NFL Around the League: All Saints Day
Sporting arguably the worst defense in NFL history in 2015, the Saints focused much of their attention on righting that wrong during the offseason. With a new defensive coordinator, key free agent acquisitions and a draft featuring two top defensive talents, their hope is to improve dramatically on that side of the ball entering the 2016 season.
November 1, 2015 – a day, which will live in infamy… The day that defense died. It was the New Orleans Saints hosting the New York Giants and it was a defensive showing of epically horrific proportions. Combined between the two: allowed were an NFL record 13 passing touchdowns (Eli Manning 6, Drew Brees 7), over 1,000 total yards of offense, and 101 points.
November 1, every year – All Saints Day. A day in the Catholic tradition in which all followers celebrate, and at times mourn, the saints of their religious cannon. On this day – in reference to the NFL’s Saints – the namesake of the holiday couldn’t have been more misrepresented (aside from maybe the mourning part). Sure, the man upstairs may have given his holiest named franchise the overtime edge on the day of their name, but other than that, it was the day in which they were most obviously exposed for having potentially the worst defense in the history of the league.
Last in total defense, second to last in passing defense (yards), second to last in rushing defense (yards), last in yards per carry allowed (4.9), and an NFL record 45 passing touchdowns allowed, it makes sense why people were so disgusted with the play of this New Orleans defense in 2015 and why defensive coordinator Rob Ryan was relieved of his duties just two weeks after that All Saints Day debacle.
With a new defensive coordinator in Dennis Allen and subsequently a new defensive scheme, key free agent acquisitions, and a draft featuring two top defensive talents, the hope in the Big Easy is to improve dramatically on that side of the ball entering the 2016 season. Ultimately, it’s sink or swim time for the Saints here, as their division doesn’t appear to be getting any easier. With the Panthers already possessing one of the most potent offenses in the league, the Falcons long having established an intimidating offensive presence, and the Buccaneers rapidly developing on that side of the ball with their young star quarterback, The Saints need to take a huge step forward defensively in 2016. If they don’t, they may have to face the consequences of sliding into the doldrums of the NFC South.
The inevitable will eventually become a reality – How much longer can Drew Brees keep carrying this franchise?
Key Free Agent Additions
James Laurinaitis (MLB) – 3 years, $8,250,000
While the Rams may be attempting to argue that the former Ohio State standout has lost a step or two at his current age of 29, he appears to be the perfect plug-and-play piece that the Saints need on their bottomed out defense.
First and foremost, Laurinaitis is a noted leader and a coach on the field. He’s emotional when needed, nasty from the opening whistle, and collected when the time calls for it. There are few linebackers with more football intellect than him, while he also just so happens to be incredibly familiar with the current system that the Saints are attempting to run due to his history with Gregg Williams (the person who Saints current DC Dennis Allen squired for in his years leading up to this moment).
Physically, Laurinaitis remains a beast. At 6-foot-2, 250 lbs., he’s built to take on fullbacks at the point of attack and has no problem taking down any ball carrier. Over his seven NFL seasons, Laurinaitis has recorded at least 100-plus tackles in each, while never missing a single game. Sure, he’s no Luke Kuechly in coverage, but his deficiencies in that area are overstated. Throughout his career, Laurinaitis has compiled 10 interceptions and 34 pass deflections, and while his numbers in coverage have declined a bit over the past two seasons, he can always be sub-packaged out of third-and-longs and nickel situations if needed.
Simply put, though, if the Saints plan on rebounding defensively, they need a man in the middle they can trust. Laurinaitis is a veteran leader whom they can build their defense around, and he will always lead by example. He’s a physical, sure tackler, and most importantly knows this defensive scheme inside and out. He will serve as the quarterback of this defense for the next three years, while last year’s rookie sensation Stephone Anthony will kick outside to strongside linebacker – a position he is better suited for anyway.
Nick Fairley (DT) – 1 year, $3,000,000
Another Dumpster dive from the head scratching Rams defensive scrap heap. This was one of the better value signings of the offseason in my opinion, as Fairley was at one point one of the most disruptive interior defensive linemen on the planet. He parlayed a destructive junior season at Auburn where he was named the nation's best front seven player, a consensus All-American and the defensive player of the National Championship game, into the 13th overall pick in the 2011 NFL Draft. He then went on to shine with the Lions as the complimentary DT to Ndamukong Suh, where he compiled 13.5 sacks in four seasons. After walking in free agency, he again played second fiddle on a loaded defensive line with the Rams, but still found a way to make an impact with 29 tackles in 15 games while serving in a rotational role.
Never seeming to get a chance to be the guy in the middle, my belief is that we have yet to see the best of Fairley. This season, again in a system that he is familiar with, Fairley appears to be in the best shape of his life and also appears to be the best defensive tackle on the roster. Still young, and still loaded with talent, Fairley should breakout on this ever-developing Saints defensive line.
Craig Robertson (WLB) – 3 years, $5,000,000
Largely an unknown commodity out in Cleveland over the past four seasons, Robertson is a pass coverage extraordinaire. With an intelligent and ultra-athletic skillset, Robertson projects as a perfect fit for the Will linebacker position in this rebuilding New Orleans Saints defense.
Already in practices, players and coaches alike are praising the work that he is doing in coverage, even opening the eyes of one Drew Brees who has seen a few of his passes broken up by the 28-year-old. The hope is to use Robertson a lot in sub-packages as the nickel linebacker, and if he works hard enough he has the chance to win the starting weakside linebacker spot right out of camp.
Roman Harper (SS) – 1 year, $1,065,000
Adding more veterans to a defense looking to improve and get younger may sound counterproductive. However, in order for the young guys to learn, a veteran presence is needed. Harper is the consummate professional; he is prepared to offer the younger players wisdom and knows his role on this team isn’t as an every-down player. He just had a solid two seasons on the Panthers (135 tackles, 1 sack, 4 INT, 15 PD, 2 FR) and was one of the emotional leaders of a loaded defensive unit. He should do a fine job teaching a downtrodden defense what it takes to make it to the Super Bowl, regardless of his current level of play at 33 years of age.
Reportedly the Saints plan on going with more three safety looks, which will help Harper’s chances of getting burn. At this point in his career, he’s better as an in-the-box player, so getting some looks as a nickel linebacker isn’t out of the question for him, either.
Key Draft Selections
Sheldon Rankins (DT) – 1st Round
Rankins is a nimble, sturdy, and technically sound hybrid defensive lineman out of Louisville. He sports an excellent first step, gets his arms extended better than pretty much any other defensive lineman in the draft and possesses a plethora of polished pass rushing moves that will help him get to the quarterback at the next level. On this play, Rankins shows what he does best, as he fully extends on the interior offensive lineman, strings out the designed run, and then when needed, ragdolls the blocker. He blows up the running play with ease, showcasing the damage he could inflict as an interior run-stuffer at the next level.
As a pass rusher – while still developing in this area – Rankins still showcased his ability to be a nightmare for opposing offensive coordinators. At only 22 years of age, he already possesses a good grasp of combo pass rushing moves and knows when to use them. Here, Rankins uses a classic slap-and-rip to gain the advantage over the would-be blocker. After rendering his opponent useless, he gets a fast track to the quarterback, hurries his throw, and ultimately takes him to the ground.
On a defense still lacking plenty of talent, the Saints wasted no time at all in taking the most talented and healthy defensive player left on the board in the first round. He will come in, command attention and improve everyone on this developing Saints defense from day one.
Vonn Bell (FS) – 2nd Round
A 2015 All-American, and proud owner of six interceptions during his first season as a starter in 2014, Bell was regarded as the best coverage safety in this draft and for good reason.
His coach in college, Urban Meyer, was quoted after Bell was drafted late in the second round, hinting at the steal that the Saints just got their hands on… “He has the skillset of a corner. How many safeties can cover a No. 2 receiver?” A good point here from a brilliant football mind, as Bell brings the Saints the type of versatility at the position they haven’t had since Malcolm Jenkins. Starting off likely in that aforementioned three-safety set just like Kenny Vaccaro did in his rookie season, Bell should eventually, at worst, develop into a dangerous single-high to target. A safe pick for New Orleans here, but not one without upside either. On a defense sorely lacking talent, they certainly added some more here.
Now we are a fantasy site here – so indicates our namesake of FantasyAlarm.com – so I would be remiss to ignore the offensive side of the ball completely, considering it’s chief role in modern fantasy football.
The Saints – while their mantra all offseason was to improve defensively – possessed an ultimate goal (like all teams) of improving by any means necessary. With a key free agent signing and a second round draft selection, the Saints appeared to have improved on the offensive side of the ball as well, making this offseason a success thus far.
Coby Fleener (TE) – 5 years, $36,000,000
Over the last three seasons, Fleener has recorded 52, 51, and 54 receptions, with a combined 1,945 receiving yards and 15 touchdowns. For any starting tight end those are pretty solid numbers, but considering that he accomplished all of this while splitting time with Dwayne Allen and arguably serving as his backup for the majority of the time, Fleener has impressed so far in his NFL career. To go along with good per-snap numbers, Fleener has ideal size for today’s tight end build (6-foot-6, 251 lbs).
The goal for the Saints is no secret. They plan on using Fleener exactly how they used Jimmy Graham during his prime years just a couple of seasons ago. They feel that he’s nearly as good of a target as Graham in the passing game, while he is maybe twice the blocker that Graham is in the running game.
As a fantasy owner, if you feel excited, just wait, there’s more… The Saints haven’t had a tight end finish outside of the top 10 in positional rankings in any of the last five seasons. All things considered, while a steep price-point, Fleener received an appropriate payday here considering his projected role and impact in this Saints starting lineup going forward.
Michael Thomas (WR) – 2nd Round
Thomas enters just in the nick of time for Drew Brees and the New Orleans Saints, as their days as one of the game’s most prolific offenses appear to be numbered. They have been lacking a true No. 1 receiver since Marques Colston’s talent began a downward spiral after the 2012 season, and while they made it by with incredible production from tight end Jimmy Graham, he departed via trade prior to last season, leaving the Saints without a go-to receiving option. Now Thomas will not enter day one and go on to grab 100 balls in his rookie year, but his build, skillset, and potential will finally give Drew Brees a legitimate X-receiver option to throw to. This will give him and Brandin Cooks plenty of one-on-one looks, making Cooks a top fantasy receiver option and Thomas a nice sleeper pick towards the end of drafts in 2016.
On tape, Thomas displays excellent mitts and defined route running skills. His hands are massive, while he possesses the catch radius of a California condor. He is deliberate in and out of his breaks and uses pitter-patter footwork to confuse cheating defensive backs, making it difficult to break on passes thrown his way.
The addition of Thomas will be one that Brees thanks the Saints front office for over these last few seasons of his career. If fantasy owners play their cards right, they will be thanking Brees and the Saints front office as well.