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Off-season Outlook: New Orleans Saints

Up against the cap once again, the Saints have another set of hard decisions to make this off-season.

Next season’s playoff race begins this spring as all 32 teams retool their rosters, so it’s time to take a look at what each franchise must do for a better season in 2016. Next up: the Saints, who are once again struggling to improve their roster while squeezed by the salary cap. Check back for our other 31 off-season outlooks, which we will be rolling out in reverse order of finish over the coming weeks leading up to free agency and the draft.

Key free agents

TE Ben Watson, DT Kevin Williams, TE Michael Hoomanawanui, RB Khiry Robinson

Players that must be re-signed

Watson, Williams. The Saints released so many players in their effort to get under the cap (Jahri Evans, Marques Colston, David Hawthorne, Ramon Humber) that there aren’t many impending free agents left for coach Sean Payton and general manager Mickey Loomis to deal with. That’s a good thing, because even after all that bookkeeping, the Saints will be less than $8 million under the cap.

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Watson enjoyed his best statistical season in 2015 despite his advancing age, catching 74 passes on 110 targets for 825 yards and six touchdowns. He also proved to be a great leader, which will be of prime importance as the team moves to redefine its roster over the next couple of years. Williams was a rare bright spot on the league’s worst defense, and although he’ll be 36 in August, he’s still got enough on the ball for rotational duty on a short-term veteran deal.

Most important position to improve

Linebacker. Many questioned the selection of Clemson linebacker Stephone Anthony with the No. 31 pick in last year’s draft (which the Saints received in the Jimmy Graham trade with Seattle), but as it turned out, Anthony was a relative rock among a group that wildly underperformed. The decisions to release Hawthorne and Humber were easy ones—their performances were well below average. Washington’s Hau’oli Kikaha, taken in the second round of the ’15 draft, is more of a pure pass rusher who needed time to find his footing. Defensive coordinator Dennis Allen will have to get more out of the linebacker group he has going forward. It’s a major reason the Saints ranked dead last in total defense by a wide margin in Football Outsiders’ opponent-adjusted metrics last season.

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Other positions to improve

Pass rusher, guard, receiver, cornerback. Cameron Jordan is a top-level pass rusher on the left side, but the Saints don’t have much behind him when it comes to quarterback pressure. Kikaha and second-year undrafted end Kasim Edebali held their own in rotation, but somebody needs to step up, or the Saints need to bring in help. The guard position is very much in limbo after Evans’s release, though it could be argued that it was in limbo while he was still around. There was a time when Evans was the best right guard in the game, especially on the move, but he’d declined as a pass blocker, and his formerly outstanding run blocking was mostly a memory. Tim Lelito was solid at left guard, and rookie Andrus Peat did O.K. when asked to move inside from tackle, but Sean Payton’s offense requires guards who can get on the move.

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With Colston’s release, and the possibility that Watson may not be able to replicate a career year, the New Orleans receiver corps is also in transition. Brandin Cooks is a legitimate No. 1 receiver when healthy, and Willie Snead was a nice addition. However, the Saints could use a bigger receiver who can make contested catches in tight coverage, and neither Cooks nor Snead are that type of players. As for the secondary, only strong safety Kenny Vacarro has proven able to hold his own. Jairus Byrd’s contract remains a disaster. CFL castoff Delvin Breaux was a nice story castoff last year, but he gave up 10 touchdowns on his own to balance out some of those positive plays. Cornerbacks Kyle Wilson and Brandon Browner did not do much worthy of special attention, except for Browner’s penchant for penalties. Browner is a candidate for release on the first day of the new league year.

Overall priority this off-season

Start the inevitable rebuild, and stop spending money in the wrong places. The Saints have posted 7–9 records in each of the last two years, and they’ve been jettisoning players left and right just to stay solvent, cap-wise, by the start of each league year. When you’re failing to make the playoffs and have to blow up the roster every year just to stay under the cap, that tends to indicate bad personnel management. Payton and Loomis would have to admit that, whether they like it or not. At this point, the primary albatross is Brees’s contract: He’s in the final year of a five-year, $100 million deal, and his $30 million cap number for the 2016 season accounts for nearly a fifth of the team’s total cap space. No other NFL player puts such a financial burden on his team. Brees and the Saints seem open to restructuring and extending the deal, which would make sense for both sides. New Orleans isn’t ready to move on without Brees, but it’s time to start thinking about that.

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Especially on defense, the players responsible for the team’s biggest financial burdens aren’t performing up to the level required. Byrd’s issues have already been explained; Browner is the team’s second-most expensive cornerback behind Keenan Lewis, who missed 10 games with hip injuries in 2015 and is about to turn 30. The Saints’ front office has always had a knack for grabbing underrated players or small-school stars and turning them into starters, but New Orleans’s recent addiction to big-money deals for players who seem incapable of playing up to them is a problem that will scuttle this roster until it is solved.