In OTAs (Offseason Talk & Analysis) all through June and July, the Sports on Earth NFL team will break down each team's offseason transactions, boldest moves and burning questions as they prepare for training camp. Click here for links to every entry in the series.
After two seasons in the post-Bountygate wilderness, the Saints defense finally caught up with the Saints offense last season.
It happened just in the nick of time. The Saints offense will not be the Saints offense forever, because Drew Brees is mortal and many of his skill-position pals are holdovers from the 2009 Super Bowl. The Saints offense and defense have another year or two to work together to dethrone the Seahawks and 49ers, who have played postseason keep-away from the Saints since 2010, before the time for rebuilding arrives.
The Saints defense looks better than ever thanks to some new arrivals and the development of a core of young stars. The Saints offense has also gotten younger behind the Brees-Marques Colston-Pierre Thomas façade, with new skill position prospects and some promising youngsters on the offensive line. Both the offense and defense look ready to battle the Niners and Seahawks again, and because they play in a much easier division, those battles could take place in the Superdome.
Wait, what about the special teams? Did we forget about them? Did Sean Payton forget about them? Not really, but a familiar weakness could once again doom the Saints to third place.
Biggest Move: Finding a pair of system fits
If you judge players as if real life came with Madden video game OVR ratings, Jairus Byrd and Brandin Cooks were risky acquisitions. Byrd's price tag ($28-million guaranteed) is high for a safety whose interception total maxed as a rookie in 2009. The Saints traded a third-round pick to move up for Cooks, a small receiver in a draft full of big, fast, eye-popping receivers.
But real life does not come with OVR ratings, despite what the credit card companies suggest. The Saints had specific system needs in mind when they signed Byrd and drafted Cooks, a pair of players who are tailored for the roles Sean Payton and Rob Ryan have in mind.
Byrd is an old-fashioned free safety, the kind who plays 20 yards deep. He made his average play 10.3 yards downfield according to Football Outsiders, so if you are looking for a safety who plays close to the line of scrimmage and shoots gaps, Byrd is not your man. But Ryan is not looking for that kind of safety: he has Kenny Vaccaro to do that stuff.
Byrd's range and ability to bird-dog interceptions make him a deep pass deterrent. Opponents were just 25-of-69 throwing deep (15 or more yards downfield) in Byrd's 11 starts last year with the Buffalo Bills. Opponents attempted 27 passes of 25 or more yards in air length in those games, completing just seven, none of them over the middle of the field. Teams are reluctant to test Byrd's range when he is providing deep zone or double coverage.
Cooks, meanwhile, is the perfect slot receiver for a modern pass-heavy offense. Focus on his height and weight (5-foot-10, 189) and you might mistake him for a limited-use, poor-man's Percy Harvin. He's more of a Darren Sproles type, which is precisely what Payton had in mind when he drafted Cooks.
Cooks combines breakaway speed with a great release off the line, fearlessness when catching the ball in tight spots, and the ability to reach for off-target throws. His route tree is rudimentary, but Payton has Marques Colston to get open using crafty routes and Jimmy Graham to clear defenders out of zones. Cooks will catch screens, run shallow crosses, and sneak up the seam. He can learn other skills as he goes.
Ryan is toying with a "heavy nickel" package to get safeties Vaccaro, Byrd, and Rafael Bush on the field at the same time. Cooks is already running some of Sproles' old pass routes. The Saints are scheming from a position of strength again on both sides of the ball, and few coaches get as much mileage out of whiteboard artistry as Payton and Ryan when they have the right personnel to work with.
Biggest Risk: Kicker 911
Sean Payton is an offensive genius and pretty swell all-around guy, but he couldn't identify a good kicker if you handcuffed him to a chair, pried his eyelids open and forced him to watch a three-hour Jason Elam highlight reel.
Actually, Elam would make the ideal Payton kicker right now. Elam is 44 and has spent the last few years writing spy thrillers and hunting. Payton likes to call Elam-types midseason, after yet another reconciliation-and-breakup with Garrett Hartley.
Hartley is finally gone. He's not suspended or inactivated, but simply gone. A blocked kick and a missed chipshot in the Rams loss finally wore Payton's patience down to the nub. Payton phoned the Old Kickers Club yet again last year when Hartley broke his heart, but Elam was plotting his next novel, John Carney made "I'm not here" gestures to the bartender, and John Kasay actually crashed through a window to escape. Shayne Graham finally answered the call, and the 36-year old joined his seventh roster in four seasons. After a few easy kicks, Graham missed two field goals in a windy playoff loss to Seattle.
Graham is back, but he faces competition from Derek Dimke. Dimke was 5-of-6 in the Buccaneers preseason last year, missing a 45-yarder wide right. Dimke should replace Graham, who is well past his prime. Hartley is only a phone call away, and history suggests that Payton could not bring himself to delete his number.
The Saints are a great team with high expectations and a tight window of opportunity. In their position, marginal improvements are a big deal. The Jaguars kicker situation does not matter much, because the Jaguars are looking for the 25-30% improvements that will make them competitive, not the 1-2% improvements that will allow them to win playoff games against the Seahawks and 49ers. Payton and Mickey Loomis must be aggressive about the kicker situation: combing waiver wires, holding tryouts, and making sure the Dimke-Graham competition is as competitive as possible (wind machines, loudspeakers, miss a 45-yarder in camp and John Jenkins sits on you, etc). A little improvement here could go a long way.
Biggest Question: Who is Tim Lelito?
Tim Lelito is the Saints' starting center. He has never snapped a football in an NFL or college game. He played guard at Grand Valley State and started two games at guard for the Saints last year. He took snapping lessons from starter Brian De La Puente last year after realizing that teams are far more likely to employ "backup interior linemen" than "backup guards."
De La Puente is now in Chicago, and while 35-year old former starter Jonathan Goodwin was re-signed at the end of minicamp, Lelito is expected to start. "Tim Lelito has played so well this spring he's turned a question mark into a potential exclamation point," wrote Jeff Duncan of the New Orleans Times-Picayune.
Oh dear, was that an over-optimistic quote about an unknown player from a minicamp? Quick, let's get to the next paragraph before the music …
Duncan does provide a detailed Lelito scouting report in addition to the rosy quotes: Lelito's shotgun snaps are sharp and accurate, he sprints out to block screens very well, and he gets the job done in pass protection, with the caveat that he has two Pro Bowlers playing guard on either side of him, and it's minicamp.
The Saints and Packers are both relying on inexperienced small-school centers who converted from other positions: Cornell tackle/tight end J.C. Tretter is the favorite to snap the football to Aaron Rodgers. It's unusual for two likely playoff teams to make such a bold move in the same season. Is this a new paradigm? A salary-cap compromise? A sign of "try anything" desperation as opponents struggle to keep pace with the 49ers and Seahawks? Maybe it's simply a case of two bright, athletic, unique players catching the eyes of a pair of innovative coaches.
In any case, Lelito joins left tackle Terron Armstead on an offensive line that has been refreshed around guards Jahri Evans and Ben Grubbs. The new line may well be an exclamation point, but a lot depends on the small-school no-name ex-guard in the middle.
Kenny Stills will produce an old-school Marques Colston stat line: 83 catches, 1,154 yards, 10 touchdowns. Yep, the predictions are getting that precise.