The defensive side of the ball stands to need improvement, and the team will have to hire a defensive coordinator now that Gregg Williams has moved to St. Louis to join Jeff Fisher. Despite Williams’ blitz heavy style, the Saints were 5th worst in the league in defensive sack rate. The leader in sacks was a safety, Roman Harper (7.5 sacks), who was a liability in coverage and frequently came in blitzes. Will Smith was the only other player on defense to have more than 5 sacks. For a team that plays so often with the lead and puts pressure on opponents to pass to keep up, that is pretty dismal.
The other side of the ball is where the Saints will make their run, though, and they need to address some key issues if they hope to duplicate this year’s offensive success. Jeff Duncan of the New Orleans Times-Picayune has a breakdown of the questions facing the Saints offense this offseason.
First, of course, is unrestricted free agent Drew Brees, who should command a large number, but who will not be leaving New Orleans. The Saints have the option of using the franchise tag on Brees if they cannot reach an agreement soon, and will certainly do so. As Duncan notes, if they have to use the tag on Brees, it prevents them from tagging either receiver Marques Colston or guard Carl Nicks.
Marques Colston (80 catches, 1,143 yards and 8 TD’s) and third wide receiver Robert Meachem (40 catches, 620 yards, 6 TD’s) are both free agents, and it is doubtful that the team will retain both, though they would probably prefer not to lose two of Brees’ targets. Colston is obviously the much bigger target, and the costlier one. He may not be among the top 8 wide receivers in the NFL, but he has consistently been among the next group, putting up 5 seasons of at least 1,000 yards in his 6 years in New Orleans (and only missing the other because of injury). That, by the way, puts him in a tie with Torry Holt, Brandon Marshall, Chad Ocho Cinco, and Jerry Rice, and behind only Randy Moss, for 1,000 yard seasons to start a career.
Carl Nicks, meanwhile, is one of the best offensive guards in the game. He was named a first team all-pro this season, and was second team last year. He is still only 26, and is hitting free agency because he was a later round pick (5th round in 2008) who played under a shorter initial contract. He has been a big reason why the Saints offense averages almost 5 yards a run.
So Brees is a given, but who do they keep between Colston and Nicks? I looked at other high-powered teams who have lost either a 1,000+ yard receiver or a pro bowl interior lineman since 1990. Here is a summary of the points scored difference from year 1 to year 2 for all teams that scored at least 400 points in a season since 1990:
Now, those other teams, that lost neither a pro bowl lineman or a top receiver, also include teams that had an injured quarterback, such as Indianapolis this year. There have only been 20 teams that have lost a top receiver, a pro bowl guard or center, or both, among those that have scored 400 or more points, so the sample size is small. Those numbers don’t dispute the notion that receivers are more important to the passing game, though. I would expect the Saints to make Colston a priority (also because of Meachem’s potential departure) though they could certainly overcome his loss to some extent by the combination of Graham, Sproles, and a receiver committee (that would include Meachem).
Nicks may not get the money he wants from New Orleans, as the guard position, vital as it may be to the running game, does not carry the same value. I would expect other teams to provide a big enough offer to lure him away if New Orleans does not have the franchise tag available.
New Orleans has an offseason to plan for any losses, to add depth through free agency or the draft, so they won’t be in as bad of shape as some of the teams that saw sharp declines when key players were hurt. The decisions they make, though, on Colston, Nicks, and how much to pay Drew Brees before addressing the defense, will play a big part in whether they will have a good shot to stay on Bourbon Street in early February of 2013.
[photo via Getty]