they allowed.

    But the 2012 season is in the past. With Loomis and Payton back at the helm, New Orleans was able to look ahead to a rebuilding effort this offseason, focusing primarily on the defensive side of the ball.

    New Orleans’ first big move was firing defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo and replacing him with former Dallas Cowboys defensive coordinator Rob Ryan—a move that will have a massive impact on the team in 2013. We’ll touch on that more in the following slideshow.

    The Saints also made a bevy of changes on the player personnel side, predicated on free-agent spending and a solid 2013 draft class.

    Loomis went to work on the free-agent market in acquiring former Pittsburgh Steelers cornerback Keenan Lewis and Dallas Cowboys outside linebacker Victor Butler, the latter of whom Ryan was very familiar with after having spent the last two seasons coaching him.

    Unfortunately for Loomis and the Saints defense, the acquisition of Butler hasn’t gone as expected. As reported by Larry Holder of the New Orleans Times-Picayune, the 25-year-old tore his ACL on Tuesday during the team’s OTAs and will miss the 2013 season.

    Butler was expected to be a key component to New Orleans’ pass rush this year, but with the newly signed linebacker on the shelf, Loomis will have to draft up a Plan B to fill the position.

    In hindsight, Loomis could have opted to add additional depth in the 2013 draft as a contingency plan for a similar situation, but given the fact that he only had five picks to work with, Loomis can’t be to blame. It was an unexpected setback that will now have to be addressed as quickly as possible.

    Given the availability of a few talented veteran pass-rushers still on the free-agent market, the Saints may still be able to add a pass-rushing element before the start of the season. Who that would be remains to be seen, however.

    Along with Loomis’ top defensive acquisitions, the GM also made some solid offensive signings this offseason, including tight end Benjamin Watson, offensive tackle Jason Smith and quarterback Seneca Wallace. While Watson stands to see plenty of time in sub packages and in relief of Jimmy Graham, Smith is the most likely of the trio to see a big role on the offense this season after starting left tackle Jermon Bushrod departed for Chicago in free agency.

    Smith has an outside chance of earning the left tackle spot this season, but he’ll have some competition. Along with 2012 backup left tackle Charles Brown, he’ll have to contend with rookie third-round pick Terron Armstead.

    Armstead is still very raw, but his tremendous athleticism was enough to warrant an early-round selection from Loomis and the Saints. While some considered the pick a bit of a risk, the Saints weren’t worried about perceived value, especially after making a fantastic value pick in the round prior.

    With the 15th pick in the draft, New Orleans selected Texas safety Kenny Vaccaro—arguably the best defensive back in the entire draft class. With so much inconsistency at the safety positions, New Orleans couldn’t have asked for a better option.

    The results of New Orleans’ offseason efforts won’t be apparent until the 2013 season begins, but it’s an excellent sign that Loomis was quick to address the team’s biggest areas of need.

    We’ll take a closer look at many of those offseason moves and also preview a few positions worth keeping an eye on as the season closes in.

2013 NFL Draft

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    Round 1 (Pick 15): S Kenny Vaccaro, Texas

    Round 3 (Pick 75): OT Terron Armstead, Arkansas-Pine Bluff

    Round 3 (Pick 82): DT John Jenkins, Georgia

    Round 5 (Pick 144): WR Kenny Stills, Oklahoma

    Round 6 (Pick 183): OLB Rufus Johnson, Tarleton State

     

    Grade: B+

     

    In selecting Kenny Vaccaro with their first-round pick, the Saints added a new element to the back end of their defense. The Texas product has the range, athleticism, speed and ball skills to completely transform New Orleans’ secondary, though the addition of Keenan Lewis also helps the cause.

    Given Vaccaro’s projected value in a crop of top-tier safeties that dried up rather quickly, Loomis made a smart decision in adding him at No. 15. The Saints certainly had other needs to address, but it wouldn’t have been possible to find an impact defensive back as talented as Vaccaro in the second round.

    New Orleans’ second pick was one that will likely need some time for accurate assessment, however.

    Arkansas-Pine Bluff offensive tackle Terron Armstead was among the most intriguing offensive line prospects of the 2013 draft class, but his immediate impact at the NFL remains to be seen.

    Armstead has tremendous size and athleticism for the position, but he’s also very raw and will likely experience his share of bumps along the road to NFL success—though the Saints seem to be focused on finding out for sure this offseason.

    According to Mike Triplett of the New Orleans Times-Picayune, Armstead has been working with the first-team starters in a rotation with Charles Brown:

    It makes sense the Saints would want to see what they have in Armstead this offseason. After all, they didn’t draft him in the third round to sit on the bench in his formative years with the team. If he makes the transition quickly enough, Armstead could find his way into the starting lineup by Week 1.

    With their third pick, the Saints went back to the defensive side of the ball in selecting a true nose tackle to ease the transition to a 3-4 under Rob Ryan. Georgia’s John Jenkins is a massive tackle whose size, strength and strong anchor make him a perfect fit at the 0-technique tackle position (more on that later).

    In the fifth and sixth rounds, New Orleans selected a pair of players who have plenty of upside, but probably won’t see the field much in 2013.

    While Kenny Stills adds depth to an already talented group of receiving threats, making the jump to playing receiver at the NFL level is no easy task. He may see some action as the season progresses, but don’t expect the Oklahoma product to be a difference-maker in 2013.

    Rufus Johnson could be a different story, however.

    With Victor Butler likely out for the year, Johnson will play a crucial role in adding depth to a unit already in a transitional phase. But again, it’s hard to imagine the sixth-rounder settling in to an expanded role, especially with plenty of time for Loomis to reach out to available outside linebackers on the free-agent market.

    In all, it was a very good draft class for the Saints, who filled positional needs and exploited value throughout the first three rounds. With only five picks to put it all together, Loomis did an admirable job and deserves a lot of credit for his efforts.

Tackling Left Tackle

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    As much as Sean Payton would like to mix in a balanced offensive attack, the Saints’ offense will be predicated on an explosive aerial assault as long as Drew Brees is under center.

    In 2012, the Saints posted just 370 rushing attempts for a 4.3 yards-per-carry average—the former ranking 29th in the league and the latter 13th.

    But regardless of the volume of rushing attempts we’re likely to see this year, New Orleans has to find a way to get a little more out of its offensive line in that facet of the game. Pass-protection wasn’t an issue last season, but there’s room for improvement in the running game.

    According to Football Outsiders, the Saints' offensive line ranked 17th in the league in run-blocking last season, while posting an impressive No. 7 ranking in pass protection. Given the insanely large volume of passes New Orleans attempted last year (671), that’s a very good sign.

    With Jermon Bushrod leaving in free agency, a big piece of that puzzle is now missing, however.

    Terron Armstead, Jason Smith and Charles Brown will all be in the mix to assume Bushrod’s blindside role this season, and given the lack of anything substantial involving the leading candidates, projecting a starter at the position will require some conjecture.

    Given the fact that Smith, the No. 2 pick in the 2009 draft, failed to make a positive impact in St. Louis before being dealt to the Jets, New Orleans should have tempered expectations for him this season. He’s still young and has room to grow, but he’ll face an uphill battle to anchor an offensive line blocking for one of the league’s best quarterbacks.

    Brown is the most likely candidate to assume the role, but he’s struggled with injuries in the past and needs to stay on the field if he is to have a shot of securing the starting job. Given his durability concerns, Armstead may actually make a strong case for extra consideration.

    Ultimately, the Saints could be in a much worse situation, though. With three candidates to replace Bushrod, they at least enter the season with a mix of experience, upside and depth at the position.

    With Aaron Kromer taking the offensive coordinator role in Chicago this offseason, new offensive line coach Bret Ingalls will also have to consider how the left tackle battle affects the rest of the unit—at least from a depth perspective

    Ben Grubbs, Brian de la Puente and Jahri Evans have the interior of the line locked down, and Zach Strief is likely in line for the starting right tackle role should he stay healthy throughout the offseason. With four-fifths of the starting unit penciled in, the biggest questions involve which player starts at left tackle and where the rest of the group fits in on the depth chart.

    Signing Smith was a terrific move in that regard. Even if he doesn’t win the starting left tackle role this offseason, he has experience playing on the right side—arguably his more natural position. In a reserve role, Smith will provide depth at both spots.

    The Saints have one of the best starting offensive lines in the league, and while the unit’s most important position is still up for grabs, there’s no reason to believe it can’t be a top-10 line again this season.

A Youth Movement

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    While New Orleans continually fields a solid group of receivers, Devery Henderson left in free agency to sign with the Washington Redskins (per CBS Sports) and Marques Colston and Lance Moore enter the 2013 season as the only established NFL receivers on the roster.

    Joe Morgan saw action behind the trio last season as the Saints’ No. 4 wideout, but he was also extremely inconsistent. And according to Michelle Hunter of The New Orleans Time-Picayune , the speedy deep threat was recently arrested for DWI and driving without a valid driver’s license.

    While his arrest isn’t likely to land Morgan in Sean Payton’s doghouse, it will be interesting to see if the off-field incident opens the door for second-year receiver Nick Toon to see a little extra action in offseason workouts.

    Toon missed all of 2012 with a foot injury, though he probably wouldn’t have cracked the starting lineup were he healthy. This year will be different, though, as the Saints look ahead to plenty of uncertainty at the position.

    Along with Toon, Oklahoma rookie Kenny Still could be in line for some playing time early in the season, but expect Morgan and Toon to lead the way with a year of NFL experience already under their respective belts.

    Courtney Roby and Chris Givens will also be young players to watch as the receiver battle heats up. The pair combined for just one catch last season, but with inexperience littering the group, any of the four young wideouts could find themselves in the mix by Week 1.

    With the most experience of the group, Morgan is the most likely candidate to start behind Colston and Moore, but at this point in the offseason, the No. 4 spot is up for grabs with no clear-cut front-runner taking the lead.

    Look for Toon, Givens and Roby to be the leading candidates as the season draws near while Stills continues to get acclimated to playing at the NFL level.

    While inexperience highlights this group of receivers, few NFL quarterbacks are better than Brees at bringing along young wideouts. With Colston and Moore still in place, New Orleans shouldn’t struggle to sustain its dominant passing offense in 2013.

     

    Projected WR Depth Chart

    No. 1 Marques Colston  
    No. 2 Lance Moore  
    No. 3 Joe Morgan  
    No. 4 Nick Toon  
    No. 5 Courtney Roby  
    No. 6 Chris Givens  
    No. 7 Kenny Stills  


The Big Question

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    Forget positional battles for a minute. It’s time to look at New Orleans’ entire defense.

    After a horrid 2012 campaign that saw the Saints crush the single-season record for yards allowed, the organization saw fit to move away from Steve Spagnuolo in favor of Rob Ryan and his 3-4 defense.

    Ryan, who churned out a couple average defenses in Dallas, is still a highly regarded defensive coordinator, but he faces perhaps the most difficult challenge of his career in revamping the Saints defense.

    In fairness to both Ryan and New Orleans, it was time for a complete overhaul anyway. With Spagnuolo’s base 4-3 front out the door, the Saints had an opportunity to rework things from top to bottom, and they’ve spent much of the offseason doing just that.

    For as often as we talk about the differences between the 4-3 and 3-4 defenses, it’s not really as complex or convoluted as often perceived. Most teams in the league run a high percentage of sub packages (especially those in the NFC South facing some terrific passing offenses) that effectively eliminate many of the nuances of a team’s base defense.

    But switching to a 3-4 does require personnel changes—changes that will also affect how the Saints operate out of nickel and dime packages, both in pass defense and from a pass-rushing standpoint.

    The biggest of which involves New Orleans’ pass-rushers.

    Again, the differences are subtle. In Spagnuolo’s 4-3, defensive ends were the primary pass-rushers on most downs, as is the case in most four-man fronts. In Ryan’s 3-4 base, big, physical outside linebackers provide most of the defense’s pass rush, though with Victor Butler out for the year, it remains to be seen who will be provided the heat.

    One thing holds true with Ryan, however: No obstacle is too complex for his deep playbook. When the season rolls around, he’ll have a solid pass rush in place, regardless of who is lined up at outside linebacker.

    And for Ryan’s sake, New Orleans had better improve on its pass rush. In 2012, the Saints recorded just 30 sacks—tied for 25th in the league in that category.

    Martez Wilson, Junior Galette and Will Smith are the three most likely candidates to provide the Saints’ pass rush this season. Wilson spent time at both linebacker and defensive end last season (as he did in college at Illinois), while Galette was a full-time defensive end and primary pass-rusher.

    The pair has been working at linebacker during OTAs, and one of the two should now be in line to fill Butler’s vacancy at the position. Given Wilson’s youth and previous experience at linebacker, he looks like the early leader to assume the role.

    But Smith is another intriguing defensive player worth keeping an eye on. One of New Orleans’ most productive defensive linemen, Smith is poised to transition to the Jack role in 2013—a position that, despite its ambiguous terminology, is absolutely vital to the success of a 3-4 defense.

    As the Jack, Smith will be New Orleans’ primary pass-rusher regardless of where he lines up. In many cases, the Jack moves around from position to position, both as a stand-up linebacker and end-of-the-line edge-rusher.

    Given Smith’s size (6’3”, 282 pounds) and inexperience as a stand-up linebacker, he won’t be a three-down linebacker for the Saints this season. Wilson and Galette are still likely to see plenty of action on first and second down.

    But Smith is going to see his share of snaps. In an attacking Ryan defense, it’s entirely likely Smith leads the team in sacks this year, whether he does it from the edge or as an interior pass-rusher in nickel and dime packages.

    New Orleans’ schematic changes don’t stop at the pass rush, however. The Saints also need to find some big bodies capable of manning a two-gap front.

    Akiem Hicks was expected to anchor the defensive line at nose tackle this season, but with the addition of John Jenkins in the third round of the draft, Hicks will start out predominantly at the 5-technique defensive end position—though he’ll likely move around the three-man front quite often throughout the season.

    At 351 pounds, Jenkins is as absolute monster of a defensive lineman, perfectly suited for the nose tackle responsibilities of a two-gap scheme. Predicated on tying up blockers and commanding double-teams to allow linebackers to shoot gaps, Jenkins will find a home rather easily in the new 3-4 front.

    2011 first-round pick Cameron Jordan should remain at defensive end following the switch. He has the size (6’4”, 287 pounds) to be a terrific fit on the weak side, though fans shouldn’t expect him to tally a lot of sacks in 2013.

    As a 3-4 end, Jordan’s responsibility will shift from getting penetration and attacking opposing pass-rushers to manning two gaps and using his size and length to disrupt blockers at the end of the line. It’s a thankless gig at the NFL level, but Jordan will be a crucial element to improving New Orleans’ pass rush—even if he isn’t the one notching the sacks.

    Just as a good defense is a strong offense, a good pass rush is just as important to shutting down opposing passing attacks as a team’s secondary. As long as the pass rush does its job, the Saints' secondary should be much improved this season, especially with some key additions.

    Keenan Lewis got his shot as the Pittsburgh Steelers’ starting corner last season and quickly made a name for himself as the team’s best playmaker at the position. Unwilling to give him a big contract, the Steelers let him walk in free agency.

    Lewis is young, talented and hungry, and having played behind an attacking 3-4 front in Pittsburgh, he’ll also be prepared to handle the No. 1 responsibilities in New Orleans. He still has a lot to prove, but Lewis will be a crucial piece to the puzzle this season, and the Saints’ defense will be a lot better off for it.

    Kenny Vaccaro will also play a huge role in what Ryan can do with his defense this season, though he may not be as NFL ready as some expected.

    In a 3-4, safeties typically spend less time in the box and more time in deep-half coverage. The Texas product is exceptional in defense of the run, but he still needs some work on his play-recognition skills and general instincts as a defender.

    Still, Vaccaro was one of the best playmakers in the 2013 draft class, and he shouldn’t need much time to transition to the pro level. There will undoubtedly be bumps along the way, but as is usually the case when a team changes its defensive schemes, New Orleans’ entire defense will be subject to some growing pains as it makes the necessary in-season adjustments.

    The Saints have put themselves in a position to be a much better defensive unit this season, but then again, it’s hard to perform much worse than it did in 2012. Don’t expect New Orleans to climb to the top of the defensive ranks this season, but do expect a much-improved pass rush and a less porous passing defense going forward.

    Prediction: No. 20 total defense, No. 19 pass defense, No. 16 rushing defense 

2013 Schedule

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    2013 New Orleans Saints Schedule
    Week Date Opponent Time TV
    1 Sept. 8
     vs. Atlanta Falcons 1 p.m. FOX
    2 Sept. 15
     @ Tampa Bay Buccaneers 4:05 p.m. FOX
    3 Sept. 22
     vs. Arizona Cardinals 1 p.m. FOX
    4 Sept. 30  vs. Miami Dolphins 8:40 p.m. ESPN
    5 Oct. 6  @ Chicago Bears 1 p.m. FOX
    6 Oct. 13  @ New England Patriots 4:25 p.m. FOX
    7 Oct. 20  BYE N/A N/A
    8 Oct. 27  vs. Buffalo Bills 1 p.m. CBS
    9 Nov. 3  @ New York Jets 1 p.m. FOX
    10 Nov. 10  vs. Dallas Cowboys 8:30 p.m. NBC
    11 Nov. 17  vs. San Francisco 49ers 4:25 p.m. FOX
    12 Nov. 21  @ Atlanta Falcons 8:25 p.m. NFL
    13 Dec. 2  @ Seattle Seahawks 8:40 p.m. ESPN
    14 Dec. 8  vs. Carolina Panthers 1 p.m. FOX
    15 Dec. 15  @ St. Louis Rams 1 p.m. FOX
    16 Dec. 22
     @ Carolina Panthers 1 p.m. FOX
    17 Dec. 29
     vs. Tampa Bay Buccaneers 1 p.m. FOX

     

    *For a complete look at New Orleans' 2013 schedule, check out NFL.com.

Season Outlook

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    With Sean Payton back at the helm, Drew Brees again under center and a defense that should be leaps and bounds better than it was last season, the Saints are poised for a bounce-back 2013 campaign and a pursuit of the NFC South title.

    NFL offenses begin and end at the quarterback position, and there’s no question the Saints have one of the league’s best signal-callers in control of the offense. While he put up tremendous stats last season, it was apparent Payton’s absence had an effect on Brees’ performance.

    Payton is a terrific offensive mind, and New Orleans should have no trouble recreating its offensive success from a year ago. In fact, it wouldn’t be a shock to see the Saints top those numbers en route to a stellar offensive performance in 2013.

    In addition, Payton’s squad faces one of the league’s least challenging schedules this season. Outside the NFC South, the Saints face just three playoff teams from a season ago in the New England Patriots, Seattle Seahawks and San Francisco 49ers.

    With a schedule littered with lesser teams, the Saints have a very big opportunity to reclaim their place atop the NFC South. No game is a guaranteed win, but the Arizona Cardinals, Buffalo Bills, New York Jets and Miami Dolphins all present New Orleans with a good opportunity to notch a victory.

     

    Prediction: 11-5, Second in NFC South, First Wild-Card Team

    While New Orleans boasts an absolutely electric passing offense, defense will be a big question mark again this season. As a result, the Saints may struggle to overtake the Atlanta Falcons in the division race.

    There aren’t many games the Saints should enter as underdogs, however. Provided Payton has his squad ready to play, New Orleans shouldn’t struggle to win at least 10 games in 2013.

    Realistically, anywhere from nine to 12 wins is entirely possible. But given the progress the Saints made this offseason, the result should be near the top end of that spectrum.