“You have a lot of time to think when you’re not in the playoffs.” – Saints Safety Kenny Vacarro
It’s no secret that the 2014 NFC South as a train wreck of a division. Tampa Bay may have earned the honor of “worst of the worst” when it came time for draft day, but there was plenty of suckage to go around. Over the next few weeks, I’ll be taking a closer look at the teams that Tampa Bay will face twice in 2015. Every win matters, but the Buccaneers will have to do better than going 0-6 against divisional opponents if they even want to whisper the word “playoffs.” Don’t let anyone lie to you. It’s all about getting to the postseason, and that begins within your own division.
New Orleans had a rough year in 2014, to say the least. It’s difficult to justify much as simply “bad luck,” but the Saints had their fair share of bad luck last season when it came to injuries. With a simple glance at the Saints transactions throughout last season from August to December, I counted at least sixteen players placed on injured reserve. That doesn’t even take into account players potentially playing through injuries or only missing a game or two here or there. Needless to say, it’s not easy to rebuild if every brick is broken.
The Saints were in dire need of a rebuild, especially on the defensive side. It never quite materialized, but they’re back on track in 2015. New Orleans had nine picks in the 2015 NFL Draft, and six of them were spent on the defensive side of the ball. That’s a stark contrast to the nearly all-offense approach that Tampa Bay has taken in the last two years. Not only did New Orleans focus on defense, but they spent a third of their 2015 selections on linebackers. Meanwhile, the loss of star Jimmy Graham and other playmakers has many already writing them off. Let’s look at the Saints’ strengths and weaknesses, and how Tampa Bay will be able to react to each.
Strengths: Drew Brees, Sean Payton, and Their Toys
When the Saints chose Colorado State Quarterback Garrett Grayson in the third round, alarm bells started going off all across the swamplands. Some were calling for the Saints to axe Drew Brees or trade the 36-year-old who has been the cornerstone of the Saints’ offense for just shy of a decade now. New Orleans has plenty of problems, but Drew Brees is not one of them. On top of that, Sean Payton is still firmly at the helm. There is some rumor that one more bad season could end things for him, but the duo of Payton and Brees has had a proven track record in recent years. Lots of things are changing for the Saints, but some continue to stay the same.
Regardless of what names are on the back of the jerseys, you can bet money that Brees will continue to threaten defenses throughout 2015. Jimmy Graham may not be there, but Brees still has plenty of useful weapons. Leading that charge will likely be second-year receiver Brandin Cooks. Other second-year talents looking to make a splash are Brandon Coleman and Seantavius Jones. Graham may be gone, but there will be a committee picking up the slack between veterans Josh Hill, Ben Watson, and even incoming running back C.J. Spiller. On top of those options, the Saints spent the 13th Overall Pick on offensive tackle Andrus Peat. Peat should instantly provide an upgrade on offensive line and help protect the still valuable Drew Brees.
Weaknesses: Defense, Defense, and Defense
The Saints certainly seem to have only ever been defined by Drew Brees, Sean Payton, and Jimmy Graham, but once upon a time they had a defense too. New Orleans has had a Top 10 Offense for most of the last nine years, but their defensive rankings have fluctuated wildly. They’ve been Top 5 to Bottom 5, and just about everywhere in between. The Saints are going to score points, and that still hasn’t changed. Their ability to even slightly hinder opposing offenses has. Rob Ryan’s defense was ranked fourth in the league when he was on the job in 2013, but it’s been all downhill since then. A slew of injuries, a pile of busts, and an overcomplicated system have all contributed to massive failure.
This year, New Orleans looks to be simplifying things. Last season the goal was to expand upon an already complicated playbook in order to confuse opposing offenses and remain unpredictable. The only thing that succeeded in doing was confusing the New Orleans Saints. This year, they’ve gone back to the basics. Defensive End Cameron Jordan said that this time last year they had learned 20 different defensive schemes, while they’re only on three or four this year. Those basics could be extremely beneficial to the massive influx of young talent, and freshly acquired veterans from other teams. The Saints have things to work with and seem to be on the right track, but it’s going to still take a lot of hard work to create a consistent and productive defense.
Verdict: Don’t let the waves in New Orleans fool you. It’s easy to see the departure of big names like Jimmy Graham and Kenny Stills as a reason to overlook the Saints, but that’s a mistake Tampa Bay shouldn’t be making. The reworking of the Saints’ offensive line will be a good test for the (fingers-crossed) upgraded Buccaneers defensive line. Meanwhile, the simplified defense could work in Jameis Winston’s favor. Winston already seems to have a firm grasp on the offense in Tampa Bay, but a predictable defense will only compound his ability to think on the fly. In the end, it’ll all come down to execution. Both teams have foils for one another, but we won’t know until September 20th exactly how they’ll perform. Don’t underestimate the Saints just yet, but take comfort in knowing that Tampa Bay absolutely has the formula and the talent to take them.