Will the Saints go marching into the playoffs in 2016? If they do, it will be with a very different group of players than they started with in 2015. How different? The opening day roster of 2015 featured 5 of 11 defensive players that are no longer with the team. Whether claimed by lucrative free agent contracts, waived by the Saints, or traded away – the Saints will replace 2 defensive linemen, a linebacker, a cornerback and a safety from last year’s starting defensive lineup.
How will they do that? Drafting Sheldon Rankins to fill the spot left by DT Kevin Williams covers one need. Akiem Hicks was traded during the season and replaced by Bobby Richardson so there is a solution of sorts in place. Linebacker James Laurinaitis was signed to play the middle so that Stephone Anthony could move outside, effectively replacing David Hawthorne. Dannell Ellerbe could come back healthy and they could keep Anthony in the middle. Vonn Bell, the safety from Ohio State, will fill Rafael Bush’s spot in all likelihood since Jarius Byrd had a disappointing 2015 as well. As for Brandon Browner, ex-cornerback, Saints fans are willing to try anyone else. Leading the league in penalties doesn’t endear you to teammates, coaches or fans. The feeling is that Damian Swann or P.J. Williams may be given the first chance to fill the spot.
And the changes on the offense – those include losing the leading offensive lineman, the top tight end, the all-time leading receiver in Saints’ history and their #2 running back. Arguably all hard shoes to fill.
The Saints’ biggest acquisition in free agency was tight end Coby Fleener from the Colts. A younger receiver that should adequately replace Watson. Watson had a great 2015 that he parlayed into a big free agent deal, but at the start of the year no one thought he could replace Jimmy Graham and somehow playing with Drew Brees made a difference! Imagine that – an All-Pro quarterback who makes average receivers look great!
Replacing Marques Colston may be done by committee, but 2nd round draft choice Michael Thomas from Ohio State will get a good look in the preseason. He has the big body and red zone toughness that Colston defined in his years with the Saints.
As for the line, Jahri Evans was considered the Saints’ best lineman at the start of 2015, but Terron Armstead turned heads last year and the rest of the line improved as the year went on. They have a young group with a couple of savvy veterans in Zach Strief and Max Unger. Tim Lelito and Senio Kelemete are serviceable and young enough to develop. They used their number one pick last year on Andrus Peat, who may still become a valuable player, even if he doesn’t take over right tackle. They also picked up several linemen last year and this year as free agents and undrafted rookies. If this group comes together as hoped, the running game can have an impact behind the power of Mark Ingram and the comeback story of last year – Tim Hightower.
They don’t have to be exceptional. As long as Drew Brees stays healthy and upright the Saints can march right back into contention in the NFC South. Denver showed that Carolina is vulnerable and they lost Josh Norman to free agency and the Washington Redskins. Brees is probably not shedding any tears over that roster change.
If a revamped defense can make strides under Coach Dennis Allen in his first full season, the offense should be able to carry this team into the playoffs. The Super Bowl is almost certainly out of the question, but Saints fans would be happy with a winning record and a playoff appearance at this point.