The Saints are always going to have the potential to challenge so long as the Drew Brees-Sean Payton pairing remains in place, but the team missed the playoffs in 2014 for the first time in three seasons, and entered 2015 with a lot of questions and unknowns. With star receiving tight end Jimmy Graham traded to the Seahawks, some required moves in management of the salary cap meaning off-season cuts, and a young starting defense, there was no guarantees of an immediate return to the post-season. Record: 7-9, 3rd in NFC South, 12th overall draft pick. While rarely a reflection on what will occur during the regular season, losing all four pre-season contests wasn’t exactly a good omen for when the games that count began, and the Saints got off to a disastrous 0-3 start before finally getting a reminder of what it feels like to win in week 4 against the Cowboys. That sparks a recovery back to .500 and a 4-4 record, before a mid-season run of five defeats in the next six games killed off their playoff hopes. A finish of three wins out of the final four made the eventual 7-9 record look a bit more respectable but all came against fellow strugglers. The big issue primarily was a defence that, statistically at least, will go down as one of the worst in NFL history. It resulted in some quite incredible action-packed battles, with the bizarre back-and-forth 52-49 win over the Giants summing up the disparity between the effectiveness of the offense compared with the defence. It got so bad that Payton had to act, removing Rob Ryan as coordinator after a resounding 47-14 defeat to Washington. Former Raiders head coach Dennis Allen took his place, but implementing changes so late into the year and with the same pieces to work with isn’t easy to do, and the unit continued to struggle. It would be a big surprise if this upcoming off-season, in both free agency and in the draft, they didn’t focus heavily on finding better talent on the defensive side of the ball. Offense: Drew Brees continues to be one of the league’s elite passers, throwing for 4,870 yards and 32 touchdowns, as the Saints finished way out in front as the number one passing offense in the NFL in terms of yards per game through the air. The fact that they were also 2nd in total yards despite a running game that only ranked 24th speaks to how productive Brees continues to be in executing. After Marques Colston and Jimmy Graham normally being the favourite targets, it was two breakout receivers this year out wide and a veteran over the middle. Brandin Cooks finally was able to justify his high selection, more than doubling his total yards from his rookie year, coming on strong late in the year in particularly on his way to 1,138 yards. Willie Snead was the more surprising and arguably more consistent compliment, chipping in with 69 receptions and just shy of a thousand yards himself. Benjamin Watson wasn’t exactly a like-for-like replacement to Graham, but was a reliable target at tight end none-the-less. A more long-term option at the position could be looked for going forward though with all due respect to Watson. Mark Ingram earned himself a new four-year contract after the 2014 season, in which he finally had the more consistent and productive year that the team expected when they invested a first round pick on him years ago. Some wondered if he’d continue to play well after signing, but actually improved his yards per carry average this season, even if the overall numbers were a little down due to some missed time with a shoulder injury. The exciting potential of adding C.J. Spiller as a change of pace didn’t work out though, in part due to injury, but barely seeing the field even when healthy, which was a little surprising. Defense: This Saints defence were truly awful, allowing a massive 476 points across the sixteen regular season games. Seven times they conceded more than 30 points to the opposition. The pass defence was a disaster, allowing a whopping 45 touchdowns, nine more than any other team. The secondary had Kenny Vaccaro back, who did hit triple-digit tackles, and Delvin Breaux was a nice find at corner, so it wasn’t all bad, and the lack of pass rush outside of Cameron Jordan didn’t help on the back end either. However, Brandon Browner had a nightmare all season long, getting penalised far too often in addition to the big plays given up. A replacement for him opposite Breaux has to be looked at. Back to the pass rush, and rookie Kikaha had his moments on the way to 4 sacks, but the area is strongly lacking. Cameron Jordan again is the star, reaching 10 sacks this season; he had to have back surgery this off-season, so hopefully he recovers well from that, they need him. The run defence wasn’t any better really. Inside linebacker Stephone Anthony put up some numbers statistically in his first year, but also had his struggles with his assignments too, and remains a work in progress in the middle. The interior of the defensive line is also a must to improve. Kevin Williams had a decent year, but is 36. They will strongly consider using their number 12 overall pick on a pass rushing defensive tackle such as Sheldon Rankins or Andrew Billings in round one of April’s draft. Any return to the playoffs after a two-year absence is going to require a big turnaround from the defence. In fairness to Dennis Allen, there were some minor improvements after he took over; the team had more interceptions in less games than under Rob Ryan for example. Perhaps after a full off-season he can make further positive steps. Rookie Class: With two selections in the first round of the previous draft, the Saints chose the big-bodied Andrus Peat from Stanford at 13. He’s a work in progress that didn’t see too much action as a rookie, but did earn a few starts at guard once he got into shape after a tough first pre-season. He could make the move to right tackle going forward. Stephone Anthony is stuck being connected to the Jimmy Graham trade, as the player chosen with the 31st overall pick they got in that deal. He stepped in straight away and piled up an impressive 112 tackles and some big plays with an interception and two forced fumbles, but also showed his inexperience at times unsurprisingly. Kikaha had his moments after being taken in round two, but did slow a little in the second half of the season. The Saints will be delighted that their first of two 3rd round picks didn’t contribute, as that was quarterback Garrett Grayson, who they’d love to see develop in the coming years, but don’t want him hitting the field yet with Brees still playing great. Given the struggles in the pass defense this year, the team will be eager to see what they have in their other 3rd rounder P.J. Williams out of Florida State, whose rookie year ended in the pre-season before it got started. Overall: With the recent success of the New Orleans Saints, any year in which they miss the playoffs is a let-down, so to do so in consecutive years is a big disappointment. The huge difference between the offense and the defense, the former ranking 2nd in the NFL, the latter dead last, can’t be good for locker room morale either, and the coming months are crucial to try and achieve a better balance. The 2016 season will not just be the 10th year since Payton and Brees joined the franchise and turned the team around, but it will also be the 50th anniversary of the New Orleans Saints as a whole. For a city that knows how to throw a good party, they’d hate to celebrate that milestone with a third year in a row without post-season football.
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