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2014 Team Report: New Orleans Saints

Quarterbacks

Starter: Drew Brees
Backup(s): Luke McCown, Ryan Griffin and Garrett Grayson (R)

Starting QB: Drew Brees reflected after the 2014 season that it was the most frustrating of his career. He said, “I think we’ve identified the problems or things that got us beat… and we have the solution to fix it.” Maybe trading Jimmy Graham wasn’t what he had in mind. Brees has spent the last nine years in New Orleans and has won a Super Bowl, been named Super Bowl MVP, and been selected to the Pro Bowl seven times. In short, Brees has played spectacularly at the quarterback position, averaging 7.73 ypa, 67.5% completion percentage, 4,854 yards passing and 35 passing TDs per season. The Saints traded both Jimmy Graham and Kenny Stills during the off-season and cut Pierre Thomas. This trio totaled 193 receptions, 2,198 yards and 14 TDs, representing 42% of the completions and TDs and 44% of the passing yardage. The combination of the loss of three key passing game leaders, combined with several free agency signings on the offensive line and defensive side have most pundits expecting the Saints to significantly increase their reliance on the running attack. Even with the key losses, the Saints still have effective receivers, including Marques Colston, Brandin Cooks, and C. J. Spiller. Perhaps the Saints will run more this season, but since they have averaged 660 passing attempts per year over the past three seasons and finished 2nd in the NFL each of those years, the possibility of an effective passing game remain high. Even with the Saints looking to be more balanced, expect the offense to continue to run through Brees and again be among the league leaders in passing efficiency.

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 minimal NFL success, throwing for a career 2,035 yards, with a 68.5 passer rating and only 9 TDs while throwing 14 interceptions. It should be noted that he has totaled only 318 passing yards, 0 TDs and 4 interceptions since 2007 and has thrown only one pass in his three years with the Saints. Although he was with the Saints in the 2012 pre-season, he was released that August. He returned in 2013, signing a one-year deal in March. He again signed one year deals in 2014 and in February this year signed again for $970,000, including an $80,000 signing bonus. He will compete with third year player, Ryan Griffin and rookie, Garrett Grayson to back-up Brees. Griffin is a former undrafted free agent out of Tulane. The Saints signed him to a two-year $1.1 Million contract in December 2014. Garrett Grayson was the surprising third quarterback drafted this year, taken by the Saints in the 3rd round (75th overall). Mike Mayock said, “Grayson throws with anticipation, which is rare for college quarterbacks these days and that his whole is better than the composite parts”. Sean Payton indicated that Grayson was the only quarterback that the Saints had eyes for. Even so, Grayson like McCown and Griffin are only competing to hold the clip board. The good news for Saints fans regarding their back-up QB situation is that Brees has missed only one game over his nine years with the team and realistically if Brees is lost, the Saints season may have gone down with him.

Running Backs

Starter: Mark Ingram
Backup(s): C. J. Spiller, Khiry Robinson
Fullback(s): Erik Lorig

Starting RB: Prior to the 2014 season, the Saints declined to exercise their fifth-year option on Ingram’s rookie contract. Less than a year later, the team signed him to a four-year $16 Million deal. His production improved in 2014 and he rushed for a career high 964 yards, but he again missed time due to injuries. Coming into 2014, Ingram had only one game with 20 or more carries, one game with over 100 yards rushing and only 24 receptions. Last year, he had 5 games with over 20 carries, 4 games with over 100 yards and caught 29 passes. Ingram will continue to be part of the Saints running back by committee, but should be given first opportunity as the team’s power back. Ingram ran consistently hard all season and considering the Saints’ off-season moves and draft selections, the team may be shifting the offensive philosophy to lean more on the running game. Even with the team signing C. J. Spiller, Ingram should again see several games with plentiful opportunities.

Backup RBs: C. J. Spiller is a quick twitch athlete that was drafted with the ninth pick of the 2010 draft. Despite averaging 5.0 ypc rushing, catching 159 passes and totaling 4,521 yards from scrimmage and 18 TDs for the Bills, he was very inconsistent on a week to week basis and seemed to be frequently misused. Last year was Spiller’s most disappointing as his opportunities were reduced and then he suffered a broken collarbone and missed seven games. In the off-season, the Bills traded for LeSean McCoy and showed no interest in resigning Spiller. The Saints signed him to a four-year $16 Million contract and Spiller and his agent indicated that they were looking for best fit first and money second. There is no doubt that Coach Payton knows how to use a player with Spiller’s skills. Spiller averaged 35 receptions per year in his first four seasons and should set a career high for receptions as the Saints most productive receiver as a running back. Khiry Robinson was an undrafted free agent out of West Texas A & M in 2014. He has adequate size at 6’-0” and 200 pounds. He has played in only 10 games in each of his two seasons and has been used most often when Ingram was out of the lineup. In weeks 3-5 last season with Ingram out, Robinson had 47 carries for 245 yards (5.2 ypc), but in the next game following the bye he lost a costly fumble and injured a forearm and only had 12 carries in three games over the remainder of the season. Robinson always runs hard and shows consistent effort. However, heading into this year he is third on the depth chart. Considering that the team gave both Ingram and Spiller four-year $16 Million contracts, he will have fewer opportunities until and unless one of those two misses time. Robinson is definitely a quality player and knows the Saints system well, so expect him to be successful when he gets the chance to play.

Fullback: Erik Lorig is the former seventh round pick for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, who played defensive end at Stanford. He played for four seasons with the Bucs before signing a four-year $4.8 Million contract with the Saints to replace Jed Collins in March of 2014. He is not known as a top level run blocker and has only 3 carries in his career, but did catch 9 passes for the Saints last year and scored 1 TD.

Wide Receivers

Starters: Marques Colston, Brandin Cooks
Backups: Nick Toon, Joseph Morgan, Jalen Saunders, Seantavious Jones and Brandon Coleman

Starting WRs: Marques Colston has had an incredible career with the Saints and enters his 10th season at the age of 32. Even though he has had six seasons with over 1,000 yards receiving, he has not reached that mark the past two years and has seen his targets, receptions and yards all decline. Colston has never been a speed receiver and instead relies on using his height and strength to his advantage. Even with the loss of Kenny Stills and Jimmy Graham from last year’s team, Colston should not be expected to see production increase. He has also had multiple knee issues over his career, but has only missed four games in the past six seasons. He is the Saints’ all-time leader in receiving TDs scored with 68 (39th in the NFL) and in receiving yards with 9,239 yards (52nd in the NFL). Brandin Cooks had an outstanding rookie campaign, with 53 catches for 550 yards and 3 TDs in only 10 games as he broke his thumb against Cincinnati in the 10th game. Cooks won the Fred Biletnikoff Award as the top collegiate receiver as a junior in his last collegiate season with Oregon State. With the Saints losing both Jimmy Graham and Kenny Stills, Cooks, a 5’-10” 190 pound speedster will be starting and should be Brees’ favorite target this year. His speed and quickness also provides him with opportunities in the running and return games. He rushed 7 times for 73 yards and a TD in his rookie year.

Backup WRs: Nick Toon was drafted in the fourth round in 2012. He was a very productive collegiate player for Wisconsin, with 170 career receptions for 2,447 yards and 18 TDs. Toon missed his entire rookie season, being placed on IR in pre-season with a foot injury. 2015 will be his last year under his rookie contract at $660,000. He has played sporadically over the last two seasons, managing only 35 career targets, 21 catches and 283 yards with 1 TD. He has good size at 6’-2” and 215 pounds, but has not displayed much speed or quickness and averages only 13.5 ypc. Joseph Morgan was an unsigned free agent in 2012 and played in 14 games. He was targeted only 21 times and had 10 receptions for 379 yards and 3 TDs. Morgan’s best production has been as a defense stretcher. He has outstanding top end speed, as his career 33.6 ypr indicates. The Saints waived Morgan in December of last year, but signed him to a one-year deal for $615,000 in April. Jalen Saunders is a smallish quick wide receiver that played collegiately at Oklahoma and was drafted a year ago by the Jets in the 4th round. He missed most of the pre-season after suffering a seizure and was used by the Jets returning punts. He was dropped early after muffing a punt in week 3. He was briefly on practice squads at Arizona and Seattle, before signing with the Saints in November following Brandin Cooks’ injury. He played and caught one pass over five games with the Saints. Seantavious Jones played collegiately at Valdosta State. He was signed as an undrafted free agent and was activated late in the season. Both Coach Payton and Drew Brees complimented his play and attitude at practice sessions. Brandon Coleman is the biggest of the reserve wide receiver crew, at 6’-6” and 225 pounds. He played at Rutgers and like Jones was an unsigned free agent that was activated toward the end of the 2014 season. There should be value in identifying the Saints’ third wide receiver, but at this point, the race for targets behind Cooks and Colston is wide open.

Tight Ends

Starters: Josh Hill
Backups: Ben Watson, Orson Charles

The Saints have a huge hole in their depth chart with the trade of Jimmy Graham to Seattle. Josh Hill was signed by the team in 2013 as an undrafted free agent and played collegiately at Idaho State. He started 21 of the 22 games there over his junior and senior seasons and he was the team’s second leading receiver with 118 catches for 1,007 yards over those two years. He has been a fill-in contributor for the Saints playing in 30 of the 32 games over his two seasons, catching 20 passes on 30 targets for 220 yards and 6 TDs. Witnessed by his 5 TDs in 2014, Hill has made big plays for the team in critical spots. He will definitely have every opportunity to be the starter, but don’t look for him to be nearly as heavily targeted as Graham has been. Ben Watson is in the final season of his three-year deal from March 2013 and provides them a solid veteran presence as the back-up. Watson, the former first rounder drafted by New England in 2004, had several productive seasons for the Patriots and Browns and has 360 career receptions for 4,138 yards and 32 TDs. Watson’s physical skills are not what they were as he enters his 12th NFL season at the age of 34, but he has always been a smart consistent player. He scored an amazing 48 on the wonderlic test, which was the highest score among NFL players at the time. His durability is a concern at his age, but he has missed only one game in two years with the Saints.

Place Kicker

TBD: Shayne Graham and Derek Dimke competed throughout spring and summer, but both were waived in the final round of cuts. 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 10th, 21st, 2nd, 11th, 4th, and 14th in attempted kicking points the past six years.

Kick and Punt Returners

Kick Returners: C.J. Spiller, Marcus Murphy [R], Jalen Saunders, Brandin Cooks

The return situation in New Orleans looks wide open going into the season. Travaris Cadet always seemed in the mix but now is gone to New England. The Saints have brought in a number of players who could win the kickoff return job. C.J. Spiller is an explosive player who had a 30.6 yard average on 10 returns including a touchdown in Buffalo last year. Marcus Murphy is a rookie running back much in the same scatback mold as Cadet. Receiver Jalen Saunders was signed late last season to take over returns, but may need a return job to make the roster and may be competing directly with Murphy for that spot. Brandin Cooks is an option, but there is a good chance he will be focused on his role on offense.

Punt Returners: C.J. Spiller, Marcus Murphy [R], Jalen Saunders, Brandin Cooks

As with kickoff returns, the punt return job will likely be settled in the preseason amongst the same candidates. C.J. Spiller is the most dangerous player of the group, though Jalen Saunders had a punt return touchdown for the Saints late last season.

Offensive Line

Projected Starters: LT Terron Armstead, LG Ben Grubbs, C Tim Lelito, RG Jahri Evans, RT Zach Strief
Key Backups: T Ty Nsekhe, T Marcel Jones, G Senio Kelemete, C Matt Armstrong [R], T Bryce Harris, T Tavon Rooks, G Mike Golic Jr.

The Saints grade out as a mid-tier unit in our rankings, which is pretty much where they finished last season. They are a solid unit with some top level talent at the guard positions. At the guard spots, the Saints boast two highly successful players in left guard Ben Grubbs and right guard Jahri Evans (both starters in last year’s Pro Bowl). Evans is probably the better of the two but both are excellent. The Saints are counting on breakout seasons for young players at other spots. One of the guys the team is counting on to take a step forward is left tackle Terron Armstead. Armstead took over the job in the final four games of last season, and seemed to improve with experience. He is known as a rare athlete and the Saints hope he can parlay those gifts into an elite NFL career. Another young player to watch is second year center Tim Lelito. Originally undrafted out of Grand Valley state, Lelito made two starts at guard last season and appears to be the front runner to win the center position vacated by Brian De La Puente. While the Saints did sign undrafted rookie Matt Armstrong (also out of Grand Valley).it’s entirely possible that the Saints will sign a veteran to compete with Lelito. If the Saints signed a veteran, (for example Jonathan Goodwin), they would actually grade out as a top five unit. However, for now it appears to be the Lelito’s job to lose. At right tackle Zach Strief is looked at as a veteran stabilizing presence, with tons of experience and the team hopes he can both man the position and tutor Armstead. The swing tackle job is currently an open competition between Ty Nsekhe and Marcel Jones, and Senio Kelemete should also make this team as a versatile backup. Overall this line has some real talent but the uncertainty at the center position is holding back the ranking.

Team Defense

The Saints defensive resurgence started up front with Cameron Jordan's outstanding 2013 campaign, but he had plenty of help getting pressure starting with outside linebacker Junior Galette. Jordan and Galette thrived in Rob Ryan's aggressive system but the secondary did not. To fix that the team brought in All Pro defensive backs Champ Bailey and Jairus Byrd. Byrd should make a huge impact covering the back end and freeing up Vaccaro to help in the run game. Bailey's impact will be much more key, and is much less known. He hasn't been the same player the last two years in injury and it wouldn't be that surprising if his level of play fell off a cliff. If Bailey can be a true CB1 this could be an outstanding defense.

Defensive Line

Starters: NT Brodrick Bunkley, DT Cameron Jordan, DE Akiem Hicks, DE Junior Galette NT Brodrick Bunkley, DE Cameron Jordan, DT Akiem Hicks, DE Junior Galette
Backups: NT John Jenkins, DE Anthony Spencer, DL Glenn Foster, DL Kasim Edebali

Starting DL: Nose tackle Brodrick Bunkley returns as the space-eater in a largely unchanged Saints defensive front. Bunkley may be coming towards the end of his career, but he is still effective if his snaps are kept in check. Cameron Jordan, an outstanding run defender and arguably the team’s best defensive player, performed well last season stopping the run, but let himself down as a pass rusher. Rumours have circulated that Jordan could be traded on draft day as part of the Saints’ continued rebuilding efforts. Former Regina (Canada) standout Akiem Hicks has come a long way since arriving on the scene. Entering his fourth season, Hicks has been a disruptive force and should take another step forward in 2015. Junior Galette has been the Saints’ best pass rusher over the past couple of seasons. Charges against Galette for domestic battery were dropped recently, so it appears that – pending league discipline – he will remain the edge presence the offenses dread.

Backup DL: The hulking presence of John Jenkins will be the primary backup on the interior. Jenkins started in place of the injured Brodrick Bunkley last year before he too was injured and placed on injured reserve. Anthony Spencer was scooped up by the team on a one-year deal. He had a relationship with defensive coordinator Rob Ryan stretching back to their days together in Dallas. Spencer will be expected to be a pass-rushing specialist in a rotational role.

Linebackers

Starters: LB David Hawthorne, LB Dannell Ellerbe, LB Parys Haralson
Backups: LB Ramon Humber, LB Ronald Powell, LB Stephone Anthony, LB Hau'oli Kikaha

Starting LBs: Dannell Ellerbe moved from the Dolphins to the Saints this offseason in what essentially amounted to a salary dump by Miami. Ellerbe’s best days are likely behind him, but the Saints will be hoping he can be an upgrade on the disappointing play of Curtis Lofton. David Hawthorne was forced to take a pay cut as part of the team’s salary purge, and he is the favourite to assume the middle linebacker role vacated by Lofton. Hawthorne may be on the downside of his career, but he still represents the best linebacker the Saints have and will be an every-down player in 2015. The team re-signed strongside linebacker Parys Haralson to a one-year deal. The selection of Clemson product Stephone Anthony gives the Saints a much-needed injection of youth into their linebacker corps. He will immediately challenge Hawthorne for snaps at middle linebacker.

Backup LBs: Ramon Humber was a decent backup option for the Saints last season, being called upon frequently to fill in at both strongside and weakside linebacker. Ronald Powell, a fifth round pick out of Florida last year, was used predominantly on special teams but should contribute more this season. Pass rushing specialist Hau'oli Kikaha will be a terrific weapon for the Saints to utilise off the edge. He will be a liability against the run, but his outstanding effort will get him to the quarterback.

Defensive Backs

Starters: CB Keenan Lewis, CB Brandon Browner, FS Jairus Byrd, SS Kenny Vaccaro
Backups: S Rafael Bush, CB Stanley Jean-Baptiste, CB Kyle Wilson, S Pierre Warren, S Jamarca Sanford, CB P.J. Williams

Starting DBs: Former Steeler Keenan Lewis had more bad outings than good ones last season, and perhaps the Saints’ signing of veteran Brandon Browner is a response to that poor play. Browner, fresh off a Super Bowl championship with New England, will slot in opposite Lewis to form a physical, if error-prone, cornerback duo. Jairus Byrd, who signed a big free agent deal to join the team last year, unfortunately had his first season cut short by a knee injury. Byrd never got his feet under the ground and was pedestrian in the four games he took part in. More will be expected from the rangy playmaker in 2015. The same can be said for Kenny Vaccaro, who took a major step backwards in 2014. Missed tackles became the rule rather than the exception for the former Texas player; Vaccaro missed 19 in total.

Backup DBs: The Saints have plenty of depth at defensive back, with Stanley Jean-Baptiste the pick of the group. The second-year cornerback, who the coaching staff admitted was a ‘developmental player’ when they drafted him, played only eight snaps last year. Jean-Baptiste, a long, lean cornerback, will compete for the nickel cornerback job. Rafael Bush is a solid backup at safety who has logged some good snaps for the team in his three years. Kyle Wilson is reportedly the leader in the clubhouse for the nickel cornerback job after he moved to the Big Easy from a forgettable spell in New York. Draft pick P.J. Williams fits very well in Rob Ryan's predominantly aggressive, man coverage defense. His effort will be inconsistent at times, but he has the talent to mirror receivers downfield. Williams could be an instant contributor and push Jean-Baptiste and Wilson for the slot role.

Last modified: 2015-05-10 17:55:46