Grading the New Orleans Saints Backfield

Joe Nicholson-USA TODAY Sports

Now that the draft is over, it's actually possible to start speculation on next season, at least to an extent. Over the course of the next week, I'm going to be evaluating the Saints position group by position group, starting with the offensive backfield. Once the preseason ends and our 53 man roster is established, I'll revisit these grades and go through the series again.

Now that the draft is over, the New Orleans Saints have their pool of players to select from come the end of the pre-season.  Once August ends, the Saints will select 53 men to make the final cut.  The Saints drafted six players and they signed 21 players in undrafted free agency.  Over the next few days, I’ll be going area by area in order to evaluate how the Saints are doing in each respective portion of the field.

The first part of the Saints to look at is their offensive backfield.  This is comprised of quarterback, running back, and fullback.  It’s also arguably the most straightforward of their game to evaluate.

Quarterback comes first, the cornerstone of a franchise.  Particularly a franchise like New Orleans that has a Top 5 QB.  Drew Brees is the guy that makes the offense run, and he’s quite possibly the most accurate passer in the NFL this side of Aaron Rodgers.  Brees is a slinger.  Where quarterback leaves much to be desired, however, is in terms of depth.  Spelling QB are Luke McCown, Ryan Griffin, and Logan Kilgore.  McCown is serviceable, and Griffin is regarded by many as the QB of the future, but none of these guys are Drew Brees.  The same truth for the Saints holds true for any team with a feature QB: If you lose your superstar, you’ll invariably suffer.  The offense is so complex, and so dependent on the interconnected nature of Brees and head coach Sean Payton, that we all know what we get if Brees gets hurt.  I’m formally renaming this paragraph "obviously," and Quarterback still gets an "A" for the Saints.  Drew Brees is an elite passer, and his presence cannot be understated.

Next up comes running back.  This position has the potential to be a bit of a wild card for New Orleans this year, because there are a lot of directions that Coach Sean Payton can go with the guys that he has.  The starter going into the preseason is, more likely than not, Mark Ingram, with Pierre Thomas being the standard third down guy.  Ingram will have a short leash, as there has been discontent with his performance for a while, especially among fans.  The depth at this position is actually very strong, but there isn’t any real standout talent.  The departure of Sproles was a blow to the generally versatile backfield, but it isn’t crippling.  Sproles was a hardly a backfield guy by the end of last year anyways, as he was split out significantly more frequently than the average back.  Ingram can be a strong back in the zone running scheme that Payton has been converting his players to, and Khiry Robinson is an excellent change of pace guy that has a lot of fans excited.  He can really wear down a defense, and he’s a phenomenally brutal runner.  Pierre Thomas is the strongest off-tackle and screen back on the roster (arguably the strongest in the NFL at the latter).  The Saints also have Travaris Cadet, who could ease into Sproles’s role, but he certainly won’t be as effective as Sproles was.  Cadet is also listed as the #1 guy to return punts & kicks right now, so if that stands his touches will likely be limited so as to ward off injuries.  The Saints signed Tim Flanders in the post draft hubbub, an undrafted rookie out of Sam Houston State, but he’ll likely be a camp body and be relegated to the practice squad after pre-season, barring a ridiculous performance.  All in all, due to depth but a lack of a "feature" guy, the Saints running backs get a "B-" from me.  If a "C" is average, the Saints are slightly above average, but the strength of the Saints still lies in the passing game.  Games won’t be won on the ground for this team, but they are strong enough to kill clock if need be.

Fullback is the final position to be addressed here.  Only two fullbacks currently reside on the Saints roster: Austin Johnson, a second year player, and Erik Lorig, a new pick-up from Tampa Bay.  Fan-favorite Jedidiah Collins obviously signed with the Detroit Lions during this offseason, and Collins’s hair signed for $2.5 million per, and they’ll be missed, but Lorig is a more effective overall player than Collins was.  He’ll also fit into our scheme better.  Lorig loves to split out and, perhaps more importantly, he’s a very strong lead blocker when asked to do so.  Tampa Bay’s running backs thrived behind Lorig.  To this point, Lorig can provide stability for the Saints rotational backfield, and gives Brees another outlet target, something we all know Brees loves to utilize.  Austin Johnson is a true spell guy with no sample size in the NFL, and he’ll likely only see snaps if Lorig suffers a serious injury (knock on wood).  I’m grading this an "incomplete," due to the fact that I want to see how we use these guys in the preseason, whether they’re split out or lined up in the "I" more often.

The Saints have a very strong crew in the backfield.  Brees is Brees, and the who’s who of running backs in the backfield will really complement the Payton offense.  Losing Sproles could be a blessing in disguise, as it could decrease dependence on the screen/underneath game and signify the emergence of a stronger running game itself.  Although Pierre Thomas is still on the roster, expect to see screens go to guys like Brandin Cooks or Kenny Stills more frequently, reserving HB screens for situations like 2nd and long rather than every first down.  The talent is there, and how it is utilized is going to be extremely important.  Will there be more "I" sets in the backfield, or will the Saints continue their modified West Coast style?  Either way, the personnel is sound for the Saints, and there is no reason that the talent that the Saints have shouldn’t be effective.  These pieces should really help Payton’s playcalling, and despite the familiar faces, it’s the new guys like Erik Lorig that could actually make the biggest difference.  That "incomplete" grade for fullbacks has the potential to be positive either way, because either Lorig splits out and creates another weapon for Brees, or he leads the way for the Saints young collective of running backs.  Either way, this backfield will be exciting to watch next year.

Overall Grade: B+

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