Our offseason Four Downs series ends with a look at the NFC West's biggest remaining holes and their most notable UDFA signings. The Rams and 49ers have to kick-start their passing games, Arizona's offense lacks a big dimension, and the Seahawks continue to rely on Russell Wilson's magic tricks.
16 Apr 2013
by Andy Benoit
The 2013 "State of the Team" articles will run daily through the NFL draft. These offer a snapshot look at a team’s roster, with players classified by color based on how they fit their role. My analysis is based on film study, not statistics, although we will try to note when my judgment differs significantly from FO's advanced stats, and explain a little bit why. Starters are in bold, and you will notice that many units are listed with 12 starters rather than just 11. This denotes the extra playing time that nickelbacks and third receivers usually get in today's NFL.
Some players colored pink as "just a guy" are younger low-round picks who just haven't seen much playing time, but keep in mind that 99 percent of the time, there’s a negative reason why such a player has rarely seen the field.
Players colored red as "upgrade needed" are not necessarily bad players. Sometimes, this simply means the player is a decent backup who should not be starting.
Since I generally don't do analysis on special teams, those categorizations are based strictly on FO stats, with any comments written by Aaron Schatz. We're only listing kickers and punters, as most teams go into training camp without specific players set as return specialists.
There’s no Bountygate turmoil, no Sean Payton suspension, and no Drew Brees contract distraction hindering the Saints heading into 2013. The expectations are this offense will return to its high-flying form. Statistically, it wasn’t far off from that form in 2012. However, inopportune turnovers, mild week-to-week instability in the passing game and knowing they had to compensate for one of the worst defenses in history all seemed to compromise this offense’s flow. As long as Brees is under center, the Saints are dangerous. The question is: how dangerous? New Orleans’s resources in the passing game have quietly been altered over the past two years.
QB: Drew Brees, Luke McCown; Lost: Chase Daniel
RB: Pierre Thomas, Darren Sproles, Mark Ingram, Chris Ivory, Jed Collins (FB)
Brees processes information from the pocket as adroitly as anyone in the game. Still, like almost every quarterback, he’s better off when the run game is lending his offense balance. Thomas, with his inside/outside abilities and steadiness in the short-area passing game, is New Orleans’ most well-rounded back. He's solid in all facets, spectacular in none. Sproles, with his speed and quickness, is New Orleans’ most dangerous back. Defenses often play nickel when he’s on the field, even if the Saints are using base personnel or a six-man offensive line. When Ingram came out of Alabama, conventional wisdom said that he needed a high volume of carries in order to be effective. If that’s the case, he’s on the wrong team. With all their backfield weapons, the Saints can’t afford to give him more than 10-12 touches a game, especially once you consider that Ivory is a more dynamic player than Ingram. However, Ivory is a restricted free agent, so there's a chance he won't be here by the time training camp rolls around.
WR: Marques Colston, Lance Moore, Joseph Morgan, Chris Givens, Courtney Roby; Lost: Devery Henderson
TE: Jimmy Graham, Benjamin Watson, Mike Higgins; Lost: David Thomas
Thanks to injuries and an offensive line that badly needed help, Graham too often failed to be featured in the game plan last season. That has to change in 2013.
Being featured in the Saints passing attack usually means lining up inside. That’s where Colston does the vast majority of his damage. (Outside, a lack of speed and quickness are hard for Colston to overcome.) Moore is a fantastic puzzle piece. However, he’s not a straight-line vertical threat like the Saints had with Henderson or, two years ago, Robert Meachem. That’s what makes Morgan intriguing. He has enough speed to be a big-time factor in this system (which could include simply stretching the defense as a decoy), but there’s no guarantee he will blossom. Rounding out the depth, Givens is an unknown, while losing Thomas will hurt at tight end. He was an integral asset in base sets. His replacement, Watson, no longer has the necessary initial quickness to be effective.
LT: Charles Brown LG: Ben Grubbs C: Brian De La Puente RG: Jahri Evans RT: Zach Strief
Backups: G Eric Olsen, OT Jason Smith; Lost: LT Jermon Bushrod, OT Willie Robinson
Brown has fantastic athleticism but it’s concerning that he wasn’t able to secure a starting job over his first three years. It’s not like he was stuck playing behind irreplaceable tackles. In fact, the man who beat him out on the right side is one of the shakiest pass-blockers in the league. Too often, this offense got killed the second it stopped giving Strief chip-block and double-team help. Inside, Evans is a stud and Grubbs can move people in the run game. The guard position is more critical than the tackle position in this offense because of the unique way Brees, who lacks height, drops back and reads the field while moving in the pocket.
When Gregg Williams and his über-aggressive scheme disappeared, the whole world found out what had miraculously been kept mostly under wraps the past several years: the Saints defense stinks. It simply lacks good players, particularly along the front four. This was exposed when Steve Spagnuolo installed the zone-based scheme that had been so well-regarded when he was in New York. Unfortunately, this scheme relied more on player talent than Williams’ scheme had, and the Saints just didn't have the horses. When Sean Payton returned from suspension in January, the decision was made to install a whole new 3-4 system. Spagnuolo was fired and Rob Ryan was eventually brought in. Ryan, like Payton, has a thick and aggressive playbook. He’s a free-shooter who does not like to get tied up in details. Will his style be able to compensate for a unit that is still severely limited in many key areas?
DE: Cameron Jordan, Kenyon Coleman, Tom Johnson, Tyrunn Walker, Greg Romeus; Lost: Turk McBride
DT: Brodrick Bunkley, Akiem Hicks; Lost: Sedrick Ellis
We’ll say the jury is out on Jordan because there’s a chance that the lethargic, disappointing 2011 first-round pick will find his niche as a five-technique fighter. The same kind of hope can be held out for Johnson, though as a 28-year-old fringe veteran, he has a lot less natural talent to work with. The signing of Coleman at least brought some insurance into the fold. Inside, Hicks showed promising growth last season. Can that growth continue with more two-gap assignments? And, can the veteran Bunkley, a longtime 4-3 plugger, hold ground consistently as a nose tackle?
OLB: Will Smith, Martez Wilson, Junior Galette, Victor Butler; Lost: Scott Shanle
ILB: Curtis Lofton, Jonathan Vilma, David Hawthorne, Ramon Humber, Will Herring; Lost: Jonathan Casillas
It’s possible all of these guys will work out in the new scheme. It’s also possible none of them will work out. Smith will be considered the key piece by most analysts, but in reality, Wilson and Galette are much more important. Both are young and have flashed explosiveness in small doses off the edge. Smith, on the other hand, will be 32 in Week 1 and has fewer than seven sacks in each of his past three seasons. His greatest strength has always been run defense, but it’s unlikely he’ll be as viable in space outside as he was operating out of a three-point stance. If he hadn't agreed to a pay cut, he probably wouldn’t still be around. (He’ll cost over $10 million in 2014, which means this is likely his last year in New Orleans.)
Inside, Lofton can take on blocks and allow Vilma to stay clean and run free as much as possible. In theory. No matter how stout Lofton might be, though, the geometry of most 3-4 concepts often does not allow for clean inside linebackers. Remember, a younger Vilma struggled noticeably in a 3-4 scheme under Eric Mangini in New York.
CB: Jabari Greer, Keenan Lewis, Patrick Robinson, Corey White; Lost: Elbert Mack
S: Malcolm Jenkins, Roman Harper, Isa Abdul-Quddus, Rafael Bush
Most of Ryan’s scheme hinges on the secondary being able to hold up in man coverage. Greer has always been solid in this sense, but he’s now in his 30s and has recently had a little trouble staying healthy. Lewis was very good in his debut season as a starter with Pittsburgh last year. However, he almost never had to face No. 1 wideouts. Overall, Robinson is average in a complicated way; he can be very good on one down and outright awful on another. (This is called inconsistency.) Jenkins can cover most tight ends and even some wideouts man-to-man, which Ryan needs in a safety. Harper is essentially a linebacker who must not get caught downfield in space.
K: Garrett Hartley P: Thomas Morstead
Morstead is coming off the best year of his career; he's better on punts than kickoffs. Hartley is one of the rare kickers who has been fairly consistent on field goals, but that's not a good thing. He's never had a year with above-average performance.
27 comments, Last at 21 Apr 2013, 11:44pm by RichardD