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“The Amateur Ward:” NFC South Preview: New Orleans Saints

Some people say that Sean Payton and Drew Brees cannot continue to carry the bulk of the load for the Saints to win games. False. It doesn’t matter the opponent, or who the opposing QB is, Brees is so prolific with the ball, he’s capable of putting up 400 yards any given week. Brees is going to put up solid numbers every season, and he could post better numbers than last season as his young receivers will have another year under their belts and the run game will hopefully be stronger than it was last season. The problem is the defense, particularly the secondary that got obliterated last season, and continues to search for answers. Hell or high wind, Brees will guide this Saints to and if they remember how to play defense at all this season, they could be a very dark horse to at least be in the discussion for a wildcard spot.

Here are some quick facts that prove age for a QB does not matter when it comes to success: Peyton Manning just became the oldest QB to win, much less play in a Super Bowl at 39, Brady appeared in the Super Bowl the previous season at 37 (same age as Brees currently), and Kurt Warner has also played in a Super Bowl at 37. The second oldest player to ever appear in a Super Bowl is John Elway who also won his final Ship with the Broncos before riding off into the sunset. So yes, Brees is still damn fully capable of returning to the Super Bowl and winning it. Brees may have seen a dip in production the past few years, but last season he was without arguably his go to guy in crucial downs and in the red zone, Jimmy Graham who joined forces with Wilson in Seattle, and then struggled (albeit injuries). Last season, Drew Brees was the most accurate passer of the deep ball, and nothing has changed for him over the past 15 years. Now, we all know he is not a gunslinger, but he is a sharp shooter, who hits his deep target nearly every time. With Willie Snead entering his second season and the addition of Buckeye receiver Michael Thomas, the track star, Brees will have a late career bounce back this season and post 36 TDs this season.

Defenses better beware because the Saints have one of the best young WR duos in the game right now, and they are just beginning to reach their potential. Snead was a very pleasant surprise for the Saints last season. Snead is not the explosive playmaker that Brandin Cooks is, but he has very reliable hands, moves the chains and always seems to be open. Last season, he had a team high 14.3 yards per carry and led the team in catch percentage at 68.3%. He not only keeps defenses honest versus Cooks, but is a third down conversion mastermind, and is underrated down the field. He was the X factor on the Saints last season and huge reason why they were able to finish at 7-9. Brandin Cooks, we all know is a star on the rise and one of the best deep threats, but he also wins among the highest percentage of contested balls. Using PFF’s sabermetrics, in 2014, Cooks had the highest Wins Above Average (WAA) at 14.9 percent, leading the next highest receivers (Julian Edelman by 2.6 percent. Most amazing of all, and what is truly a sign of how big a star he could be is how he was more than 150 times as effective and explosive last season versus 2014, and increased his yards per catch by just over two yards. Cooks is going to threaten top 7 receiver status this season as Brees will continue to look his way more often as Payton continues to blitz defenses with speed and big playmakers. Defenses can’t cover him and they can’t focus on him because rookie Michael Thomas will be begging to light the field on fire with his raw physical tools and being underrated coming out of OSU. True, he needs to work on his route running abilities and disengage from cornerbacks, but has the size and quickness to win at the line and burn in the red zone. He will likely open the season as the slot receiver, but could become one of the most explosive ones in short order, given his pedigree. The Saints will be creative with him and put him outside at times and move him around to confuse defenses.

Mark Ingram is a better running back than he is given credit for most times, but he has not played a full season since 2012 and is yet to eclipse 1000 yards rushing. He is the smash mouth type back that the Saints covet and had in Deuece McAllister in 2006. When he is on the field, be is difficult to take down and has a solid yards per carry rate for his career. Health always seems to be his issue. If he had not been injured in 2014 and 2015 he would have surpassed 1000 yards on the ground. He brings a toughness and production out of the backfield and is often overlooked by defenses catching balls out of the backfield as the Saints are notorious for using a scat back out of the backfield for receptions and mixing things up. Last season the hope was CJ Spiller would be that scat back to complement Ingram’s power style, but he faltered, amassing only 351 yards from scrimmage and two scores. When Ingram missed the final four games of the season due to a shoulder injury, Tim Hightower stepped up and delivered 327 yards and four scores on the ground. Entering 2016, look for Ingram to continue to be led back and don’t be surprised if he sees an increase in targets out of the backfield, although the true Saints scat back is Hightower. Spiller, will barely sniff the field, outside of plays where the Saints try to hit the homerun on a running play.

For the second straight season, the Saints lose their top tight end free agency. However, this season they stole a good one from the Colts, Coby Fleener who could have a breakout year in this prolific Saints offense. Fleener is more of a wide receiver than tight end as he stretches the field better than your prototypical TE, but also is limited in run blocking. True, last season he only posted 491 yards and three scores, while seeing his yards per catch drop by a third, but he also dealt with a quagmire at Qb and a very inefficient Andrew Luck who only played seven games last season.With Michael Hoomanawanui inked to be the blocking tight end, Fleener will add another dangerous player for defenses to worry about because he runs sharp, precise routes, can beat corners one on one, and has great hands in the end zone. The knock on him, though is he drops more balls than he should and costs his team opportunities to score in huge moments in games. Fleener is a sleeper to approach 900 yards and eight scores this season.

I’m not sure what’s bigger, an actual black hole or the black hole that is the Saints defense, particularly in the secondary because they allowed a cool 284 pass yards/game and a tick short of 30 points per game in 2015. Congrats guys! That’s amazing…not. Seriously, the Saints should have invested money in free agency on defense and not let Rafael Bush walk, who was their best free safety, despite injury concerns. He may not be a ballhawk, but he does not blow assignments, is solid in no man’s land and can cover one on one, something that Jairus Byrd has simply forgotten how to do when he has been on the field. To be fair to Byrd, he missed all but four games in 2014 with the Saints with a torn meniscus and was limited to 13 games in 2015 due to the injury. However, when he has been on the field he has looked lost and is a far cry from his ProBowl days from Buffalo. This is one six-year 54 million dollar man the Saints regret signing in 2014, and his leash is very short this season with rookie Vonn Bell in the wings and Kenny Vaccaro dominating at strong safety. Bell has sound technique and very capable in man situations, but needs to work on form versus running backs and finishing tackles more. Expect him to steal Byrd’s role opposite Vaccaro early as he is the better all around player and will bring more coverage skills to the Saints defense. Vaccaro, the field general of the secondary just wants to knock your head off and strip the ball. He was one of the lone bright spots for the Saints defense in 2015. One interesting cornerback to pay attention to is sophomore Delvin Breaux who has the makings of a ballhawk and shutdown corner- and even borderline shutdown Julio Jones last season, with two passes defensed on five times being thrown at versus Jones. If the Saints secondary is to make strides this season, it will be on the shoulders of Breaux, Vaccaro and Bell who are all very solid, young pieces and very savvy with their play.

The front seven of the Saints defense will be bolstered by up and coming strong side linebacker Stephone Anthony, Jordan Cameron and free agent James Laurinatitis. Laurinaitis had a damn year by his standards last season, but he also dealt with a slew of injuries, including a torn UCL and biceps tear that impaired his ability of feeling in his elbow, and he still played the role of field general for the Rams in 2015. He may not excel in coverage or stuffing the run, but he is a sure tackler and one who commands the defense efficiently. That is what the Saints need; a captain of the defense who motivates others to live up to their potential. Even in the twilight of his career, he plays with a motor that motivates others and always seems to be around the ball. His trouble last season was getting off blocks to make the tackle, however that is likely more injury related than anything. Stephone Anthony started a good chunk of the season at “Mike” last season, but with Laurinaitis on board, he will move to the strong side where he will better be able to take advantage of his pass rushing ability and stuffing ability on early downs and drop into coverage on third downs, or when teams deploy receiver heavy sets. He is athletic and physical enough to play both rusher and coverage, and posted very respectable numbers his rookie season with six stuffs and five passes defensed. Danell Ellerbe is the weak link on the linebacker line and his best days are definitely behind him. He just cannot stay on the field, playing a mere total of seven games the past two seasons. Truth be told, the Saints are a better defense when he is actually on the field as he brings a veteran presence and provides a needed punch from the weakside. Let us see how long he actually stays on the field for though, if not Craig Robertson and Nate Stupar will be in line for snaps.

The loss of Hau’oli Kikaha already this offseason is going to kill the Saints pass rush this season as they now will have to try to replace his production with the likes of Bobby Richardson who has flashed the ability to contribute in the run game, but seems limited rushing the passer and dropping in coverage. What he lacks, essentially is the physicality and versatility of Kikaha. Cameron Jordan is by far the Saints best pass rusher and he will need to once more produce double-digit sacks and be productive versus opposing running backs for the defense to have a chance of holding together the defensive line as rookie Sheldon Rankins figures to immensely help what was a porous defense versus the run last season, but the other tackle position starter, John Jenkins, seems very limited in his arsenal. Rankins is versatile enough to help in the run game as well as provide some pass rush ability, which could help keep opposing offensive lines honest and Cam Jordan some clean looks.

The defense will determine how far the Saints can go in 2016, and second place could well be up for grabs between three teams this season, but it is still the Carolina Panthers division to lose. Realistically, an 8-8 season is in the cards, but if the Saints can mix things up enough on defense, they could eek out a 9-7 season and have a prayer at the second wildcard spot. What will ultimately kill this teams ability to go after free agnets next season will be all the dead money, or money owed to players not currently on the roster going forward as they have the highest dead money pool and are very limited financially, so it could be a few years until the Saints have a decent defense, no disrespect to the offense though. They just hope Brees stays healthy.

Until next week, out.

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(Click the Red link below to listen)

Major League Fantasy Football Radio: Join Ej GarrCorey D Roberts, and Coach Jeff Nelson live Saturday July 9th from 1-2:30pm EST for episode #63 of Major League Fantasy Football Radio. This is a live broadcast and we take callers at 323-870-4395 press 1 to speak with the hosts. Our first 4 shows of the year covered each AFC division. This week we begin the NFC side with NFC East.

You can find our shows on I-Tunes. Just search for Major League Fantasy Sports in the podcasts section. For Android users go to “Podcast Republic,” then download that app, and search for “Major League Fantasy Sports Show”

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(Click the RED link below to listen)

Major League Fantasy Baseball Radio: Join Corey D Roberts and Kyle Amore live on Thursday June 30th, 2016 from 8-10pm EST for episode #72 of Major League Fantasy Baseball Radio. We are a live broadcast that will take callers at 323-870-4395. Press 1 to speak with the host.

Our guest this week is Marc Foster a veteran owner with MLFS since 2009, an occasional writer, and 3 time champion in MLFB/MLFF leagues.

You can find our shows on I-Tunes. Just search for Major League Fantasy Sports in the podcasts section. For Android users go to “Podcast Republic,” then download that app, and search for “Major League Fantasy Sports Show”

 

I am a recent college graduate from a small liberal arts school in Atlanta, GA. I'm a sports junkie and a diehard Atlanta sports fan.

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