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2016 Team Report: New Orleans Saints

Quarterbacks

Starter: Drew Brees
Backup(s): Luke McCown & Garrett Grayson

Starting QB: Drew Brees closed out a decade in New Orleans in 2015. He and the entire Saints passing offense have enjoyed unparalleled success throughout his ten years there. Brees has averaged 4,856 passing yards per season, 7.73 yards per attempt, a completion rate of 67.6% and almost 35 touchdowns per year. He turned 37 in January, but has not yet shown signs of slowing down. This season is the final year of the five-year $100 Million contract that he signed back in July 2012, yet Brees is confident that he will sign an extension and play the remainder of his career in New Orleans. The year before last, he lost his favorite target in Jimmy Graham, but the offense continued its success, using Ben Watson and a mostly young cadre of wide receivers. This year he loses Marques Colston, who also joined the Saints in 2006 with Brees, catching over 700 passes for almost 10,000 yards and 72 TDs. However, the Saints signed free agent Coby Fleener to a five-year $36 Million contract to replace the departing Watson and added rookie Michael Thomas in the second round of the draft. As we approach the season opener, Thomas continues to look good, but Willie Snead will not give up targets easily. The Saints have attempted over 650 passes in each of the past four seasons and the focus on the passing game should continue this year enabling Brees to remain among the NFL leaders in passing yardage. Brees has not finished below QB6 in any season with the Saints and this year, his ADP may be a little lower providing even more value.

Backup QB: Luke McCown was drafted in the fourth round of the 2004 NFL Draft and has played ten seasons for five teams. He has had minimal NFL success, throwing for a career 2,370 yards, with a 60.7% completion rate and only 9 TDs while throwing 15 interceptions. He has been the back-up quarterback for the Saints since 2013 and signed a new two-year contract in March for $3.0 Million. The Saints other quarterback is Garrett Grayson who was drafted by the Saints in the 3rd round (75th overall) in the 2015 NFL Draft. Even though Grayson was said to be the only quarterback that Coach Payton and the Saints had eyes on for last year's draft, he had limited success in his rookie year pre-season and remained the third team quarterback. Grayson and McCown should again to compete to hold the clip board as Brees' primary back-up. Brees missed one game last year, but has only missed two in his ten years in New Orleans, so the second teamer rarely gets snaps.

Running Backs

Starter: Mark Ingram
Backup(s): Tim Hightower, C. J. Spiller, Daniel Lasco [R], Marcus Murphy
Fullback(s): John Kuhn & Sione Houma [R]

Starting RB: Prior to the 2014 season, New Orleans did not pick up Ingram's fifth year option. Most thought that his fourth year with the team would be his last. However, he set career highs in carries (226), rushing yards (964) and touchdowns (9). Even after that success, the consensus was that he would sign elsewhere for the 2015 season. However, he returned to the Saints signing a four-year $16 Million deal. Last year, his role in the running game actually decreased as he had only two games with over 20 carries and only topped 100 yards in one game and that was against the Colts (25th in the league against the rush). On a positive note, he was considerably more active in the passing game, almost doubling his previous career high to catch 50 passes. He missed the final four games of the season and had surgery to repair a torn rotator cuff on his left shoulder in December. Ingram should remain the Saints' starting running back, but will again have competition for carries from Tim Hightower, C. J. Spiller, and possibly rookie Daniel Lasco. The Saints have used a running back by committee frequently under Coach Payton and will likely continue that philosophy this year. Ingram will be their go to power back. He has consistently been a tough runner throughout his career, but is somewhat prone to injury. He has missed 18 games in his five seasons. Ingram did restructure his contract this March to potentially help them team's cap situation. The revised contract did not include either additional money or a pay cut.

Backup RBs: The primary back-up battle continues. Tim Hightower remains listed as #2, but Spiller has also produced. Hightower returns from successful production down the stretch for the Saints a year ago. He was not signed last year by the Saints until Khiry Robinson went on injured reserve. He still didn't see the field much until week 14 when he became the starter following Mark Ingram's shoulder injury. He played adequately over the final four games, with 84 carries for 327 yards (3.9 ypc) and 4 touchdowns. He also had 12 receptions for 129 yards. He returned to the Saints in April signing a one-year contract for $840,000. Hightower is somewhat surpisingly listed as the second team running back. He should only be fantasy relevant if Ingram succumbs to injury again this year. C. J. Spiller signed a four-year free agent contract with the Saints before the 2015 season for $16 Million and it included slightly more signing bonus money than Ingram's contract. Spiller and his agent indicated that they were looking for best fit first and money second. His skill set seemed to be a perfect match for Coach Payton's offensive game plan, but his first season with the Saints was an unmitigated disaster. He had only one game with more than 4 carries and only one game with more than 5 targets. Spiller had averaged 35 receptions per year in his four seasons in Buffalo and with many expecting him to set a career high for receptions, he caught only 34 passes, slightly less than his average in Buffalo and managed only 239 receiving yards on the season. His rushing average of 3.1 yards per rush was his career low and his receiving average of 7.0 ypc included an 80-yard touchdown reception. Without that one outstanding play, Spiller would have averaged a paltry 4.8 yards per catch to go along with his career low rushing average. He might not have been fully healthy as he had his knee scoped in pre-season and did not return to the field until game two. Saints GM Mickey Loomis has said that injuries were responsible for Spiller's sub-par season. Whereas last year he was expected to possibly be the team's 1B running back, this season he faces serious competition for playing time as the back-up from Hightower. The back-up rushing role may be split, but Spiller could garner a 3rd down role if he continues to improve. Rookie Daniel Lasco appears on the outside looking in for running back snaps. Lasco had mixed collegiate success at California. He was his team's MVP as a junior (over Jared Goff) rushing for 1,115 yards, catching 33 passes and scoring 14 total touchdowns, but was limited by both hip and ankle injuries as a senior. He rushed for only 331 yards and played in only nine games. He flashed his potential at the NFL Combine running a 4.46 40-yard dash and excelling with a 41.5-inch vertical leap. He also had special team success as a freshman in college which probably helped him make the Saints roster.

Fullback: John Kuhn was signed in New Orleans after his release from Green Bay. The Saints could use Kuhn occasionally as a receiver out of the back field, particularly on third downs and near the goal line. He will not be fantasy relevant, but may garner fan support in the dome with the familiar "Kuuuuuuuuhn!"

Wide Receivers

Starters: Brandin Cooks, Michael Thomas (R) & Willie Snead
Backups: Brandon Coleman, Tommylee Lewis, Reggie Bell, R. J. Harris, Kyle Prater

Starting WRs: Brandin Cooks won the Fred Biletnikoff Award as the top collegiate receiver as a junior in 2013, his last collegiate season at Oregon State and was the Saints first round draft pick in 2014. He had an outstanding rookie campaign, with 53 catches for 550 yards and 3 TDs in only 10 games as he went on IR after suffering a broken thumb. In his second season, Cooks led the team with 129 targets, 84 receptions, 1,138 receiving yards and 9 TDs. His speed and quickness add to his effectiveness on quick screens and short routes, but he can also get open on deeper routes. The additions of Coby Fleener and rookie Michael Thomas (2nd round) give the Saints more speed than last year. That additional speed and ability to be successful on deeper patterns should open things up even more for Cooks underneath this year. Cooks ran the ball much more effectively as a rookie, but remains a threat in the running game. So much positive buzz on Thomas in camp might even cause Cooks' ADP to slip slightly giving him more potential value. The Saints obviously felt the need to give Brees additional weapons because even with their desperate need for defensive playmakers, they drafted Michael Thomas in the 2nd round. Thomas has good size at 6'-3" and 212 pounds. He was a four-star recruit out of high school, but attended Fort Union Military Academy for a year before moving on to Ohio State. He played infrequently as a freshman and then red-shirted in 2013. He played well the next two seasons, averaging 55 catches, 790 yards, and 9 TDs even though Ohio State was primarily a running offense. Thomas considers his competitiveness, routes, hands and passion for the game as his greatest strengths. Positive news continues for Thomas as the season approaches and many consider him in the discussion for top rookie wide receiver. The Saints had rookie wide receiver success with Colston way back in Brees' first season in New Orleans so don't overlook Thomas' opportunity to have early success. Willie Snead, the son of a high school coach played collegiately at Ball State. He started four games as a freshman and then starred in his final two years. He is one of only two players at Ball State to have two 1,000 yard receiving seasons. He totalled 223 catches for 2,991 yards, and 26 TDs there. Snead originally signed an undrafted free agent contract in 2014 with the Browns, but failed to make the team. He was then signed to the practice squad at Carolina and eventually wound up in New Orleans in December that same year. He climbed the Saints depth chart in preseason last year and eventually became their second most productive wide receiver with 69 catches for 984 yards and 3 TDs. He has also shown well in pre-season and is fighting to keep his targets and opportunities from last year. The Saints may go three wide early and often as it looks like rookie Michael Thomas is also going to be on the field often for the Saints. Both Thomas and Snead may be more productive than expected. Brandon Coleman may have lost snaps unless injuries come.

Backup WRs: Brandon Coleman remains the biggest of the team's reserve wide receiver crew, at 6'-6" and 225 pounds. He played at Rutgers and is another unsigned free agent find by the Saints. Coleman seems to still be learning how to play wide receiver, but there is no questioning his size. He has shown an ability to get open and get behind coverage, but has not had consistent success. It's early in camp, but Coleman has already been bypassed by the rookie Michael Thomas. Could he be in danger of being traded for some additional defensive bodies? Tommylee Lewis is as quick as a hiccup and could be a spot player for the Saints.

Tight Ends

Starters: Coby Fleener
Backups: Josh Hill & Michael Hoomanawanui

The Saints lost Ben Watson, who signed a two-year $8 Million contract with Baltimore in free agency, but added Coby Fleener as their starting tight end. He didn't come cheap, signing a five-year $36 Million contract. Fleener has never been praised as a blocker, but Coach Payton said that he could be an exciting addition to their offense based on his skill set. Many have expected Fleener to be used as Saints tight ends before him in a variety of roles in the passing game, frequently stretching the seam. However, he has not performed that well thus far, apparently being inconsistent in routes. Fantasy expectations have been very high for Fleener based on Brees' effective use of his tight ends and on the nice contract. Even though somewhat effective as a move tight end in Indianapolis, Fleener only averaged 88 targets per season in his best three seasons with the Colts. He has career highs of 54 receptions, 774 yards and 8 TDs. Fleener will not likely garner the same volume of targets that Jimmy Graham had, but he still could set career highs this season. Fleener is a decent red zone target, witnessed by his 17 TDs in Indianapolis. Josh Hill was re-signed by the team in March, as the Saints matched an offer made by the Chicago Bears for $7.1 Million over three years. Hill is another undrafted free agent, who originally joined the Saints in 2013. He played collegiately at Idaho State. Hill was a spot player for the Saints behind Jimmy Graham. His rookie year, he had only 6 receptions over 14 games. Hill had more success in 2014, making big plays in critical spots, catching 14 passes and scoring 5 TDs. Most predicted a break-out season last year, but that failed to materialize. Ben Watson earned the starting role in pre-season and never gave it up. Hill managed only 16 catches for 120 yards and 2 TDs. Hill could be productive, but it will likely take a Fleener injury for that to materialize. Hoomanawanui is a journeyman tight end who has played with three teams over his six NFL seasons, never topping 13 receptions in a season, but scored a career high three touchdowns last season in his 12 games with the Saints.

Place Kicker

Kai Forbath, Connor Barth: The Saints cut Dustin Hopkins last summer, and he ended up replacing Kai Forbath in Washington. Hopkins had lost out to Zach Hocker in New Orleans, and the Saints later found themselves wanting to replace Hocker, so they turned to Forbath in another turn on the kicker merry-go-round. He didn't distinguish himself, making only 10-of-15 field goals, including only 5-for-7 from 39 yards or closer. His scoring opportunity was average at best on a high-scoring team despite 35 extra point attempts in 11 games. New Orleans had brought in longtime Jaguars kicker Josh Scobee as competition, but he was released in May. Former Bucs and Broncos kicker Connor Barth will provide the competition for Forbath instead.

Kick and Punt Returners

Kick Returners: Marcus Murphy, Travaris Cadet, C.J. Spiller

Return specialist Marcus Murphy received the bulk of the work in 2015, but Travaris Cadet has received plenty of reps in camps and preseason, too.

Punt Returners: Travaris Cadet, Marcus Murphy

New Orleans' top punt returner from 2015, Marcus Murphy, returns to the team, but has been running second to Travaris Cadet in practices.

Offensive Line

Projected Starters: LT Terron Armstead, LG Andrus Peat, C Max Unger, RG Tim Lelito, RT Zach Strief
Key Backups: Senio Kelemete, Tyrus Thompson

The best player on the Saints' offensive line is either left tackle Terron Armstead or center Max Unger. Both are very good players. Unger was a Pro Bowler in 2013 and Armstead was named as an alternate last season. The position between them, left guard, is projected to be filled by last year's first round pick, Andrus Peat out of Stanford. Peat was drafted to replace right tackle Zach Strief but Strief is experiencing a late career renaissance. He looks as capable as ever, and his continued strong play has forced Peat into a guard competition with Tim Lelito and Senio Kelemete. The best two of those three players will start, and Kelemete is likely the odd man out. The Saints' offensive line is on the cusp between good and excellent. Most of their starters are well above average. However the Saints' score is held back by uncertainty at the guard positions, which is key to their system, and an overall lack of depth. Tier Ranking: Mid Tier.

Team Defense

The Saints defense bottomed out under Rob Ryan last year, but at least he was fired mid-season. New Orleans was in the bottom five in sacks and interceptions, and they were the worst in the league in scoring defense and total yards allowed, with the potential for negative scores in leagues that penalize for a high points allowed total. They improved slightly after Ryan was fired and Dennis Allen was installed, but the Saints still project as one of the worst defenses in the league. #12 overall pick Sheldon Rankins can have an Aaron Donald-lite impact on the interior pass rush and 2015 first-round pick is a rising star, but the Saints are still a D/ST to avoid except at home, and only in the best matchups or if they are red hot.

Defensive Line

Starters: NT John Jenkins, DE Cameron Jordan, DT Nick Fairley, DE Bobby Richardson
Backups: DE Paul Kruger, DT Sheldon Rankins [R], DE Darryl Tapp, DT Tyeler Davison, , DL David Onyemata [R], DL Kaleb Eulis, NT Ashaad Mabry, DE Kasim Edebali, DE Hau'oli Kikaha [torn ACL], DE Obum Gwacham

Starting DL: The Saints mix up their fronts but predominantly operate out of a 3-4 base defense, placing hulking man mountain John Jenkins at nose tackle. In subpackages, Jenkins often shifts into a shaded 1-technique where he can be a gap penetrator rather than a space eater, two-gapping. Cameron Jordan has been one of the best defensive linemen in the league the past few years and has yet to miss a game entering his sixth pro season. Jordan kicks outside to rush the passer on third down and can provide a punch in that department to go along with his skill as a run defender. Rookie Sheldon Rankins would have had a say in the rotation along the defensive front after being selected by the Saints in the first round, but the rookie sustained a broken fibula in camp. Reports suggest the disruptive tackle will miss six to eight weeks, but sometimes these injuries can take longer to rehab from. The confidence to plant and drive off the leg will also be a deterrent to Rankins' game. In Rankins' absence, the Saints will likely turn to Nick Fairley, who the team signed to a one-year contract this offseason. When the Saints line up in passing situations, they will miss the burgeoning talents of second-year pro Hau'oli Kikaha, who tore his ACL in June, the third such injury he has sustained in his career. Kikaha finished his rookie season strongly after an uneven start, and his loss is a significant blow to 2015's last-ranked defensive unit. The team will likely use a committee of Bobby Richardson and Kasim Edebali to fill the void, although veteran signing Paul Kruger could certainly figure heavily into the rotation considering the lack of experience available on the roster.

Backup DL: Kasim Edebali totalled five sacks in a rotational role last year and provides a nice depth option as a pass rusher. Tyeler Davison played over 500 snaps in his rookie year, but failed to make much of a dent in the box scores. Bobby Richardson, like Davison, played over 500 snaps in his rookie season and played well against the run at times. The injury to Hau'oli Kikaha will push both Edebali and Bobby Richardson into larger roles and will affect the overall depth available. However, it is second-year pro Obum Gwacham who has been taking the first-team reps in minicamps. Darryl Tapp (32) was signed prior to training camp to bolster the overall depth. The veteran played a rotational role in Detroit in 2015 and performed well as a run defender. The team snapped up veteran pass rusher Paul Kruger after he was released by Cleveland in the initial round of cuts. He will provide an instant upgrade to the options at edge rusher, although it should be noted that Kruger hasn't played defensive end since entering the league.

Linebackers

Starters: SLB Stephone Anthony, MLB James Laurinaitis, WLB Dannell Ellerbe
Backups: LB Nathan Stupar, LB Michael Mauti, LB Davis Tull, LB Craig Robertson

Starting LBs: The signing of James Laurinaitis is an admission by the Saints that what they have been putting out at linebacker has not been good enough. Laurinaitis spent seven years in St Louis with the Rams, where he was a perennial tackle magnet. New Orleans will ask him to call the defensive signals as he mans the middle linebacker position. That move will force second-year pro Stephone Anthony, who made some nice strides in his rookie year, to the strong side. Anthony's athleticism and closing burst will keep him on the field all three downs and his pairing with Laurinaitis should give the team a more solid unit than 2015 in subpackages. Dannell Ellerbe and Craig Robertson will be the top candidates to start at weakside linebacker, but the winner is unlikely to be a full-time player in the defense.

Backup LBs: The Saints can call upon veteran Dannell Ellerbe to back up both Stephone Anthony and James Laurinaitis. The veteran was forced to take a pay cut to stay with the team this offseason as they try to escape cap hell. Fourth-year player Nathan Stupar was signed to a three-year deal this offseason and figures to be a key special teams contributor. In another move to bolster special teams, Michael Mauti was added last season and will remain in that role. and Craig Robertson can play multiple linebacker positions and should help the Saints to have one of the deeper linebacker benches in the league.

Defensive Backs

Starters: CB P.J. Williams, CB Delvin Breaux, FS Jairus Byrd, SS Kenny Vaccaro
Backups: CB Cortland Finnegan, CB Kyle Wilson [IR], CB Damian Swann, CB De'Vante Harris [R], CB Ken Crawley [R], S Vonn Bell [R], S Jamarca Sanford [IR], S Trae Elston [R], S Alden Darby, S Michael Caputo

Starting DBs: One of the biggest liabilities on the Saints defense last season was Brandon Browner, who was consistently hounded by opposing offenses. Browner's presence brought the entire secondary down a notch, but he was quickly shipped off this offseason. Delvin Breaux, who impressed in spells during his first season in New Orleans, will man one cornerback spot. Keenan Lewis, after spending the majority of camp with the team, was released in the middle of August. Lewis had been due to earn $2.7m in 2016, but the team opted to cut ties with the oft-injured defensive back. In his absence, second-year pro P.J. Williams will likely get the first crack, although the signing of Cortland Finnegan could signal the Saints' intent to utilise him as a starter. At safety, the Saints will be keeping their fingers crossed for better luck with injuries so that the tandem of Jairus Byrd and Kenny Vaccaro can get a long run starting together. Byrd has played just 17 games the past two seasons but does not become a free agent until 2020 under his current deal. Vaccaro will spend a lot of time close to the line of scrimmage in Dennis Allen's scheme, which utilizes a lot of single-high looks. The Saints picked up his fifth-year contract option, perhaps in a nod to how highly they rate the talented safety.

Backup DBs: Among the back-up options, second-round draft pick Vonn Bell stands out as a player who could make an immediate impact if given the opportunity. An injury to either Jairus Byrd or Kenny Vaccaro would put Bell, who lacks ideal measurables for the position, in the limelight. Former Jets cornerback Kyle Wilson was scheduled to serve as a primary backup before being placed on injured reserve with a torn labrum. UDFA De'Vante Harris may now have to step into Wilson's role. 2015 fifth-round pick Damian Swann contributed a lot last year, but was shut down after a third concussion. He could figure into the team's plans at cornerback especially given the dearth of quality options after the release of Keenan Lewis. The team signed veteran Cortland Finnegan, who spent last season with the Carolina Panthers, after bringing him in for a visit. It is possible the signing was made with the pending Lewis release in mind. The expectation is Finnegan will at the very least be a good mentor the young corps of defensive backs, and at best will contribute as a nickel cornerback.

Last modified: 2016-09-03 22:39:14