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Offseason Report Card: Saints

The Saints traded Darren Sproles to the Eagles for a fifth-round pick back in March.

Always have a plan.

One of the cardinal sins committed by NFL front offices is being unprepared for the loss of a player, either via free agency or to injury. Scrapping together NFL-ready replacements on the fly always pales in comparison to having a next man up ready. 

At least on paper, the Saints managed to mitigate their departures, and in some cases even improved because of how they reacted.

To wit: New Orleans lost safety Malcolm Jenkins but signed Jairus Byrd, added Jonathan Goodwin to battle for C Brian de la Puente's starting job (de la Puente signed with the Bears) and drafted Brandin Cooks after trading away Darren Sproles. The Saints managed to find some viable role players, too, in the likes of rookies Stanley Jean-Baptiste and Khairi Fortt. Most of their other departures were negligible -- Jed Collins, Roman Harper, Lance Moore, etc. 

When the offseason dust settled, a Saints team that won 11 regular-season games last season and pushed Seattle in the divisional round appeared stronger than it was when 2013 ended. 

Grade: B+

Best acquisition: Jairus Byrd, S

While not on the same level as, say quarterbacks or offensive tackles, safeties have enjoyed the proverbial "draft bump" in recent years -- players are being selected higher than expected because so many teams are seeking help at that position. Sure, a few decent options make their way to free agency each year, like Louis Delmas, Malcolm Jenkins and Mike Mitchell this offseason. Rarely, however, are the true top-tier guys available.

Hence the fervor when Byrd hit the market.

The Saints pounced, even as they tiptoed around the salary cap to fit in Byrd's six-year, $54 million deal. A three-time Pro Bowler, Byrd will be dropped in on the backend of New Orleans' vastly improved defense alongside 2013 first-round pick Kenny Vaccaro, giving the Saints one of the league's most talented safety duos.

"You know they have a great offense in place already, and then the things that they did last year, the improvements on defense, that's a great combination to win a lot of games in the National Football League," Byrd told the NFL Network of his decision to sign with New Orleans. "Anytime you can have two good players in the same [defensive] backfield and build chemistry back there, it makes the job a lot easier back there to communicate with the rest of the defense and to get people lined up."

Byrd picked off 22 passes over five seasons in Buffalo, nine coming during his rookie campaign of 2009. New Orleans' safeties were responsible for just four of the team's 12 total interceptions last season, so Byrd's playmaking abilities will be a welcome addition. He ought to find ample opportunities patrolling the deep middle in Rob Ryan's attacking 3-4 scheme. 

The 27-year-old Byrd essentially is replacing Malcolm Jenkins, who was selected 28 spots ahead of Byrd in the 2009 draft. Jenkins turned in five solid seasons for the Saints, but Byrd has the potential to surpass what Jenkins provided. 

NFC South's most impactful rookie

In this clip from SI.com's Audibles podcast, Chris Burke and Doug Farrar discuss the 2014 impact rookies in the NFC South.

Biggest loss: Darren Sproles, RB

There really can be no debating that Sproles, now with more than 1,300 career NFL touches under his belt (523 returns and 815 combined rushes/receptions), has lost a step from his best days. Adding Cooks could fill much of the gap left in the Saints' offense by Sproles' departure.

And yet, assuming that Cooks will immediately be everything that Sproles was is disingenuous to Sproles' impact. Last season alone, Sproles caught 71 passes out of the backfield and totaled more than 1,200 all-purpose yards. Over his three-year stay with the Saints, Sproles racked up 5,500-plus yards and averaged 7.3 touchdowns per season. The expectations are deservedly high for Cooks, a versatile weapon dropping into an offense perfectly suited to take advantage of him.

Still, expecting a rookie receiver to roll out of bed with an 1,000-yard debut is asking a lot.

"Darren is one of the smartest football players I’ve ever been around,” Sean Payton said after New Orleans traded Sproles to Philadelphia for a fifth-round draft pick. "He has been exceptionally consistent and dynamic coming out of the backfield for us the last three seasons and provided us with many different options."

New Orleans' offense should keep humming right along, thanks to Payton's play calling and Drew Brees' presence at QB. Replacing key cogs on the fly is a delicate task nonetheless. Until Cooks proves beyond a shadow of a doubt that he can offer a consistent threat, the Saints will miss Sproles. 

Underrated draft pick: Ronald Powell, LB

Can Powell stay healthy? That's the key question surrounding New Orleans' fifth-round draft pick, a high-upside pass rusher who was felled by myriad injuries -- including multiple torn ACLs -- during his career at Florida. In Junior Galette and Victor Butler (coming back from an Achilles injury), the Saints have at least two dynamic edge players in their linebacking corps. There appears to be an opening behind that tandem on the depth chart, particularly with Parys Haralson limited to early-down work.

"He is hungry," Payton said of Powell. "He is one of those guys where it is all business. It is very important to him and you get that sense specifically with that player."

Outside of Galette and DE Cameron Jordan, the Saints struggled to push the pocket in 2013. Butler's return ought to make the outlook a little rosier in that respect, as he's another athletic defender Ryan can send flying into the backfield. Powell has similar traits, if he finds his way onto the field.  

Looming question for training camp: Which running back will emerge?

Or rather, is there anything more exciting than nice depth at this position? 

The Saints will head to camp planning on a three-headed RB attack, split between Pierre Thomas, Mark Ingram and Khiry Robinson. That trio combined for 1,159 yards rushing during the regular season, part of the Saints' 25th-ranked rushing attack. While this always will be a pass-first offense so long as Brees is around, New Orleans would love to drum up a better balance -- the 2011 squad, for example, finished first in passing and sixth on the ground.

Sproles played an integral part that year, leading the team with 603 yards and a whopping 6.9 yards-per-carry average. He dipped to 220 and 4.2, respectively, last season so the Thomas-Ingram-Robinson group should have little problem replacing those carries.

But who will lead the way? Thomas carried the torch for the majority of 2013, posting a team-high 549 yards. The much-maligned Ingram delivered a 145-yard showing in a win over Dallas, then rushed for 97 yards and a TD in New Orleans' playoff win at Philadelphia. Robinson stepped up in the postseason, too, as Thomas sat with an injury; he finished with 102 yards and a TD on 21 carries.

Depth at running back is a must-have in the modern NFL. Finding a true No. 1 back is less a necessity than a goal, yet the Saints would benefit from such a development. Is anyone on the roster capable of providing it? 

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