Writers of Pro Football Prospectus 2008

16 Apr 2013

State of the Team: New Orleans Saints

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.

Color Legend:

  • Star
  • Good
  • Adequate
  • Jury’s still out
  • Just a guy
  • Upgrade needed
  • No longer on the team

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.

Click here for an archive of all State of the Team articles.

OFFENSE

OVERVIEW

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.

BACKFIELD

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.

RECEIVERS

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.

OFFENSIVE LINE

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.

DEFENSE

OVERVIEW

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?

DEFENSIVE LINE

:

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?

LINEBACKERS

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.

SECONDARY

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.

SPECIAL TEAMS

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.

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Posted by: Andy Benoit on 16 Apr 2013

27 comments, Last at 21 Apr 2013, 11:44pm by RichardD

Comments

1
by cisforcookie (not verified) :: Tue, 04/16/2013 - 3:35pm

reading this was worth it just for the line "Robinson is average in a complicated way."

2
by Perfundle :: Tue, 04/16/2013 - 3:50pm

"Still, like almost every quarterback, he’s better off when the run game is lending his offense balance."

Now, I'm pretty liberal when it comes to adding caveating adjectives like "almost" and "generally," because I think most blanket statements have exceptions, but what quarterback isn't better off when the run game is lending his offense balance?

8
by DEW (not verified) :: Tue, 04/16/2013 - 8:21pm

Dan Marino springs to mind...because the Dolphins *never* had a run game when he was their QB, so there's no data to judge by.

9
by justanothersteve :: Wed, 04/17/2013 - 6:57am

If not ever having had a run game is the criterion, you can include Lynn Dickey. The Packers run game in the early 80's was mostly hypothetical.

10
by Aaron Brooks Go... :: Wed, 04/17/2013 - 9:36am

Charlie Batch.

Look at his pre- and post-Sanders stats.

11
by Thunderbolt of ... :: Wed, 04/17/2013 - 10:22am

Charlie Batch only played one season with Sanders, and that season he was thrown into the starting role as a rookie in the 5th game because Scott Mitchell was so terrible. It's not really a fair comparison to say that he was worse with Sanders when that season is the only data point.

13
by Perfundle :: Wed, 04/17/2013 - 12:21pm

Yeah, comparing a QB's rookie and second-year stats is tricky because you don't know how much of that was the QB improving on his own. For instance, if his footwork or timing noticeably improved, then that can't be put down to the lack of a running game. Instead of seeing if a QB improved with worse running, you'd have to see if a QB has ever got worse with better running, and make sure the QB isn't simply aging or injured.

3
by Karl Cuba :: Tue, 04/16/2013 - 3:54pm

I would have thought Will Smith would be an end in this system.

4
by Independent George :: Tue, 04/16/2013 - 4:08pm

I don't think it's been a secret that the Saints' D stinks. Williams' blitz-happy approach was just the personification of the game theorist's dictum of using a high-variance strategies when at a disadvantage.

5
by theslothook :: Tue, 04/16/2013 - 4:17pm

I think andy is being really generous - for a defense that was historically bad - not one player was labeled upgraded needed? I'm sorry, malcom jenkins is poor and roman harper maybe the worst starting safety in football. Will Smith is pretty mediocre at this point and keenan lewis, galette, and wilson should all be labled jury is still out. cameron jordan sucks too. This is just a really really bad set of players.

6
by Joseph :: Tue, 04/16/2013 - 5:44pm

As a Saints fan, last years' defense was one that was less than the sum of its parts. A couple who were bad are already gone, and it has been assumed that most of this draft will be defense (as well it should, unless picking an offensive tackle). But none of the players are horrible in themselves--although Will Smith and Jonathan Vilma are probably in their last year. IMO, Galette & M. Wilson are both "jury still out", although they seem to be improving somewhat. Cam Jordan may be a first-round pick who never lives up to his status, but still doesn't do anything so bad as to warrant being cut (like a certain DT from Georgia who was not at all worth his draft status).
All in all, two of the worst offenders were Patrick Robinson & Johnny Patrick--one is gone, the other has been moved down a peg where he probably should stay for at least one more year. I can't tell you how many times it seemed like a 3rd & long got picked up because the QB had too long or one DB didn't stick with his guy a 1/2 second longer.

16
by sundown (not verified) :: Wed, 04/17/2013 - 1:09pm

Vilma being labeled as adequate really surprised me. That seems pretty generous.

22
by Ryan D. :: Thu, 04/18/2013 - 9:15am

Roman Harper isn't even the worst starting safety in his division.

7
by speedegg :: Tue, 04/16/2013 - 6:26pm

Really hard to evaluate the Saints defense (other than it really sucked) since they couldn't generate a pass rush, it was a new system, seemed like defenders were confused by the new system and new assignments, and they couldn't flip safeties since Roman Harper is a liability in coverage. Not being able to flip safeties limited their coverage concepts.

12
by Harris :: Wed, 04/17/2013 - 10:38am

If you're looking for Ryan to spark a defensive resurgence, Saints fans, you're in for a long season.

http://bloggingthebeast.com/2013/01/08/cowboys-fire-rob-ryan/
http://bloggingthebeast.com/2013/01/09/rob-ryan-was-fired-because-his-de...

14
by speedegg :: Wed, 04/17/2013 - 12:41pm

So injuries and a bad secondary had nothing to do with Ryan's firing in Dallas?

I haven't followed his stops in New England, Oakland, and Cleveland, but is this a trend or just his last (I'm going to get fired unless we make the playoffs) season in Dallas?

Given the state of the defense, Ryan's concepts of deception, man coverage, and more blitzes would be more effective than Spagnuolo's zone coverage and occasional blitzing.

17
by sundown (not verified) :: Wed, 04/17/2013 - 1:17pm

He was just the linebacker coach in NE, so hard to give him too much credit or blame for anything there. He had some success in Oakland, they were third in yards allowed one year, anyway. Biggest downside I see with him is he seems to wear out his welcome pretty quickly wherever he goes.

20
by speedegg :: Wed, 04/17/2013 - 4:44pm

Yeah, I know. My only point in bringing that up is if there was any trend of being undisciplined going that far back. He was there for 3 years, don't remember hearing any problems about him or his LB's or disciple, and if he was that bad Patriots would've fired him. I could've included Oklahoma State where he was the DC, but didn't think it was necessary.

The penalties were bad, but seems more like the team was desperate to get to the playoffs (and save their jobs). New coach means new scheme and new players.

The only "magic" that can happen this year is if the Saints draft well on defense. Part of their problem is no one can rush the passer consistently and they don't have any superstars. If the Saints got a Von Miller, Earl Thomas, or Darrell Revis that defense would change overnight.

15
by Perfundle :: Wed, 04/17/2013 - 1:09pm

"Rob Ryan’s firing has nothing to do with the “scheme,” or the “philosophical” approach. It did, however, have everything to do with an undisciplined defense that had taken over the mentality of its leader."

Yes, the mentioned penalties were bad. Did you know the Dallas' defense committed the second-fewest penalties during Ryan's time in Dallas, with the fewest penalized yards?

Pro Football Reference tells me that there were 528 penalties that would be considered personal fouls, which means that each team commits an average of 528/32/16 = 1.03 personal fouls per game. Looked at in that light, Dallas' 1.29 personal foul average in the last 7 games is not particularly high. I also find the cutoff of the last 7 games to be highly arbitrary, and you can bet the personal foul count of the first 9 games was significantly lower.

18
by Anonymous4634682 (not verified) :: Wed, 04/17/2013 - 1:47pm

What percentage of personal fouls in general are of the "non-dumb" variety (ie accidental helmet-to-helmet hit, pass rush accidentally hitting the QB's helmet, etc)? Probably fairly high, right? The example in that post are mostly incredibly stupid plays by Ryan's guys... not to mention RYAN HIMSELF getting a 15 yarder, which is absolutely unacceptable.

21
by Lelouch vi Britannia (not verified) :: Wed, 04/17/2013 - 7:15pm

Oh, come on. You don't fire a defensive coordinator over a 15-yard penalty, you're grasping at straws here. Rob Ryan was not the problem with Dallas, it was truly appalling lack of depth and talent at positions that Jerry Jones has chosen to neglect completely.

19
by Perfundle :: Wed, 04/17/2013 - 2:38pm

"Did you know the Dallas' defense committed the second-fewest penalties during Ryan's time in Dallas, with the fewest penalized yards?"

Never mind, those stats weren't for Dallas' defense, but for Dallas' opponents (ESPN's penalties page is rather confusing, and anyways who cares how many penalties a team's opponents commits?). I guess there aren't any sites that break down penalties by offense vs. defense.

23
by dbirtchnell (not verified) :: Thu, 04/18/2013 - 10:01am

Did the author get bored halfway through writing this and just base certain grades for the defensive players off of the Saints league worst ranking, while ignoring that for other players? Cam Jordan was the best player on defense last season, yet he's still got something to prove? While neither Galette or Wilson have played in a 3-4 before and they're adequate?

If you're going to write this sort of article, at least take the time to research it properly.

24
by nath :: Sun, 04/21/2013 - 3:00am

Yeah, Jordan is better than this article gives him credit for, plus he's more of a natural 3-4 DE.

Also, there's like no chance Will Smith plays OLB instead of DE. He plays in the 270-290 lb. range.

26
by LionInAZ :: Sun, 04/21/2013 - 10:23pm

Being 'the best player' on an historically bad defense is hardly a recommendation. Has he performed up to his draft status? If not, then he doesn't merit much praise.

27
by RichardD (not verified) :: Sun, 04/21/2013 - 11:44pm

Yes, this article was pretty much a waste of space and time. Better to post transcripts from talk radio callers.

25
by nath :: Sun, 04/21/2013 - 1:11pm

Also, Andy left last year's fourth-round pick, Nick Toon, out of the WR list (clearly he's "jury out" as he spent the season on IR).