The top 150 photos from the 2014 season by New Orleans Saints official team photographer Michael C. Hebert. (New Orleans Saints photos)
NewOrleansSaints.com senior writer John DeShazier answers some questions from fans:
What is the position of most need for the New Orleans Saints this offseason?
I think the glaring hole is at cornerback, opposite Keenan Lewis. The Saints have been looking for consistency on the other side of Lewis since Jabari Greer was injured during the 2013 season, and they've rotated through Patrick Robinson, Corey White and Terrence Frederick as starters, in addition to giving Champ Bailey a look-see last offseason. Stanley Jean-Baptiste, who spent his rookie season learning to play the position at the NFL level, could be the answer. But don't be surprised to see the Saints go after a corner in free agency (and don't be concerned by the lack of cap space; the situation is better than it appears, according to General Manager Mickey Loomis, and the Saints have managed to address concerns in free agency the last several seasons despite having a more dire cap situation than they have this year). If that fails, the draft could provide the solution.
Will the Saints draft a quarterback?
That possibility exists every season; there were some quarterbacks that the Saints liked last year in the draft, but not at the positions they were drafting. A replacement for Drew Brees will have to be groomed; regardless of whether Brees actually does play until he's 45 years old, reality is that the Saints have to be prepared for the day when he no longer is wearing a uniform, and that history says that day is nearer than it is far. However, don't count out Ryan Griffin. The Saints liked him enough to keep him on the practice squad as an undrafted rookie, then sign him to the 53-man roster during his rookie season, then to bring him back, put him on the practice squad (again) and sign him to a contract (again). Griffin has looked the part, albeit in preseason action, and the franchise has invested time into his development. So, possibly, the Saints' future quarterback already is in the building.
What position on either side of the ball needs improvement more than anything else?
I'd have to say cornerback. I think we all saw what happened last year, opposite Keenan Lewis, who has proven that he can lock down on his side of the field. The position is in need of an upgrade, either via another player (think free agency, or the draft) or via drastic improvement from players who already are on the roster or could be re-signed (that'd be Patrick Robinson, Corey White, Terrence Frederick, Stanley Jean-Baptiste, Brian Dixon, etc.). If the Saints can get that position settled, it'll allow them to do some of the things defensively that they were able to do early in the 2013 season, when Jabari Greer was around and the defense was a unit that could be counted on to win games.
Do you think Drew Brees should restructure his contract for cap space?
I'm sure that's an option that's available to the Saints if they need relief, and one that Brees might be agreeable to (that's just an opinion, not based on any facts). But I'm not sure that he has to. While the Saints admittedly are over the salary cap, they're not as far over as was believed, according to General Manager Mickey Loomis. The fact that the franchise has been able to be active in free agency – signing cornerback Keenan Lewis two years ago and safety Jairus Byrd last year, specifically – while it has been in a worse salary cap situation than it currently is suggests that New Orleans will be fine this offseason, due to the plans it already has it place.
Do (Jairus) Byrd and (Kenny) Vaccaro return to roles they are more comfortable with next year?
I don't know that they were "uncomfortable" last year. First, Byrd was injured before he really had a chance to get involved (he didn't get a chance to work with the team during offseason workouts, training camp and most of preseason due to surgery, then was lost for the season after four games). Second, Vaccaro admittedly got a little caught up in reading the positive reviews following his standout rookie season and may have been guilty of believing he had it all figured out and, at times, may have been victimized by his own aggression on defense. Both are top-notch at what they do, so their respective skills suggest that Byrd and Vaccaro should – emphasis on should – be a standout duo. And don't forget that the Saints like the three-safety defensive setup, with Rafael Bush being the third man.
With Sean Payton initially releasing Ryan Griffin before the start of (last) season, is he the Saints future?
The fact that the Saints twice have brought back Griffin after releasing him, and twice have signed him to the 53-man roster, says they like what he offers. They wouldn't keep investing in him if they didn't believe in him. Now, does that mean he's the quarterback of the future? No. He'll have to compete for the job; the Saints like to promote competition and while Griffin has shown great promise, that doesn't mean a quarterback won't be drafted – or that Luke McCown or another veteran won't be retained or brought in – in order to push Griffin.
Should we expect a playoff Saints team next year?
Of course (did you expect me to say different?). Really, though, there are valid reasons to believe that they will be. First, while the Saints nose-dived at home last season (five straight losses), they figured out a winning recipe on the road (four straight victories). It's easier to turn around the fortunes at home than on the road, especially for a team that had won 20 straight at home under Coach Sean Payton before the five-game losing streak. What the Saints may have taken for granted in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome, they now know cannot be assumed. Second, New Orleans lost four games by a combined nine points this season – I don't think that'll happen again. The defense fell from No. 4 overall in '13 to No. 31 last season. If it climbs back to respectability – say, No. 15, 16, 17 – and forces more than 17 turnovers, that'll go a long way toward putting the Saints in position to win more games. And the Saints committed 30 turnovers last year, including 17 interceptions by Drew Brees. Brees has thrown 17 or more interceptions in five of his 13 seasons as a full-time starter, and only once in consecutive seasons. So expect a bounce-back year from him in terms of turnovers. Each of the aforementioned things is doable and not farfetched, and all will go a long way toward putting the Saints back in the playoffs.
What do you think will be our No. 1 focus looking forward?
That's kind of broad, but if we can break it down to one thing, it'd probably be defensive improvement (No. 31 in yards allowed in a 32-team league). The offseason forensic analysis will have to determine whether the problem was what coaches were asking players to do defensively, or if it was the players who were being asked to perform the tasks. The problem probably lies somewhere in the middle, so the emphasis likely will entail tailoring the scheme to better fit the personnel on hand – which is a weekly concern. If we want to go to a second focus, it'd be turnovers. The Saints committed 30 last season, 11 more than they did in 2013, and it seemed a high percentage of them either took points off the board for the Saints, or led to points – touchdowns – by the opposition.
What are your plans at QB in 2015 as (Drew) Brees is on his last leg as a player?
I wouldn't say "last leg," since he led the league in passing yards and completion percentage and threw 33 touchdowns. Now, he'd be the first to admit that 17 interceptions were too many, so that's an area that has to be addressed. But Brees remains one of the most productive quarterbacks in the league, and he'll be productive again in 2015. The question is whether the Saints believe they have their future quarterback in the building (Ryan Griffin), or whether they believe they'll have to draft a quarterback or find one on the open market who's capable of taking over in three to five years.
Who do you believe will be the first draft pick?
If we're talking Saints, that question best will be answered after free agency. Today, I'd say that the Saints would draft a cornerback first (though an offensive lineman might not be out of the question). But if they're able to address that need in free agency, they could take care of another concern in the draft. A clearer picture should develop after free agency, because New Orleans could take care of a couple of needs with two or three veteran signings.