If Saints fans use the past few offseasons as a base line for comparison, this past offseason could very well be one of the more productive ones in recent memory. There have been key free agent acquisitions, as well as a talented draft class, to address some very specific needs that have plagued this team through two consecutive 7-9 seasons.
Perhaps the biggest, most over-riding concern has become that of what has been a historically bad defense for the Saints. After setting benchmarks for futility over the past two seasons, this organization appears to have begun to prioritize the improvement of this unit.
And the formula for that isn’t complex: key veteran leadership, and aggressive young talent.
There can be no way of understating the importance of the bringing in of veteran players like safety Roman Harper, who was here for this team’s only Super Bowl championship in 2009. Add to that the acquisitions of other players such as LB James Laurinaitis, DT Nick Fairley, LB Nate Stupar, LB Craig Robertson, and even the most recent pickup of OLB Paul Kruger, and you begin to see something that this team has been hurting for in recent years-veteran leadership.
On both sides of the ball, this training camp very well could have been the best collection of talent the Saints have seen in some time. Thirteenth overall pick in the draft, DL Sheldon Rankins, highlighted a draft class that was full of talented young players, and this year’s UDFAs included several players that had projected as draft picks.
The bottom line: maybe more so than in recent memory, this camp was meant to have competition at all positions, by talented players.
After a month of camp, and three preseason match ups, it would appear that the jury is still out on exactly where this team stands in terms of being prepared for the upcoming marathon-march that is the seventeen-week NFL season.
After two preseason games, against two playoff teams of a season ago, the much maligned Saints defense had appeared to have turned a corner. Only to be brought back down to earth by the Steelers vertical attack a week ago.
And now, the point of concern and emphasis has dramatically shifted to what was once the very calling card of the Saints-the high-octane, Drew Brees-led offense. In those same three games, suddenly this offense is struggling mightily to establish anything. On the ground, in the air, this offense has struggled.
To further make that point clear, this week Head Coach Sean Payton announced he is planning to, for the first time since the 2006 preseason, play his offensive starters for a whole quarter in tonight’s fourth and final preseason game vs the Baltimore Ravens. But it may not be the worst idea in the world, believe it or not.
On September 11, the Saints will open their 2016 season by hosting a very talented Oakland Raiders team. And the overwhelming consensus seems to be that there is still work to be done.
A gamble? Sure. Risky? That too could be. But those risks don’t come close to the risk of what could potentially happen if this Saints team is not prepared to a Raiders team that in all honesty should be competing with the Broncoes and Chiefs this season for that AFC West division crown.
Personally speaking, I do think that are some slightly extenuating circumstances that have affected the overall preparation of this offensive line unit, which seems to be the very foundation that all of these concerns are built upon.
#1). GUARD PLAY-During the season in 2015, the Saints had a virtual revolving door when it came to the LG position. There was Lelito, and Kelemete, and even Andrus Peat was used to try to plug up the hole. During the offseason, the team’s other guard, six-time Pro Bowler Jahri Evans and the Saints parted ways. So now, early in the offseason this team has no starting guards. And the reality is, no matter what was attempted, the bottom line remains: through free agency, and the draft, the only thing that was done to address these needs was the moving of Andrus Peat, and the signing of some (however talented) UDFAs. These issues do not magically disappear or correct themselves.
#2). TERRON ARMSTEAD-Armstead has developed into one of the highest-rated LTs in the game today. But last season saw him sustain an injury, which he played through. But questions have abounded all through the training camp period as Armstead has been virtually absent for most of it. Make no mistake: a great deal of this team’s offense is at least partially predicated on Terron being on the field, and it is nearly impossible to attempt to simulate that in his abscence. And that speaks nothing at all to the development of a continuity/chemistry among the starters.
#3). WHERE DOES PEAT FIT IN? In what appears to be the ever-changing dynamic in this scenario, there stands Andrus Peat. Initially it was reported that Peat was doing great in camp, after coming in this year in shape, unlike his rookie camp a year ago. But then came harsh criticisms of his play in the preseason games, as he played every position across the front except center. A very ambitious plan of cross-training Peat to play everywhere on this offensive line has ultimately seen him look dazed and bewildered on the field, and not performing well at all as of yet. Finally it was announced Peat would be staying at his starting position of RG against the Steelers last week. An only marginally effective outing vs Pittsburgh prompted the announcement this week that he may be shifted to LG. The twelfth overall pick in last year’s draft will have to find a place to call his own. But where?
All of these factors have Payton desperate to get something-ANYTHING-started and established before this team squares off against Oakland. This week amidst the league-mandated roster cuts, the Saints have brought in former Raider OL Khalif Barnes and signed him.
The Saints will play host to the Baltimore Ravens tonight in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome for the final preseason tilt for both teams. The final roster cuts to get down to the league-mandated 53-man season limit have a deadline of 3pm CST on Saturday. And beginning at noon on Sunday, each team can begin to select a 10-player practice squad.
The Saints will host the Oakland Raiders on Sunday, September 11, in Week 1 of the 2016 season.