“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…”
I know that Dickens could hardly have had the Saints in mind when he penned those immortal words, but for fans of this team, it isn’t so far from the truth these days.
Every since the Super Bowl run of 2009, there has been an absolute clamoring for a return for this team. And entering the 2016 season, the MVP of that Super Bowl XLIV win, quarterback Drew Brees, is now the second-oldest signal caller in the league (at 37 years old), only a year behind the Patriots’ Tom Brady. But coming off dual 7-9 seasons the past two years has been, quite literally, “the worst of times” for a fanbase that is led by Brees and the Saints.
And following one of the most tumultuous offseasons in recent memory, this fanbase is beginning to feel the urgency of what at least feels to be the end of Brees’ legendary Hall of Fame career in New Orleans.
It has been a fairly busy offseason for this organization. The free agent additions of TE Coby Fleener, DT Nick Fairley, and LB James Laurinaitis addressed some of the more glaring concerns for the team, but only began the process of getting them prepared for August and training camp. The next step? The annual NFL Draft.
Heading into the draft, the biggest needs for the Saints appeared to be DL, G, DB, and WR. Director of Scouting Jeff Ireland clearly had the bar set high for this organization in this, his first full year with New Orleans. But the question that needed to be answered: Would the Saints go “All In” on this draft?
And when the dust had settled from the annual three-day feeding frenzy that is the NFL Draft, the Saints had added five new players:
Round One, Pick 12: /nfl-draft/scouting-reports-database/2016-draft-prospects/wide-receiver/michael-thomas-2016-nfl-draft-scouting-report-r8/” rel=””>Michael Thomas, WR, Ohio State-At 6’3″ and 212 pounds, Thomas is another player that could expect to come in and make an immediate impact. The nephew of former player Keyshawn Johnson, Thomas fits the bill as the big-bodied receiver with great hands that was left open by the offseason departure of Marques Colston. It shouldn’t be a stretch to expect for Thomas to be a playmaker when matched with Drew Brees.
Round Two, Pick 30: Vonn Bell, S, Ohio State-New Orleans traded their way back into the second round for another Buckeye in Bell. In my opinion, this pick was an absolute steal for the Saints right here. With the skill set of a corner playing safety, Bell was one of the highest rated safeties against the pass in this draft, and should offer the Saints some definite options on a unit that struggled mightily against the pass a year ago. His instincts and reaction time are incredible, and he is rarely ever caught out of position.
Round Four, Pick 22: David Onyemata, DT, Manitoba, Canada-In recent years, the Saints have earnestly broadened their scouting horizons to north of the border. The success story of a year ago with CB Delvin Breaux was followed by the signing of Erik Harris in free agency, and now by the drafting of DT David Onyemata. Onyemata is a project, but has a huge potential. Somewhat new to the game of football, and what one would assume to the lack of great coaching to this point of his career, have their limitations. But what he lacks in technique, he has more than made up for in strength. Once this man learns how to better use that incredible strength, there will be no limit to his upside. After shining in the East-West Shrine game, there are those that feel he could excell in this league. With this kind of upside, this “project” looks to pay big dividends for the Saints, it seems just a matter of when.
Round Seven, Pick 16: Danial Lasco, RB, California-And the #WhoDat Nation collectively asks, “We just cannot have a draft without taking a running back, can we??” Lasco is a talented, explosive athlete who can be molded to fit the needs of an offensive-minded coach like Sean Payton. He is realistic enough, though, to know that his pathway to the Saints roster is going to have to go by way of being a standout on special teams. Another player that can be looked upon as a bit of a ‘project’, Lasco has an above-average skill set that could eventually help him to find his way into some specialty packages. He can be an explosive runner that possesses the ability to surprise defenders.
Under the guidance of Head Coach Sean Payton, the Saints have managed to find absolute gems in UnDrafted Free Agent signings. Players like Pierre Thomas and Khiry Robinson have found their way onto the roster as UDFAs, and left their marks on this team. Personally, I have come to look at UDFAs as “the other part of the draft” for the Saints. This year saw the team add 19 UDFAs, as listed below:
Jack Allen, OL, Michigan State
Mike Caputo, DB, Wisconsin
Joseph Cheek, OL, Texas A&M
Ken Crawley, DB, Colorado
Jared Dangerfield, WR, Western Kentucky
Trae Elston, DB, Ole Miss
De’Vante Harris, DB, Texas A&M
Marcus Henry, OL, Boise State
Sione Houma, RB, Michigan
Dillon Lee, LB, Alabama
Tommylee Lewis, WR, Northern Illinois
Mitchell Loewen, DL, Arkansas
Ryker Mathews, OL, Brigham Young
D.J. Pettway, DL, Alabama
Jeff Schoettmer, LB, North Carolina
Dominique, Tovell, LB, Louisiana-Lafayette
Landon Turner, OL, North Carolina
Jordan Williams-Lambert, WR, Ball State
Avery Young, OL, Auburn
Some very talented players on that list. I was personally very happy to see that the biggest area of concern left following the draft, the position of guard in the wake of the offseason departure of multi-time Pro Bowl G Jahri Evans, has been well represented among the UDFAs. And the caliber of talent on this list, as among the draft picks, could be the best that New Orleans has seen in some time. Also of note of these players is the versatility that most of them possess. Mitchell Loewen has been a starter at six different positions for the Razorbacks during his career there.
Of these 19, I have five players as selected as the UDFAs to watch. These guys I fully expect to go all the way to the final roster cuts of training camp. And they are:
Jack Allen, OL,
Trae Elston, DB,
De’Vante Harris, DB,
Landon Turner, OL,
Avery Young, OL
In the grand scheme of things, the approach for Saints fans lately has been that of “cautious optimism”. An ineffective couple of drafts, a few free agent “busts”, and a perennial salary cap issue have brought this team to two consecutive 7-9 seasons. The overriding question at this point has become “Have the Saints turned the corner towards making another postseason run?”
Last year’s offseason produced several players that found their way into key roles on the field for New Orleans. Delvin Breaux, Stephone Anthony, and Hau’oli Kikaha all made some sizable contributions in their inaugural campaigns in the Crescent City, but the defense still managed to struggle at a historic level. The offense behind Brees performed at their usual top five level of play, but without a defense behind them, the results were still a fourth place finish in the NFC South division.
The offseason acquisitions of players like Fairley, Laurinaitis, and even the rookie Rankins could be absolute game-changing moves for the Saints. Utilizing their present roster and integrating in these new players should have this defense playing at a much improved level, and now, rather than a year or two away. And for this team, there is no greater urgency that that on the defensive side of the ball.
On offense, the departures of two more of the last of Super Bowl Champion team, WR Marques Colston and G Jahri Evans, have left holes that will need to be filled in camp this fall. But those needs appear to have been addressed in both the draft and the UDFAs the Saints have signed. The key now will have to be adding some depth to what is still a very good unit.
Simply put, heading into training camp, the Saints seem to have the greatest assemblage of talent in recent memory. There looks to be competition at several key positions, which in turn can only mean a higher quality of players on that final roster heading into Week 1 vs an improved Raiders team. While there may still be the “cautious optimism” approach, there is an ever-increasing well-founded reason to be more optimistic than before. Ireland and his staff have done an incredible job of assembling these athletes.
Can this finally be “the best of times”? August can’t get here fast enough.