The 2013 season has been a revealing one for the New Orleans Saints. For what once looked like a cakewalk to the NFC South's divisional crown has now ended up resembling a trek through the muddy waters of the Bayou.
After starting out 6-0, with many of those wins coming in emphatic fashion, the Saints finished the season with an 11-5 record and must now spend the playoffs on the road. Although all fans consider this season a much more enjoyable one than last season's 7-9 debacle, one can't help but wonder how the results of the disappointing finish were derived.
Personnel-wise, the Saints are as talented as ever in a majority of spots on both sides of the ball. They have gritty competitors with unwavering talent. Conversely, the Saints have talent that didn't quite live up to expectations as well.
The Saints have a ton of positives to hang their hats on. Conversely, there are a few areas where they should hang their heads.
Let's see what stood out. Here are the complete roster grades from the 2013 regular season.
Note: Players are graded on the standard scale. Higher grades are given for splash plays (TDs, INTs, sacks, etc.) and proper technique. Conversely, lower grades are given for turnovers and improper technique.
Drew Brees: A+
Drew Brees had another outstanding season as the signal-caller for the Saints. Not only is he one of the league's premier players, he may also be its most outstanding leader. Head coach Sean Payton puts a ton on Brees' plate, and and all the quarterback does is deliver on a weekly basis.
His intelligence may only be superseded by his moxie, and his accuracy is unparalleled. Brees finished with 39 touchdowns opposed to just 12 interceptions for 5,162 yards. He also completed 68.6 percent of his passes for a 104.7 rating.
Brees makes football look easy at times. He's the reason us older people go to the park and get injured trying to replicate what he does.
Pierre Thomas: B-
Pierre Thomas brings a ton to the passing game. He may very well be the best in the league at screens, but his between-the-tackles prowess left a lot to be desired in 2013. His 3.7 yards per carry came on the most attempts of his career (147).
Although he caught the most passes of his career, his career-low average (6.7) suggests he may not be as effective shouldering more of the load. Earlier in the season, this column suggested Thomas be the focal point of the of the run game; now, I'm not so sure he should even return.
And if he does, it should be in a true reserve role.
Darren Sproles is a lot like Thomas in the fact that he is best used in small doses. He is a jack-of-all-trades back similar to Thomas, but he's a lot more explosive and it shows up in the averages. Both Sproles and Thomas are clutch in addition to being scheme-specific fits in Payton's finesse offense.
Moving forward, one of the two should be jettisoned in favor of a one-size-fits-all back.
Mark Ingram: B
Mark Ingram parlayed what looked like a dismal season into an ultra-impressive performance. His 4.9 average yards per attempt was reminiscent of his collegiate days. He looked physical, explosive and polished. He hasn't fumbled since his rookie season, in 2011, despite the reckless running style.
The Saints still should move Ingram as they have very little confidence in his ability to be a franchise back. But if they keep him, they need to feed him!
Overall Grade: B-
Marques Colston: B-
Marques Colston's season was good (75 catches for 943 yards with five TDs), but there are two ways to look at it. With the emergence of tight end Jimmy Graham one could surmise that Colston should've had his best season ever not being the focal point of defenses.
But on the other hand, it should be noted that Graham cut into Colston's targets. Looking ahead, the Saints should bring in a No. 1 receiver to occupy the Z part of the formation. Colston should now face the second- or third-best defender at this point of his career.
Kenny Stills: B-
Kenny Stills had stretches where he looked like a budding star. Other times he looked like, well, a rookie. The Saints need to play Stills exclusively in the slot where his route-running ability makes him virtually indefensible.
Robert Meachem: C-
Time for Robert Meachem (16 receptions for 324 yards and two TDs) to go. He's a one-trick pony who's no longer consistently effective with that trick. He seems to still have his speed, but his ball skills leave a lot to be desired. If Joe Morgan is healthy, he needs to step right back into the field-stretcher role.
Lance Moore: C
Lance Moore had a couple of decent games but generally looked done—which is amazing considering how effective he was just last season. Moore gained 457 yards on 32 receptions with two TDs.
Jimmy Graham: A++
Graham (86 receptions for 1,215 yards and 16 TDs) is the best receiver on the Saints, and it's not even close. He can stretch the field, move the chains and make the clutch catch. If Graham wasn't on the Saints, they don't make the playoffs.
The Saints brass need to take that into consideration when negotiating Graham's contract this offseason.
Overall Grade: B-
Pass Protection: D
With Brees generally running around like a chicken with its head cut off, it's safe to say the pass protection has been a problem this season. When a player who gets rid of the ball as quickly as Brees is sacked 36 times, you can only imagine how many sacks he avoided.
Pressure bursts pipes and teams applied plenty of it to Brees, which is another reason why he's one of the best to ever do it. He's truly unflappable.
Run Blocking: D
At times, the Saints offensive line seemed as though it could anchor a stout rushing attack. Other times, it looked like it couldn't open a can of tuna. Playing devil's advocate it must be noted that it's hard to establish a rhythm when you run the ball 13 or 14 times per contest.
When the Saints actually committed to the run they looked formidable. But those games where few and far between. A revamp in philosophy is in order moving forward. The back by committee needs to be eradicated.
Overall Grade: D
Cameron Jordan: A+
"Killer" Cam Jordan (12.5 sacks) is the absolute truth. He's equally adept rushing the passer or stopping the run. He's the best player on the defense and is undoubtedly living up to his first-round draft status. To top it off, his success is coming with him playing out of position.
Playing a 6'4", 287-pound man at defensive end—in an even-front alignment—is less than ideal. If Jordan were to one day exclusively play the 5-technique in a 3-4, he may be Hall of Fame-bound. He's that good!
Akiem Hicks: B
Once Akiem Hicks develops consistency he will be a Pro Bowl-caliber player in his own right. It's rare for an interior lineman to cause the type of havoc Hicks does every other game. He's quick, powerful and a general nuisance to running backs and quarterbacks alike.
Junior Galette: A
Junior Galette should've seen his name called for the Pro Bowl after racking up double-digit sacks (12) this season. He benefited from the Saints employing a 4-3-based attack opposed to the 3-4 that was advertised in the offseason.
Not sure if Galette would be as effective dropping into coverage as an outside linebacker in a 3-4-based scheme, nor am I clamoring to find out. Galette plays with great leverage and agility from a down position.
And he's just scratching the surface of how good he will eventually be. It also must be noted that the rotation of Glenn Foster, Tom Johnson and Tyrunn Walker is perfect for the Saints. All three can pressure the QB from the interior no matter the scheme.
Overall Grade: A
Curtis Lofton: B
Curtis Lofton is a tackling machine. He has the ability to read and diagnose with the best of them. He's a quiet leader who brings impact when he tackles. But if the Saints truly want to move to a 3-4-based scheme, it may be time to move on from Lofton.
Lofton doesn't have the skill set to play as an inside linebacker as he doesn't shed blocks very well and can't cover. But make no mistake about it—Lofton can play. So it may be in the Saints' best interest to continue to play the 4-3.
David Hawthorne: B-
David Hawthorne is the perfect complement to Lofton in the 4-3. He's an athlete who has a penchant for making impact plays. But he, too, is a misfit in an odd-front alignment. But in a 4-3 Hawthorne can blitz, cover and bring the thunder when he tackles. He did all of those at a reasonably high level this season.
Parys Haralson: C+
Parys Haralson is the complete opposite of Lofton and Hawthorne. He's best suited as a 3-4 outside linebacker. With the Saints playing mostly 4-3, Haralson's opportunities were limited as he played behind Galette and Jordan.
Haralson still managed to generate 3.5 sacks. Expect an expanded role from Haralson moving forward.
Overall Grade: B-
Keenan Lewis: B+
Keenan Lewis had a good first season in the Big Easy. He definitely has what it takes to be a No. 1 corner. He's feisty, physical and has good speed. He's good at the press and is even better in off-man coverage.
He's not a shutdown corner by any stretch of the imagination as he has average ball skills. The further the pass goes downfield, the higher the probability of it being completed in Lewis' direction.
If Lewis can work on consistently locating the ball in flight, he may see his name called for the Pro Bowl on an annual basis. Lewis finished with four interceptions and 11 passes defensed.
Corey White: C+
Corey White has everything you look for in a No. 1 corner—size, speed, physicality and ball skills. He seems to always be around the ball and will make one splash play per game. White just needs experience, which in turn will help with his inconsistencies at the position.
Jabari Greer: B-
Despite suffering a season-ending injury in Week 11, Jabari Greer still managed to generate a team-leading 12 pass deflections. But his penchant for giving up big plays was a source of concern for much of the season. It's time for the Saints to move on from Greer as White may very well end up being the best corner on the team.
If Greer returns, he needs to be relegated to nickel duties.
Overall Grade: B-
Malcolm Jenkins: B+
Malcolm Jenkins undoubtedly shed the bust label as he had a breakout season in a hybrid role. Jenkins can cover slot receivers and tight ends alike, and he isn't afraid to stick his nose in the run game. He also found his way as a blitzer with 2.5 sacks to his credit.
Jenkins fits the scheme tremendously because of his versatility. Expect more of the same from this talented veteran moving forward.
Kenny Vaccaro: B-
Once Kenny Vaccaro is used exclusively at the strong safety position he will become a superstar. But as a hybrid nickel corner he's kind of average. He doesn't have the type of coverage ability to guard slot receivers. But he is the truth defending tight ends and wreaking havoc around the line of scrimmage.
And he will separate your soul from your carcass when he hits you. He's an excellent addition to a stout Saints defense. Hopefully, he's used more in a traditional role moving forward.
Overall Grade: B