I’ve been on a little bit of a summer hiatus as there’s not much news coming from Saints camp (and I’ve had my hands full on another job), but with training camp coming up this month, I thought it would be a good time to start looking at the team’s prospects for 2018. I’m starting by examining the offseason and how it might address some of the team’s needs and weaker spots in 2017, and then I’ll look at some of the position battles I find interesting going into the new season.
Most of the holes I perceived were on defense, so let’s review what I thought some of the team’s needs there were at the beginning of the offseason– immediately after the Saints’ playoff loss:
My prescriptions for the defense:
Get one more pass rusher behind Cam Jordan. The line has some pretty good contributors, young players who stand to improve, but a second top-flight pass rusher would really elevate the whole defense. If the team can get pressure rushing just four, they can be scary. Trey Hendrickson might grow into that player someday, but he’s not there yet. If the opportunity is there to acquire someone of a higher pedigree, either on the interior or exterior, I say we take it.
Get a star every-down linebacker. A.J. Klein and Alex Anzalone were improvements over what we had at linebacker, but neither of them is the kind of true stud that would transform the middle of the defense. Georgia’s Roquan Smith is a draft prospect who has the potential to do this, but it’s very likely he’s off the board by the time the Saints select.
Get a cornerback to help with depth, or possibly a hybrid cornerback/safety type. If Delvin Breaux were to come back healthy, that would be a huge boost for this unit, but at this point it seems like we can’t count on him to stay healthy. I’m not sure if the team plans to re-sign Kenny Vaccaro, either. Vonn Bell has been terrific starting in his absence, but again, having more depth will allow the team to weather injuries better and to vary their packages on defense to match up better. (Vaccaro is quite good as a box safety, in the hybrid role where he plays a sort-of linebacker position sometimes, but he may be too expensive to afford and/or the role itself may not be valuable enough to pay him what he’s looking for.)
Let’s see how the moves the team made corresponded.
Get one more pass rusher behind Cam Jordan.
They certainly did that with the Marcus Davenport trade. If Alex Okafor returns from injury to his old level and Trey Hendrickson takes a step forward, the team could go four deep at edge rusher. Davenport really has to hit to justify the trade for him, though. With the Okafor re-signing, the team returns its top seven defensive linemen in terms of snap counts. (That’s if you count Hau’oli Kikaha as a defensive end or a linebacker– I don’t have exact numbers on how much he played at either position, and in any case those snaps will probably go to Davenport anyway.)
Get a star every-down linebacker.
Questions about whether his 2017 season was an outlier or a measure of his true talent level do exist, but the Saints did about as well as they could on the market for an every-down linebacker by signing Demario Davis. Davis was effective in coverage, as a tackling machine, and as a blitzer last year. A.J. Klein was solid but didn’t quite live up to hopes and also suffered a broken ankle down the stretch. Davis should serve as the middle linebacker, with Klein and Alex Anzalone on the outside in some combination (and perhaps depending on which one is healthy).
Get a cornerback to help with depth, or possibly a hybrid cornerback/safety type.
The Saints did both in free agency, signing a cornerback and a safety. Patrick Robinson, coming off a career year in Philadelphia, signed to be the Saints’ slot cornerback, solidifying a unit that will keep Marshon Lattimore and Ken Crawley on the outside. The team will presumably keep P.J. Williams on as the fourth corner; rookie draft pick Kamrin Moore seems likely to stick to the roster as well.
At safety, the team didn’t retain Vaccaro, but signed free agent Kurt Coleman away from division rival Carolina. Marcus Williams will remain the starter at free safety; presumably, Coleman will also start as well, with Vonn Bell rotating in. Coleman has more sideline-to-sideline speed than Vaccaro did, and could allow the Saints to play more two-deep safety looks. He and Bell could both work as combo safeties, allowing the Saints to throw a number of different defensive looks and personnel for every matchup imaginable. The team also added Natrell Jamerson in the draft in the fifth round; he can play all around the defensive backfield, but as a rookie will probably play on special teams.
What about the offense?
I didn’t have much to say about the offense because I didn’t think they needed to make many changes there, but the Saints seemed to upgrade at every position there, as well. The offensive line, one of the best in the league, returns all five starters from the final unit. (Opening-day starter Zach Strief retired, but Ryan Ramczyk proved more than capable of the task at both tackle positions and played every snap on offense.) The team added tackle Rick Leonard and center Will Clapp in the draft for depth and as possible future starters. At running back, the team drafted Boston Scott, a short but very capable back who should serve as a change of pace from Mark Ingram and Alvin Kamara, particularly while the former is on suspension. At tight end, the team cut Coby Fleener after numerous concussions, replacing him with the ageless Ben Watson, returning after two years in Baltimore; Josh Hill and Michael Hoomanawanui return for the final year of their three-year contracts. (Undrafted free agent Deon Yelder is also a dark horse candidate to crack the depth chart and make the 53-man roster.)
Wide receiver received the most notable overhaul, as the team let Willie Snead leave in free agency while adding Cameron Meredith, a Bears restricted free agent, and drafting Tre’Quan Smith in the third round. The improvements should immediately pay dividends, as the team only had two really reliable spots at wide receiver, the speed of Ted Ginn and the all-around outstanding play of Michael Thomas.
On defense, the team made significant efforts to address the problem areas from last season. Time will tell if those efforts pay dividends. The team also made moves to upgrade on offense, shoring up and strengthening units that played well, and looking for replacements for players that didn’t.
Next time, we’ll start taking a look at how all these roster moves might translate into the team’s final 53-man roster, with analysis by position of who’s going to be in camp and who might make the team. First up: Wide receivers.