1: Fix the front 7.
Everyone just witnessed a defensive slug fest in the Super Bowl between the Carolina Panthers and the Denver Broncos. It is in no way a coincidence that these two teams are defensive juggernauts when they have the two BEST front 7’s in the NFL. The Saints have invested a great deal of time and money over the last few seasons to build up their secondary, but while they have done that they have totally neglected the core of a defense. As it stands today the Saints have TWO, and only two, spots in their front 7 that are set in stone. Cameron Jordan and Stephone Anthony are solid starters who both show moments of greatness, and while Anthony has shown some imperfections in his game (expected as a rookie) a better group around him would allow the coaches to accentuate his strengths and hide his weaknesses. The fact is that this unit for the Saints is the single biggest reason why the unit has been so poor over the last few years, and in Payton’s tenure in general really.
The Saints absolutely need another pass rusher opposite Jordan, but more than that the two biggest weak points of this defense are defensive tackle and weakside linebacker. The good news is that there are a number of solid (and one PERFECT) options coming up in free agency to fill each spot. Also this year’s draft is deep at both positions with a number of players who could fill these two needs and instantly give the defense a significant upgrade. One of the biggest reasons last year’s defense was so poor was that the massive holes in talent at DT and WLB forced the coaches to either leave them vulnerable or to compromise the rest of the defense to compensate. A true no-win situation.
2: Build roster depth.
As I just mentioned this year’s draft is very well stocked at the two highest need positions for the Saints to improve their roster, however those aren’t the only spots of need. Ideally the team will get at least 1 wr (not in the first round though), two guards (1 FA and one draft pick), and then spend the rest of their resources on the front 7. Believe it or not the Saints could still sign 3 or 4 players in free agency this offseason, and then spend their 6 draft picks on filling out the roster. You can’t account for freak injuries and bad luck, however the Saints total lack of depth at key positions was the biggest flaw this team had. When Ellerbe was healthy the defense actually looked decent, especially in the game against the Falcons where he was clearly fully healthy and flying all over the field. If that was the player the Saints could rely on getting back in 2016 I wouldn’t have it marked NEARLY so high as a need, but Ellerbe simply cannot stay healthy, and the Saints total lack of depth behind him makes this a TOP priority.
The team also needs to add additional depth along the offensive and defensive lines, at the tight end position, and at wide receiver. Obviously the team cannot address every single unit on the roster and fill it with stars, but they need to fill key positions with quality players so that the average to below average players are not asked to produce outside of their abilities (hint: Scott Shanle won a ring with the Saints EXACTLY because of this sort of symbiotic relationship). What the Saints need more than anything is bodies, but they also have to be smart with how they acquire them. The Saints have brought in lots of players before and had none of them pan out, its important to spend the available resources wisely and in positions of need, not want. Build the core of your roster first, then focus on luxury.
3: Protect Drew Brees.
Drew Brees quietly had one of his better seasons last year, and that was with an inconsistent offensive line and a group of young receivers who had to adapt to Brees even as they adjusted to the NFL. Brees ability to not only be productive, but also to develop and enhance the talent around him is one of his most underrated gifts. Still the reality is that Brees is an aging QB and while he still has great mobility for the position, especially within the pocket, he isn’t the player he was a few years ago physically. The Saints MUST make it a priority to rebuild the wall around him and give their all-world quarterback an opportunity to make one last run at a ring before his career is over.
The Saints have 3 of their 5 offensive line spots lined up, and based on how he played through the end of the year I’m willing to let Lelito fight it out for the starting spot on the left side. However that is only a good idea in my opinion if the Saints are able to get a free agent guard to fill the right side guard position. My preference is for the Saints to bring in a free agent to fill in for the now departed Jahri Evans and to solidify the area between Andrus Peat and Max Unger. That would then allow the Saints to draft a guard in the 3rd or 4th rounds to compete with Lelito for the left side. In my opinion this is the ideal scenario for the Saints. They are already set at both tackle spots, and barring a major injury I don’t see any way that Andrus Peat isn’t the starter at RT next season. With that in mind the highest priority has to be giving Brees the best possible protection in the interior. Not only is the Guard position one of particular need for Brees, but in general quarterbacks have the most trouble dealing with interior pressure. Add the fact that both the Panthers and the Bucs have some very talented interior defensive lines and it leaves no question that this MUST be an area of major importance this off-season.
4: Re-sign their own guys.
The Saints don’t have a lot of free agents this year, and they really don’t have too many of their own guys they need to worry about extending or re-signing, but the ones they do have are important. Josh Hill and Ben Watson are both free agents this year, and unless Watson retires he needs to be a MAJOR priority to resign. Not just because of his production last year, but also because of his value to the team as a leader and a mentor to the younger players. Watson could be a fantastic mentor/tutor for a young TE who was brought in (a guy like Ledarious Green for instance), and he has shown that if the Saints need him to play meaningful snaps for another year that he will be able to be effective on the field. Hill is more of a ‘meh’ signing for me as he’s never really lived up to expectations and isn’t a good enough player to make the Saints concerned if they can’t/won’t resign him.
A player who I believe absolutely MUST be retained though is Rafael Bush. Not only is Bush their most versatile safety with his ability to play both safety spots, but he’s also a sure tackler who filled in very well wherever he has been asked to play. Bush is a guy who is well respected by his teammates, productive when on the field, and provides good depth/versatility for the team at the safety position. Resigning Rafael Bush should be a total no-brainer for the Saints this off season.
The one guy who should be extended though, and the player who outside of Brees is probably the best on the roster, is Terron Armstead. With every snap that goes by without him having an extension the Saints are increasing how much they will have to pay him when his contract comes to term. Terron Armstead has already established himself as one of the absolute best in the business and an elite left tackle in the NFL. One of the hardest positions to fill is sitting there right in their lap waiting to be locked up for the long term, and the best time to do so is NOW before he really starts bringing in the accolades. Armstead is only going to continue to improve and so will the value of the contract he will eventually sign. For once it would be great to see the Saints sign someone proactively (and it be someone who deserves it *cough* Gallete *cough*).
5: Find an identity.
It can sound kind of cliche, but one of the major differences between the Saints we see now and the team they need to be is an ‘identity’. The 2009-20111 Saints absolutely had one. It was an equal opportunity offense that could run or pass at will that played a hyper-aggresive defense that tried to give that dominating offense more chances to score. The 2013 Saints were a gritty team that fought hard and rode a superior pass rush and solid coverage to a top defensive ranking that allowed their offense to edge out games even though it wasn’t their best year. What you will notice is that the years NOT mentioned since 2009 the Saints were a ‘ship without a rutter’, or in other words a team without a solid identity. They both were unable to impose their will on opponents and didn’t know exactly what it was they wanted to impose in the first place.
If the Saints want to have any hope of being a contender in 2016 then they must not only find an identity, but also build towards it. I believe that they began to find out who that team will be towards the end of 2015, but only time will tell if that is actually the case. The first step was returning to the ‘anyone at anytime’ sort of offense they had in their best years. I think the Saints are only 2-3 pieces away from having a dominating offense again, and they don’t need top guys for all those spots. (more on that in the coming weeks) What they DO need is to figure out who they want to be on defense. Perhaps the one and only advantage of having the flaws they do, and where those flaws are, is that they can kind of build whatever kind of defense they want. Right now they have a few key components who will fit in almost any scheme (Anthony, Jordan, and Breaux, Vacarro), and a number of ancillary pieces that are complimentary pieces anyway (Richardson, Davison, Kikaha, Swann, Williams, etc). The Saints must use this year’s offseason as the opportunity it truly is to determine what kind of defense they will have for the foreseeable future. This isn’t just about talent, but style. The Saints can build a rough and rugged defense by drafting and signing power players who set a tone, or they can build a defense built on speed by bringing in versatile linemen and focusing on building an elite linebacker unit.
Regardless of WHICH direction they choose, the Saints absolutey MUST choose one and stick with it. They can no longer afford (never really could to be honest) to simply add quality pieces based on their individual value without factoring in fit as well. This team has a lot more young talent than you will hear about on ESPN, and they will likely make their customary ‘surprise’ signings, but for once they have to do so in a proactive way instead of reactionary signings that have defined the last few years.