Five questions: New Orleans Saints

Every NFL team has some questions they’re hoping to solve in training camp– some more important and serious than others. (After all, teams run the gamut from “Super Bowl contender trying to reload for another go” to “Disaster franchise in complete organizational overhaul.”) As part of a series, we’re going to look at some of these teams’ questions and where the answers might lay. (Hopefully we can get to every team before the season starts, but nothing is guaranteed.)

Today we’ll look at the New Orleans Saints. While ordinarily I would try to provide some sort of definite answer to the questions I’ll pose in this post, my unabashed Saints fandom means I will not be likely to look at these moves objectively. Take any answers I provide to these questions with a grain of salt.

1. Where will the pass rush come from?

New Orleans had a number of defensive problems last year– even with a few talented players, nothing went right for the team. The pass rush was ineffective, the coverages were constantly blown, and the run defense was non-existent. The first part of the answer to this question is obvious, because it was answered months ago: The Saints fired Steve Spagnuolo after one wildly ineffective season as the defensive coordinator (which is starting to make it seem clearer that Spags built his reputation from having an excellent defensive line in New York, and not any particular coaching ability). The team announced it would be switching to a 3-4 look even before they hired Rob Ryan; presumably, Payton saw the pieces on the roster and figured his players fit this look better.

Cam Jordan can slide into a defensive end spot in a 3-4, which, if he maintains his production, would made him a very good 3-4 end. The outside linebackers are now going to be counted on to provide the pressure. Unfortunately, free-agent signing Victor Butler tore his ACL in the offseason and will almost certainly be lost for the season. Young veterans Junior Gallette and Martez Wilson are expected to play major roles at the position, but Wilson just injured his elbow and will miss most of training camp. Will Smith is projected as one starting OLB, but I have questions about his ability to play the position (I think he’s too large and would be better served at DE, honestly). With injuries, Galette and Smith might see more time than expected, and rookies Rufus Johnson and Chase Thomas might even have to take some snaps.

John Jenkins and Akiem Hicks could conceivably provide an interior pass rush, and Roman Harper still excels as a blitzing safety. Still, Jordan and the OLBs are the best hope for a pass rush. If Wilson or Galette turns out to be well-fitted for the role, the Saints could take a big step forward.

2. Can the offense replace Devery Henderson, Jermon Bushrod, and Chris Ivory?

Short answer: Yes. Long answer: This is how the Saints have done business in the Payton-Loomis era. They find young talent cheaply, coach it up, and when the big money comes calling for those guys, they let them walk and do it all over again.

We saw it last year when the Saints let Carl Nicks, a fifth-round pick who’d blossomed into possibly the best guard in the league, leave for Tampa Bay with a huge contract. (Granted, they wanted to franchise him, and couldn’t because they hadn’t worked out a long-term deal with Brees, but they were never going to give him money like the Bucs did. Signing Ben Grubbs as his replacement didn’t cause the team to miss a beat.) We see it in the rotating stable of running backs the Saints keep. (Anyone remember Mike Bell?) And we see it in the receiving corps, where the team has consistently found young talent cheaply and groomed them to work well with Brees. (Oddly enough, the two receivers the team let walk were originally first- and second-round picks. The Saints let Robert Meachem and Devery Henderson leave in favor of a seventh-round pick and two undrafted players as their top three wide receivers.)

So the process continues anew. Travaris Cadet, last year’s undrafted find from Appalachian State who earned an unexpected roster spot last season, will take Ivory’s role on the roster. It won’t necessarily be big: the Saints are planning for Mark Ingram to have an increased role, Darren Sproles is still the go-to back for the passing game, and Pierre Thomas is a steadily effective, do-it-all player. But the fact that it isn’t big is what allowed the Saints to comfortably trade Ivory for a fourth-round pick this offseason. (They used that pick to trade up for DT John Jenkins, a player I really like.)

Joe Morgan will replace Devery Henderson. He might not see as many snaps right away– Moore will probably be second in terms of WR snap count– but he has the potential to be a greater deep threat than Henderson or Meachem ever were. His numbers from last year– only 10 catches, but for 379 yards and 3 TDs– indicate that he can make big plays, but now he has to learn the rest of the offense.

Rookie Kenny Stills and second-year player Nick Toon figure to factor in as well.

Jermon Bushrod is the one player in the bunch who might seem difficult to replace. NFL-caliber left tackles aren’t easy to find. But Bushrod was never an elite tackle, just an average-level starter (not to diminish his contributions; the 16th-best left tackle in the league has a ton of value). The Saints found him from a small school in the fourth round of the 2007 draft, and they’ve gone back to that well in hopes of finding a long-term replacement, drafting Terron Armstead of Arkansas-Pine Bluff in the third round this year. They really hope Charles Brown, a 2010 second-round pick from USC who’s been held back by injuries so far, can win the job, but if he can’t, Armstead has the athleticism to develop into the long-term answer at the position.

3. Will the secondary makeover fix the pass defense?

Unlike the pass rush, the massive coverage problems in the secondary weren’t an issue of players not fitting a scheme; the issue was players not being capable of doing their jobs.

Whether that was due to a lack of talent or a lack of development, we may never know, but we do know that the team used first-round picks on Malcolm Jenkins in 2009 and Patrick Robinson in 2010, and both players saw the team make relatively high-profile acquisitions to replace them (Robinson was demoted when the team signed Keenan Lewis; just as the Saints used the 14th pick on Jenkins in 2009, so they used the 15th on Kenny Vaccaro this year to replace him).

Lewis is well-regarded as a young cornerback (26) who projects to be a capable cover man for the Saints. I wish I knew more about his play these last few years in Pittsburgh, but he emerged as a starter in 2012 and was regarded as good signing by people I respect. Signing an undervalued free agent cornerback is how the team found Jabari Greer back in 2009. (Unfortunately, free agency is also how the team found Jason David, the worst free agent signing of the Payton/Loomis era.) At 31, Greer’s best days are behind him, but he can still hold down the fort decently at the other cornerback spot.

Jenkins may actually move to the other safety position and bump Roman Harper out of the starting lineup; Harper has spent the last six years as the Saints’ starting strong safety, an impressive run for a guy notorious for his inability to cover players. Vaccaro should be the starter at free safety from day one.

Upgrading the top line upgrades the team’s depth, too. The hidden upside to signing players at these spots (or, for example, at wide receiver) is that they now make their teammates’ jobs a little easier by providing them with easier matchups. If you sign a free agent cornerback to play #1 wide receivers, it means you current #1 guy now will find an easier task in covering #2 wide receivers. Your #2 cornerback becomes your nickelback, and on down the line. Jenkins and Robinson have been disappointing, but perhaps their performance will be solid enough in these easier roles.

There’s no way to answer this question except to wait and see. I feel like the team’s secondary can’t possibly be worse that it was last year (considering it was only five years prior that the Saints were employing Jason “Worse than Hole in Zone” David, that’s an impressive feat for the 2012 team), so in that sense, yeah, the changes should improve the team. Are Lewis and Vaccaro legitimate players and will they be enough? Time will tell.

4. How much of an impact will Sean Payton’s return have?

It seems like it couldn’t possibly be anything less than huge. It’s hard to answer this question exactly, but the key element is simply– how much of the Saints’ downfalls last season were due to missing their head coach, vs. how much had key players fallen off?

The remaining coaches performed admirably, although offensive line / interim head coach Aaron Kromer’s decision-making through a disastrous first six weeks may have tarnished the shine on the guy widely expected to be the Saints’ top on-staff prospect for a future head coaching job. (He’s now OL coach / offensive coordinator in Chicago.) The team was better in Joe Vitt’s ten games, but his 5-5 stretch wasn’t nearly good enough to take the team anywhere.

With those things in mind, I can’t imagine Payton’s return won’t make a big difference. Drew Brees is still Drew Brees, and the team has reloaded the weak spots on the roster with fresh talent.

Honestly, with the moves the front office made this season, I think the team will jump right back into contention with their fearless leader once again at the helm.

5. Does Jonathan Vilma still have a place on this team?

Vilma’s a defensive leader, but he’s aging and now finds himself in a defense that isn’t particularly suited to his skills, and competing with younger guys better suited to either LB position for a job. Curtis Lofton and David Hawthorne are better suited to being 3-4 ILBs. Wilson and Galette are better suited to being 3-4 OLBs. Vilma took a pay cut to stay around, so the coaching staff may find a use for him, but right now, he looks like a player without a position to me.

This is one I struggle to answer. Vilma’s age, salary, and fit in the defense would seem to indicate there really isn’t a place for him anymore. I’ve heard talks of Vilma playing both ILB and OLB in the new defense. I’m sure he could be a passable player at ILB, since Ryan’s system isn’t the same as Mangini’s, but does “passable” mean “good”? And what kind of player would he have to be at OLB? How different would his role be at this stage in his career compared to what he’s been doing? Can he learn a new role?

I don’t know how much teams truly value a “locker room” guy. Vilma is seen as a vocal defensive leader on the team, and if he can play well enough, there’s certainly value in keeping him aboard. Of course, he’ll have to actually play well enough at his new position to merit the spot on performance– roster spots in the NFL are too valuable to waste on an orator, no matter how gifted.

I’m interested to see how it plays out. Vilma was an integral part of the Saints’ Super Bowl run and of the success the team had from 2009-11, but his best days are likely behind him. There are too many factors involved to gauge what will happen with Vilma this year, and that’s what sparks my curiosity.

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