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Defense: A Major Liability for Saints in the Sean Payton Era

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The Saints under Sean Payton have the reputation of being an offensive juggernaut. On the other hand, they also have the reputation of having been perennially terrible on defense. Both reputations have been well-earned.

Stew Milne-USA TODAY Sports

Since 2006, the New Orleans Saints have become a franchise worthy of actually belonging to the National Football League. More specifically, in the nine years since head coach Sean Payton took over, the Saints have won the NFC South three times, been to the playoffs five times, played in two NFC Championship games and won a Super Bowl. This is a record many NFL franchises would die for.

However, once you've been in the winners' circle, passable or "good enough" doesn't quite cut it anymore. Indeed, in those same nine years, the Saints have also finished 7-9 three times (including a completely lackluster 2014 season). They were one-and-done in 2010 and were bounced in the divisional round in 2011 and 2013.

Despite the success of New Orleans in the Sean Payton era, there have been some excruciatingly painful missed opportunities. The 2011 season and the 2013 campaign immediately come to mind. So the question is: why haven't the Payton-led Black and Gold been better? What derailed Saints teams that seemingly had everything in place for another Super Bowl run?

Before I start analyzing it, I will show you the numbers, you know those numbers that do not lie. After we've looked at them, we can decide whether they actually told the truth or not. I wrote a piece on Friday about what it took for any team to have success in the NFL. The conclusion from the numbers was that a team usually needs an "elite" unit, be it defensively or offensively and one that is at least serviceable to complement said elite unit.

I have detailed before why I think that Football Outsiders rankings are some of the best metrics out there to rank football teams in terms of defensive and offensive efficiency, as their ratings take in account things like turnovers, fumble recoveries, field position, etc...

Let's take a look at the Saints offensive and defensive rankings under Sean Payton since 2006.


SB Winners Legend

What observations can we draw from the chart above?

-          In nine years, the Saints' worse offensive ranking is 12th in the entire NFL.

-          Seven out of nine years, the Saints have had an elite (top 10) offense.

-          Payton's best teams in New Orleans both came with the offense ranked in the top two (2009 and 2011).

-          The Saints' highest defensive ranking under Payton is 10th (2010 and 2013).

-          Five times in nine years, the Saints have had a bad (bottom 10) defense.

What conclusions can we draw from the numbers?

-          It is fairly safe to say that the Saints would've had a chance at winning more than one Super Bowl had their defense been consistently better over the years. The 2011 team would probably have had the best chance at winning the "Two Dat."

-          The 2013 team, in a "Seahawks-less" year, would have had a great chance to go to the Super Bowl with a serious chance to win it.

-          In 2014, the offense, turnover and all, still rated as the 8th most efficient in the NFL. The defense was 31st. There was simply no chance in a frozen hell for the team to go anywhere with such a bad defensive unit.

Why the discrepancy between the offensive and defensive units?

To be this consistently bad on defense, you almost have to try to be. New Orleans' inefficient play on the defensive side of the ball since 2006 is no fluke. But it is for a lack of trying or is it simply due to the Saints front office and coaching staff ineffectiveness in diagnosing and developing defensive talent?

Let's take a look at the Saints' 1st and 2nd draft selections since 2006. They say that the 1st and 2nd round are the money rounds right? Despite having enormous success in late rounds, these first-rounders are the "can't miss" prospects, while the second-rounders are the "almost can't miss" ones. Have the Saints simply missed that badly over these past nine years?

New Orleans Saints First Two Draft Picks 2006-2014



First, let's summarize what we see in these charts. For the ease of analysis, I have graded each of the draft picks by putting them in one of four categories: 1) Great 2) Good 3) Average and 4) Awful. The rating is based on where the player was picked, and his contribution (ongoing or not) to the team over the years.

-          Of the 17 picks above, the Saints selected 6 offensive players and 11 defensive players.

-          Since 2006, New Orleans has selected an offensive player as its first overall pick 3 times. They've done so for a defensive player 5 times.

-          In my arbitrary rating, in the 17 first two Saints picks since 2006, here's the Great-Good-Average-Awful breakdown:

o   Great: 0

o   Good:10

o   Average: 4

o   Awful: 3

-          Here's the breakdown between offense and defense:

o   Offense: Great (0) Good (4) Average (1) Awful (1)

o   Defense: Great (0) Good (6) Average (3) Awful (2)


So What Are You Saying Man?

The Saints' defensive futility since 2006 (save the 2010 and 2013 seasons and a fluky 2009 turnover-causing machine of a defense) isn't for a lack of trying by Sean Payton and Co. In this little study, I obviously didn't even include later round picks where New Orleans also picked a slew of defensive players to try and bolster that side of the ball.

The glaring issues however stick out like pussy sores: the Saints haven't had an eye for greatness in their defensive draft. Whereas they have a great one in quarterback Drew Brees who has been able to elevate the rest of his obviously good-but-not-great teammates, the Saints under Payton have never had a "great" defensive player who could elevate the play of the rest of his defensive teammates. They came close with an aging Darren Sharper in 2009-2011, but that was obviously not through draft. Neither was Brees for that matter, but they lucked out in signing the man who will always be known as the first quarterback to bring New Orleans to its knees for all the right reasons: that 2009 Super Bowl win.

New Orleans has also had its share of awful picks and catastrophic misses in early rounds: the name Stanley Jean-Baptiste might come to haunt the team for years to come, unless the NFL sophomore comes out of his redshirt rookie year and proves everyone wrong. I'm not holding my breath.

Can Payton and Co. rectify their scouting errors of the past? Maybe the hiring of Jeff Ireland as Director of Scouting, a former Parcells disciple like Payton, will improve that department. They better hurry up, because as we all know, Brees' arm is about to fall off.

The floor (or the sofa) is yours, offseason therapy is in session, tell me why I'm right, tell me why I'm crazy. Let's talk about it.