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2015 Team Report: New Orleans Saints

Quarterbacks

Starter: Drew Brees
Backup(s): Luke McCown 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. Combine that with the defensive struggles which may carry over from last season and the Saints may not have the opportunity to run more often. 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 rookie Garrett Grayson to back-up Brees. 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 is 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 could be in jeopardy.

Running Backs

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

Starting RB: Prior to the 2014 season, the Saints declined to exercise their fifth-year option on Ingramís 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 career 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 teamís power back. Ingram ran consistently hard all season and considering the Saintsí 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. His activity in the passing game remains rather low.

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 Spillerís 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 Spillerís 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 running back receiver. Spiller injured his knee in practice on August 10th and had maintenance surgery on April 14th. He should return for the season opener if he has nt problems. Khiry Robinson was an undrafted free agent out of West Texas A & M in 2014. He has adequate size at 6í-0Ē 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 should 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: Austin Johnson is the Saints best blocking fullback. He had 8 carries in 2014 for 22 yards. He also caught 2 passes for 15 yards and his first career touchdown. He was placed on IR in early November last year and has won the competition for top fullback this year.

Wide Receivers

Starters: Marques Colston, Brandin Cooks
Backups: Brandon Coleman, Willie Snead and Josh Morgan

Starting WRs: Marques Colston entered training camp on the PUP list, primarily allowing him additional veteran rest while the Saints evaluated their abundant inexperienced wide receivers. He is currently practicing again. 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 a huge 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 touchdown in his rookie year.

Backup WRs: Brandon Coleman is the biggest of the reserve wide receiver crew, at 6' 6" and 225 pounds. He played at Rutgers, but had reduced production toward the end of his collegiate career following a knee injury and subsequently was an unsigned free agent. He was activated toward the end of the 2014 season. He played well during training camp and will begin the season as the third wide receiver. Willie Snead is another undrafted free agent who made play after play during training camp and made the roster. He played collegiately at Ball State. Josh Morgan is a seven-year veteran who has played at San Francisco, Washington and Chicago. He is 209 career receptions, but never caught more than 52 passes in a single season. He seems to be on the roster primarily as a veteran influence for the younger receivers. He was cut on September 5th, but could be brought back to the team after the beginning of the season. There might be value in identifying the Saints' fourth wide receiver, but at this point, the race for targets behind Cooks, Colston and Coleman is far from settled.

Tight Ends

Starters: Ben Watson
Backups: Josh Hill

The Saints have a huge hole in their depth chart with the trade of Jimmy Graham to Seattle. Ben Watson has played second and third team for the past few seasons with the Saints and is in the final season of his three-year deal from March 2013. Watson got a lot of first team reps during training camp and played well. He provides the team a solid veteran presence. 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 obviously not what they have been as he enters his 12th NFL season at the age of 34, but he has always been a smart and 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. 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 is still likely to be given the opportunity to be the starter, but don't look for him to be nearly as heavily targeted as Graham has been.

Place Kicker

Dustin Hopkins, Zach Hocker: The Saints kicker job continues to be one of the least secure in the league. After settling on Shayne Graham last year, the Saints saw the veteran make 19 of 22 field goals, but that still wasn't enough to get him a spot on the 2015 roster. Hopkins was supposed to be the Bills kicker after being drafted in the sixth round in 2013, but an injury cost him his job when Dan Carpenter performed well in his absence and Hopkins couldn't beat him out the following year. Hocker was also drafted last year, in the seventh round, but couldn't beat out Kai Forbath in Washington. The Saints could be one of the first teams to embrace going for two if they can't settle this situation satisfactorily before or during the season.

Kick and Punt Returners

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

The return situation in New Orleans has a lot of pieces that could fit in the puzzle. Former returner Travaris Cadet departed to join New England, and the Saints have brought in a number of players who can handle 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 Darren Spoles and who has looked outstanding as a returner. Brandin Cooks is an option, but there is a good chance he will be kept focused on his role on offense.

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

The punt return job has the same set of candidates as on kickoffs. C.J. Spiller is the most dangerous player of the group, but Marcus Murphy has made a case for seeing a share of the returns.

Offensive Line

Projected Starters: LT Terron Armstead, LG Zach Strief, C Max Unger, RG Jahri Evans, RT Andrus Peat [R]
Key Backups: T Bryce Harris, G Senio Kelemete, C Mike Brewster, G Tim Lelito, T Nick Becton

The Saints' lineup is a tough one to project with certainty, at this point in the offseason. But if it all falls right this could indeed be a very good offensive line. The team acquired center Max Unger from the Seattle Seahawks in the Jimmy Graham trade, and Unger is one of the best at his job in the league. The two time Pro Bowler will likely settle in just fine at the center position. However the team lacks a clear starter at left guard. The team drafted Andrus Peat from Stanford at 13 overall in the first round and the latest news has him working at right tackle. If we assume the team wants Peat to start year one, that could mean Zach Strief (who actually had a great year) moving from right tackle to left guard. While not young, Strief is a smart and versatile player who could make that move rather easily. That lineup with the athletic Terron Amstead at left tackle, Streif at left guard, Unger at center, six time Pro Bowler Jahri Evans at right guard and Peat at right tackle, has a ton of potential. The cohesion will be low at first, with Unger having to familiarize himself with the new system and Peat and Strief playing new positions. But down the line, this group could easily rise in the rankings and become one of the league's elite units. If the team can't find a way to get Peat a starting job, a player such Tim Lelito would likely start instead and this group would fall a few spots in the rankings. Certainly how these positions fill out in preseason will be important to watch.

Team Defense

The Saints defense has been one of the most confusing to project over the last two years. Defensive coordinator Rob Ryan, who has never been thought of as elite at his job, piloted them to a top finish in 2013. New Orleans added all-pro free safety in a surprise free agent signing, and they were seemingly poised to be even better in 2014. A team-wide collapse ensued, and the Saints were back near the bottom of the league in points and yards allowed, and their defense lost the big play punch it had exhibited in 2013. The response this offseason was to add players like Brandon Browner and Kyle Wilson to the secondary, and trade Jimmy Graham for a first-rounder that became athletic ILB Stephone Anthony. Second-round pick OLB Hau'oli Kikaha was highly productive at Washington. CJ Spiller also brings back some of the return punch the Saints lost when Darren Sproles was traded to Philadelphia last year. If the Saints don't improve at least a little bit, it won't be for lack of trying, but for now, leave them in the cellar dweller ranks in all areas of D/ST rankings.

Defensive Line

Starters: NT John Jenkins, DT Kevin Williams, DE Cameron Jordan, DE Akiem Hicks NT Brodrick Bunkley, DE Cameron Jordan, DE Akiem Hicks
Backups: NT Tyeler Davison, DE Tavaris Barnes, DL Bobby Richardson, DL Kaleb Eulls, DL Obum Gwacham

Starting DL: Nose tackle Brodrick Bunkley was released after failing a physical prior to training camp. Bunkley tore his quadriceps muscle last season and was still recovering from the injury. John Jenkins, who has trimmed down to 329 pounds from 359 pounds, should step in and start at nose tackle. Alongside him in 4-3 fronts will be veteran Kevin Williams, a stout presence who can contribute despite his advancing years. Cameron Jordan, an outstanding run defender and arguably the teamís best defensive player, performed well last season stopping the run, but let himself down as a pass rusher. The Saints reaffirmed their commitment to Jordan by signing him to a new five-year contract extension in June. 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 was released by the Saints in July after a pair of domestic violence allegations caught up with him. Per Mike Triplett, Saints beat reporter with ESPN, Galette was also accused of breeding a negative atmosphere in the locker room with his 'brash' personality rubbing players the wrong way.

Backup DL: Tavaris Barnes is one of many young players on the Saints roster. The undrafted rookie from Clemson should provide decent depth. Joining him is another undrafted rookie in Bobby Richardson, who flashed as a versatile pass rusher this offseason. Obum Gwacham is a raw rookie the Saints claimed off waivers from the Seahawks; it remains to be seen if he will earn himself a role. Kaleb Eulls rounds out the undrafted trio of defensive linemen among the backups; he has the versatility to play both tackle and end. Fifth round pick Tyeler Davison will be a good depth option and, like the other backups, has good versatility to play all along the line.

Linebackers

Starters: MLB Stephone Anthony, WLB David Hawthorne, SLB Hau'oli Kikaha
Backups: LB Dannell Ellerbe, LB Ramon Humber, LB Michael Mauti, LB Kasim Edebali, LB Davis Tull

Starting LBs: Starting weakside linebacker David Hawthorne was forced to take a pay cut as part of the teamís salary purge. He may be on the downside of his career, but he still represents the best linebacker the Saints have and should be an every-down player in 2015. The selection of Clemson product Stephone Anthony gives the Saints a much-needed injection of youth into their linebacker corps. He will start at middle linebacker after a very impressive offseason and camp, during which he called signals for the first and second team defense and making several splash plays. Hau'oli Kikaha has been playing both strongside linebacker and defensive end in subpackages; he will be a valuable chess piece for the Saints to move around, but may see his snaps limited due to his weakness against the run.

Backup LBs: Dannell Ellerbe missed a lot of time due to injury, but will be the primary backup option upon his return. 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. Second-year edge player Kasim Edebali was switched from defensive end to outside linebacker during camp; he figures to be a rotational pass rusher. Davis Tull was the Saints' fifth round pick and missed time during the preseason due to a shoulder injury. However, he should be able to contribute sooner rather than later. New Orleans native Michael Mauti was claimed off waivers from the Vikings and could be a nice plug-in option in a pinch.

Defensive Backs

Starters: CB Keenan Lewis, CB Brandon Browner, FS Jairus Byrd, SS Kenny Vaccaro
Backups: S Rafael Bush, CB Damian Swann, CB Kyle Wilson, CB Brian Dixon, S Jamarca Sanford, CB P.J. Williams [IR], CB Delvin Breaux

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. Lewis sustained a hip injury, requiring surgery, that will keep him out the first four to six weeks of the season. In Lewis' absence, former CFL player and New Orleans native Delvin Breaux will be expected to step in and contribute. 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. More will be expected from the rangy playmaker in 2015, but Byrd did not take a practice rep at training camp in what many consider a disheartening development. However, he was not placed on PUP and hence the Saints must expect him back within six weeks. More will be expected too from Kenny Vaccaro, who took a major step backwards in 2014. Missed tackles became the rule rather than the exception for the former Texas player; he missed 19 in total. He added muscle in the offseason in the hopes of bouncing back.

Backup DBs: Rafael Bush is a solid backup at safety who has logged some good snaps for the team in his three years. He will deputize in the absence of Jairus Byrd early in the season. 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. Unfortunately the team had to place him on season-ending IR with a torn hamstring. Delvin Breaux, a New Orleans native, turned a lot of heads in camp. A stout cornerback in the mold the Saints are looking for at 6'1'' and 195lbs, he broke his neck in high school and is seeking a fairytale revival to his career in his hometown. Breaux is considered favorite to start opposite Brandon Browner after an injury to Keenan Lewis. Damian Swann will compete for the nickel cornerback role. Kyle Wilson, the former first round pick of the Jets, endured an up and down offseason but should provide quality depth. Brian Dixon brings value as a gunner on special teams.

Last modified: 2015-09-29 21:40:30