A SURPRISE RENOVATION
As a disappointing 2014 season ended and the Saints evaluated their next steps, the overwhelming consensus was that the franchise, despite its second losing season in three years, didn't require a personnel overhaul. It just needed to reset the tone of the locker room. Players weren't holding each other accountable, and that had rarely been an issue since '06, when coach Sean Payton and quarterback Drew Brees arrived in New Orleans.
"If you see someone doing not the right thing, that's on you," says right tackle and captain Zach Strief, himself a 2006 arrival. "You don't need Coach Payton to be sprinting around the field telling guys, 'That's not how we do things.' That's our job.
"There were a lot of questions last year about leadership, so as a captain, if you don't take that personally, you shouldn't be in this position."
September 7, 2015
But then the off-season happened. In March an exploratory call to Seattle escalated into a jaw-dropping deal that sent franchise cornerstone Jimmy Graham and a fourth-round pick to the Seahawks in exchange for center Max Unger and a first-round pick. In May the Saints drafted Colorado State quarterback Garrett Grayson in the third round, insisting he's not a threat to the 36-year-old Brees—even if Grayson represents the team's most serious effort yet to plan for the future at the position. And finally, just before training camp, they released linebacker Junior Galette after a domestic violence charge (later dismissed) and a disturbing video of him striking a woman with a belt surfaced. (Galette denies it is him in the video.)
The team goes into this season without its best offensive weapon of a year ago, along with both of its defensive captains from 2014 (Galette and linebacker Curtis Lofton, who was released in a cost-cutting move). The mind-set adjustment had, in fact, become something of a roster overhaul. Still, Brees will try to reestablish the locker room tone that helped turned his squad from a 3--13 team in '05 into a perennial contender. "There are times where you just have to sit back and be like, every guy on this team has not heard that speech, that story or that lesson before," Brees says. "So you almost have to rewind and start over."
The offense that Brees leads will be not as aerial-oriented as in seasons past. Even if second-year receiver Brandin Cooks continues his development, the combination of him and Marques Colston won't compensate for the loss of Graham. New Orleans did sign veteran back C.J. Spiller. Between Spiller and Mark Ingram, who had his best season as a pro in 2014, the Saints will have a running game to lean on.
On the other side of the ball, all eyes are on the pairing of defensive coordinator Rob Ryan and new hire Dennis Allen. Oakland's coach from 2012 to '14, Allen spent '06 to '10 in New Orleans as an assistant defensive line coach and secondary coach. Now his title is more vague: senior defensive assistant. But their mission is clear. After the Saints' defense ranked second worst in the NFL a year ago, Allen was brought in to work alongside Ryan and improve a unit that has revamped its personnel due to its struggles to rush the quarterback and cover receivers.
Allen will focus especially on New Orleans's secondary, which played most of last year without Jairus Byrd, the Pro Bowl safety it signed in the 2013 off-season. Although Byrd began training camp on the physically unable to perform list (torn meniscus), the Saints expect him back soon. New cornerback Brandon Browner, signed from the Patriots, will bring some needed consistency opposite Keenan Lewis, who should take on more of a leadership role in his third season.
Up front, the Saints will likely start a front seven that includes just two players from last year—Akiem Hicks and Cameron Jordan—and which will likely feature two rookie linebackers, first-rounder Stephone Anthony (Clemson) and second-round pick Hau'oli Kikaha (Washington). The talented Anthony, selected with the pick from the Graham trade, will be taking over at middle linebacker in the Saints' 4--3 with Lofton gone.
Only because they play in the weak NFC South do the Saints have a shot at the playoffs. Ryan orchestrated a turnaround for New Orleans when he first arrived in 2013, but that was a year when the only pressing questions were about the defense. Whether Brees, now bereft of his favorite target, has a turnaround left in him will likely define the season.
SI'S PREDICTION: 9--7
ANDY BENOIT ON WHAT (STILL) AILS THE SAINTS
The Saints were serious about upgrading their 31st-ranked defense. Perhaps you've heard they dealt All-World tight end Jimmy Graham to Seattle for Pro Bowl center Max Unger and, just as important, a first-round draft pick which they used on inside linebacker Stephone Anthony (above). Anthony is competing for playing time with Dannell Ellerbe, who was picked up in a trade with Miami and whose downhill attacks are suited to coordinator Rob Ryan's schemes. Ryan is aggressive in his designs but not as pressure happy as his brother Rex, and Rob is more into diversified coverage concepts. This is why New Orleans invested in its cornerback rotation, signing Brandon Browner from New England and drafting P.J. Williams (Florida State), a third-rounder who will compete with free-agent slot pickup Kyle Wilson, from the Jets. The Saints also attempted to improve their stagnant pass rush, selecting outside linebacker Hau'oli Kikaha in the second round, but that move won't be enough, especially after New Orleans cut ties with Junior Galette, its top sacker of 2014 and their only genuine edge-rushing threat. Most likely, Ryan will have to mix and match his personnel in blitzes to dictate the action and get more out of this unit.