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2013 Team Report: New Orleans Saints

Quarterbacks

Starter: Drew Brees
Backup(s): Luke McCown

Starting QB: It seems like forever since Drew Brees signed with the Saints after wrecking his shoulder in the final regular season game for the Chargers in 2005. Brees has won a Super Bowl, been named Super Bowl MVP, and been selected to the Pro Bowl six times in his seven seasons with the team and he set the NFL single season passing record in 2011 with 5,476 yards. That same season, he set the NFL record for highest completion percentage in a season at 71.2%. Brees has been the model of consistency at the quarterback position and over the past five seasons, has passed for an average of 4,946 yards and 38 TDs. His efficiency dropped somewhat last season when Coach Sean Payton was suspended for the year as a result of his alleged involvement in the team's bounty scandal. Even in Brees' so called down year, he completed 63% of his passes, averaged 7.7 yards per pass attempt and passed for 5,177 yards and 43 TDs. In addition to having Coach Payton back, the Saints have Brees' top four receiving options returning. The only negative entering the 2013 campaign is the potential downgrade of the offensive line due to the loss of Jermon Bushrod, who was signed to a five-year $36 Million contract with $18 Million guaranteed. The Saints have Terron Armstead and Charles Brown competing to be his replacement, with the responsibility of protecting Brees' blind side. Perhaps that will not be a significant downgrade because Brees has a quick release and is adept at avoiding sacks by nimbly moving around in the pocket. Brees has been extremely efficient in pre-season action thus far and seems poised for another productive season in 2013.

Backup QB: Luke McCown was drafted in the fourth round of the 2004 NFL Draft and has played nine seasons for five teams. He has had limited NFL success, throwing for a career 2,035 yards, with a 68.5 passer rating and only 9 TDs with 14 interceptions. Although he was with the Saints last year during the pre-season, he was released in August. He signed a one-year deal in March. The best news for Saints fans as they consider the back-up quarterback situation is that Brees has missed only one game over his seven years with the team and has great pocket awareness and enough athleticism to generally avoid sacks.

Running Backs

Starter: Mark Ingram
Backup(s): Darren Sproles, Pierre Thomas
Fullback(s): Jed Collins

Starting RB: Mark Ingram is listed as the team's starting running back, but the Saints truly employ a running back by committee (RBBC). One comment that Coach Payton made about last year's team might lead you to think that they will be running the ball more often in 2013. He said "When you tell me a team is last in the league in defense and last in the running game, I'm telling you the quarterback's job description is entirely different. I'm telling you he's having to play and press and try to do certain things based on the way his team is running the ball or playing defense. That's the first thing that I saw. When you get one-dimensional, you find yourself in games where you're not controlling it." However, reviewing the Saints' stats over the last three seasons, the Saints have run the ball 35.6%, 38.9%, and 36.4% of the time. They did run 42 fewer offensive plays last year and threw the ball 9 more times, but their ability to control the tempo in past seasons has been as much about efficiency in the passing game as being able to consistently control the clock by running. There may be slightly more runs this year, but the Saints will remain a passing team. Ingram, the former Heisman Trophy winner was drafted with the 28th pick of the first round in 2011. In two seasons with the Saints, he has only 14 games with double digit rushing attempts and in only five of those games has he had over 15 carries. He has averaged a mere 3.9 ypc and rushed for 10 TDs and 1,076 yards. He is frequently removed on third downs and in passing situations, having a total of only 17 receptions in two seasons. It will be telling indeed if Ingram does not get additional opportunities this season since Chris Ivory was traded to the Jets. Ingram did seem to be running stronger in 2012 than his rookie year and is said to be healthier coming into the 2013 campaign. He could be poised to show improvement in his third year.

Backup RBs: It would not be a stretch to consider both Darren Sproles and Pierre Thomas as semi-starters based on their involvement and contributions to the offense. Darren Sproles has made a significant impact for the Saints the past two seasons after leaving the Chargers in free agency. Sproles broke the NFL record for most single-season all purpose yards in 2011 with 2,696 yards and had career highs with 603 yards rushing, 710 yards receiving and a combined 9 TDs. He is also the first player in NFL history to have over 2,200 all purpose yards in four different seasons. Even though Sproles turned 30 this summer, in pre-season action he continues to exhibit explosiveness and will continue to have a big role in the passing game. Pierre Thomas was one of only two undrafted rookie free agents to make the Saints' roster his rookie season. He is entering his seventh year with the team and has rushed for 2,973 yards, caught 207 passes for another 1,718 yards and scored 32 TDs. He has rushed for a career average 4.8 ypc and consistently makes big plays in critical spots. He is excellent breaking tackles and rarely goes down on first contact. His per game opportunities have been somewhat reduced since Ingram joined the team in 2011 and like Ingram, Thomas has only 27 games out of 78, where he has had double digit rushes.

Fullback: Jed Collins was also an undrafted free agent following the 2008 NFL Draft. He has been on and then off eight NFL team rosters before being signed by the Saints in 2011 after Heath Evans retired. In two seasons with the Saints, Collins has been mostly used as a blocker and has carried the ball rarely, but has caught 25 passes for 120 yards and 4 TDs.

Wide Receivers

Starters: Marques Colston, Lance Moore
Backups: Kenny Stills, Nick Toon, Andy Tanner

Starting WRs: Marques Colston was an awesome value pick for the Saints when he was drafted in the seventh round in 2006 and in six out of his seven seasons in the NFL he has had over 1,000 yards receiving. The only year that he fell short of that lofty level, he had 47 catches in 11 games for 760 yards and 5 TDs. Similarly, Lance Moore was an undrafted free agent signed by the Saints in 2006 and he has also been consistently productive, particularly in four of his last five seasons. Moore's precise route running is a perfect fit for the talents of his quarterback, Drew Brees. Moore has averaged 61 catches, 810 yards, and 7 TDs over the last three seasons and had his most productive season last year with 1,041 yards. Even as Drew Brees' fourth option in the passing game, Moore is so effective at getting separation that he can be productive.

Backup WRs: Joseph Morgan suffered an ACL injury during the pre-season and will miss the entire 2013 season. The primary competition for playing time behind the top two wide receivers has come down to Nick Toon and Kenny Stills. Toon has the highest draft pick among the Saints receiving corps, but was only a fourth rounder in 2012. Ho was placed in IR prior to the beginning of last season with a foot injury. He is considered a similar type receiver to Morgan, but with a thicker build and not quite as much speed. Stills is a rookie, drafted as the 17th wide receiver this year in the fifth round. He was a four star recruit out of high school, started immediately for Oklahoma and was productive in all three seasons. Stills improved each year with 204 career receptions for 2,595 yards and 24 TDs. He is a good athlete with decent quickness and some speed, but lacks thickness, weighing only 194 pounds and standing six feet tall. Some have expressed that he will be the eventual replacement for Moore. He has been productive in his opportunities to work with the first team while Colston has been out. The surprise player to make the Saints' roster was Andy Tanner. Tanner caught almost every pass in practice sessions and was also productive in pre-season games. He is also an effective special teams player. Tanner will likely be the last of the group to get playing time, but showed well enough to earn the roster spot.

Tight Ends

Starters: Jimmy Graham
Backups: Ben Watson

Jimmy Graham is an exceptional athlete who played only one year of college football for the University of Miami, after playing basketball for four years. He started slowly in his rookie NFL season after being drafted in the third round and had only 3 targets and 1 catch for 11 yards in his five games. He closed out his rookie year well though, catching 30 passes on 41 targets for 345 yards and 5 TDs, giving a hint of production to come. In his second season, he caught 99 passes for 1,310 yards and 11 TDs, a phenomenal season. There are only three seasons where a tight end had more receptions, Jason Witten with 110 in 2012, Tony Gonzalez with 102 in 2004, and Dallas Clark with 100 in 2009. Similarly, there have been only two seasons where tight ends had more receiving yards and that was Rob Gronkowski with 1,327 yards that same year and Dave Parks with 1,344 yards in 1965. Graham fell back somewhat last season as he missed one game and was slowed by injury in a few others. He managed only 85 receptions for 982 yards and 9 TDs. Graham remains one of the top tight ends in the league and is a definite threat to have a record breaking season with better health. Graham has bulked up in order to be a better overall tight end. Hopefully, he will not lose any of his quickness, which is such an asset. Ben Watson signed a three-year deal with the Saints in March and gives them a solid back-up receiving tight end. Watson, the former first rounder drafted by New England in 2004, has had several productive seasons for the Patriots and Browns and has 321 career receptions for 3,776 yards and 28 TDs. Watson has always had great physical skills running a 4.44 forty-yard dash at the combine and putting up 32 reps of 225 pounds, but he also scored an amazing 48 on the wonderlic test, which was the highest score among NFL players at the time. His durability is a concern now, as he has had several concussions among his many injuries.

Place Kicker

Garrett Hartley: After five years in the NFL, kicker Garrett Hartley played his first full season in 2012. He hit 18 of 22 (81.8%) field goals and added 57 PATs. Thomas Morstead will again handle the punting, kickoffs and holding. Justin Drescher is back at long snapper. The Saints have bounced in and out of the top ten, ranking 21st, 2nd, 11th, 4th, and 14th in attempted kicking points the past five years.

Kick and Punt Returners

Kick Returners: Travaris Cadet, Pierre Thomas, Brandin Cooks [R]

Darren Sproles departed to play in Philadelphia, which leaves Travaris Cadet in the lead to be the kick returner in 2014 but with the door open for others if they can take advantage. Cadet's season consisted of a number of mostly medicore runs combined with a single 82 yard touchdown. Pierre Thomas has been used as a returner in the past, but rookie Brandin Cooks may be the player to watch. Cooks has the physical ability to be a top returner but needs to rely on that speed when doing kick returns rather than trying to make too many moves.

Punt Returners: Brandin Cooks [R], Travaris Cadet, Joseph Morgan

The strengths and natural inclinations of Brandin Cooks to be shifty will serve him better as a punt returner, and with his physical ability he stands a good chance of beating out Travaris Cadet for the position. Punt returns have never been Cadet's strength, and he could face competition for even the backup role. Receiver Joseph Morgan has had strong preseason campaigns as a punt returner and should be given a look again in preseason this year.

Offensive Line

Projected Starters: LT Charles Brown, LG Ben Grubbs, C Brian de la Puente, RG Jahri Evans, RT Zach Strief
Key Backups: T Marcel Jones, T Bryce Harris, G Eric Olsen, G Ricky Henry, C Ryan Lee

Losing left tackle Jermon Bushrod was a big setback for this unit, at least on paper. Bushrod was a two time Pro Bowler and replacing him with Charles Brown might be too much to ask of the often injured former USC Trojan. Brown was a right tackle last season and there isn't a huge amount of precedence for struggling right tackles converting to left tackle (and succeeding). As a result, there is an epic battle brewing for the left tackle position, and how this battle resolves will dictate other positions along the line. Primarily, Brown will have to beat back third round selection Terron Armstead out of Arkansas-Pine Bluff. Armstead is a ridiculously talented athlete but extremely raw in technical matters. Fun trivia, Armstead is from the same hometown as former Saints great Willie Roaf and the Saints fans certainly hope he's a similar player. Also in the mix for this job is former first rounder from Baylor Jason Smith, who actually played decent in limited reps with the Jets last season. Smith has left tackle experience and could have the light ďturn-onĒ to win this job in camp. Former seventh rounder Marcel Jones and practice squad player Bryce Harris are also long shot possibilities for left tackle, as is current starting right tackle Zach Strief. This is certainly a position to watch in the preseason as it unfolds. In other positions, Ben Grubbs remains a very good option at left guard, despite not making the Pro Bowl recently. Center Brian de la Puente does a decent job and actually received money through the league's performance based bonus system, indicating he outplayed his contract. Jahri Evans remains the unit's best player, performing at an All-Pro level again in 2012. Overall it is hard to grade the Saints line at this time, in the face of such a wide ranging positional battle, at such an important position. Should the left tackle situation settle down, and the group remains healthy, this offensive line could climb back into the top half of the rankings. However it is also possible that this picture remains unclear and quarterback Drew Brees could be under more pressure than usual.

Team Defense

When you're historically bad - as the Saints defense was in 2012 - it's pretty easy to expect improvement. On one hand, last season could be considered a washout after Bountygate and the absence of head coach Sean Payton. In the NFL, the smallest edges are extremely important, and it would have been foolish to expect the Saints defense to excel in the disarray that was the 2012 season. Despite the calmer 2013 offseason, however, it would be equally foolish to look to the Saints defense for much fantasy help this year. They were a bottom-half unit in 2011, and they don't have a ton of talent.

Defensive Line

Starters: NT Brodrick Bunkley, DE Cameron Jordan, DE Akiem Hicks
Backups: NT John Jenkins, DE Glenn Foster, DE Tyrunn Walker

Starting DL: A much-improved defense in 2013 started with the production of defensive end Cameron Jordan, who was a nightmare for opposing offenses to deal with, both in the running and passing game. Jordan registered 12.5 sacks and 28 solo tackles on his way to an outstanding season. Running mate Akiem Hicks was no slouch either, showing glimpses of his vast potential in his second season. Although both players have excellent upside as pass rushers and could reach the 35-tackle mark, the more likely outcome is that they settle around high-end DL2 territory. NT Brodrick Bunkley has no fantasy relevance.

Backup DL: John Jenkins made his presence felt in a part-time role last season and could carve out a large piece of the pie as he transitions to the starting NT role over Brodrick Bunkley. Neither Glenn Foster nor Tyrunn Walker are relevant for fantasy purposes.

Linebackers

Starters: ILB Curtis Lofton, ILB David Hawthorne, OLB Victor Butler, OLB Junior Galette
Backups: LB Ramon Humber, LB Austin Johnson, LB Kyle Knox, LB Kevin Reddick, LB Khairi Fortt

Starting LBs: The return of Victor Butler after a torn ACL should instantly provide some added steel up front for an already imposing New Orleans defense. Butler will be keen to show the Saints, for whom he has yet to play a regular season snap, that their faith in him was well-founded. Junior Galette, who produced a stellar 2013 campaign with 12 sacks to go along with 28 solo tackles, should continue to flourish under Rob Ryanís coaching and will be afforded plenty of pass rushing opportunities in this attacking scheme. David Hawthorne will continue at weak inside linebacker but performed poorly last season, especially against the pass. Curtis Lofton should benefit from the excellent play of the defensive line and could reach 85+ solo tackles and low-end LB1 totals.

Backup LBs: Fourth round pick Khairi Fortt could be a candidate to steal some snaps from incumbent starter David Hawthorne if the latter struggles in coverage early on. Fortt was an accomplished coverage player in college and exhibits a fluid backpedal on tape. The Saints have good depth at linebacker overall, with second-year pro Kevin Reddick another intriguing option if injuries occur.

Defensive Backs

Starters: CB Keenan Lewis, CB Champ Bailey, FS Jairus Byrd, SS Kenny Vaccaro
Backups: CB Stanley Jean-Baptiste, CB Corey White, CB Patrick Robinson, S Rafael Bush, S Jordan Pugh, S Vinnie Sunseri

Starting DBs: Suddenly the Saintsí defensive backfield, after being a weakness just a couple of seasons ago, has turned into arguably this unitís biggest strength. Free safety Jairus Byrd, who New Orleans had to do a bit of salary cap massaging just to acquire, should make an immediate impact as a rangy centre fielder with versatility to be a box defender. Byrd will remain a strong DB1 in an attacking Rob Ryan defense. Backfield mate Kenny Vaccaro really came on strong at the end of last season and cleaned up some of the deficiencies in his game to cap a very productive rookie year. Vaccaro may be the biggest beneficiary of Byrdís arrival; he should now be utilised more around the line of scrimmage covering tight ends, backs and receivers, giving him more tackle opportunity, not to mention a chance for interceptions and pass breakups. Cornerback tandem Keenan Lewis, who had 50 solo tackles last season, should be an excellent CB2 option, although offenses will likely choose to test the Saintsí new face Champ Bailey to see if his old legs will override his veteran savvy against the top receivers of the league. Rookie Stanley Jean-Baptiste may see his share of snaps in nickel situations, when Bailey will more than likely move inside.

Backup DBs: The standout name among the backups is CB Stanley Jean-Baptiste, who was taken in the second round by the Saints to add depth to a strong secondary. Jean-Baptiste excels in press man and will fit perfectly into Rob Ryanís scheme. He could make an impact as soon as Week 1 depending on how the Saints plan on using veteran Champ Bailey. Patrick Robinson and Corey White have good snaps under their belt and can fill a role if the Saints are hurting at the position. Rafael Bush is a solid veteran option at safety if either of star pairing Jairus Byrd or Kenny Vaccaro suffer an injury.

Last modified: 2014-05-15 23:48:29