The 2016 New Orleans Saints put out a disappointing season. And while there’s no denying that plenty of players played well, even in losses, a large number were disappointing.
The New Orleans Saints went 7-9 for a number of reasons. Injuries at cornerback and linebacker, as well as a general absence of elite talent, hurt the defense. Special Teams cost the Saints some games. And the offense, as great as it was, imploded in crucial moments.
I wouldn’t attribute this poor season to any specific player underachieving. But that doesn’t mean that this roster didn’t have its share of disappointing players. I’m not talking about C.J. Spiller, who the Saints released after it became clear that Spiller had nothing left in the tank. And I’m not talking about Keenan Lewis, who never recovered from his hip injury, and left the Saints thin at CB. I’m talking about players that contributed and played poorly, or players that failed to find the field even when healthy.
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Six names stand out, to me, as underachievers in 2016. That’s not to say that these players have to go. In fact, I’m excited to see how most of them bounce back. For all but maybe two of these guys, 2017 will be a chance to redeem themselves. But the Saints will need them, desperately in one case, to seize this opportunity.
And I’ll start with that desperate case.
Nov 13, 2016; New Orleans, LA, USA; Denver Broncos wide receiver Demaryius Thomas (88) catches a pass for a touchdown while defended by New Orleans Saints cornerback Delvin Breaux (40) during the fourth quarter at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome. Mandatory Credit: Chuck Cook-USA TODAY Sports
To be fair to Delvin Breaux, he faced a serious amount of adversity this season. After breaking his leg in Week 1, Breaux worked his butt off to get back into the lineup, while the Saints rolled out a unit of off-the-street cornerbacks. And when he did come back, he promptly injured his shoulder and landed on IR.
I’m not knocking Breaux for getting hurt. It happens to anyone, and there’s no reason to believe that Breaux is at all injury prone. (Yes, injuries have defined much of his career. But he’s avoided recurring injuries like knee and ankle tears.)
Unfortunately, in the few games that Breaux did get on the field, he underwhelmed.
Breaux put together a phenomenal “rookie” season with the Saints in 2015, when he earned the Saints’ defensive MVP honors. After a few games blemished by PI calls, he showed himself as a top-tier cover corner who could shut down just about any WR.
2016, though, was a different story. Breaux routinely gave up big-time plays, even when he was in good position defensively. It was clear that he had elite talent, but he couldn’t put it together to get production. In his first game back from injury, against the Denver Broncos, Breaux found himself on the receiving end of a number of key targets, including the game-winning reception to Demaryius Thomas in the 4th quarter.
In his defense, he likely played through a great deal of pain and rust after recovering from the broken fibula. And I mentioned that reception to Thomas—but just look at that throw. That’s a big receiver, and a well-placed ball. Not much he can do about that.
But if the Saints want to compete defensively in 2017, Breaux will need to bounce back and return as the lockdown corner he was in 2015.
Dec 4, 2016; New Orleans, LA, USA; New Orleans Saints tight end Coby Fleener (82) drops a touchdown pass as Detroit Lions free safety Glover Quin (27) defends during the second quarter of a game at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome. Mandatory Credit: Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports
When the Saints signed Coby Fleener to a big contract in the offseason, most had him pegged for a breakout year. And he did end up putting up career high numbers. But it wasn’t what most fans expected, after years of eye-popping performances from Benjamin Watson and Jimmy Graham.
Again, before I dive into what Fleener did wrong, I feel the need to come to his defense. Fleener didn’t need to put up the numbers that Watson and Graham did because of how many weapons this Saints offense has. Between Michael Thomas, Brandin Cooks, Willie Snead, and Mark Ingram, there simply weren’t enough targets to give Fleener the sort of numbers that Watson had.
And it’s not like the Saints thought they were getting a blocking tight end when they brought him in. Fleener was always set to be the receiving-type. And injuries to Michael Hoomanawanui and Josh Hill ended up putting Fleener slightly out of his comfort zone, role-wise. So it’s not like I think Fleener is a bad player, or that his failure to live up to expectations indicates that he was a bad signing.
But the drops.
The drops, man. He just doesn’t make contested catches.
It’s something that Jimmy Graham always did. Maybe that’s why it’s so jarring when Fleener lets balls sail through his hands with even the slightest nudge from his defender.
If Fleener is going to be the guy that the Saints brought him in to be, he’s going to need to fix those hands. He’s going to need to get more hard-nosed. He has all the tools to be an effective weapon for this offense, route-running and speed-wise. But if he can’t get those hands fixed, Brees will eventually lose confidence in the tight end.
I expect he’ll have a better 2017 campaign, with the return of Hoomanawanui and another year in the offense. But we’ll see.
Sep 11, 2016; New Orleans, LA, USA; Oakland Raiders running back Latavius Murray (28) scores a touchdown over New Orleans Saints linebacker James Laurinaitis (53) and others in the first quarter at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome. Mandatory Credit: Chuck Cook-USA TODAY Sports
The Saints brought in James Laurinaitis to man the MLB position, and to “quarterback” the defense. After a 2015 season plagued by misalignments and confusion on defense, the team rightly chose to go after a cerebral and focused veteran to lead the unit.
And by all accounts, Laurinaitis did exactly that. He led the unit, he was their quarterback, he got players aligned, and was an extension of Dennis Allen’s voice.
Unfortunately, he was nothing more than that.
Reports that Laurinaitis had lost a step were widely circulated before his signing. But most dismissed those by saying that he played the entire 2015 season with one arm. And if you look back at the tape, he really did. It’s amazing, really, how he managed to stay on the field.
But that injury is likely what made him so hard to evaluate as an athlete.
If he missed a tackle, how easy it must have been to say: he would have made that if he was healthy.
Well, we got a healthy Laurinaitis in 2016, and he missed plenty of tackles. And more so than that, he was an absolute liability in coverage.
Eventually, the Saints slid Craig Robertson over to MLB when it became clear that Laurinaitis wouldn’t work out. Robertson played well, and Laurinaitis was cut.
I doubt he’ll stick on with another team after his 2016 performance. But I would LOVE to see him return to the New Orleans Saints as a linebacker coach.
Nov 13, 2016; New Orleans, LA, USA; Denver Broncos quarterback Trevor Siemian (13) celebrates a touchdown as New Orleans Saints defensive end Paul Kruger (99) looks on during the second half of a game at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome. The Broncos defeated the Saints 25-23. Mandatory Credit: Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports
The Saints brought in Paul Kruger to sure up their defensive line, and man the DE position opposite Cam Jordan.
All I can say is, I hope the Saints do a better job of evaluating DE talent in the coming offseason than they did with Kruger.
Again, in his defense, Kruger played well against the run. He was hard to move, and set the edge, containing blockers and allowing the linebackers to make plays.
But when the Saints brought him in, Sean Payton gushed over Kruger’s ability to still get after the passer. It’s something that the Saints desperately needed, more so perhaps than any other aspect of their roster.
Well, turns out that Kruger can absolutely not still get after the passer. He simply can’t. He almost never disrupted the passer, and it crippled the defense.
I imagine that Kruger impacted the locker room postively, if only as a veteran. And his positive play against the run earned him a starting spot when compared to the rest of the Saints’ options at DE.
But if Paul Kruger is starting in 2017, it’s going to be a long, long, long year.
Dec 11, 2016; Tampa, FL, USA; New Orleans Saints defensive linemen Kasim Edebali (91) attempts to tackle Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback Jameis Winston (3) in the fist half at Raymond James Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Jonathan Dyer-USA TODAY Sports
Where exactly was Kasim Edebali?
Many media outlets had Edebali pegged as a potential breakout candidate. They noted that, statistically, he was following a similar path to standout pass rusher Junior Galette. He had two sacks in his first year, and then five in 2015, his second year. By all accounts, he was developing as a pass rusher, and making strides as a run defender.
Well, he must not have been making enough strides. Edebali rarely saw the field in 2016, and finished the year with a single, lonely sack.
In a year when the Saints desperately needed for pass rush, and their prospective starter Paul Kruger generated absolutely none, you’d expect Edebali to come to the team’s rescue. He did not.
And I don’t blame coaching or lineup problems for that. These coaches know what to look for. If they didn’t put Edebali out on the field, it’s because he wasn’t ready.
I’d be surprised if Edebali makes enough of a jump to warrant a bigger look in 2017. And if he doesn’t, that might be the end of his career in New Orleans. Unless, of course, he makes it as a core special team’s player, which is entirely possible.
But it’s disappointing to see such a promising pass rusher regress.
Dec 21, 2015; New Orleans, LA, USA; Detroit Lions tight end Eric Ebron (85) catches a pass over New Orleans Saints middle linebacker Stephone Anthony (50) and strong safety Kenny Vaccaro (32) during the second half of a game at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome. The Lions defeated the Saints 35-27. Mandatory Credit: Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports
I’m sure everyone knew that Stephone Anthony would make this list.
After starting as a rookie MLB for the Saints in 2015, Anthony moved over to SLB in 2016. Many had it pegged as a good move: it would take some of the thinking out of his role, and let him run and hit. After all, he’s pretty good at that.
Unfortunately, he barely saw the field. And when he did, he looked lost.
Anthony’s development was well documented by the Saints media. Both Payton and Dennis Allen discussed the fact that Anthony struggled with his understanding of the game. No one questions his athleticism, but he consistently made bad reads and left his assignments.
In his defense, Canal Street Chronicles just put up a film review, where they discussed the ways in which Anthony did show improvement in his sophomore year. Check it out.
The Saints are in the market for a good MLB, even though Craig Robertson filled the role admirably in 2016. Unfortunately, it doesn’t look like Anthony will be the answer there.
With a new LB coach imminent, I’m sure the Saints are holding out hope that Anthony can still develop into a contributor, with his athleticism and tackling ability. But I wouldn’t hold your breath.
Dec 18, 2016; Glendale, AZ, USA; New Orleans Saints cornerback B.W. Webb (28) argues with safety Vonn Bell (48) against the Arizona Cardinals at University of Phoenix Stadium. The Saints defeated the Cardinals 48-41. Mandatory Credit: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports
The Saints traded up into the second round to draft safety Vonn Bell out of Ohio State.
When they made the pick, media outlets were quick to throw their support. Bell showed a great ability to read and react in college, and hid his limited athleticism with strong angles, strong tackles, and proper reads.
Well, he did tackle well. But that’s about it.
Most fans and media outlets still have Bell pegged as a positive rookie contributor. I just didn’t see that.
Like I said, Bell has limited athleticism. But in college he made up for that with excellent reads. In his rookie year, he struggled in that regard. He often made the wrong read in coverage, took a poor angle in run support, and it really hurt the Saints.
Don’t get me wrong. I think Bell showed promise. It’s hard to play in this league as a rookie, much less as a rookie safety. First of all, you’re being asked to quickly read and react to a game that is suddenly much faster than any you’d ever played. Of course that’s going to take some adjustment time. And second, any mistake you make will be highlighted by the fact that it probably went for a touchdown.
But too often Bell found himself getting lectured by his teammates after missing assignments in coverage or biting on the wrong read.
Dennis Allen likes to operate with three safeties. No doubt the injuries at CB made this a more prevalent defensive scheme in 2016. But you can be sure we’ll see it again in 2017, in some capacity. If the New Orleans Saints want to turn out a good defense, they’ll need to be able to rely on Bell.