Salute Magazine’s Exit Interview series examines the status of each NFL team heading into the offseason, along with their free agents, team needs and more. Click here for the rest of the exit interviews. Up next: the New Orleans Saints.
Sometimes, one play can change the trajectory of an entire team. The Saints were one miracle touchdown away from going to the NFC Championship Game, where they may have presented a difficult challenge for the eventual Super Bowl champions.
Instead, Stefon Diggs scored at the gun for the Minnesota Vikings, sending them back to New Orleans in absolute shock. That kind of finish can haunt most teams for years, but thankfully for the Saints, they’re in a great position to recover and remain a competitive team in 2018.
Firstly, they had a shockingly great draft class for 2017. The majority of their draft picks played significant roles this season and are poised to continue to progress in the coming years. Of course, two of them won Offensive and Defensive Rookie of the Year (Alvin Kamara and Marshon Lattimore, respectively), but Ryan Ramczyk was also great, and the rest of the group showed plenty of encouraging signs as well.
That should bode well for the Saints in the long-term, but what about now? Well, as long as they have Drew Brees at quarterback, the offense will stay productive. They were the second best in total yardage in 2017 behind the New England Patriots, as well as fifth in passing offense.
Where the unit truly shined was in the running game. In years past, Brees had to carry much of the load on his own. In 2017, Kamara and Mark Ingram took the Saints from 16th in rushing offense to fifth, an impressive jump considering that one was a rookie and one seemed to be stagnating a couple of years ago.
The improvement on defense helped as well. The group isn’t quite elite yet, but they went from 27th to 17th this season while also ranking in the top half of the league against both the run and pass.
Continuity has to be the prime focus for the Saints this offseason. General manager Mickey Loomis did a fantastic job of adding pieces last year. Now he’ll have to keep the majority of the roster in place while fixing the remaining leaks. If he’s successful, they’ll be at the top of the league once again in 2018.
Current number of draft picks: 8 (#27 in the first round)
Cap space: $25-32 million
Notable free agents
Drew Brees, QB: There’s no way Brees will hit the open market. He and the Saints will come to a contract agreement before that happens. It’ll work out great for both sides, as the Saints will remain competitive, while Brees will get financial security as his career winds down.
Kenny Vaccaro, S: Vaccaro has had a bizarre career. In five seasons, he’s had three with 80+ overall grades from Pro Football Focus and two at 36 and below. He had a 35.4 in 2017, but that could be waved off due to the role the Saints had him play in.
A natural safety, Vaccaro was asked to move to slot corner on passing downs and struggled in coverage as a result. He was more functional when he was in his normal position, picking up 60 total tackles this year. With the number of teams in need of a solid safety, Vaccaro could be better off leaving in free agency.
Nick Fairley, DT: Fairley is a talented player whose career has been continually bogged won by injuries and lethargy. He appeared to have moved past those issues in 2016, playing in all 16 games for the first time as a pro and earning a career-high 6.5 sacks.
However, disaster struck last June when Fairley was diagnosed with a heart condition. He missed the entire season as a result, and it’s likely that he’ll never play football again. The Saints cut him two weeks ago to save money, and the two sides are currently engaged in a dispute over the terms of his contract.
Alex Okafor, DE: Okafor was a decent-at-best player during his first four seasons with the Arizona Cardinals, which allowed the Saints to scoop him up with a relatively cheap one-year deal last offseason. He responded with his best all-around year as a pro, finishing with 4.5 sacks and 43 total tackles in 10 games.
Unfortunately, Okafor tore his Achilles in November, which could put his start to 2018 in jeopardy. It may be a blessing in disguise for the Saints though, as they could retain him at a lower price.
DE: Okafor’s injury and his potential departure in free agency would leave a hole across from Cameron Jordan at edge rusher. Trey Hendrickson flashed at times during his rookie year, but he may not be ready for a full-time role.
G: Andrus Peat played left guard for most of the season and was a pretty poor blocker for the most part. When he played elsewhere due to injury, Senio Kelemete took his place and was equally as ineffective. The later is a free agent as well. Some competition could boost the offensive line.
CB/S: Vaccaro leaving in free agency would leave a hole at the Saints hybrid nickel-safety role. Cornerback Delvin Breaux is a restricted free agent as well, and he could depart for a more stable role with another team.
WR: One thing that the Saints offense lacked in 2017 was a potent slot receiver to go with Michael Thomas and Ted Ginn Jr., as Willie Snead dealt with suspension and inefficiency. He and Brandon Coleman could leave as restricted free agents.
QB: Brees will almost certainly be back, but Chase Daniel, his backup, is hitting free agency. It might be time for the Saints to start looking for a developmental prospect at QB anyway.
LB: The Saints are most likely comfortable with Manti Te’o, Craig Robertson and Alex Anzalone at linebacker, but they’re fairly thin with the depth at the position. Three of the backups, Gerald Hodges, Jonathan Freeny and Michael Mauti, will be free agents.
Best player/building block
Cameron Jordan, DE: After years of being underappreciated, Jordan is finally earning notice as one of the best defensive linemen in football. He led the team in sacks this season with 13, also tallying 62 total tackles and 11 pass breakups. PFF graded as the top edge rusher in the league at 96.2. It’s hard to argue with that.
Marcus Williams, S: Yes, Williams derailed the Saints chances at a championship with that horrible missed tackle against the Vikings. That’s a shame because it overshadowed what was a solid rookie season for him. He was second on the team in interceptions with 4 and third in total tackles with 71. PFF gave him a grade of 86.8, 11th among all safeties. Hopefully, he’ll be able to bounce back from that low moment next year.