The New Orleans Saints are coming off their first playoff appearance in four years. A surprising season for fans and experts alike, the team finished with an 11-5 record and the NFC South Division championship. Ending the season in heartbreaking fashion, the Saints lost on a last-second touchdown to the Minnesota Vikings in the divisional round of the playoffs. The Saints used two good off-seasons in a row to get to this point but will need another to become more than a one-hit wonder. To continue this success, they need to make these six moves this off-season.
Six New Orleans Saints Off-Season Moves
1. Re-sign Drew Brees
This seems like a no-brainer and both sides say that they want to make it happen. Brees turned 39 on January 15th. It seems he may have two or three more years playing at a high-level. He is the face of the franchise and will likely retire as a member of the Saints. Brees’ numbers weren’t as eye-popping as they have been in previous years, but he was still productive. An effective running game meant that some of the pressure was taken off, which is great for an aging quarterback. Brees set an NFL record with a 72% completion percentage. He also had 23 touchdowns to just eight interceptions. This seems like a re-signing that will not linger and get done quickly.
2. Add Another Pass Rusher
Cam Jordan made his first All-Pro team this season. He had 13 sacks, 48 tackles, 12 pass deflections, and one interception. However, for most of the season, he was double or triple-teamed. Jordan needs someone on the opposite side to take the pressure off of him. With another pass rusher, the defence can build off of their success this season
Alex Okafor signed as a free agent last season. He signed a one-year prove it deal. Before getting injured, he was having one of the best seasons of his career. In ten games, Okafor had 4.5 sacks, 27 tackles, and two forced fumbles. He will only be 27 next season and has expressed interested in coming back to the Saints. If re-signed, Okafor could help Cam Jordan on the other side.
Trey Hendrickson is a rookie who showed good flashes this season. He replaced Okafor as starting defensive end after the injury. Hendrickson had two sacks and seven tackles. He played injured in the later part of the season. He seems like more of a run stopper than a pass rusher. Hendrickson will be a serviceable back-up for the near future but isn’t the pass rusher the Saints need.
Even if the Saints resign Okafor, they still need to sign a player in free agency or the draft. George Johnson was signed off the street midway through the season and also showed flashes. He will be a free agent and maybe re-signed on a cheap deal. In three games, he had 2.5 sacks. He could be a capable rotation player but is not the answer.
Either through the draft or free agency, the Saints need to find a complimentary pass rusher to Cam Jordan.
3. Find a Third Down Receiving Threat
For the first time in the Brees/Payton era, the Saints struggled on third down. The Saints ranked 19th in the league at 37.6 percent and 31st on third downs of three-to-five yards. This was the lowest ranked offence of the Brees/Payton era. In their six losses this season, including the playoffs, they were a combined 22 for 67 (32.8 percent). Somehow this offense was still able to be productive. A third-down receiving threat could make it even more prolific
A slot receiver is a must this offseason. Either through the draft or free agency, a wide receiver is a top priority. Michael Thomas, in his second year, became a legitimate number one receiver. Thomas had 104 receptions, 1245 yards, and five touchdowns.
Ted Ginn Jr. had a better than expected season. He is still a dependable deep threat. Ginn had 53 receptions, 787 yards, and four touchdowns. Many thought, Willie Snead would be the go-to receiver on third down. Unfortunately, Snead struggled this season. Missing five games due to suspension and injury, Snead only had eight receptions, 92 yards, and did not score a touchdown. He will be a restricted free agent. Expect the Saints to tender him and sign him on a cheap deal. Hopefully, he can put this season in the rearview mirror.
Fortunately, for the Saints, this draft and free agency class has many options.
Another reason for the third-down struggles is the lack of a viable pass-catching tight end on the roster. The Coby Fleener experiment has not worked. In 2016, Fleener signed a five-year, $36 million dollar contract. In twenty-seven games, Fleener has 72 receptions, 926 yards, and five touchdowns. Jimmy Graham, he is not. Experts think the Saints will either restructure his contract or release him. Back up tight end Josh Hill has been serviceable but he isn’t a starting tight end. The Saints will need to find the next Jimmy Graham in the draft or free agency to cure the third down blues.
4. Continue to Sign High Character Guys
The dividends of the past two off-seasons were seen on the field in 2017. On January 20, 2015, the Saints hired Jeff Ireland as assistant general manager and head of college scouting. Since taking over, Ireland has turned the roster around. Over the past two off-seasons, the Saints have signed second-tier free agents and bring in high character players. These players have brought leadership and smart play to the Saints. They are players who might not be as talented but won’t make mistakes on the field.
Over the past two seasons, the Saints have taken a different approach to signing free agents. They have brought in second tier free agents. In doing this, they aren’t over paying for players and bringing in high character guys into the locker room. Taking low risk high reward players have payed dividends for the teams and has helped their cap situation.
The Saints need to continue these trend. It not only help the team now but sets it up for the future. Using this strategy, the Saints aren’t taking on high salary contracts that will hurt their salary cap if the players do not work out. Also, they are bringing high character guys to a locker room with younger talent.
5. Another Solid Draft
Also, the past two drafts have giving the team contributors on cheap contracts. The 2016 draft class was solid with many players already starting in year 2. The 2017 New Orleans Saints’ draft class might be the best draft class in NFL history. Marshon Lattimore, Ryan Ramczky, Marcus Williams, Alvin Kamara, Alex Anzalone, and Trey Hendrickson most of these players started or played significant snaps for the team. The team has been able to not only add depth to the team but add playmaker at key positions.
Another solid draft will set this team up for the future. This will also make it easier on the franchise in the post Brees’ era. Over the past two years, the team has been able to add the playmakers and depth to much needed positions.
6. Add Depth
One area that will need depth is the offensive line. Mr. Do Everything Senio Kelemete will become a free agent. He played four of the five offensive line positions this season and the team did not miss a beat when he was in there. It is assumed he will be a hot free agent and will garner big money. Zach Strief who will turn 35 in September has one year left on his contract. He is also coming off a season-ending injury. Ramczky is the right tackle moving forward so will Strief be ok with playing a backup role or will he like to try and start somewhere else. The Saints are more than likely to accommodate Streif’s wishes. The Saints will look to add depth either in the later rounds of the draft or by signing second tier guys in free agency.
The defense desperately needs depth at all three levels. Another good draft and smart free agents signing should help this team next year. Six defensive starters ended the season on injured reserve. It was surprising that the Saints’ defense was able to hold up at the end of the season. The Saints need to add depth at defensive line, outside linebacker, cornerback, and safety. Adding depth at three levels will help the Saints in a scenario, where players are out for long periods of time. Also, they will need to add a veteran on the back end of the defense. All the starters will have less than three year of experience. A veteran will help these young players grow and flourish. The linebacker corp will need to add a player who is good in coverage.
The Saints have set themselves up nicely for next season and the future. If they can do these six things in the offseason, they can continue their success and move closer to their second Super Bowl.