by Brian Umbaugh, @NFLRosters
As long as Drew Brees is at the helm of the New Orleans ship, the Saints are consistent favorites in the NFC South. Five of six writers in this Sports Illustrated article picked the Saints to win. How could they not?
Defense. The same way Seattle dominates with their defense, the Saints suffer with theirs. Pro Football Focus ranked them 31st in the NFL in 2014. The silver lining? Many of them are coming back for 2015, though that seems more of a gray lining.
Unfortunately for New Orleans, they have backed themselves into a pretty tight spot with regard to their salary cap. They are estimated to be more than $20 million over by next season, by far the worst in the league. Some decisions will have to be made.
Brees completed his ninth season in a Saints uniform this year. He still throws the ball as well as ever, and it’s not much of a concern if he loses a step because he doesn’t take many steps. He has been a Top 5 QB since 2009 and trailed only Aaron Rodgers this year. The Saints are paying for that, though; Brees’s cap number for 2015 is $26.4 million, which makes it hard to add necessary players in other areas. If he restructures his $18.5 million salary, the Saints can gain $14.2 million in cap space.
Backups Luke McCown and Ryan Griffin never saw the field this year. The 33 year old McCown hasn’t thrown a pass in a game since 2011, but the Saints have re-signed him primarily using his practice results and veteran presence. They might want to draft a successor soon.
For a few years now, the Saints running game has consisted of a group of running backs that can all run, one that can catch passes, and, to the chagrin of fantasy owners, absolutely no clarity. This year, Mark Ingram had the most carries, but he graded out behind Pierre Thomas and Khiry Robinson because he doesn’t do much in the passing game. Ingram caught 29 passes, but he was not a threat with them. Should Ingram, a UFA, be re-signed? It depends on how much of a raise he wants from his 2014 $2.5 million salary. Thomas makes that same amount, Robinson is cheap, and Travaris Cadet and Tim Hightower are also in the mix. Ingram does not appear incrementally worth re-signing, and the Saints don’t have the money anyway.
Fullback Austin Johnson did a decent job at helping Saints fans forget about Jed Collins before he got injured. Backup Erik Lorig, a free agent signing, did not fare as well. His blocking rated poorly and he only received 11 touches. Neither are used much in this offense, but both are signed through at least 2015.
Wide Receivers and Tight Ends
Top wideout Marques Colston did not have a great year, catching 59 passes and rating lowest of all wideouts on the roster. The 32 year old will have a $9.7 million cap number and he’s not worth that, but cutting him wouldn’t relieve all that. However, the team just might need that $4.3 million in savings because of their cap problems.
Kenny Stills had the same stats for a small fraction of the cost. It appears he may end up a good late round find for New Orleans. The team didn’t wait that long to draft Brandin Cooks, a 1st round selection in the last draft. Before his injury in the last month, he proved he had explosive capabilities, even if his overall numbers weren’t special. The other receivers in the passing game did not produce much. Nick Toon’s at the end of his rookie contract next offseason and needs to show up. Robert Meachem, a UFA, is not worth re-signing. There are also a host of green practice squad guys that are looking to make their mark. There isn’t much point adding to this stable of receivers until the team can find out if the current guys can be stars.
Stalwart TE Jimmy Graham had a down year, considering his lofty standards. While he caught 85 passes, he didn’t break 900 yards and was not the same after injuring his shoulder early in the season. Second TE Ben Watson is not nearly as effective in the passing game as 3rd stringer Josh Hill, and his run blocking was sub-par. Regardless, they should wait one more year to add anyone. The backups have the ability to do the job to an extent.
Incumbent tackles Zach Strief and Terron Armstead are both above average, even as they have different strengths. Perhaps Zach Strief, the better pass blocker, would be better served moving from the right side to the left, but he hasn’t played there since 2008. Backup Bryce Harris finally got some extended snaps in 2014, but didn’t do particularly well. He is a RFA and is only 26; if re-signed, he has room to grow.
Guards Ben Grubbs and Jahri Evans played all but 7 snaps in 2014. Grubbs performed quite average after a positive two seasons in New Orleans. Evans also had a great track history, but had an extremely disappointing year, especially with regard to pass blocking. They should probably rebound; the Saints hope so, because they’re both signed for two more years. It is of note, though, that the guards may be on the chopping block due to their huge cap numbers. The backups are inexperienced both in the NFL and with the Saints. Unless a starter is cut, any guard drafted would not get many reps. However, they may not have any money for free agency, and the draft might be their answer.
While veteran center Jonathan Goodwin did not have a great year, he has a history of good run blocking and below average pass blocking. The Saints know what he is, and normally he would be a good bridge to a developing center. He may be out of luck due to the Saints’ cap troubles.
It’s hard to tell if the Saints are running a 3-4 or a 4-3. Sometimes the tackle lines up over center, and sometimes the OLB lines up in a 3-point and there are essentially four linemen. For practical purposes, I’ll discuss them all the same.
Cam Jordan and Akiem Hicks are the most frequent participants on the line, and their numbers reflect 3-4 ends – good against the run without generating much pass rush. With the Saints’ cap troubles, Jordan might be released because he is the easiest spot on the roster to gain a quick $7 million. Backup RFA Tyrunn Walker is actually the best pass rusher, and should get some starts next year they re-sign him and don’t re-sign UFA Brandon Deaderick. Deaderick was fairly bad, so Walker and other guys like Glenn Foster can get some snaps if he’s out. If your job is to clog the line in the middle, you should probably get good grades on run defense. John Jenkins and Brodrick Bunkley are just average, but Bunkley makes way too much money to be average. Nobody is signed long-term, so it’s a good time to find a run-stuffing NT in the draft.
Junior Galette, arguably the most unheralded and unknown OLB outside of Louisiana, rated 2nd behind only Justin Houston at his position as a pass rusher. While 10 sacks may not seem like a lot, he terrorized opposing QB’s and forced coordinators to game plan for him. On the other side, Ramon Humber and Parys Haralson are both UFA’s. Humber can probably be shown the door, as he was unproductive in coverage and against the run, without providing much rush. Haralson, on the other hand, is good against the run, doesn’t cost a lot, and should be re-signed. (Author note: Haralson was re-signed on 2/12.) Backup Kasim Edebali is not that good against the pass or run, but he is cheap depth. 2014 5th round pick Ronald Powell is green, but has potential as a pass rusher.
On the inside, starters David Hawthorne and Curtis Lofton came here together in 2012 and are signed to multi-year deals. Hawthorne had his normal year; he was a liability in pass coverage and average everywhere else. At least that’s better than Lofton, who was terrible in all facets for another year. The Saints are on the hook for $9.25 million for Lofton and cutting him is tough, so it seems these two are here for 2015. Backup Kyle Knox needs to show something to get some playing time, and Moise Fokou is a free agent that may re-sign for cheap. It is important to draft someone here to provide some flexibility in case the starters don’t improve and become cap casualties next offseason.
New Orleans has a plethora of young guys signed for 2015, the oldest one being 29 year old starter Keenan Lewis. Two draft picks were used on the backfield last offseason for Stanley Jean-Baptiste and Vinnie Sunseri. What happens when your roster is unproductive, but young? Do you ride it out and anticipate development? This makes sense, because it’s rare when a rookie defender comes in and dominates.
Here’s the current state: Lewis and RCB Terrence Frederick were below average in 2014, but won starting roles because Corey White was clueless in pass coverage and Patrick Robinson was demoted. The odd part about that is that the much-maligned Robinson was rated the Saints’ least terrible CB by PFF. He is a UFA and it would be unwise to pull the plug on him, but the cap problems might cause his departure. Backups Brian Dixon and Jean-Baptiste also deserve a shot for snaps. The best thing to do would be to wait one year at CB and develop these guys. Chances are that someone will stand out in OTA’s and minicamps. Adding one more fresh face would create a logjam.
At safety, 2nd year SS Kenny Vaccaro was a bust. When he wasn’t getting burned, he was causing penalties. Regardless, he can’t be cut due to salary cap issues. At FS, the combination of Rafael Bush, Jairus Byrd, and Pierre Warren were average. As a group, they did not inspire much confidence. Bush may even end up being a cap casualty. Since so many of the group have little experience, the story is the same. You have to keep trying to develop them for another year and see what shakes loose. This defense is in entire rebuilding mode, and it will take time; however, if 2015 echoes 2014, there may be plenty of changes after the season. Perhaps some extra pass rush will ease the burden on this unit.
Punter Thomas Morstead was a top 5 punter in 2014 and handles the kickoff duties. He will return next year. The same may not be said for UFA kicker Shayne Graham. He’s getting a little old and I wouldn’t be surprised if he wasn’t re-signed. (Author’s note: Graham was re-signed 2/12.) The Saints have Dustin Hopkins on a futures contract to kick the tires.
Travaris Cadet and Brandin Cooks were average returning kicks and punts, but Cooks is exciting to watch back there. Jalen Saunders was also around for punt returns and did fairly well.
Initial cap space: $23.4 million deficit
Re-sign: Harris ($1.3 mil tender), Walker ($1.3 mil tender), Haralson ($1.2 mil), Fokou ($745K) – with a net $2.2 million needed to sign draftees, these are projected to cause a deficit of approximately $29.5 million in cap space.
Let walk: Ingram, Cadet, Meachem, Goodwin, Deaderick, Humber, Sanford, Robinson, A.J. Davis, S. Graham
Best cap cuts to clear required room: Jordan ($7 mil), Evans ($6 mil), Colston ($4.3 mil), Lofton ($4.3 mil), Brees restructure ($8.6 mil), Bush ($1.9 mil)
Biggest Team Needs: NT, ILB, QB, C, G
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