For the third season in a row, the New Orleans Saints finished with a 7-9 record and outside the playoff picture. And for the third season in a row, it was because the Saints had one of the NFL’s worst defenses holding back one of the league’s most prolific offenses.
It’s a problem that has seemingly existed for the entire Sean Payton era in New Orleans. In eight of the last 10 seasons, the Saints finished in the bottom 10 of the NFL in total defense.
The exceptions were in 2010 and 2013, when in both seasons the Saints finished 11-5 and at No. 4 in total defense. But those top defensive performances were aberrations and New Orleans reverted to poor units in 2011 and 2014.
Now, the Saints again face the challenge of making the defense good enough to complement an elite offense. And they’re running out of time, because Drew Brees isn’t getting any younger.
How much longer is the window open during the Brees era?
In his 11 seasons in New Orleans, Brees has smashed every franchise record for quarterbacks and has led the Saints to their only Super Bowl title. He’s also less than 6,000 yards away from passing Peyton Manning and Brett Favre to become the NFL’s all-time leading passer.
He’s had an incredible career and will undoubtedly finish as one of the best quarterbacks in NFL history. That’s especially remarkable considering he’s always been undersized and was spurned by the San Diego Chargers, who turned to Philip Rivers after Brees suffered a torn labrum in the season finale of 2005.
But now he’s 38 and the end of his career is on the horizon. Yes, Tom Brady just led the New England Patriots to another Super Bowl victory at age 39, but that’s a rare case. Still, Saints coach Sean Payton doesn’t sound concerned about the longevity of Brees’s career.
“Evaluating Drew and watching him and watching the way he trains and prepares, he’s operating at an extremely, extremely high level,” Payton told Sirius XM Radio. “And today’s elite quarterback, compared to where we were 20 years ago, it’s amazing to see their attention to detail when it comes to detail, but beyond that -- nutrition, sleep, hydration -- all these other elements, we’re just further along in regards to the science of training athletes.”
Brees is under contract for one more season after signing a two-year extension in September. But he doesn’t think that’ll be the end of his playing career.
"I plan to play for longer than two years," Brees told the media after receiving the extension. "This is what was in the best interest of the team ... I want to play my entire career here. I'll be here for as long as they want me."
Even if Brees defies the odds and continues to play well into his 40s, time is still running out for the Saints to take advantage of having one of the NFL’s best under center. And that means the defense needs to finally shape up.
The run defense improved in 2016, but the pass defense struggled
After back-to-back seasons with one of the worst rushing defenses in the NFL, the Saints finished No. 14 in rushing yards allowed and No. 15 in yards allowed per carry.
That resurgence was due to a decent rotation of run stoppers on the defensive line, led by Cameron Jordan, Nick Fairley, and Sheldon Rankins. The group was particularly good at stopping runs up the middle.
Where it could stand to improve is by adding another defensive end opposite Jordan. At 6’4, 287 pounds, Jordan isn’t a pass rusher by trade, but still led the team in sacks with 7.5 — one sack more than Fairley, who is set to become a free agent in March.
The Saints are due to see the return of 2015 second-round pick Hau’oli Kikaha after he missed the 2016 season due to an ACL tear, but adding another player who can get after the quarterback should be a priority.
It’s far from the only position that could use an improvement, though.
In addition to the lack of a pass rush, the New Orleans cornerbacks were picked apart by opposing passers in 2016. Delvin Breaux was a bright spot, but the secondary struggled.
Even linebacker could use an upgrade. While Craig Robertson was a welcome addition in 2016, Dannell Ellerbe’s best days are behind him, and Stephone Anthony wasn’t able to build on the promise he showed as a rookie in 2015.
Saints actually have space to be active in free agency
Adding defensive talent in the 2017 NFL Draft is likely going to be the strategy for the Saints. Almost every mock draft projects the team to select either a defensive end, a linebacker, or a cornerback with the No. 11 selection in the first round.
But there needs to be a sense of urgency with the team’s defensive rebuild. After all, they can’t afford to slowly build while Brees approaches the end of his career.
Luckily for New Orleans, spending in free agency looks like a viable option for the first time in years. According to Over The Cap, the Saints have nearly $30 million in space to work with and have a few potential strategies to free up even more.
Much of the team’s salary cap difficulties were tied to the large cap hit due to Brees, but his extension in September actually cleared plenty of space.
A year ago, New Orleans had plenty of needs to address on defense, but just over $10 million in cap space. So instead of adding difference makers, the Saints had to settle for cheap deals with Robertson, Fairley, Nate Stupar, and James Laurinaitis. They weren’t bad moves, but now the team has money to make a splash signing and already knows which direction to focus its efforts.
Sean Payton calls pass rusher and cornerbacks "musts" in free agency/draft for #Saints. Also said "absolutely" expects Brandin Cooks on team— Tom Pelissero (@TomPelissero) February 21, 2017
Stephon Gilmore, A.J. Bouye, and Trumaine Johnson are among the names set to hit the open market at cornerback. Jason Pierre-Paul, Melvin Ingram, and Jabaal Sheard top the list of pass rushers likely to reach free agency.
Previous attempts to rebuild the Saints’ defense added pieces that can still help them, and the defensive line already has Jordan and Rankins. However, to get over the 7-9 hump, New Orleans has to fill in the holes this offseason.
The Saints’ window to win is closing, but the team is set up to make big additions in free agency for the first time in a while — and maybe they can finally climb from the bottom of the defensive rankings.