New Orleans Saints Offseason State of the Union
On the heels of an 11-5 regular season, the Saints marched to the divisional round of the NFC playoffs last year. Their loss to the Seattle Seahawks magnified a number of weak spots, prompting general manager Mickey Loomis to begin a somewhat extensive personnel overhaul shortly thereafter.
New Orleans released several high-priced veteran starters but upgraded at most of these positions with younger, less expensive talent.
These changes should make the Saints a more complete all-around football team in 2014, as quarterback Drew Brees and Company set their sights on a spot in the Super Bowl next February.
The following is the New Orleans Saints' "state of the union" for this offseason, complete with an in-depth look at each important area of the squad.
Coach Sean Payton’s pass offense usually operates like a well-oiled machine, and this year’s aerial attack should greatly benefit from a much-needed offseason tuneup.
While Brees enjoyed another Pro Bowl season in 2013, the New Orleans passing game wasn’t quite as explosive as in previous years.
The Saints often had to put together long scoring drives, as the big play didn’t occur as frequently as fans are used to seeing.
To address the issue, the Saints used their first-round draft choice on explosive playmaker Brandin Cooks of Oregon State. The dynamic wideout scored a total of 18 touchdowns in 13 games last season and made a weekly habit of ripping through Pac-12 defenses like a hot knife through butter.
New Orleans also acquired fullback Erik Lorig via free agency. The former Tampa Bay Buccaneer and converted tight end should bring an additional element to the Saints' passing game, as he’ll likely be used extensively on short-out routes out of the backfield.
Of course, the Saints still have a host of returning veteran contributors to the passing game, including tight end Jimmy Graham, running back Pierre Thomas and wide receiver Marques Colston.
Then there’s the all-important area of pass protection. The Saints struggled in 2013 in this department, as left tackle Charles Brown regressed as the season went on. Then-rookie Terron Armstead replaced him in Week 16, and the second-year pro looks to have a bright future in New Orleans protecting Brees’ blind side. Veteran right tackle Zach Strief was re-signed this offseason and provides a capable complement to Armstead.
A couple of second-year players should also make a significant impact in the passing game. Wideout Kenny Stills hauled in 32 receptions as a rookie last year and is set to take on a much larger role this season. There’s also tight end Josh Hill, who showed some promise in limited action in 2013 after signing with the team as an undrafted free agent.
The Saints’ passing attack shouldn’t lack for weapons this coming season, and with Brees leading the way, the numbers should once again be off the charts.
Amid talk of Brees, Graham and the New Orleans passing game, the team’s ground attack often gets lost in the discussion.
All signs point to the Saints having a formidable rushing attack in 2014, which will be spearheaded by two Pro Bowl guards, Jahri Evans and Ben Grubbs.
The duo is poised to lead New Orleans’ running game to a big season, as the team’s backfield is stocked with talented ball-carriers.
Starting running back Pierre Thomas will embark on his eighth season in black and gold. He’ll likely split carries with Mark Ingram and Khiry Robinson. Thomas, who’s also featured prominently in the passing game, can certainly hold his own as a between-the-tackles back, but Ingram and Robinson are more powerful downhill runners. The young tandem should be able to convert more often than not in short-yardage situations.
With a stable of capable backs, along with a couple of accomplished run-blockers, Payton may be tempted to utilize his running game more often this season. This will, in turn, give his high-flying offense more balance and should help make the Saints a legitimate contender in the NFC.
Defensive Front Seven
Strength at the point of attack is the cornerstone of a successful defense. Second-year coordinator Rob Ryan has exactly that in the form of defensive ends Cameron Jordan and Akiem Hicks.
Jordan led the team with 12.5 sacks last season and is looking to make an even bigger impact this year. As for Hicks, the sky is the limit for the 6’5”, 325-pounder in his second season as a starter. He possesses rare explosion for a player of his size, and his technique is continuously improving.
Curtis Lofton leads a capable linebacking corps. He and fellow inside ‘backer David Hawthorne had their ups and downs in 2013, but both will be much more comfortable in Ryan’s 3-4 scheme this season.
On the outside, Junior Galette and Victor Butler should form a fierce pass-rushing tandem. Galette will try to improve on his 12 sacks from a year ago, while Butler looks to rebound from a major knee injury that caused him to miss the entire season.
The Saints didn’t make significant changes to their front seven this offseason, but the group is still relatively young, with numerous starters still developing.
With Ryan keeping offenses on their toes with his seemingly endless array of exotic defenses, the New Orleans defensive front should be a highly respected unit by season’s end.
The strength of the New Orleans defense looks to be the defensive backfield. This group certainly wasn’t bad a year ago, but this offseason has brought numerous changes that should make the Saints a more complete team in 2014.
The first name that warrants attention is newly acquired free safety Jairus Byrd. The former Buffalo Bill possesses rare deep-coverage abilities and should be a significant upgrade over former starter Malcolm Jenkins, who signed with Philadelphia this offseason.
Byrd’s presence on the back end will allow versatile strong safety Kenny Vaccaro to be used in a variety of ways, most notably as a run defender.
There’s also safety Rafael Bush, who brings a hard-nosed, heavy-hitting mentality to the secondary. Bush never hesitates to lower the boom when given the opportunity and should see the field often this season when Ryan opts to go with a three-safety look.
This offseason has also ushered in change at the cornerback position. Gone is former starter Jabari Greer, but now in the fold is 12-time Pro Bowler Champ Bailey.
The former Denver Broncos team captain will have to beat out a host of competitors for the coveted No. 2 corner spot, however. These candidates include Corey White, Patrick Robinson and 2014 second-round draft pick Stanley Jean-Baptiste.
As for the No. 1 corner slot, that belongs to Keenan Lewis. The former Pittsburgh Steeler was outstanding in his first season in New Orleans last year, and the lockdown cover man is eyeing another solid campaign in 2014.
With the arrivals of Byrd, Bailey and Jean-Baptiste, the Saints’ secondary made big strides this offseason in the personnel department. The group now looks to be quite formidable.
Quality special teams play is essential when competing for a championship, and the Saints should have serviceable units across the board in 2014.
New Orleans elected to bring back kicker Shayne Graham, who did an admirable job last year as a late-season replacement for the struggling Garrett Hartley. In fact, Graham booted the game-winning field goal that secured the Saints’ Wild Card playoff victory over Philadelphia.
Strong-legged punter Thomas Morstead will also return in 2014, but the punt return game is where questions start to arise.
This offseason, New Orleans traded away Darren Sproles, who served as the team’s punt returner for the past three seasons. Kickoff return man and reserve running back Travaris Cadet is the best bet to replace him, but don’t rule out wide receivers Brandin Cooks and Joseph Morgan just yet.
After a highly active offseason, the New Orleans Saints are primed for a successful year in 2014. When a team wins a playoff game and reaches the divisional playoff round, a significant overhaul isn’t necessarily needed.
The Saints aren’t satisfied with what they accomplished last season, however, and change is often necessary if a good team is to become great.