New Orleans Saints: 2015 Outlook

 
 
 
 
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New Orleans Saints

By Shawn Childs, Wednesday, August 26, 2015

The Saints have finished 7-9 in two of the past three seasons due to terrible play by their defense. New Orleans allowed the fifth-most points per game (25.6) and the second-most yards per game (384.0) last year. Sean Payton returns for his ninth season as head coach. He has 80-48 record with five playoff appearances and the franchise's only Super Bowl title. Pete Carmichael is entering his seventh year as the offensive coordinator. Pete has been with New Orleans since 2006. Rob Ryan will battle the defensive side of the ball for the third season. His defense ranked fourth in 2013 and then 31st in 2014. Ryan has 10 years of NFL experience as a defensive coordinator. For the fifth time in nine years, the Saints led the NFL in total yards (411.4 per game). They tallied the ninth-most points. (401). Over 49 seasons, New Orleans has made the playoffs only 10 times.

Free Agency

Tight end Jimmy Graham was traded to the Seattle Seahawks for center Max Unger and a first-round pick. Jimmy is one of the best TEs in the league. Unger has been an elite player once (2012) in his five-year career. Last year, Max missed 10 games with a high ankle sprain. When on the field, Unger played well as a run blocker and pass protector. New Orleans released running back Pierre Thomas, who has been a plus pass catcher in his career. RB Travaris Cadet left to play for the New England Patriots. Cadet is also a solid receiver and has a short resume of success. He is a non-factor in the run game. C.J. Spiller was brought in to take over as the team's top receiving back. The Buffalo Bills struggled to find creative ways to get Spiller in space. C.J. should be an excellent fit to this offense. Josh Morgan was brought in for depth at wide receiver. WR Kenny Stills was dealt to the Miami Dolphins for linebacker Dannell Ellerbe and a third-round pick. Ellerbe was an utter failure in two seasons with Miami. Stills is a young player with great speed and developing pass-catching talent.

The Saints also traded starting guard Ben Grubbs, who is coming off his worst season since 2008. Still, Grubbs is a solid run blocker and allowed just one sack last season. Mike McGlynn was signed for depth at left guard. McGlynn is coming off a brutal season in which he was one of the worst players in the league in run blocking and wasn't any better in pass protection (six sacks, four QB hits, and 18 QB hurries). Mike has been a poor player for the last three years.

Cornerback Corey White moved on to the Dallas Cowboys after being cut by New Orleans. White struggled in pass coverage last season (58 catches on 85 attempts for 703 yards and four touchdowns with three interceptions). Patrick Robinson signed with the San Diego Chargers. He never developed into a top CB after being selected in the first round in 2010. The Saints signed Brandon Browner, a big, physical corner with some risk when matched up against elite WRs with speed. Linebacker Curtis Lofton will earn his next check from the Oakland Raiders. Lofton struggled as a run defender in 2014 with no upside as a pass rusher (no sacks, four QB hits and eight hurries). LB Anthony Spencer was added for pass-rushing depth.

Draft

The Saints had two picks in the first round thanks to the Graham trade. They added youth to their offensive line by selecting tackle Andrus Peat at No. 13 overall. He has high upside as a run blocker and will be very good in pass protection once he improves his technique.

Linebacker Stephone Anthony was taken at No. 31. He's a playmaker who has all the right physical gifts -- size, speed, strength, quickness. His aggressiveness can lead to mistakes in run defense. Stephone needs to improve his vision and patience.

In the second round, the Saints drafted LB Hau'oli Kikaha. He recorded 19 sacks last year, but he ran just a 4.90 40-yard dash and a 4.33 20-yard shuttle at his pro day. Hau'oli doesn't have a high enough skill set to be an asset against the run. Kikaha will work hard and possesses plus power. He projects to be a situational play.

With Drew Brees getting older, New Orleans took a flier on QB Garrett Grayson in the third round. Grayson has a big arm and can make all of the necessary throws. Plus, he stands tall in the pocket when under duress. His ability to read defenses and make-pre snaps decisions will improve as he learns from one of the best quarterbacks in the game. Garrett's release needs to be retooled so he can get the ball out quicker.

Also in the third round, New Orleans chose P.J. Williams, a cornerback with solid athletic ability and upside in press coverage. His lack of strength (12 reps on the bench press at the combine) will hurt him against elite wideouts. His speed and quickness are below average for a starting corner in the NFL, so he may have to move to safety. His talent offers high upside if he can keep his head in the game.

The Saints focused on building their depth on defense with their three picks in the fifth round: LB Davis Tull, DT Tyeler Davison and CB Damian Swann. Tull comes into the league with a solid resume from a small-school college where he was a good run stopper. His hands, quickness and motor will help his upside in the pass rush. Davis needs to prove he can handle the step up in competition over the long haul. The powerful Tyeler will instantly upgrade New Orleans' run defense. Davison will even offer some value attacking the QB. However, he needs to show more fight and fire off at the point of attack while maintaining his lane against the run. Swann does enough correctly to earn a backup role, but poor instincts and change-of-direction speed make him a liability in coverage.

With the last pick in its draft, New Orleans added RB Marcus Murphy. He can be a dual threat, contributing as a special teams returner and a pass-catching back. His speed and quickness project him to be an outside runner. His size (5 feet 8, 193 pounds) will hold him back from making a winning impact.



New Orleans Saints OT Andrus Peat

Offensive Line

New Orleans finished 13th in rushing yards (1,818) while gaining 4.5 yard per rush with 16 rushing TDs. The Saints allowed 30 sacks while finishing third in passing yards (4,764) with 33 TDs and 17 INTs.

Left tackle Terron Armstead was productive in his first season with full-time snaps after being drafted in the third round in 2013. Terron added value as a run blocker while allowing three sacks, four QB hits and 18 QB hurries. His season was cut short by two games due to a neck injury.

Zach Strief could end at at left guard but right now, 2013 undrafted free agent Tom Lelito is seen as the favorite. He spent much of the past two years at center and graded out positively in run blocking in 2014.

Center Max Unger will provide a nice upgrade in both the run game and in pass protection. but he has some injury risk. Last year, he didn't allow a sack in his nine starts.

Right guard Jahri Evans struggled in pass protection in 2014 (six sacks, seven QB hits and 34 QB hurries) while playing well in run blocking.

Strief will look to hold off Peat at right tackle. Zach has been only a league-average run blocker over the last three years after playing well earlier in his career in that area. Strief allowed three sacks, six QB hits and 31 QB hurries last season.

This line has three top players and a fourth player with talent in Peat. The biggest weakness is at left guard. This group's success is driven by the quick release of Brees.

Schedule: Offense

The above chart shows the Saints' 2015 offensive strength of schedule in terms of rushing attempts (RATT), rushing yards (YDS), yards per attempt rushing (YA), rushing touchdowns (TDs), completions (COMP), passing attempts (PATT), passing yards (YDS), yards per attempt passing (YA) and passing touchdowns (TDS).

This information is based on 2014 stats, which we will work with as our starting point for 2015. We'll look at all the changes on offense for each team in the NFL plus the upgrades and downgrades each team has made on the defensive side. We'll update this table when we finish researching all 32 teams.

2014 Average: The league average of each stat from all 32 teams in 2014.

2014 Results: The results for each specific team in the NFL.

2015 Adjustment: The difference between a team's result and the league average in a certain statistic. This number will show if a team is above or below the league average in each stat and will serve as the basis for the strength of schedule.

New Orleans' ground game has two favorable matchups: The New York Giants and Tennessee Titans. On the other hand, they will also have to face the Detroit Lions, but they won't be nearly as strong against the run without Ndamukong Suh. The Saints' passing attack has the second-easiest schedule based on last year's data with no real tough games. They have three strong matchups -- the Philadelphia Eagles and two against the Atlanta Falcons -- that look great on paper.

Offense

The Saints' running backs caught a league-high 133 passes for 938 yards and four TDs last season. Tight ends accounted for 25.7 percent of Brees' completions, but the loss of Graham will lower that distribution. Wide receivers caught 210 passes for 2,885 yards with 11 touchdowns.

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For the fourth time in his nine seasons with the Saints, Brees led the NFL in completions (456). In eight of those years, Drew has completed 413 or more passes. In addition, Brees led the league in passing yards (4,952) for the fifth time in his career. He's thrown 33 TDs or more in each of his last seven seasons, but he has declined slightly each year since throwing a league-high 46 touchdowns in 2011. His resume is one of the best in the game, but his upside is limited by his receiving options. Marques Colton isn't the same player he once was, and Brees no longer has stud tight end Jimmy Graham. I like the upside of C.J. Spiller as part of the passing game, and Brandin Cooks has the talent to be a high-upside wideout. There's no doubt Brees is going to air the ball out as he's averaged 657 pass attempts over his last five seasons. His value in 2015 will rely on his ability to simply score touchdowns. His surrounding receiving talent suggests that total will be closer to 30 than 40. The bar will be at about 4,800 yards and 30 TDs. Although he remains a top-five QB, Drew is closer to No. 5 than No. 1.


New Orleans Saints QB Drew Brees

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After his breakthrough season in 2012 (1,703 combined yards with eight scores and 43 catches), C.J. has been a bust in back-to-back seasons. Last year, Spiller missed seven games due to broken collarbone. Prior his injury, he had taken 83 touches for just 394 yards with one touchdown. His resume is far from elite and his poor play will lead to him being a value pick in drafts. His high upside was showcased by his 6.0 yards per carry and 10.7 yards per catch in 2012. The Saints completed 133 passes to the RB position last year for 938 yards and four TDs. At a minimum, C.J. should be able to catch 50 percent of that action. He could mirror what Darren Sproles did for the Saints in 2011 and 2012 (161 catches in 29 games for 1,377 yards and 14 scores). Spiller will also be more active in the running game with a chance at 125 carries. Between the rushes and the catches, I expect him to average 7.0 yards per touch. He could total 1,400 yards on 200-plus touches and tally eight touchdowns. That could make him a low-end RB1. His price point is fair in the early draft season (ADP of 56, 22nd RB selected). Spiller has risk for sure, but his impact upside makes it worth taking him as your RB2 in PPR leagues.


New Orleans Saints RB. C.J. Spiller

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For the first time in his career, Ingram became Fantasy relevant. He set career highs in carries (226), rushing yards (964), touchdowns (9), catches (29), receiving yards (145) and overall touches (255). Mark did all of this in 13 games with nine starts. He missed three games early in the year due to a fractured thumb. Over his last 10 games, Ingram took 215 touches for 915 yards and six TDs. His finished 15th among running backs in PPR scoring and could have had a chance at a top-10 ranking had he played a full season. In his four-year career, Mark has missed 14 games with only 21 starts in his 50 chances. Late in 2014, he played through a shoulder injury, and he was bothered by a foot injury this June. Ingram is a former first-round draft pick with an improving skill set as the Saints actually threw the ball to him last year. Still, he averaged only 5 yards per catch. I'm torn between his upside and his injury risk. His success last season was created by volume, something he won't have this year if C.J. Spiller stays healthy. In the early draft season, Mark has an ADP of 44 as the 16th RB off the board. I sense about 225 touches for about 1,000 yards and a chance at double-digit TDs. However, his price point and risk tell me to stay away.

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Headed into 2014, Robinson was an attractive late-round sleeper. Once Ingram hit the sidelines due to injury, Robinson awoke, racking up 245 yards and a score on 47 carries during a three-game stretch starting in Week 3. he averaged 4.8 yards per carry for the year, a half yard more than Ingram. However, the Saints like to give their pass-catching backs increased playing time, and Robinson has 53 catches in 50 career games. In 2012 at West Texas A&M, Khiry rushed for 1,741 yards on 273 carries with 15 TDs. He also caught 39 passes for 430 yards and four more touchdowns. Robinson is a power back with good size (6 feet, 220 pounds). He runs hard, can break tackles, and his resume gives him a chance in the passing game. Khiry should be drafted as the handcuff to Ingram.

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Cooks makes sense as the best receiving option on the team, but his lack of size (5 feet 10, 189 pounds) makes it tough to believe Brandin has stud upside. In his 10 games in 2014, Cooks caught 53 passes for 550 yards and scored five total touchdowns (one rushing). He registered at least five catches in eight of his 10 games. His yards per catch (10.4) are well below the top WRs in the game as Cooks runs most of his routes close to the line of scrimmage. Brandin missed the last six game of the year with a broken thumb. Cooks had an electric 2013 senior season at Oregon State as he caught 128 passes for 1,730 yards and 16 TDs. He even rushed the ball 32 times for 217 yards with two scores. In the previous year, Brandin was used more as a big-play wide receiver (67 catches, 1,151 yards and five touchdowns) as Markus Wheaton acted as the Beavers' No. 1 receiver. Cooks has elite speed (4.33 40) and exceptional quickness, which will help him as a slot receiver. He possesses 100-catch upside with 1,000-plus yards well within reach. He won't make much of an impact in the red zone, but he's still getting a ton of respect in the early draft season (ADP of 32, 16th WR selected). Cooks will offer solid, steady value in PPR leagues while playing a key role in this offense.


New Orleans Saints WR Brandin Cooks

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Over the past two years, Colston has seen his numbers decrease. In his first seven seasons, Marques had six 1,000-yard campaigns and six 70-catch years. He's scored 68 TDs in 133 career games. His inability to create separation is easily shown by his 59 percent catch rate in 2014, down six percentage points from his career average. In fairness, the Saints did allow him to roam more downfield, and Colston averaged 15.3 yards per catch, his most since 2009. He also stayed on the field for 16 games and led the wide receiving corps with 889 snaps. It's highly unlikely he'll see that much field time again. At age 32, a Fantasy owner has to have doubts regarding whether Marques can regain his elite form for just one more year. The void created by the loss of Graham should reward him the most among all of New Orleans' WRs, but there are enough signs that a big rebound year may just not be in the cards. Marques didn't record more than 82 yards in any of the final 10 games in 2014, and he didn't catch more than six passes in any contest. The balls will be flying at a high rate in this offense, so he shouldn't be dismissed. His price point is more than fair (ADP of 121, 49th WR selected). Let's shoot for 70 catches, 1000-plus yards and 6-8 TDs, but any injury news this summer would put him on my 'avoid' list.

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Through three pro seasons, Toon has only 21 catches on 35 targets for 283 yards and one touchdown. He missed the entire 2012 season due to a knee injury. His skill set is closest to Colston's among those in this offense, but he has a lot to prove following the unimpressive start to his career. Toon will have an opportunity to shine if he can win the No. 3 WR job. Over four seasons at Wisconsin, Toon caught 171 passes for 2,447 yards and 18 TDs.

Coleman went undrafted in 2014, which allowed the Saints to sign him. In three seasons at Rutgers, Brandon caught 94 passes for 1808 yards with 20 TDs. His best season came in 2012 when he caught 43 passes for 718 yards with 10 TDs. Coleman has elite size (6'6" and 225 lbs.). He ran a 4.56 forty yard dash in the 2014 NFL Combine while leading all WRs in the bench press (21 reps.). His route running ability is limited with questions about his ability to separate from top CBs plus Brandon needs to prove he can win a high percentage of 50/50 passes. With New Orleans lacking talent at the WR position, Coleman may have an opportunity to fill some the lost value created when Jimmy Graham headed out West. His game may mirror the path of Chargers WR Malcom Floyd with more upside in TDs. All signs point to him starting the year for the Saints as the WR3.

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The Saints have been talking up Mr. Hill's game since they giftwrapped Jimmy Graham to the Seahawks. Last year, Hill saw the third-most snaps among Saints tight ends. He trailed Ben Watson by nearly 300 snaps. Hill caught 14 of his 20 targets for 176 yards with five TDs. His value in the end zone was somewhat a factor of him being overlooked by defenses. In no game did Josh have more than three catches. His best outing as a receiver came in Week 5 when he caught three balls for 53 yards. He had a two-touchdown performance in Week 15. In his senior season at Idaho State, Hill caught 70 passes for 630 yards and five scores. He averaged only 8.9 yards per catch during his college career. New Orleans completed 117 passes to the TE for 1,195 yards and 16 TDs last season. Hill's youth and decent scoring ability should lead to him being Brees' No. 1 tight end this fall. With a 33 percent drop in opportunity based on the obvious drop down in talent, the Saints' TEs will have, at the minimum, a shot at 78 catches for 800 yards. I believe Hill will get 75 percent of that action, which comes out to about 59 catches and 600 yards. His early ADP has him coming off the board at pick No. 110 as the 11th tight end drafted. With seven TDs to go along with my projections above, Josh will be a top-12 Fantasy TE.


New Orleans Saints TE Josh Hill

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Ben will enter the 2015 season at age 34. Through his two seasons with the Saints, Watson has caught 39 passes for 462 yards and four TDs on 61 targets. Last year, Ben averaged only 6.8 yards per catch after blocking on 35.3 percent of his plays. By comparison, Hill blocked 32.1 percent of the time, and Graham was a blocker for just 4.9 percent of his snaps. Watson's role could expand slightly, but his days of having any Fantasy value have faded away.

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A groin injury in 2013 led to the Bills adding Dan Carpenter and ultimately stealing Dustin's possible starting opportunity after he was selected in the sixth round that year. Out of respect, Buffalo gave him a chance to win the job last summer, but he couldn't match the veteran leg of Carpenter. The Saints have brought him in to compete with Zach Hocker for the starting job. Hocker was drafted by the Washington Redskins in 2014. In his four seasons at Florida State, Hopkins made 88 of his 112 field goal chances (78.6 percent success rate). In comparison, Hocker made 61 of his 79 kicks (77.2 percent) over four years with Arkansas. In 2014, New Orleans scored 49 TDs and only 19 FGs on its 176 possessions. The Saints attempted only 22 field goals. I expect Hopkins to have the inside track, but it wouldn't surprise me to see New Orleans bring in a veteran leg. This offense still has plenty of firepower, but the loss of Graham and Stills may lead to more field goal attempts than expected.

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New Orleans' run defense has a favorable schedule. It contains nine games against teams with below-par rushing attacks. However, they will also have to stop the Houston Texans, Dallas Cowboys and the Carolina Panthers (twice). The Saints have three games against top-notch passing offenses -- the Indianapolis Colts and the Atlanta Falcons (twice) -- along with difficult matchups versus the Lions, Eagles, Giants and two against the Falcons. The Saints' pass defense will get a bit of a break against the Texans, Titans, Jacksonville Jaguars and Tampa Bay Buccaneers (twice).

The Saints had the 29th ranked rushing defense in the league in 2014 (2125 yards). Ball carriers gained 4.8 yards per rush with a league high 19 runs of 20 yards or more. This led to 17 rushing TDs. New Orleans only managed only 34 sacks (25th) in 2014. They allowed 4019 passing yards (8th) with 26 TDs and 12 Ints.

DE Cameron Jordan was an above-average run defender last year and has racked up 20 sacks over the past two seasons. Nose tackle Brodrick Bunkley has settled into being a one-dimensional run stopper. He missed the last five games last year with a torn quad. New Orleans added veteran nose tackle Kevin Williams to add depth. He will be 35 in August. He'll try to clog the running lanes and may record a couple of sacks. Defensive end Akiem Hicks didn't develop as the Saints had hoped in 2014. Hicks had only two sacks, five QB hits and 20 QB hurries with slightly above league average value as a run defender.

Junior Galette has split time between defensive end and linebacker over the last two years. Last year, he had an impressive season rushing the QB (10 sacks, 13 QB hits and 45 QB hurries), but he was a liability against the run. There could be some concern with his status for the 2015 due to a 2013 video that shows him assaulting a man and a woman, hitting them with a belt. He was also arrested and charged in January with domestic violence. The charges were dropped the following month. In June, Galette suffered a torn pectoral muscle. The early reports suggest he will avoid surgery.

LB David Hawthorne was a neutral run defender last year with low value attacking the QB (three sacks, two QB hits and three QB hurries). Plus, he tends to be a liability in pass coverage. Dannell Ellerbe only saw action in one game last year with the Dolphins due a hip injury. Ellerbe has only had one season of value in his career; in 2009, he recorded five sacks, seven QB hits and 13 QB hurries and was a positive force against the run. Dannell was a disaster in the run game in 2013 and had only one sack. LB Anthony Spencer played well in 2012 with the Cowboys when he recorded 11 sacks, two QB hits and 27 QB hurries while being a top player against the run. A knee injury in September 2013 led to microfracture surgery and cost him nearly the entire year. His game was a lot less impressive in 2014 (two sacks, seven QB hits and 18 QB hurries). Spencer did hold his own in run support, but his level of play was still a big step down from his 2012 success. Rookie Stephone Anthony has enough talent to earn starting snaps. He'll add value to the pass rush and can succeed in pass coverage. His risk as a run defender may lead to him seeing action on only second and third downs in 2015.

Cornerback Keenan Lewis went from being an asset in pass coverage in 2013 (42 catches on 77 attempts for 512 yards and three TDs with four INTs) to being a liability in 2014 (52 catches on 91 attempts for 693 yards, seven TDs and two INTs). He also allowed 139 more yards after the catch. Brandon Browner is expected to start at the other CB position. He has size (6 feet 3, 221 pounds), but Brandon can get beat by speedy receivers. In his 11 games with the Patriots in 2014, Browner allowed 38 catches on 63 attempts for 562 yards and two touchdowns with one interception. Safety Kenny Vaccaro, after playing fairly well as a rookie in 2013, was a bust in run support and in pass coverage. He allowed 23 catches on 24 attempts. With New Orleans having so many defensive issues last year, Vaccaro may have had too many holes to plug. Safety Jairus Byrd missed the last 12 games of 2014 with a torn meniscus. Byrd also had back surgery in May 2014. Jarius should upgrade the pass D this year and pitch in against the run.

This defense has more than meets the eye if Galette remains in the starting lineup. The Saints would also be helped if Spencer regains his previous form and Jordan can get back to his 2013 total of 12.5 sacks. I expect the secondary to be improved and to make some plays as long as the defensive front can pressure the QB. This defense is a year removed from being the fourth-best defense in the NFL. In the Fantasy market, New Orleans will be a back-end defense with underlying upside. The Saints must solve their issues against the run.