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.
Earlier this week the basketball bombshell broke when it was announced that the New Orleans Pelicans had acquire center DeMarcus Cousins from the Sacramento Kings. In nearly seven seasons with the Kings, Cousins averaged 21.1 points and 10.8 rebounds as he leaves Sacramento as one of the best players in the history of the franchise. But during Cousins’ time with the Kings, he became the poster boy for players who put up big numbers while failing to make the team around them better. With Cousins leading the way for the Kings they were never able to make the playoffs, while he played under six different head coaches. At the All-Star break the Kings were in ninth place in the Western Conference as they were only -1.5 games behind the Denver Nuggets for the final playoff spot. However with Kings trading Cousins, they are waving the white flag for this season as he’ll now join a Pelicans that began the second half of the NBA season in 11th place in the Western Conference and 2.5 behind the Nuggets. And for Cousins the excuses must now be a thing of the past for him.
Throughout Cousins’ entire NBA career, it has always been someone else’s fault which has seen Kings owner Vivek Ranadive and general manager Vlade Divac consistently siding with him. Cousins developed a reputation around the NBA as a “coach killer”, and a player whom nobody could get through to. And ever with a weaker Western Conference this season, it wasn’t a guarantee that the Kings were going to be able to end their long playoff drought which dates back to 2006 as Cousins was never to get this franchise over the hump.
Now Cousins is in New Orleans where he’ll play alongside another Kentucky Wildcats alum in power forward Anthony Davis. In five seasons with the Pelicans, Davis has become one of the NBA’s best big men as he is averaging 27.7 points, 12 rebounds, and 2.5 blocks per contest. In acquiring Cousins and small forward Omri Casspi from the Kings, the Pelicans gave up guards Tyreke Evans, Langston Galloway, and Buddy Hield, along with their first and second-round picks here in 2017. And even though the Pelicans sacrificed their play on the perimeter in order to get Cousins, there aren’t too many teams in the Western Conference that can match up with him and Davis. You can all but pencil in Cousins and Davis to combine for at least 50 points each night as it is the classic example of “pick your poison”. It’s been a long time since the NBA has seen a combination on the interior in their prime that can score in the fashion that Davis and Cousins can which makes them an instant headache for opponents. But for Cousins who has never appeared in the NBA Playoffs, if he cannot do it now, will he ever?
At the end of the day the NBA is a business and Cousins’ arrival in New Orleans gives him a fresh start. But for Cousins there cannot be any finger pointing at Davis for taking too many shots, or a failure to listen to Pelicans head coach Alvin Gentry as it is simply time to do whatever it takes in order to win.
As talented as Cousins is, he is one the NBA’s biggest headaches as he has already accrued 17 technical fouls this season which led to a one-game suspension. Cousins has worked to remedy his frustration which at times gets the best of him, but now more than ever, he must check his ego at the door. But Cousins’ time with the Pelicans didn’t get started on the right foot as they lost by 30 points at home last night to the Houston Rockets.
If Cousins comes to play on a nightly basis with the Pelicans, this can be one the best teams in the Western Conference. Pelicans point guard Jrue Holiday must be salivating as he now has the opportunity to dish the ball to two of the league’s best big men. And regardless of what the Pelicans are able to for the remainder of this NBA season, they won’t have to beg small forwards and shooting guards to come to the Bayou and play as long as Cousins is all in on winning.
Davis has proven that he can get the Pelicans to the playoffs, while he and Cousins have each won a gold medal with the United States Men’s Basketball team during the Summer Olympics. And if everyone in New Orleans is all in, the combination of Cousins and Davis could be as legendary as Tim Duncan and David Robinson were when they teamed to win a pair of NBA Championships with the San Antonio Spurs.
But whatever the final verdict may be in New Orleans, if Cousins cannot make the playoffs now, I am not sure that he ever will.
X-Carolina Panthers 11-5
Last year saw the Carolina Panthers join an elite club as they became just the eighth team in National Football League history to win at least 15 games regular season games. But success in the regular season doesn’t always translate to the playoffs as the Panthers lost Super Bowl 50 to the Denver Broncos. And in the process the Panthers showed how hard that it is to keep it going in the postseason as only the 1984 San Francisco 49ers and 1985 Chicago Bears are the only teams in NFL history to win at least 15 regular season games that were able to see it materialize into a Super Bowl Championship. The Panthers had their way in 2015 as their stout defense and powerful running game simply bullied opponents. However in 2016, teams will be gunning for the Panthers in spite of the fact that they were unable to win it all, and it will be interesting to see how they’ll respond.
Cam Newton will enter the 2016 National Football League season as the reigning MVP of the league. At the age of 27, Newton has put it all together as he now has the pocket presence that is needed to compliment his supreme athleticism. But Newton cannot do it all by himself as he needs help in the passing game.
As a rookie in 2014, wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin became a very dependable pass catcher for Newton. Benjamin had 73 receptions for 1,008 yards and 9 touchdowns, but on the first day of Panthers training camp in 2015, Benjamin suffered an ACL injury. The Panthers were able to make it to the Super Bowl without Benjamin, but they missed his presence in the Super Bowl where the Broncos took away their power rushing attack.
The Panthers still have tight end Greg Olsen who gained 1,104 receiving last year which was a career high. And although that Olsen is entering his tenth National Football League season, he is still an effective option for Newton in the passing game.
The Panthers were second in the National Football League last season in rushing, but surprisingly they didn’t have one player gain at least 1,000 yards on the ground. Panthers running back Jonathan Stewart is coming off of a career high in carries with 242 and after eight years in the NFL, you have to wonder if he can still take the pounding.
Carolina has one of the better centers in football in Ryan Kalil who will anchor an offensive line that has the cohesion necessary to keep Newton clean in the pocket.
Last year the Panthers were sixth in the National Football League in total defense as they were a very stingy group. Eight Carolina opponents were held under 20 points, while their defense feasted off of turnovers as they were plus-20 in the turnover category.
Middle linebacker Luke Kuechly is arguably the best middle linebacker in the NFL as he has tremendous lateral movement, while he also has the ability to tackle anything that moves. Led by defensive end Kawann Short and defensive tackle Star Lotulelei, the Panthers have a defensive line that will get after opponents as this front seven is relentless.
Carolina could have some issues in the secondary as they released cornerback Josh Norman after a contract dispute, while also parting ways with veteran strong safety Roman Harper. And more than ever the Panthers secondary will rely on the front seven of the defense to carry them.
For Panthers head coach Ron Rivera, he has a team that is very capable of making it back to the Super Bowl, but every team in the NFC will be gunning for them; especially with the brash bravado of Newton.
Atlanta Falcons 10-6
As the 2016 National Football League season is getting set to start, the term “finish” will be thrown around in regards to the Atlanta Falcons. The Falcons began 2015 with a record of 6-1 as they appeared to be a lock to make the postseason. But unfortunately for the Falcons, the wheels fell off as they would lose their next six games. The Falcons were able to recover to finish 8-8, however for head coach Dan Quinn, he is seeking to get Atlanta back to the playoffs for the first time since 2012 in this their final year at the Georgia Dome.
In eight years as the starting quarterback of the Falcons, Matt Ryan has quietly gone about his job. Ryan has a career record of 74-52, while he is also the Falcons all-time leader in passing yards (32,757) and touchdowns (202). But with a playoff record of 1-4 with two of those losses coming at home when Atlanta had home-field advantage, Ryan has been pushed aside as fairly or unfairly, quarterbacks in the National Football League are firstly judged by playoff wins and championships.
However Ryan can still get the job done at the age of 31 as he is one of the most accurate quarterbacks in football. Ryan also has the luxury of throwing the football to one of the most dynamic wide receivers in the National Football League in Julio Jones. Last year saw Jones lead the NFL in receptions (136), and receiving yards (1,871). At 6’4″, 220 lbs., Jones can make it look very easy at times due to his size, strength, and freakish speed which will keep in the conversation in regards to being an All-Pro.
After being a role player for the last four years with the Cincinnati Bengals, wide receiver Mohammed Sanu signed with the Falcons this off-season as a free agent. Sanu is not a Pro Bowl caliber wide receiver, but what he possesses is enough ability to keep opposing defenses honest in regards to their coverage on Jones.
The Falcons also enjoy balance on offense due to the contributions of running Devonta Freeman. Last year Freeman gained 1,061 on the ground, while also doing a solid job in pass protection and catching passes out of the backfield for Ryan. Freeman made the Pro Bowl last year and he could be ready to become one of the best all-purpose backs in the National Football League.
The Falcons have a veteran offensive line that should be improved with the addition of center Alex Mack. Mack spent the first seven years of his National Football League career with the Cleveland Browns where he was a three-time Pro Bowl selection. But now Mack is looking to be a part of a winner and he has a shot to make the playoffs for the first time in his career with the Falcons.
2015 was a disappointing rookie campaign for outside linebacker Vic Beasley who was Atlanta’s first-round pick, but the additions of outside linebackers Brooks Reed and Courtney Upshaw should take some of the pressure off of him as Atlanta looks to move up in the defensive rankings after being 16th in the National Football League last year in total defense.
The NFC South Championship should come down to the Falcons and Carolina Panthers who are the defending champs. And the Week 4 and Week 16 showdowns between these two clubs will go a very long way in deciding who’ll win the division here in 2016.
New Orleans Saints 8-8
Three of the last four National Football League seasons have seen the New Orleans Saints fall short of making the postseason as this is an organization that is attempting to hold on. The Saints issues began when they gave quarterback Drew Brees a five-year deal that was worth $100 million in 2012 which has hamstrung the front office as they’ve been unable to put quality players around him. But the Saints could be ready for a breakthrough here in 2016.
At the age of 37, Brees is still one of the best quarterbacks in the National Football League and the Saints indoor home of the Mercedes-Benz Superdome is perfect for him. Brees has four, 5000-yard passing seasons to his credit as when the Saints offense is clicking, it it the equivalent for fast break basketball.
Speed is the name of the game with the Saints wide receivers in Brandon Cooks and Wille Snead. But the biggest issue that has held the New Orleans offense back in recent years has been their lack of a consistent running game. The Saints were 24th in the National Football League last season in rushing and you have to go all the way back to 2006 to find the last time that a New Orleans running back gained 1,000 yards on the ground.
As Dennis Allen is set to begin his first full year as the Saints defensive coordinator after he took over for fired Rob Ryan midway through last season, there is only one direction to go which is up. Last year the Saints were 31st in the National Football League in total defense as they allowed 413.8 yards against them per game which also saw four New Orleans opponents tally at least 39 points on them.
But as much as the Saints struggled on defense, they do have play makers in defensive end Cameron Jordan, middle linebacker Stephone Anthony, and cornerback Delvin Breaux. However New Orleans must find a way to get off of the field on third down as they were 22nd in the National Football League in opponents third down conversions last season.
For Saints head coach Sean Payton, his team’s first four opponents failed to make the postseason last year and they will need a hot start in 2016 as they look to make the playoffs for the first time since 2013.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers 5-11
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers head into the 2016 National Football League in a very familiar spot as they are once again starting over. The Buccaneers were making strides last year under head coach Lovie Smith. But after Smith declined to make changes to his staff, Bucs general manager Jason Licht decided to make him walk the plank. Smith was replaced by Dirk Koetter who served on his staff last year as the Buccaneers offensive coordinator. The hire of Koetter as the Buccaneers head coach marks the fourth different head coach in the last six years, and it is no wonder why this organization has not made the postseason since 2007. But the reason why Licht decided to go with Koetter is due to his relationship with quarterback Jameis Winston.
With Koetter as Winston’s offensive coordinator last year, he was named as the National Football League’s Rookie of the Year as he passed for 4,042 yards while throwing 22 touchdowns. Winston has the talent to be a superstar in the NFL, and it will be interesting to see how much that he’ll grow in this his sophomore campaign under Koetter.
Last year the Bucs were fifth in the National Football League in total offense, but there were six games in which they scored less than 20 points which comes down to their execution in the red zone. The Buccaneers have big wide receivers in Mike Evans and Vincent Jackson that should be able to win most jump ball situations in the red zone. Running back Doug Martin gained more than 1,400 yards on the ground, but like the passing attack in Tampa, he struggled in the red zone as he only managed to get 6 rushing touchdowns.
Like the offense in Tampa Bay in 2015, the defense was also a top ten unit, but what hurt them the most was that they were minus-5 in the turnover category. The Buccaneers do have play makers in defensive tackle Gerald McCoy and linebacker Lavonte David, but somebody must step up and become a consistent under first year defensive coordinator Mike Smith.
The schedule makers didn’t do the Bucs any favors here in 2016 as they will be running the gauntlet out of the chute with road games against the Atlanta Falcons and Arizona Cardinals, along with games against the Carolina Panthers and Denver Broncos who were the two participants in the Super Bowl this past January.
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.