The New Orleans Saints: Rebuilding or Reloading?
The 2015 New Orleans Saints no doubt underachieved. Coming off of an 11-5 season and a division playoff win against Philadelphia the previous year, fans and spectators alike believed the Saints would only get better. And why wouldn't they? They signed All-pro free safety Jairus Byrd from the Buffalo Bills in free agency, adding him to an already top 5 defense from 2014. They also spent a 1st round pick on Brandin Cooks a receiver out of Oregon State who only led the nation in yards with over 1,800 and a guy who was also voted the best receiver in the country that same year. And of course, All-pro quarterback and future hall-of-famer Drew Brees was returning, and his four straight years of over 4,000 yards passing was nothing to scoff at. So what was the result? A 7-9 record and sitting at home for the playoffs. Time to reload for 2016.
The Jimmy Graham Trade: Maybe one of the most shocking deals that was made at the start of the 2015 offseason was the Saints' decision to trade all-pro tight end Jimmy Graham. The Saints' traded Graham to the Seattle Seahawks for all-pro center Max Unger and a 1st round pick in the 2015 NFL draft. The 31st selection. The trade may have been shocking due to the caliber of player involved, but it was nevertheless the right move to make. Graham had developed a reputation for being soft and disappearing whenever it mattered most. Most notably when he recorded 1 catch for 8 yards in a playoff game against his new team, the Seahawks.
The trade allowed the Saints to get a lot better at center, a position they've been desperately trying to fill since their Super Bowl run in 2009. Max Unger brings a physicality to the offensive line that's unmatched and he wrecks havoc on defenses in the running game, an aspect of the offense that the Saints struggled at in 2015. When Unger was in Seattle, he helped Marshawn Lynch reach all-pro caliber, and without Unger due to injury, Lynch's yard per carry dropped an entire yard. That's significant. Unger also has all the mental capabilities you look for in a center to pair with a quarterback like Drew Brees. Brees will never have to be concerned with Unger missing a protection or an audible.
The Kenny Stills Trade: Only after 2 years with the team, the Saints dealt wide receiver Kenny Stills to the Miami Dolphins for a 3rd round pick in the 2015 NFL draft and Danell Ellerbe, an outside linebacker. The deal was questioned by many due to the Saints' lack of depth at the receiver position, but the deal was a win for the Saints. Stills, who was a 5th round pick, was an average receiver to say the least. His main attibute was his ability to stretch the field with his speed, but that can easily be replaced. Many Saints fans also believe that without Brees throwing the passes, Stills would have not been as productive. In 2015 Stills had 63 catches for 931 yards and 3 touchdowns. His production also increased due to the injury of Brandin Cooks, a guy that will be returning in 2016. Also, the Saints have confidence in Brandon Coleman, a 2nd year player out of Rutgers that has yet to see the field, and Nick Toon out of Wisconsin who has shown flashes of his big play skill. The Saints turned an average player in Stills who was a 5th round pick in 2013, to a new 3rd round pick in 2015. Kudos to Sean Payton and Mickey Loomis.
The Ben Grubbs Trade: Just as the Saints have been searching for a center since 2009, they've been searching for solid guard play since they lost Carl Nicks to free agency a few years back. Grubbs is an all-pro guard, and has shown why in certain instances with the Saints, but the 31 year old guard has also shown slight signs of decline. Most notably when Grubbs and his interior line mates allowed 5 sacks to the Atlanta Falcons, a team that ranked 32nd in the league in getting after the quarterback. The Saints received a 5th round pick from the Kansas City Chiefs for the guard, and will now be able to kick Zach Strief inside to guard. Again, kudos to Sean Payton and Mickey Loomis.
The Mark Ingram Re-signing: A lot of spectators believed that the Saints would let Ingram walk after some would say the tailback has underachieved since entering the NFL out of Alabama. Well, they didn't. Ingram inked a 4-year contract extension worth $16M. Ingram showed flashes of his ability in 2015, and was voted to his 1st pro-bowl as a replacement for Seattle's Marshawn Lynch. Ingram can only improve from here, especially with the addition of a player like Max Unger. Again, Kudos.
The Signing of C.J. Spiller: The Saints have lacked a dynamic running back since they lost Reggie Bush to free agency in 2009. Granted, Darren Sproles was no slouch in replacing Bush in the following years, but Sproles wasn't used in the running game as much as Bush, and as his time went on he became a receiving threat only. Sproles eventually went on to play in Philadelphia, and the Saints also failed to resign Pierre Thomas, so this was definitely an issue the Saints needed to address. And they did. C.J. Spiller is arguably one of the most dynamic running backs in the league, as he can run between the tackles and also catch screens and passes out of the backfield. A trait that is crucial for any running back in a Sean Payton offense. Some questioned the signing due to Spiller's injury history, but he won't be expected to carry the load in New Orleans, and will be a great 1-2 punch with Ingram. Kudos. I see a trend here.
The Signing of Brandon Browner: Aside from Keenan Lewis, the Saints were desperate for a solid corner in 2015. Corey White seemed to always be giving up a game winning touchdown, and Patrick Robinson was just too inconsistent. The Saints addressed the issue however when they inked former Patriots corner Brandon Browner to a 3-year-deal. Browner is a big, physical corner that isn't afraid to tackle. He will be an excellent addition opposite Keenan Lewis, and will allow defensive coordinator Rob Ryan to play his aggressive man-to-man defense. Kudos.
The 2015 Draft: Going into the draft the Saints had a plethora of picks. 9 to be exact. And they made much needed selections with all of them. In the 1st round at 13 the Saints surprised some when they took Andrus Peat, Tackle, out of Stanford. It was a surprise because many believed the Saints would be going pass rusher, especially with someone like Bud Dupree stlll on the board. But Peat was a great selection. The 6'7, 313 pound gaurd will bring a unique athleticism to the Saints' offensive line, most likely at right tackle. Peat is great in the screen game, as he gets to the second level in a hurry, similar to current left tackle Terron Armstead. The Saints' future is bright on the offensive line.
With their second 1st round pick at 31 (From Seattle) the Saints selected linebacker Stephone Anthony out of Clemson. Linebacker was a definite need, but again the selection was questioned because Anthony isn't a pass rusher. What Anthony is though is a smart and tough backer who can run sideline to sideline like nobodys business. The Clemson product is also experienced, as he spent 4 years in college. In his career Anthony had 255 tackles, 9.5 sacks, and 3 interceptions. Anthony will more than likely fill the middle linebacker position for the Saints eventually, after they failed to resign Curtis Lofton in the offseason.
In the 2nd round at pick 44 the Saints finally got their pass rusher. They selected Hau'oli Kikaha out of Washington. His name may be difficult to say, but his production isn't hard to see. In his last two years at Washington the outside linebacker totaled 32 sacks and 19 in 2015. His sack total led the country. Kikaha is relentless when it comes to getting to the quarterback and has a motor that never stops. He has strong hands, and his background in wrestling and martial arts give him an advantage when using his hands to shed blocks. The dominent pass rusher fell due to concerns with an acl injury he sustained in the past. But all signs point to him being at full strength. Quarterbacks beware in the NFC South.
Just like in the 1st, the Saints had two picks in the 3rd round. Pick 75 and pick 78 (from Dolphins). At 75 the Saints selected Garrett Grayson, quarterback out of Colorado State and at 78, P.J. Williams, cornerback out of Florida State. Grayson was a bit of a surprise, since the likes of Bryce Petty out of Baylor was still on the board. But Grayson was no slouch in college. In his four years he threw for over 9,000 yards, 64 touchdowns, and a quarterback rating of 145.3. There's also no rush to get Grayson on the field, as he can sit and learn from Drew Brees. P.J. Williams joins a secondary that has the looks on paper to rival Seattle for the best in the league. The 6 foot corner will join an already size infested secondary, with Keenan Lewis and Brandon Browner both already being over 6 foot. Williams didn't record many interceptions in his career at FSU, only totaling 4, but his physical nature and ability to tackle is what stands out. In 2015 he registered 74 tackles. From the corner position that's nothing to turn your head at. Williams will be a solid corner in the Saints' nickel packages.
In the 5th round, just like in the 1st and 3rd, the Saints had two picks. Picks 148 and 154 (from Chiefs). At 148 the Saints selected outside linebacker Davis Tull out of Chatanooga. Coming from a small school like Chatanooga, Tull fell to the 5th round, but his combine workout and stats throughout his 4-year career speak volumes to his potential. Tull racked up 37 sacks at Chattanooga and 60 tackles for loss. Tull will provide great depth at the linebacker position, and possibly see more playing time than expected. At 154 the Saints selected defensive tackle Tyeler Davison out of Fresno State. Davison is 6 foot 2, 316 pounds, but can move for his size. In all of his years at Fresno State, he has gotten at least 40 tackles and 2 sacks. The knock on him is that he can only play in a 4 man front, but with Rob Ryan that's okay. As Ryan shuffles between 4-3 and 3-4 personel frequently. Davison provides much needed depth to a position in which the Saints are thin, and can potentially give stud Akiem Hicks a blow when needed.
In the 6th round the Saints held the 187 pick. And they selected Damian Swann, a cornerback out of Georgia. Swann, just like Williams, Lewis, and Browner, is over 6 foot. The Saints secondary just keeps getting bigger. In 4 years at Georgia Swann recorded 180 tackles and intercepted 8 passes. The Georgia prospect will be a great addition on special teams and may possibly see the field in some dime or nickel packages.
To close out the draft in the 7th round the Saints held the 230 pick. They selected Marcus Murphy, a running back out of Missouri. Murphy was productive in his 4 years at Missouri in both the running game and also the return game. Murphy totaled 924 rushing yards and 4 touchdowns in his senior season, and that's nothing to be ashamed of in the dominent SEC conference. Murphy nearly totaled 3,000 return yards and scored 7 touchdowns total on special teams. The Saints don't expect Murphy to contribute much on offense, but for the 32nd ranked team on special teams, Murphy can definitely help in that department.
The 2015 Saints draft as of now, well, looks very promising. KUDOS.
Wrap up: The Saints will have a new look, and many new faces, as they look to bounce back in 2016. Along with the new additions made in free agency and in the draft, the Saints will also be getting Jairus Byrd and Brandin Cooks back at full strength. After losing both players early in 2015 to injury. The NFC South looks to be wide open yet again, and the Saints' look like a front runner to make a run at the division title. It initally seemed like the Saints were in rebuild mode, but with Sean Payton and Mickey Loomis calling the shots, they only reloaded.