It was a terrific year to be a Saints fan.
Despite their divisional-round loss to Seattle, this season proved that 2012 was an aberration and that this team is still a few players, perhaps merely a few moments, away from a shot at another Super Bowl.
What’s most promising about the 2013 season is that the Saints looked like a team without a glaring weakness. Although potentially not the most talented team in the league, the numbers don’t lie.
They finished the year ranked fourth overall in both defense and offense. That’s a far cry from finishing dead last in defense last year.
In order to improve over the off-season, the Saints will need to navigate free agency carefully.
Jimmy Graham, Zach Strief, Brian De La Puente, Malcolm Jenkins, Parys Haralson.
Five starters total – two offensive linemen, two defensive standouts, and a superstar – are unrestricted free agents come March. The first order of business for the Saints will be to re-sign most if not all of these guys.
Obviously you can’t let Graham walk, and offensive line starters with the talent of Strief/De La Puente are going to be hard to find anywhere else. Jenkins is a defensive captain, and Haralson proved a key cog in an evolving defense that needs stability to continue to grow.
Rounding out the unrestricted free agents are guys like Jon Vilma, Will Herring, Charles Brown, Robert Meachem.
This is where things can get a bit dicey.
Vilma and Herring were both upstaged by the likes of David Hawthorne and Curtis Lofton at linebacker, and the aging Vilma may be more trouble than he’s worth at this part in his career. Terron Armstead replaced Brown late in the season and performed admirably in the first few starts of his career.
Meachem lost touches to the emergence of Kenny Stills, and despite the odd miraculous catch was kept relatively quiet all season.
I think this is where the Saints can get younger and create a bit of cap room by allowing the majority of these guys to walk. Defensively, it allows them to continue the transition to Rob Ryan’s 3-4 system and fill open slots with players that better-fit it. Offensively, this year’s draft is deep at wide receiver and Armstead has shown flashes of being a guy that could develop into a Pro Bowl left tackle.
A few other places the Saints will need to look into upgrading are in the defensive backfield and special teams.
After the injuries to Jabari Greer and Kenny Vaccaro the Saints back-end was exposed routinely by opposing offenses. They’d love to find a guy in the draft to potentially start across from Keenan Lewis, and there are couple big guys that may be floating around when their pick comes up.
Florida’s Marcus Robinson and Oklahoma State’s Justin Gilbert both stand 6-feet tall and show great length in coverage. That means they use their wingspan well in both jamming wide receivers and playing the ball in the air. Although they both have questions about their speed, when you’re playing in a division with wide receivers the size of Julio Jones and Vincent Jackson, a big corner is almost a necessity.
This may come as a surprise but the Saints were the second worst team in the league in regards to return yardage. Partially due to Darren Sproles on-again-off-again injury situation and a rotating door at kick returner, their return game never really got off the ground.
I always thought Kenny Stills would have been an electric every-kick option in the return game; however, his increasing role in the offense may make him unavailable for special-teams duty.
Furthermore, the kicking game wasn’t spectacular (i.e. the release of Garrett Hartley) and Thomas Morstead was near the league’s bottom in almost every punting category.
Shayne Graham was the easy-fix after Hartley’s release, but my guess is he’s not a long-term solution. As for Morstead, he’s not far removed from a Pro Bowl selection so the Saints may just chalk 2013 up to a bad year.
From the pipe-dream department, if the Saints can find a way to ink Sammy Watkins out of Clemson they may be able to fill two spots with one guy. Watkins would add another weapon to Drew Brees already-formidable arsenal, and he has the game-breaking speed to make a difference in the return game.
Marqise Lee from USC could also fit into that duel role, but his laundry list of injury issues could be a potential red flag.
They may also want to keep an eye out for wide receiver Jared Abbrederis out of Wisconsin. After a productive career with sub-par quarterbacks for the badgers, Abbrederis could carve himself a nice spot in the slot while providing an extremely reliable target for Brees.
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