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New Orleans Saints offseason review and 2016 preview

In Week 4, The Bolts return home from Indiana to face an old friend that will probably play football in front of a San Diego crowd for the last time. Can the Bolts beat the Drew Brees-led Saints?

Jason Getz-USA TODAY Sports

Not So Easy Lately

The Saints have gone 7-9 in three of the last four seasons and the last two seasons in a row.  The problem in all 3 of their losing seasons was the defense, finishing 28th, 31st, and last season's 32nd in the league in points allowed.  Brees has been just the opposite of problem in those years; in fact, he has led the NFL in passing yards 3 of the last four seasons.

With three of four losing seasons and a defense that just does not seem to be improving despite resources being directed to it, you would figure that Payton is starting to feel the heat.  New Orleans is a little different, as the fans and owners all have a vivid memory of the consistent dumpster fire that was New Orleans football before the arrival of Payton and Brees.  Accordingly, Payton was signed to a five-year extension in March.  This does not mean that the pressure is off, though; another losing season could make this seat one of the warmest in football.  In most other NFL towns, the change would have already been made.

Then there is the question of Drew Brees' contract.  The 37-year-old QB is playing his final season of a contract that was one of the best when signed.  That was a few years ago, though.  The deal is now light by about 6-8 million bucks over what QB's at the top (or not so top) of the heap are making after getting new or extended deals in the last year or two.  The Saints have so far not offered an extension and Brees has stated publicly that he is not too happy about that.  Brees' career has shown him both sides of the risk vs. reward equation in the NFL.  An injury can have people questioning whether you can continue to play (and lowball you accordingly) while a great year can pay off better than the Powerball lottery.

Other than that, it's been a fairly routine offseason for the Saints.

Jaguars Lite

When a team fields a defense that is statistically the worst in football, you expect that side of the ball to get most of the attention in free agency and the draft.  As it was with Jacksonville, so it was with New Orleans, although not to the extreme level that the Jaguars took it.

They did add heavily to defense in free agency.  LB's Nathan Stupa, Craig Robertson, and James Laurinitis were all signed, with Laurinitis getting paid well to leave the Rams.  Even with those additions, the Saints LB unit is widely regarded as one of the worst in the NFL.  DT Nick Fairley was brought in for a one year prove it deal, and 32-year old S Roman Harper was brought back for a season also.

The biggest head scratcher in free-agency was allowing TE Ben Watson to leave while signing Coby Fleener and his drops to a five-year $36MM contract.  This makes the 2nd season in a row that Brees will need to get used to a new TE, but with the other weapons available on offense, that should not be too painful for him

The draft looked a lot like the Jaguars, except for the trades up that left them with only five picks in 2016 and already down a pick in 2017.  Three of their five picks were dedicated to the defense, but they may have found another gem to be polished by Brees and Payton in 2nd round pick Michael Thomas out of Ohio State.

Of the three defensive players selected (1st round DT Sheldon Rankins, 3rd round safety Vonn Bell, and 4th rounder David Onyemata) only Rankins projects to be a rookie starter in the Saints 4-3 defense.  Many of the folks that get paid to write about football ranked the Saints offseason as the worst in the AFC South.

Season Outlook

The Saints are an interesting study in what a team with a competent coach and a great QB saddled with a horrible defense, shaky O-line (especially the interior), and no running game to speak of can actually accomplish.  7-9 does not get it done for too long in the NFL, but sometimes it just can't be helped.   Even when you have a franchise QB, the roster around him can't get the three more wins needed for playoffs.  The franchise QB SHOULD BE enough for any team to avoid losing more than ten games, though.  I see the Saints in 2015 as another illustration of the Chargers' issues on the sideline.

The Saints may have seen their window slam shut in the last two years.  The Panthers are really good. Tampa Bay is improving. Atlanta seems to be on another upside of the roller-coaster the team has ridden for the past decade.  In the NFL, if the arrows on your division opponents are all pointing up and yours is pointing sideways, you are actually losing ground.  It may be another hard season on the Bayou until the defense gets things figured out and the running game can support a future Hall of Fame QB.  This team looks like a .500 team, with a game or two in either direction.

Outlook Against The Chargers

For the 3rd game in a row, winning will depend on the defense slowing down a talented passing game.  The good news is that Bress does not present the same sort of athletic challenges that Bortles and Luck do.  The bad news is that if he is given throwing lanes and room to move around in a pocket, he can surgically carve up any secondary in the NFL.  While Bortles and Luck are young and cocky enough to force some throws and make mistakes, Brees will not.

Their outside receivers (Brandin Cooks, Willie Snead, Michael Thomas, and Brandon Coleman) form one of the best units in football.  Depending on CJ Spiller's health, he presents some match-up issues in the flat and on wheel routes.  Mark Ingram is not consistently great, but he is good for a game or two in any season where he looks like a dominant back.  If this is one of those games...

On the other side of the ball, the best sub-unit of the Saints D is their secondary.  This might be the second week in a row that the Bolts have more opportunity on the ground than they do in the air.  If Gordon cannot put up 100 yards and a score in either the Colts or Saints game, this would be GIANT red flag that he is not being used properly or is not able to be a quality starting back in the NFL.

Prediction:  For the 3rd week in a row, the Chargers play in a game that could become a shootout.  (This is one reason why I will not climb on a "this defense sucks" bandwagon if the team gives up a lot of points in the first quarter of the 2016 season.  The Chiefs have an average offense and the three teams can score A LOT of points on any defense.)

The Saints are probably a little more one dimensional than they would prefer at this point, but with Brees and his stable of receivers, who cares?  Bolts win with a final score that makes it look a lot closer than it actually was, due to playing prevent defense for the last quarter of the game.