Why, despite dwindling arm strength, the veteran quarterback still thrives in a system predicated on the vertical passing game. Plus, the defense’s biggest problem remains, why Delvin Breaux is better than you think, and the next Marques Colston?
1. Drew Brees, at 37 and with shoulder problems in his past, has indeed lost some arm strength. The question is, how much more will he lose from here, and how fast? The Saints are a very vertical offense. Despite a ho-hum receiving corps, they tied with Jacksonville for an NFL-high 72 pass plays of 20 yards or more last season. That’s how well Sean Payton’s system is designed. If the quarterback’s passes can’t maintain energy on the back end, this offense will constrict. What will prolong Brees’s career is the same trait that has helped make it: an ability to manipulate zone defenders (including safeties) with his eyes and with subtle body language. This nuance represents the highest level of quarterbacking; a player can only master it once he’s mastered his system and all of the game’s fundamentals. Almost to a man, QB coaches around the NFL think Brees is the very best at it. He has to be. Payton’s system, while being vertical, is also predominantly focused down the seams and middle of the field. In order for it to work, the QB has to beat safeties. Brees can no longer do that purely with his arm. But he can still do that with his eyes, pump fakes and shoulder flinches.
2. The Saints are really gambling at guard, where they’re starting 2015 first-round tackle Andrus Peat on the right side and either Senio Kelemete or Tim Lelito on the left. In the past, the Saints have always invested in premier guards because, having a 6-foot quarterback and an aerial attack focused on the middle of the field, it’s imperative that the interior pocket stay firm. With Brees’s arm strength in decline, it’s more imperative than ever.
3. Second-round rookie receiver Michael Thomas has a chance to be very productive right off the bat. Thomas will fill Marques Colston’s role as the slot man out of unbalanced and three-wide sets. The Saints do a great job of scheming ways to get the slot mismatched against a linebacker. That’s why Colston—who never ran well, wasn’t particularly quick but was lanky and outstanding at high-pointing the ball on the move—had 900-plus yards receiving in all but two of his 10 NFL seasons. Thomas, at 6-3, 212, will get every chance to fill Colston’s void.
4. The Saints have arguably the best backfield screen game in the NFL. (It’s between them and the Packers.) They also have two excellent pieces to use in that screen game. Starting running back Mark Ingram has great patience and vision—ideal traits for the deceptive, slow-developing pass. Backup running back C.J. Spiller is a flexible weapon who adds the dimensions of swing passes and wide receiver screens.
5. Third-year receiver Brandin Cooks is ready to become a star, but he must get more consistent against defenses that pay him extra attention. For someone so explosive, Cooks had too many prolonged quiet stretches last season. In fact, in six games, he was held under 50 yards.
6. An inept four-man pass rush limited the Saints’ defense last season, and I’m not sure much will be different this season. Presumably, first-round selection Sheldon Rankins might help once he gets healthy, but a penetrating tackle can only mean so much. The pass rush meter is most moved by speedy edge-benders. The Saints don’t have one. Cameron Jordan is productive, but it comes more from energy and technique. Offenses don’t feel obliged to regularly slide protections his way.
7. Along with Jason Verrett, Delvin Breaux is the best cornerback that casual fans don’t know. He was asked to battle the likes of Odell Beckham and Julio Jones in man coverage last year, usually with little or no safety help. More often than not, Breaux won. (Even against T.Y. Hilton, Breaux was the better player. The only times Hilton produced were on touchdowns of 87 and 46 yards when Breaux, unfortunately, fell down.) Breaux has a great sense for angles at the top of routes, and his recovery speed is sneaky good. If he builds on what he started in 2015, the Saints will have a bona fide No. 1 corner.
8. Kenny Vaccaro will be a fascinating study in 2016. He’s equipped to be a Swiss Army Knife, capable of playing free or box safety, nickel slot and, depending on the package, linebacker. After a sophomore slump in 2014, Vaccaro was closer to his original self in 2015. Now he must take a step forward.
9. It’s only a matter of time until second-round rookie Vonn Bell supplants free safety Jairus Byrd in the starting lineup. Byrd has not remotely lived up to the big free agent contract he signed in 2014. He plays with poor geometric reasoning (a killer for any safety) and he’s not aggressive.
10. When you lack a four-man pass rush like the Saints do, you must manufacture pressure by blitzing. Especially when you have corners like Breaux (and others) who can hold up in man-to-man. If it’s true that Sean Payton wanted defensive coordinator Rob Ryan to simplify his scheme last year, then that was misguided. With quality cover guys but limited pass rushers, the Saints were suited to play precisely the other way. It will be interesting to see what happens this year. Ryan was fired last November and replaced by former Raiders head coach Dennis Allen. Allen’s defenses in Oakland were markedly high in schematic volume and complexity. He needs to take that sort of approach here. Will Payton let him?
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