Will the presence of Adrian Peterson at running back be able to help get the New Orleans Saints back to the playoffs for the first time since 2013?
After the New Orleans Saints won the Super Bowl at the conclusion of the 2009 National Football League season, they suffered a pair of heartbreaking postseason losses in 2010 and 2011 respectfully. Since then the Saints have only had one playoff appearance which can be traced back to the organization’s punishment for “Bountygate” which saw the NFL strip them of several draft picks, and the five-year, $100 million extension that quarterback Drew Brees signed in 2012. These two moves saw the Saints have a huge dip in their depth and overall talent pool as they were now fighting an uphill battle. Each of the last three years have seen the Saints finish with a record of 7-9 as they were a couple of breaks away from getting back to the postseason. But for the first time in a long time the Saints have a chance to put their inconsistencies behind them and get back to the playoffs if they continue to take care of business this off-season.
In a surprising move this off-season the Saints traded wide receiver Brandin Cooks to the New England Patriots. Cooks was a first-round selection of the Saints in 2014 and he led the club in receiving yards in each of the last two seasons. Cooks was rapidly emerging as one of the best receivers in the National Football League; however he was falling out of favor in New Orleans after he began to publicly criticize the routes that he was sometimes asked to run. In exchange for sending Cooks to the Patriots, the Saints received a first and third-round pick, while they are also sending a fourth-round selection to New England. And with this additional arsenal of picks, Saints general manager Mickey Loomis could be ready to knock one out of the park.
Saints head coach Sean Payton is one of the sharpest offensive minds in the National Football League, while Brees is a future Hall of Famer. And thus New Orleans has been one of the top offenses in the NFL in recent years. But Brees’ golden right arm alone can’t carry the Saints. The Saints issues have been on the defensive side of the football where they have not finished higher than 27th in total defense in each of the last three years which could be finally remedied later this month in the National Football League Draft.
The Saints are scheduled to pick three times within the first 42 selections and they could rack up on some defensive talent. After New Orleans was only able to tally 30 sacks last season with defensive end Cameron Jordan leading the team with 7.5, they have a chance to beef up their pass rush. Quality defensive ends such as Taco Charlton, Derek Barnett, and Charles Harris are all expected to be available when the Saints pick 11th. And as the Saints secondary has been barbecued in recent years, players such as cornerback Marlon Humphrey and strong safety Obi Melifonwu could be in play for them early as well. At some point the Saints are going to have to attempt to replace Cooks and his production. But being that most wide receivers in New Orleans are a product of having Brees throw them the football, I don’t see replacing Cooks as a top priority when the draft begins as their defense must find a way to neutralize Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton, Atlanta Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan, and Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback if they want to win the NFC South.
In 2015, Loomis took some heat when he traded All-Pro tight end Jimmy Graham to the Seattle Seahawks. In exchange for Graham, New Orelans received center Max Unger and Seattle’s first-round pick. The Saints would use that selection on outside linebacker Stephone Anthony who in a short period of time has become a leader on the defensive side of the football. And if Loomis can find some game changing play makers on the defensive side of the football later this month in the draft, he could make the folks on the bayou forget about Cooks; especially if the Saints can get back to the playoffs.
This is the first time in a long time that the Saints will have a chance to get back on track. And if Loomis and Payton are able to it right, New Orleans could still be playing football when January rolls around.
First Round Pick: Vernon Butler-Defensive Tackle-Louisiana Tech
Best Pick: Round Five-Zack Sanchez-Cornerback-Oklahoma
Even though that the Carolina Panthers went 15-1 in 2015 en route to winning the NFC Championship, they were a flawed team. The Panthers relied on their running game and a strong defense, but it wasn’t enough for them to win the Super Bowl. And after losing Super Bowl 50 to the Denver Broncos, it was clear that the Panthers had issues on the offensive line and in the passing game. But at the 2016 National Football League Draft, Panthers general manager Dave Gettleman missed an opportunity to remedy that.
Instead Gettleman opted to use the Panthers first-round choice on Louisiana Tech Bulldogs defensive tackle Vernon Butler. The Panthers had a stout defensive line last season and Butler will be a welcome sight to their rotation as head coach Ron Rivera would like to have a wave of fresh bodies that can collapse the pocket, but they missed the boat on addressing their issues at both wide receiver and offensive tackle.
After releasing Pro Bowl cornerback Josh Norman, the Panthers went heavy in the defensive back category at the draft where they selected three cornerbacks with the most intriguing one being Oklahoma Sooners cornerback Zack Sanchez in the fifth round. And like Norman, Sanchez has an eye for the football as it should not take him that long to become a household name in Charlotte.
First Round Pick: Keanu Neal-Safety-Florida
Best Pick: Keanu Neal
After Dan Quinn went 8-8 in his first season as the head coach of the Atlanta Falcons in 2015, he is looking to build off of that and get this team back to the postseason for the first time since 2012. And that process began at the National Football League Draft.
The Falcons needed to concentrate on their defense which needs more play makers. The Falcons had the 17th overall pick which they used on Florida Gators safety Keanu Neal who has solid range in the secondary. Atlanta needs a player like Neal due to the fact that the NFC South is home to some quality quarterbacks that can put pressure on opposing defenses as the Falcons need a strong general in their secondary.
But unfortunately for the Falcons and their fan base, the highlight of the 2016 National Football League Draft was selecting Neal as they were unable to bring in other quality players that can have an immediate impact which puts a dark cloud over the upcoming NFL season in Atlanta.
New Orleans Saints
First Round Pick: Sheldon Rankins-Defensive Tackle-Louisville
Best Pick: Round Two- Michael Thomas-Wide Receiver-Ohio State
The New Orleans entered the National Football League Draft not owning that many picks, but they attempted to make the most with their selections. Last year the Saints defense was torched as they were 31st in the National Football League in total defense. And for Saints general manager Mickey Loomis, he couldn’t go wrong by adding bodies at any level of the defense.
In the first round the Saints decided on Louisville Cardinals defensive tackle Sheldon Rankins who has solid speed for a player his size which will be important as he looks to penetrate gaps on the offensive line. The Saints also used a second round pick on Ohio State Buckeyes safety Vonn Bell as they are hoping that he can bringing some swagger to the Bayou after winning a national championship in college. The Saints would also select Bell’s college teammate in the second round in wide receiver Michael Thomas. At 6’3″, 212 lbs., Thomas has some size at the wide receiver position that the Saints need while it shouldn’t take him that long to get on the same page with quarterback Drew Brees who knows how to keep all of his receivers involved in the offense.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers
First Round Pick: Vernon Hargreaves-Cornerback III-Cornerback-Florida
Best Pick: Vernon Hargreaves
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers already have their franchise quarterback in Jameis Winston, and now they are looking to sure things up on the defensive side of the ball. The 2016 National Football League Draft saw the Buccaneers concentrate heavy on defense as they are looking to become a playoff contender.
The Bucs used their first-round choice on Florida Gators cornerback Vernon Hargreaves III. At 5’10”, Hargreaves will be looking up to the majority of the wide receivers that he’ll be covering, but he will make up for it with the solid coverage skills that he possesses. The second round saw the Buccaneers select Eastern Kentucky Colonels defensive end Noah Spence. At 6’2″, 251 lbs., Spence could be a hybrid player at both defensive end and outside linebacker which gives defensive coordinator Mike Smith options as far as using his skill set.
But I was surprised with Tampa Bay selecting Florida State Seminoles kicker Roberto Aguayo in the second round. Aguayo does possess a big leg, however that early in the draft isn’t typically reserved to see a specialty player chosen. And that is something that could come back to haunt the Buccaneers in the long run.
Since 2006, Sean Payton has seen his fair share of ups and downs as the head coach of the New Orleans Saints. In his first season in New Orleans, Payton guided to the Saints to an appearance in the NFC Championship Game. In 2009 under Payton, the Saints won their first Super Bowl Championship in franchise history and under him they’ve continued to be a perennial title contender while the Bountygate scandal forced Payton to miss the entire 2012 National Football League season. Payton and the Saints rebounded to make the playoffs in 2013, but things have been shaky at best this season.
The Saints were expected to contend for the playoffs once more this season which they have, but it hasn’t been as pretty as expected. The Saints are currently 5-7 and in spite of this they are tied with the Atlanta Falcons for first place in the supremely putrid NFC South. The Falcons currently own the tiebreaker over the Saints due to the fact that they defeated New Orleans back in Week 1.
The Saints began the season with consecutive road losses to the Falcons and Cleveland Browns. The Saints were 2-4 before they appeared to get it going with victories over the Green Bay Packers and the Carolina Panthers to get them to .500. But after this a reversal of fortune has hit the Saints. The Saints had three consecutive home games in which they surprisingly lost all of them. However New Orleans was able to respond last Sunday with a road victory over the Pittsburgh Steelers which has given them some life. The Saints were able to drop 35 points on the Steelers in spite of the fact that tight end Jimmy Graham was held without a reception. On paper the Saints are the most complete team in the NFC South and now with four games left in the regular season the onus is on them to seize control of it which starts with their defense.
In four of the Saints seven losses this season they had a lead in the fourth quarter only to squander it. In Week 1, the Saints allowed the Falcons to kick the game-tying field goal with under a minute to play before losing in overtime. In Week 2, the Saints defense allowed a 14-play, 85-yard drive in just under three minutes which allowed the Browns to kick the game-winning field goal with just three seconds remaining in the game. In Week 7 versus the Detroit Lions, the Saints blew a 13-point, fourth quarter lead as they lost 24-23. And in Week 10 it was the San Francisco 49ers who tied the game versus the Saints in the waning seconds of regulation before winning the contest in overtime.
Saints defensive coordinator Rob Ryan was brought in last season to fix that side of the ball in New Orleans. But this season the Saints are 31st in total defense in the National Football League as they’re surrendering 390.5 yards per game. Ryan’s defensive schemes are predicated on blitz pressure (especially from the front seven). But the front seven of the Saints defense has been unable to supply pressure this season as they only have 19 sacks this season which is tied for 25th in the NFL. So even if the Saints have a lead in the fourth quarter, opponents know that they can pass at will on them and change the momentum of the game.
This is obviously a different defensive unit that the Saints had in 2009 when they won the Super Bowl. Wholesale changes have been made since then for the Saints as former defenders such as defensive end Will Smith, linebacker Johnathan Vilma, and strong safety Roman Harper could always be counted on for leadership and to make big plays. The Saints have moved on from players such as these as Smith and Vilma are out of football altogether while Harper is still chugging along as a member of the Carolina Panthers. Just like Saints general manager Mickey Loomis constructed that title team in 2009, he has put this squad together and he is hopeful that December is the month that they’ll be able to turn it up a notch.
At 35-years of age Saints quarterback Drew Brees can still get it done which is clearly evident by his 3,748 passing yards and 27 touchdowns so far this season. Brees has thrown 11 interceptions this season with seven of them coming in Saints losses. To make matters worse some of these interceptions have come in the red zone which takes points off of the scoreboard. In the loss to the Niners it was a Brees fumble that set up San Francisco for the game-winning field goal in overtime. But Brees is still good enough and smart enough to clean this up and help the Saints in the final stretch of the regular season.
A few weeks ago on the 300lbsofsportsknowledge Show, I stated that five victories could get it done in order to win the NFC South. But if the Saints can go 3-1 here in December, then that should put them in pig heaven. The Saints control their own destiny to win the NFC South as they have three more games remaining within their division. The Saints host the Panthers this Sunday and they’ll be favored to be victorious as the Panthers have failed to win a game since early October. The Saints will host the Falcons in Week 16 in a contest that will more than likely decide who’ll be the NFC South Champion for 2014. And to finish the regular season the Saints will be on the road to meet the Tampa Bay Buccaneers whom New Orleans needed overtime to get past in Week 5. Sandwiched in between these three divisional games, the Saints have a road game versus the Chicago Bears in which they will more than likely have to deal with the frigid elements.
At the Mercedes-Benz Superdome in New Orleans, the Saints enjoy one of the best home-field advantages in the NFL. The Saints were undefeated at home last season and in recent years the Superdome has been a house of horrors for opponents. The Saints need to get back to that coming down the stretch which starts with them scoring early which will put pressure on their opponent while also getting the home crowd energized. Defensively the Saints must find a way to feed off of this by making more impact plays.
The United States of America is famously known as the land of opportunity and it is also a place that is ripe with second chances. After letting opportunites go by the wayside through the first three quarters of the season, the Saints now have chance to put all of that aside and win their division. And if the Saints are able to click on cylinders and win the NFC South, you can rest assured that there will be a 10 or 11-win wild card team in the NFC that won’t be looking forward to making the trip to the Bayou.