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Five Saints Questions with Football Outsiders

The New Orleans Saints are a trendy pick to win the NFC South and make a deep playoffs run in 2014. However, the team still has a few unanswered questions: who will be the starting center? how about the second starting cornerback? Is age really an issue? We asked Vince Verhei of Football Outsiders how he sees the 2014 season shake out for the Black and Gold.

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WR Brandin Cooks figures to be a big part of a promising 2014 season for the Saints.
WR Brandin Cooks figures to be a big part of a promising 2014 season for the Saints.
Dilip Vishwanat

A few days ago, I wrote a piece about Football Outsiders' 2014 Almanac (which you can also buy here) and discussed their thoughts on the 2014 New Orleans Saints. Like many other pundits, Football Outsiders has the Saints doing well this coming year; however they believe the Black and Gold future to be somewhat murky. Their take-home message was that with the team's offense getting old in a hurry, age might keep the Saints from being serious contenders this upcoming season and the next few years.

My opinion however is that there are several holes in their study. When considering the consistent excellence of Sean Payton's offense in New Orleans coupled with the defensive improvement brought by Rob Ryan, I'm more of the thought that New Orleans will vie for a Super Bowl in each of quarterback Drew Brees' remaining years in the Crescent City.

Canal Street Chronicles caught up with Vince Verhei (the author of the Saints chapter in the Football Outsiders 2014 Almanac) with five questions about the Saints 2014 season, including whether he really thinks age will hamper the team's chance at winning big.

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Canal Street Chronicles: Football Outsiders 2014 mean-projected wins has New Orleans at 9.4 wins. What do you think their regular season record this upcoming season will be? Also, how far do you see them go in the playoffs assuming they get there?

Vince Verhei: It's important to point out that a 9.4-win projection is much better than it sounds. Because our simulations account for what we see as each team's best- and worst-case scenarios, teams rarely get an average projection of 10 or more wins (or 10 or more losses, for that matter). Only the Seahawks (9.8) and Packers (9.4) have more mean projected wins in the NFC. We give New Orleans about a 60 percent chance of making the playoffs, about a 1-in-8 chance of getting to the Super Bowl, and about a 1-in-13 chance of winning a championship.

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CSC: Center Jonathan Goodwin is 36 years old and he started every game for San Francisco in 2013. Although they let him walk through free agency, this seems to indicate that Goodwin was still the best option for the 49ers last year and probably still has some gas left in the tank. In view of that, do you expect him to win the starting center job over the inexperienced Tim Lelito in 2014?

Verhei: The limited numerical data we have for Goodwin is pretty awful. He was 30th among centers in blown blocks per snap last season, and the 49ers were 29th or worse in each of our primary run-blocking statistics: Adjusted Line Yards (which measures a team's ability to pick up consistent gains), first-yard rate in short-yardage "Power" situations, and Stuff rate. It's telling that no team was willing to sign him-including the Saints-until the point in the league year when they could do so without giving up a draft pick. Meanwhile, the Saints seem to really like Lelito. The level of faith they've shown in him is frankly bizarre, given his lack of experience. At the end of the day, though, there's nobody on earth better qualified to judge his performance and potential than the coaches who work with him day in and day out.

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We give New Orleans about a 60 percent chance of making the playoffs, about a 1-in-8 chance of getting to the Super Bowl, and about a 1-in-13 chance of winning a championship. -Vince Verhei


CSC: The Saints secondary did very well against the #1 wide receiver on their opponent's team in 2013, with a -9.2% DVOA (12th in the NFL). However, they showed a well below average 10.7% when facing teams #2 wide receiver (24th in the NFL). This seems to suggest that the key to New Orleans secondary getting even better than it was in 2013 could be the #2 cornerback position. Who do you see winning that job opposite #1 corner Keenan Lewis: Patrick Robinson, Corey White or the recently acquired veteran Champ Bailey?

Verhei: Champ Bailey turned 36 in June and is coming off an injury-ravaged season. Frankly, I think he's more likely to get cut than to win a starting job, but then I've been predicting doom for him for years, and he's always proven me wrong until 2013, so maybe I'm not the best guy to ask. Robinson likely would have remained the starter ahead of White last season if he hadn't gotten hurt, so it's somewhat safe to assume he'll beat White out again this year.

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CSC: In 2013 the Saints threw a league-leading 65 screen passes to their running backs, only six to their wide receivers and tight ends. With running back Darren Sproles now in Philadelphia, is there anything that suggests that New Orleans will run less screen plays overall and maybe implement more screens to tight ends and wide receivers?

Verhei: The Saints ranked first or second in running back screens in each of Sproles' three seasons with the team. That wasn't something special they did for Sproles, though; they were also second in running back screens in both 2009 and 2010. Sproles was a perfect fit for Sean Payton's system, but the system won't change just because Sproles is gone. We expect Travaris Cadet to get the most opportunities to fill Sproles' shoes. Whether he can match Sproles' production is another question.

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CSCIt is evident that the Saints offense has aged since the advent of the Payton/Brees regime in 2006. However, in such a timing and chemistry-based offense, how reasonable is it to expect the entire offense to decline based on the aging of some individual cogs?

Verhei: Well, it's not just the aging of "some" individual cogs. It's most of them. On most teams, about half the players are past their prime and get a little worse every year, and half are still developing and improving, so the effects of aging tend to balance out. On the Saints offense, though, the old guys outnumber the young guys by about 2-to-1. There are a couple of charts in the chapter that explain this, but basically, the age of the offense might not be an issue this season, but it almost certainly will each year after that.

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Thanks to Vince Verhei for taking the time to answer our questions.