A new Collective Bargaining Agreement is on the horizon. While many believe that this peculiar off-season will have adverse affects on the Week 1 (or Month 1) product come regular season, I believe the Saints are in the perfect position. Due to the shortened off-season, teams with continuity have even more of a competitive advantage than normal. The Saints have the same head coach, offensive coordinator, defensive coordinator and quarterback. The foundation has been in place and built upon. All the cornerstones are entrenched. Already, the Saints have a distinct advantage over half the NFL.
The Saints have also enjoyed what many would call the perfect draft. A draft in which they value-matched their three biggest needs when they made their first three choices. Their fourth biggest need (arguably the biggest need) was filled with a big man in DT Shaun Rogers before most teams even got a sniff at free agency, much less the draft. They have a shrewd, fair and realistic front office to go with an innovative coaching staff that has done a great job developing players, including many undrafted free agents. Below, we'll discuss the state of the Saints roster and why they are in prime position to make another run at the Super Bowl, all before free agency has officially begun.Teams change every year. Different players, same players but older, coaching changes, philosophy changes, evolving game plans, evolving position trends and evolving competition all make it difficult to compare a team from one year to the next. You can look at last year's Saints and say "they needed ___, ___, and ___ to be Superbowl-good." Yet even if you fill in those blanks, it may not be sufficient to overcome last years competition, who also filled in some blanks. With that said, thus far, with limited opportunity, the Saints have done some things that put them a step above most of the competition.
Consider the Saints offense since Sean Payton's regime began. With Drew Brees as practically the only constant, when has this offense hummed the most effectively? Answer -- in 2009 when the team was able to be balanced AND create mismatches. The addition of Mark Ingram and the emergence of Jimmy Graham put them right back to being scary good, especially if Reggie Bush elects to stay. A healthy Reggie and a seasoned Graham occupy linebackers and safeties, giving Saints wide receivers those one-on-one match-ups. A respectable running game gives validity to their ability to hurt you with the run and helps Reggie's touches become much more effective.
Simply put, if Reggie stays, two things will happen -- Reggie will have a more impactful season than his rookie year and the offense will be more dangerous than it was the year they won the Super Bowl. They will be competing with the Patriots for the most balanced and efficient offense in the NFL. A true pick your poison.
Is Reggie critical to the Saints success? No. But his presence makes the manipulation of defenses that much easier. The opposing defense defines what Reggie's role will be by how they defend him, and in doing so they declare how they're defending everyone else.
Will a departure drop their offense from a top five ranking? No. This coaching staff and Drew Brees are just too good. They'll evolve and innovate, and the silver lining will be the development of a real interior run game and no longer trying to force the issue with Reggie at times (to the detriment of the flow and progress in other areas).
They have depth on the offensive line, enough so that for the first time in the Payton era they didn't even draft an O-lineman. The biggest off-season priority will be to re-sign Carl Nicks. I think the Saints will pay him more than they wish to, but it will be worth it. No matter what happens with Jonathan Goodwin, they have a capable back-up chomping at the bit in Matt Tennant. Plus, they have Charles Brown who can fill in at either tackle position in the event the Saints lose either swing-man Zach Strief or LT Jermon Bushrod.
In the receiving corps, the Saints have Adrian Arrington waiting to take someone's place. With the exception of tight end, they are set on offense.
On defense, the Saints filled a huge hole (literally) with the signing of Shaun Rogers. Say what you want, but in 10 years the man has never had a winning season. His motor was in question at times, but I can sympathize with him.
Know what looks good? He signed with the Saints for $2 million less than he was offered in other places. That sounds like someone highly motivated to do what is necessary to win. Rogers/Ellis sounds as good as Stroud/Henderson or Williams/Williams. It's close to Suh/Fairley. It's a great starting point right in a QB's face and it's great for the Saints linebackers and run defense.
Speaking of linebackers, adding Martez Wilson gives us sideline-to-sideline speed and a true athlete at the SAM position. He's pretty much the same size as Scott Fujita (prototypical SAM build), but heads and shoulders better as an athlete. That's just what the doctor ordered. Hopefully Jonathan Casillas can take over the Will to give us an athletic Top-15 LB corps.
And speaking of athletic, Cameron Jordan should slide right on in and give the Saints what they need in Charles Grant's old spot. Maybe they can add another defensive end in FA to help them through Will Smith's four-game absence, but the defensive line and front seven should look measurably better than it has in a decade.
Add to that Johnny Patrick in the secondary and we now have four corners with man skills. No more worrying about the corner not named Greer or Porter. It seemed every time the Saints were in nickel or dime, the opposing QB would find Gay/Torrence/Young. With Malcolm Jenkins holding down the free safety spot, and Roman Harper wanting to marry Gregg Williams, they're set with a top defensive backfield. Perhaps they'll add another safety for depth and special teams purposes.
What do all these additions on defense mean? Well, for starters, adding more talent equates to being more efficient in base.
Gregg Williams has been near the top of the league rankings when it comes to blitzes called each year. But the Saints are nowhere near the top in pressure or sacks. Translation -- the Saints blitzes aren't as effective as we'd like them to be, but they had to send them and also do more exotic things to mask deficiencies they had when it came to talent. Now that they have more talent, they won't have to blitz as much. And when they do blitz, it will be more effective -- because they now have players with the athletic ability to: 1) take on blockers effectively, 2) get there in timely fashion and 3) cover man-to-man with no weak link better suited for zone.
Did I mention special teams? Well, I am now. Yep, thanks to that nifty rule change, the Saints strong-legged, cat-loving punter, Thomas Morstead, will be booting many kickoffs out of the end zone. And thanks to a few additions in the draft, their coverage units will be better. That's not counting the fact that Morstead is probably in the top five at his position and Garrett Hartley seems to be coming into his own. The only question the pre-season needs to sort out is: who will return kicks? Maybe that will be addressed in free agency.
This abbreviated off-season and the sure-to-be mad rush of the impending free agent period are not disadvantages because every team is in the same position. I'll go you one better -- this front office and coaching staff are better equipped to deal with the unique challenges ahead. The culture has changed, and we now have an attractive team to root for. Under this regime, players have all wanted to stay. They no longer have guys staring at the calender waiting to bolt.
The new CBA will probably roll back unrestricted free agent requirements to four years of service. Coupled with the 200+ players who were restricted last year, this year's class will be about double the normal size. Top-tier free agents will still get that big payday, but everyone else -- from the good, to mid-level, to "strictly depth" quality -- will be devalued. You'll be able to get a player who normally goes for $5 million per season at a great discount. Loomis may not make that big splash, but you can bet he'll get four or five guys who'd normally cost Benson $35 million to sign for only $20 million.
Those teams who in the past stayed well under the salary cap in actual "cash" or salaries paid will be forced to spend their cap for the first time with this new CBA. So those teams will likely give all that money to big splash players like Nnamdi Asomugha. A smart team like the Saints will allow that mad rush to occur then swoop in and make very deliberate moves. The only difference this year is that instead of "under the radar" improvements, they'll be getting players with better talent (value) at the same price thanks to the flooded market.
The Saints offense has what it needs to be: explosive and balanced -- at a pace they can dictate. Their defense is no longer a great nickel defense built to protect a lead, but a defense that is good in its own right no matter the score. Sure, they won't have as much time to groom those rookies and other new additions for instant impact, but I believe the coaching staff is top five in player development, so they'll be fine. This team looks to be better than the Super Bowl team, and that is before free agency has even begun.