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2015 Team Preview: New Orleans Saints

Justin Fielkow

Justin Fielkow is an attorney at the Franklin Law Group in Northfield, Illinois, a Chicago suburb. A proud Wisconsin Badger, he also attended Tulane University Law School, where he obtained a Certificate in Sports Law. Justin has been writing for Rotowire since 2008, covering the New Orleans Saints, and as a columnist analyzing legal issues and their impact on fantasy sports.

STATE OF THE FRANCHISE

Despite entering the season with Super Bowl aspirations, the 2014 Saints stumbled to a 7-9 record. Behind a porous offensive line, quarterback Drew Brees looked every one of his (then) 35 years old, suffering through his worst season in nearly half a decade. The usually reliable Marques Colston struggled to get separation at wideout. And the defense, simply put, was a disaster.

Despite last year's disappointment, there's reason for optimism entering 2015. The Saints re-signed running back Mark Ingram, who finally broke through in 2014, running with power and even flashing a decent pair of hands. Last year's first-round draft pick Brandin Cooks also returns after his debut season was cut short by a broken thumb that limited him to 10 games. The timing of the ailment was unfortunate, as Cooks was just starting to emerge as a deep threat for the team, averaging over 14 yards per catch in the four contests before his injury.

The Saints also did some major housecleaning this offseason. Gone is longtime running back Pierre Thomas; ditto linebacker Curtis Lofton. The team also waved goodbye to veteran offensive linemen Ben Grubbs and Jonathan Goodwin, as well as frustrating cornerbacks Corey White and Patrick Robinson.

The most surprising moves came via trade, as the Saints dealt All-Pro tight end Jimmy Graham to Seattle and up-and-coming wide receiver Kenny Stills to Miami. In return for Graham, the Saints acquired Pro Bowl center Max Unger and a first-round pick, which was used to select linebacker Stephone Anthony, a potential replacement for Lofton. The Saints further fortified their interior by drafting Stanford offensive lineman Andrus Peat with their own first-round pick. Not yet finished, the Saints also signed cornerbacks Brandon Browner and Kyle Wilson, and acquired a shiny new toy for Brees, in playmaking running back C.J. Spiller.

The additions of Unger and Peat, along with the re-signing of Mark Ingram, appear to indicate a desire to change the team's offensive identity to a more run-based attack. Spiller should once again give New Orleans the type of explosive backfield threat that head coach Sean Payton has used so creatively and effectively in the past. Yet, the Stills trade leaves more questions than answers, and while it's clear the team is betting that Brees made Graham, and not the other way around, Graham's departure undeniably hurts. No team had a more interesting offseason than New Orleans, but it remains to be seen if its transaction-happy ways have cured what ailed the team last year.

OFFSEASON MOVES

Key Acquisitions

C.J. Spiller RB, Bills
The oft-injured speedster was misused in Buffalo but could be a PPR weapon under Sean Payton.

Brandon Browner CB, Patriots
Upgrading the secondary was an offseason priority to ensure opposing QBs can't simply avoid Keenan Lewis.

Stephone Anthony LB, Clemson (ROUND 1, 31st Overall)
A productive athlete in college, he'll immediately compete for a starting position.

Garrett Grayson QB, Colorado State (ROUND 3, 75th Overall)
The heir apparent to Brees' throne but likely a third-stringer in 2015.

Key Losses

Jimmy Graham TE, Seahawks
Averaged 89 catches and 12 touchdowns over the last four years. Ouch.

Pierre Thomas RB, FA
A fan favorite but he underwhelmed in 2014.

Kenny Stills WR, Dolphins
His numbers improved in his second season, but he was traded away in a head-scratching move.

Curtis Lofton LB, Raiders
A tackle machine and a leader of the defense but was another salary cap casualty.

TEAM NOTES

STILL BREES-Y IN THE BIG EASY?
Brees' three-season streak of throwing for at least 5,000 yards came to an end in 2014. Meanwhile, his 17 interceptions tied him for second-most in the league and his 33 touchdowns were a far cry from the 43 passing scores he averaged over the previous three years. To top it off, this offseason the Saints traded away his most reliable weapon, tight end Jimmy Graham, and promising youngster Kenny Stills. But, it's not all doom and gloom. The Saints signed running back C.J. Spiller, who should be an electric safety valve for Brees in the passing game. The Saints also acquired center Max Unger in the Graham trade and selected offensive lineman Andrus Peat in the first round of this year's draft. Both players should help fortify an offensive line that struggled the last two seasons.

CAN Mark Ingram STIFF-ARM HIS COMPETITION
Setting career highs in carries (226), rushing yards (964) and touchdowns (9), Ingram started to live up to his considerable hype as a former Heisman Trophy winner. With the release of Pierre Thomas this offseason and Saints coaches touting a renewed emphasis on the running game, many are predicting Ingram to exceed or, at the very least, replicate last year's success. Yet, C.J. Spiller was added to be a pass-catching threat, and history suggests that the Saints are still likely to employ a committee approach at running back with bruiser Khiry Robinson still around. In fact, the biggest three-game stretch of Ingram's career, in which he gained 392 yards in Weeks 8-to-10 last year, occurred only when Robinson was shelved with an arm injury. Ingram isn't immune to injury himself. He has missed, on average, 3.5 games per season over his four-year career. The money the Saints paid to re-sign Ingram this offseason indicates that he'll be the workhorse in the team's backfield, but there are plenty of reasons to question whether he can maintain his momentum.

THE REPLACEMENTS
Though he struggled through the worst full season of his professional career, Marques Colston has a lock on one of the starting receiver positions. Brandin Cooks likely will lay claim to the other. The bigger question, however, is who will emerge as the third wide receiver threat? Fourth-year pro Nick Toon seemingly has the first shot, as he came on strong at the end of last season. But don't count out explosive playmaker Joseph Morgan, on his last chance with the Saints, or veteran Josh Morgan. Finally, given the Saints' history of unearthing undrafted gems, it would be remiss not to mention two sizeable finds from last season, Brandon Coleman and Seantavius Jones. At 6-foot-6 and 6-foot-3, respectively, Coleman and Jones could be intriguing red zone threats if either is able to crack the lineup.

VALUE METER

Rising: Mark Ingram, who signed an offseason extension, is likely the backfield workhorse after finally justifying his 2011 first-round selection.

Declining: The loss of Jimmy Graham takes away another playmaker from Drew Brees, whose 33 touchdowns in 2014 were already his fewest since 2010.

Sleeper: The Saints love to throw it to the tight end, and with Jimmy Graham gone, former undrafted free agent Josh Hill could help fill the void.

Supersleeper: The Saints elected not to acquire a marquee wideout this offseason, signaling their faith in fourth-year pro Nick Toon, who is penciled in as the team's third wide receiver.

IDP WATCH

Cameron Jordan DE
Disappointed last year but only a year removed from 12.5 sacks in a Pro Bowl season.

Junior Galette LB
Notched double-digit sacks in both 2013 and 2014, but a pectoral injury could hamper the pass-rushing specialist.

Kenny Vaccaro S
Inconsistency and immaturity plagued him in 2014 but the third-year pro is undeniably talented.