Offseason New Orleans Saints Player Power Rankings
Organized team activities are now in full swing for the New Orleans Saints, which means it’s time for power rankings of the team’s 2014 starters.
New Orleans addressed these shortcomings through both free agency and the draft, and the Saints appear to have improved their personnel on both sides of the ball.
Following is a power ranking of the Saints' projected starters on both offense and defense for the upcoming 2014 season. The players are ranked in descending order, with the top-ranked player as the final slide.
25. Champ Bailey, Cornerback
A player of Champ Bailey’s stature wouldn’t normally rank so low on such a list, but the 12-time Pro Bowler is in a different situation than he’s accustomed to.
Unlike in most of his previous 15 NFL seasons, Bailey began OTAs in the midst of a competition to win a starting position.
Fifth-year cornerback Patrick Robinson and third-year man Corey White are also vying for the Saints' No. 2 corner spot. Although Robinson and White have youth on their side, Bailey is still a safe bet to emerge the victor in this competition.
His experience playing the outside corner position will be a key factor, and his 35-year-old legs may have just enough juice left in them for one more season as a full-time starter.
24. Brandin Cooks, Wide Receiver
While Bailey is on the downside of his career, another key New Orleans newcomer is just starting out.
Brandin Cooks hasn’t played a single down of pro football yet, but one glimpse at his highlight reel suggests he’ll be a perfect fit in New Orleans.
The 2014 first-round draft pick out of Oregon State may be slight in stature (5’9”), but he’s strong, fast and explosive. He also possesses exceptional ball skills, and he’ll provide instant help to New Orleans' passing game.
23. Rafael Bush, Safety
On the team’s official 2014 depth chart, Rafael Bush will likely be listed as the third safety behind Jairus Byrd and Kenny Vaccaro. That doesn’t mean he won’t play a significant role in coordinator Rob Ryan’s hybrid defense, however.
If Ryan decides to tinker with a three-safety look next season, the hard-hitting Bush could flourish.
The New Orleans front office made no bones about its affinity for the fifth–year veteran this offseason. After signing Byrd to a huge free-agent contract this past March, the Saints decided to hang onto Bush as well. New Orleans matched his offer sheet from the Atlanta Falcons, who were pursuing him as a restricted free agent.
22. Victor Butler, Outside Linebacker
The Saints were no slouches in the pass-rushing department in 2013. They registered a total of 49 sacks on the season, which was fourth-most in the NFL.
Had Victor Butler not been lost for the season with a knee injury, however, that number would have likely been higher.
He signed with New Orleans as a free agent last offseason. In 2012, he was coached by Rob Ryan in Dallas, where he backed up DeMarcus Ware.
Now, as he returns from an unfortunate setback, it’s finally Butler’s time to shine, and this season will provide him with an opportunity to play a key role on a formidable defensive unit.
21. David Hawthorne, Inside Linebacker
If there’s a Saint defender who can benefit from more consistent play in 2014, it’s David Hawthorne. The starting inside linebacker turned in some quality performances last season, but he also endured some awful ones.
He has good explosion and impressive closing speed, but he sometimes struggles to shed blocks, and he gets pushed out of the play too frequently. If he becomes a more consistent player this season, the New Orleans run defense could be quite stingy.
20. Brodrick Bunkley, Nose Tackle
One of the most important components of a 3-4 defense is a space-eating nose tackle, and Brodrick Bunkley filled that role nicely for the Saints in 2013.
He won’t be accused of being a dominating player, but Bunkley was dependable in the starting role, while rookie John Jenkins provided him with relief. The rotation will likely be similar in 2014, with Bunkley getting the nod as starter.
He’ll be counted on once again to provide the Saints defensive front with a strong, physical presence at the point of attack.
19. Mark Ingram, Running Back
Mark Ingram is one of the more intriguing players on the New Orleans roster in 2014.
A first-round draft pick in 2011, he was teetering on the label of “bust” heading into last season. In his first two years, he averaged a lackluster 3.9 yards per carry.
After missing five games in the first half of the 2013 season, however, something clicked for the former Heisman Trophy winner. He ran with purpose and intensity throughout the back half of the year, and he finished the season with a yards-per-carry average of 4.9.
If he runs with the same competitive fire this season, the Saints will find him useful when it comes time to grind out victories in the fourth quarter.
18. Kenny Stills, Wide Receiver
The New Orleans receiving corps will have a bit of a different look this season. Gone is Lance Moore, who signed a free-agent contract with Pittsburgh after the Saints unloaded his hefty salary.
Although there’s a lot of buzz surrounding the aforementioned Brandin Cooks, much is also expected of Kenny Stills. The 2013 fifth-round draft selection had a respectable rookie campaign last year, and he should have even better timing chemistry with quarterback Drew Brees this season.
Stills is a capable deep threat, and he’s shown the ability to go up and come down with the ball in traffic.
17. Curtis Lofton, Inside Linebacker
Since coming over from Atlanta as a sought-after free agent in 2012, Curtis Lofton’s New Orleans career has leaned toward the disappointing side.
Yes, he made some big plays last season for the much-improved New Orleans defense, but for the most part, he’s been mediocre since signing with the Saints. He has ideal size to play the role of thumping inside 'backer, but he was out of place too often last season.
As the on-field leader of the New Orleans defense, he’ll need to up his play significantly this season if the Saints are to contend for a title.
16. Shayne Graham, Kicker
Amidst talk of speedy wide receivers and hard-hitting linebackers, the importance of having a reliable kicker sometimes goes forgotten.
The Saints released the struggling Garrett Hartley in Week 15 of last season, and they replaced him with veteran Shayne Graham.
Graham performed well from the get-go, and he booted the crucial game-winning field goal in New Orleans' wild-card playoff victory at Philadelphia.
There's a good chance he'll receive plenty of opportunities to show his mettle in crunch time again this season.
15. Erik Lorig, Fullback
Despite coach Sean Payton’s preference for a high-octane, pass-heavy offense, New Orleans utilizes a fullback more often than some might think.
The converted former tight end is much more versatile than Collins, and he’ll provide the Saints with a legitimate receiving threat out of the backfield. He’s capable of holding his own in the run-blocking department, as well, and his well-rounded skill set should make the New Orleans offense even more dynamic in 2014.
14. Terron Armstead, Offensive Tackle
The left tackle spot is undeniably one of the most important positions in football.
The Saints endured what can best be described as a fiasco at the position in 2013. Charles Brown started for much of the year, but his play continued to regress as the season went on, and he was finally benched after Week 15 in favor of then-rookie Terron Armstead.
The third-round pick from Arkansas Pine-Bluff struggled in his first start against Panthers pass-rushing extraordinaire Charles Johnson. Armstead settled in after that, however, and transitioned nicely into the starting role with respectable outings in playoff contests at Philadelphia and Seattle.
The Saints will rely heavily upon his services this season, as he’ll be given the all-important task of protecting Drew Brees’ blind side.
13. Zach Strief, Offensive Tackle
The New Orleans offensive line didn’t exactly enjoy a banner year in 2013, but right tackle Zach Strief turned in a respectable season.
While Charles Brown had his difficulties on the left side, Strief was much more reliable on the right. Granted, he was handled at times, but, as a whole, his performance was satisfactory.
The Saints rewarded the 6'7," 320-pounder with a five-year contract back in March, thus solidifying the right tackle position for the next several seasons.
12. Pierre Thomas, Running Back
Starting running back Pierre Thomas is somewhat of a jack-of-all-trades for the Saints.
He’s an effective runner between the tackles, and he’s also an accomplished pass-blocker. On top of that, he has reliable hands out of the backfield, and he’s one of the game’s most dangerous scoring threats off the screen pass.
Thomas may lose some carries this fall to Mark Ingram and Khiry Robinson, but he’s still one of Brees’ most trusted offensive weapons, and he’s poised for another successful season in 2014.
11. Ben Grubbs, Guard
Left guard Ben Grubbs wasn’t in top form last season, but he was still good enough to earn a second career Pro Bowl selection.
The eighth–year man out of Auburn had a bit of an up-and-down year in 2013. He struggled in some of New Orleans’ key losses, while he played a big hand in some of the club’s important victories.
To be fair, it should be noted that he was often forced to help struggling left tackle Charles Brown, and his play noticeably improved once Brown was finally shown the bench.
The Saints will count on Grubbs to make a hefty contribution to the ground game once again this season.
10. Kenny Vaccaro, Safety
When New Orleans selected Kenny Vaccaro in the first round of the 2013 draft, it didn’t just draft a safety. It acquired an exceptional all-around football player.
The big-hitting Vaccaro brings a violent mentality to Ryan’s defense, and his talents can be utilized in a variety of ways.
He’s a punishing tackler and an effective blitzer, and he has a nose for the football. He can also lock up in single coverage with a number of the league’s slot receivers, which will allow Rob Ryan to line him up in different spots all over the field.
9. Marques Colston, Wide Receiver
His production dipped a bit, but Marques Colston was still New Orleans’ most productive wideout in 2013.
Despite a nagging knee injury that lingered throughout much of the season, he reeled in 75 passes for 943 yards last year, and he reached the end zone five times.
The 6’4” former collegiate tight end has provided Brees with a sizable target in the passing game since he was drafted by the Saints out of Hofstra in 2006, and if he's healthy, there’s no reason to expect that to change in 2014.
8. Akiem Hicks, Defensive End
Defensive end Akiem Hicks looks to be one of the most promising younger players on the New Orleans roster.
At 6’5” and 325 pounds, he has exceptional size, and his technique has steadily improved since his arrival in 2012.
Last season, he pulled off some jaw-dropping plays that made national highlight reels. The most notable of these occurred against Arizona in Week 3, when he exploded past his blocker and into the backfield for the sack almost as quickly as the ball was snapped.
2014 will be an important year for Hicks, as he looks to become a more consistently dominant player on the Saints defensive front.
7. Junior Galette, Outside Linebacker
Pass-rushing linebacker Junior Galette was the Saints defender who benefited the most from Rob Ryan’s arrival in New Orleans last year.
A 4-3 end in former coordinator Steve Spagnuolo’s dreadful 2012 defense, Galette was given a new role in Ryan’s aggressive scheme, and he seized the opportunity to the tune of 12 sacks last season.
With Victor Butler now added to the mix, the New Orleans pass rush could be quite fearsome in 2014, and Galette is a big reason why.
6. Keenan Lewis, Cornerback
A free-agent acquisition in 2013, Keenan Lewis is the Saints’ most reliable cover man.
He had four interceptions last season to go with nine pass breakups, and he provided the New Orleans defense with press-man coverage capabilities Saints fans hadn’t seen in quite some time.
He’ll be the top cover corner in what appears to be a stacked defensive backfield in 2014.
5. Jairus Byrd, Safety
Free safety Jairus Byrd is the Saints’ most important acquisition of this offseason.
The former Buffalo Bill inked a six-year deal with New Orleans in March, and his presence in the secondary provides the Saints with a truly elite defensive playmaker.
He racked up 22 interceptions and 11 forced fumbles in his five seasons in Buffalo, and his ability to provide sideline-to-sideline coverage in the defensive backfield is reminiscent of Seattle Seahawks safety Earl Thomas.
With Byrd locking things down on the back end, strong safety Kenny Vaccaro will be allowed to creep up in run support much more often.
4. Jahri Evans, Guard
Five–time Pro Bowl selection Jahri Evans is without question the most valuable performer on the New Orleans offensive line.
A capable pass-protector and road-grading run-blocker, the nine–year veteran guard was again solid for the Black and Gold last season. Like some of his teammates on the Saints offensive line, he didn’t enjoy his best of seasons in 2013, but his performance further cemented his status as the Saints’ best offensive lineman.
With much of the line returning, Evans will attempt to spearhead the unit to a successful campaign this fall.
3. Cameron Jordan, Defensive End
Like Junior Galette, Cameron Jordan made leaps and bounds in Rob Ryan’s first season at the helm of the New Orleans defense.
He switched from the left side to the right upon Ryan’s arrival, and the move paid dividends to the tune of a team-leading 12.5 sacks last year.
Heading into the 2014 season, Jordan is the Saints’ most valuable defender, and he’s on the cusp of achieving bona fide NFL stardom.
2. Jimmy Graham, Tight End
Prolific tight end Jimmy Graham’s contract situation has served as an unwanted source of attention for the Saints this offseason, but there’s no denying his greatness on the field.
He racked up 1,215 receiving yards off 86 catches in 2013, and he led the NFL with 16 receiving touchdowns. He’s usually too fast for a linebacker, too tall for a safety and too physical for a cornerback, and he has a profound impact on nearly every game he plays in.
The 2013 All-Pro is currently challenging his designation as a tight end and wants to receive his franchise tender as a wide receiver. His NFLPA grievance hearing to decide the issue is set for June 17-18.
1. Drew Brees, Quarterback
The top spot is the easiest selection to make in the Saints player rankings, and the honor goes to record-shattering quarterback Drew Brees.
The future Hall of Famer and face of the franchise posted another season of 5,000-plus yards in 2013, which was his fourth time to accomplish the feat. It’s noteworthy that this milestone has been accomplished only four other times in NFL history.
Since joining the Saints in 2006, Brees leads the NFL in passing yards, completions and touchdowns. In addition, he holds the NFL single-season records for completion percentage, 300-yard passing games and completions.
Despite their improved roster, there are still some personnel question marks for the New Orleans Saints this coming season. A couple of key starters have yet to be determined, including center and No. 2 cornerback.
It’s tough to deny, however, that the Saints have compiled an impressive collection of talent on both offense and defense, as they look to make another run at the Super Bowl in 2014.