Roster Roundouts: a New Orleans Saints Camp Preview
I’ll start out by citing a guest entry by Brian Burke at the NY Times Fifth Down NFL Blog. In writing a defense of Jay Cutler, Burke comes to the conclusion that if you make the assumption that all of the players around Cutler are a league average quality supporting cast, that Cutler was worth 2.1 wins more than an average quarterback last year.
Obviously, you can’t tell the true value of a quarterback by looking only at his net yards produced, his attempts, and his interceptions, and you probably can’t assume an average supporting cast, but a regression like that will get you pretty close.
Knowing that an analysis of the New Orleans Saints begins with their quarterback, Drew Brees, I ran the same variables on Brees to see where he came out. And using the same methodology, we can estimate Drew Brees’ value at 3.4 wins above an average quarterback in 2008.
Now, the truth of the matter is that Brees’ supporting cast is a little bit above average. He’s got better receivers than say, Cutler has, his offensive line may not have been better but it was pretty darn good. Considering the overall health of his unit, he was probably working with more than Peyton Manning was last season. And so, if you factor in his supporting cast, Brees was probably worth between 2.0-2.5 wins last season above a league average QB such as Kyle Orton or Ben Roethlisberger.
But the larger point is this: Brees enters 2009 as the best quarterback in football. Peyton Manning might be the NFL’s most valuable player, but at this point in his career, Peyton could not throw the ball 650 times in a season and win as many games as he does. Brees is so good that the more he throws the better off his team is.
Behind Brees, the New Orleans Saints scored more points than any other team in the NFL. The defense was not nearly as bad as you think, either. It was below average: ranked 26th in the league by both points and DVOA, but with a league average offense and special teams, the Saints defense would still have helped the team to a 6-10 record. An above average offense made the Saints an 8-8 team with a 9.5 win Pythagorean record, but while defensive improvements are on the way, the offense is hardly the best in the NFL.
The distinction is important because the passing game is the No. 1 or No. 2 in the NFL, as it was ranked last year by yards. But the Saints were a horrific running team last year, fumbled far too much, and the passing game was insufficient in short yardage to pick up for it. Indeed, the difference between where the greek triangle man sees the Saints, where advanced metrics see them, and where they are seen in terms of point production is simple variance in the grading of the offense.
If you think the Saints had the best offense in football last year, then you also have to say that they were one of it’s ten best teams. But there’s a legitimate argument to be made that they weren’t even in it’s top five offenses because a below average running game combined with a top notch passing game simply yields a high variance product.
Sure enough, the week by week stats out of Football Outsiders Almanac 2009 show that the Saints offense produced 7 performances where they had a DVOA below 10.0%. Their variance was right in the middle of the NFL. Now, the median performance by the Saints is still in the +20’s, but just barely. Until the NFL chooses to expand it’s playoff system to 8 teams per conference (not happening), having a team with a top-three offensive power ranking throw up 7 or more mediocre or worse performances (5 of these on the road) isn’t going to get you into the playoffs.
Even a small improvement in the running game will take some pressure off of guys like Brees and WR Marques Colston, and it will allow the Saints to be better on a week-in-week out basis. Specifically, Brees has just creamed bad opponents, and opponents at home, but against a good defense on the road, in adverse conditions, Brees’ performance has mirrored his teammates: disappointing.
Despite that disappointment, Brees is still the best in the game. He’s just human. The big question isn’t whether defensive coordinator Gregg Williams will help the Saints defense produce (he will), or how Sean Payton will continue to use Brees, or whether Scott Fujita and Scott Shanle should still be linebackers in the NFL (debatable), it’s how Brees’ supporting cast will respond to playing with him. Reggie Bush needs to step up. Jeremy Shockey needs to step up. Marques Colston needs to step up. And if any of those guys should falter, players like Heath Evans, Dan Campbell, Billy Miller, and Robert Meachem have to be on board from day one to improve the Saints offense from last year. There’s little doubt that the Saints offense will once again be above average, but how good it will be will determine how successful the Saints are this season. The Saints simply have to avoid being highly ranked in turnovers this season, because one thing the Gregg Williams scheme does not do is help turn the turnover battle back in your favor. Throw interceptions, put the ball on the ground, and you are going to lose ball games.
The Saints probably enter this year as the favorite in the NFC South, a division where there are no top ten type football teams, but are plenty of top 15 types between Carolina, Atlanta, and New Orleans. They’ll have to be dynamic on offense and improved on defense to win it.
Saints Camp, New Orleans, LA
Lots of camp battles to follow below
Running Back: Lydell Hamilton vs. P.J. Hill vs. Herb Donaldson
No guaranteed roster spot here, but the undrafted Hill drew rave reviews at Wisconsin, and the last Big Ten undrafted runningback they found, Pierre Thomas, worked out pretty nicely.
Wide Receiver: Adrian Arrington vs. Skyler Green vs. Courtney Roby
Up to two of these guys can make the team. Green vs. Roby is more a battle of who will be the better option to return kicks, but if they were to both outperform Arrington, there’s no reason for the team to stick it out with it’s project WR. Green’s speed is very marketable in Louisiana, but Sean Payton will not hesitate to go with Arrington and Roby if those are his best options.
Defensive Line: Anthony Hargrove vs. Remi Ayodele
The hybrid 3-4/4-3 that Gregg Williams wants to run probably requires him to be at least two guys deep at the nose tackle position, and that suggests that Hargrove is less valuable to this defense than the young Ayodele is, but Hargrove could play the 3-4 end as well as the 4-3 end, and both of these guys could force a suprise cut, such as Charles Grant.
Outside Linebacker: Anthony Walters vs. Troy Evans
Battle for special teams value. The Saints drafted Stanley Arnoux to handle this role, but he got hurt in OTA’s and is out for the year.
Inside Linebacker: Mark Simoneau vs. Marvin Mitchell
The role here is a depth/special teams player, and defensive backup to Jonathon Vilma. My guess is that Mark Simoneau gets the nod for his experience, but Mitchell probably offers more long term value.
Starting Cornerback: Malcolm Jenkins vs. Jabari Greer vs. Randall Gay vs. Tracy Porter
The camp battle of the year across the NFL , no one has any idea who will play corner for the Saints. Randall Gay could win the No. 1 CB job, or he could get cut. Jenkins will eventually have it, and the team would love to start him and Greer at the corners and have Porter be the nickel, but both guys will have to earn it.
Cornerback: Jason David vs. Leigh Torrence
Bet Torrence, and bet on Torrence hard. Just sayin’.
Safety: Pierson Prioleau vs. Osama Young vs. Chris Reis
Prioleau is the Gregg Williams organizational soldier: Buffalo->Washington->Jacksonville->New Orleans, and he’s a pretty decent safety who is slight favorite over Young, the incumbent. Reis is the longshot with the most upside.
Punter: Glenn Paulak vs. Thomas Morstead
I don’t really handicap punter battles.
- RB Mike Bell
- TE Jeremy Shockey
- DE Charles Grant
- CB Randall Gay
- S Roman Harper