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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Rising: Mark Ingram
, who signed an offseason extension, is likely the backfield workhorse after finally justifying his 2011 first-round selection.
The loss of Jimmy Graham
takes away another playmaker from Drew Brees
, whose 33 touchdowns in 2014 were already his fewest since 2010.
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.
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.
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.