Off-season report card: New Orleans Saints
2016: 7-9, 3rd in NFC South.
Significant Additions: WR Ted Ginn Jr. (FA), RB Adrian Peterson (FA), G Larry Warford (FA), LB A.J. Klein (FA), LB Manti Te’o (FA), QB Chase Daniel (FA), CB Marshon Lattimore (R1), OT Ryan Ramczyk (R1), S Marcus Williams (R2), RB Alvin Kamara (R3), LB Alex Anzalone (R3), DE Trey Hendrickson (R3)
Significant Losses: WR Brandin Cooks, S Jairus Byrd, OL Tim Lelito, DL John Jenks, RB Tim Hightower
The Saints haven’t made the playoffs for three straight years, and you can sense some urgency to squeeze one more run out of 38-year-old quarterback Drew Brees. New Orleans was very active this off-season and although much attention will be paid to the late addition of Adrian Peterson (more on that later) it’s clear the front office is aware of its biggest hurdle: a leaky defense.
New Orleans’ three biggest area of needs heading into the off-season? The secondary, the pass rush, and depth at linebacker. The Saints first addressed linebacker in free agency. New Orleans recently has relied on a rotating cast of versatile linebackers and 2017 should be no different. Entering the mix is A.J. Klein, the 25-year-old who comes from the division rival Panthers. The Saints paid Klein starter’s money (three years, $15 million) meaning he should be manning the middle. New Orleans also added Manti Te’o at a bit of a bargain (two years, $5 million). Should Te’o’s health hold up — he missed 13 games in his first three seasons because of foot or ankle injuries — the 26-year-old could surprise. And in the draft’s third round, New Orleans added Florida linebacker Alex Anzalone. He, too, faces durability questions, but he has excellent size and athleticism and experience playing in all three linebacker spots.
That Ohio State cornerback Marshon Lattimore was available at No. 11 was a blessing for New Orleans, in desperate need of a lockdown corner. A deal for Malcolm Butler never came to fruition, but that’s fine because Lattimore’s ball skills (four interceptions and nine pass breakups in his lone year as a starter) are elite. In a historically deep year for cornerbacks, Lattimore was the top-rated on most team’s boards. Marcus Williams from Utah is a ball-hawking free safety who, paired with Lattimore, will give the league’s worst ranked pass defense (274 yards allowed per game in 2016) an immediate boost.
Fans will gripe that New Orleans only answered to two of its three defensive needs. The Saints were unsuccessful in finding a pass-rushing talent to relieve some pressure from Cam Jordan. UCLA’s Takkarist McKinley would have been a great fit, but the division-rival Falcons swooped ahead to draft him. With New Orleans’ top pass-rushing targets (Taco Charlton, Charles Harris and McKinley) gone at No. 32, the Saints used the pick they got from trading Brandin Cooks for future offensive line assurance in Wisconsin’s Ryan Ramczyk. Adding who many considered to be the draft’s top offensive tackle isn’t a bad choice, but it’s fair to wonder if not addressing the pass-rush will ultimately doom this team.
The loss of Cooks shouldn’t be too much of a blow for Brees. Free agent addition Ted Ginn Jr. is a lesser version of Cooks, but Brees will likely pay more attention to emerging star Michael Thomas and Willie Snead. (Don’t totally sleep on undrafted free agent Travin Dural of LSU, although his immediate impact might be on special teams). And of course, there is Peterson. The 32-year-old is thirsty for redemption and might just find it in a downhill run game reminiscent of what he was used to in Minnesota. Third-round draft choice Alvin Kamara may seem like a luxury pick (especially with Mark Ingram coming off a 1,000 yard season) but like the Ramczyk selection, the Saints are preparing for life beyond 2017 as well.