2016 NFL Preview: Can Saints' great QB overcome all-time bad D?

Shutdown Corner

Shutdown Corner is previewing all 32 teams as we get ready for the NFL season, counting down the teams one per day in reverse order of our initial 2016 power rankings. No. 1 will be revealed on Aug. 6, the day before the Hall of Fame Game kicks off the preseason.

The Coby Fleener signing sums up my confusion with the New Orleans Saints.

The Saints have been in terrible shape with the salary cap the past few years. Some of it is having to pay a Hall of Fame quarterback (Drew Brees’ cap hit this year is a staggering $30 million), some bad luck (they had to cut Junior Galette last offseason for off-field issues; he counts for $12.1 million of dead money on this year’s cap) but also some gross mismanagement. When you don’t have much cap room, you have to spend it judiciously.

The Saints also have an absolutely horrendous defense. Last season they finished last in yards per pass allowed, and last in yards per run allowed. Stop and think about that for a moment. The combination of those two stats means you do absolutely, positively nothing well on defense. A horrible defense in the NFL should at least be able to take away something from the opponent and pray for the best after that. The Saints couldn’t even take away one thing. Whatever the opponent wanted to do, they did with ease.

The Saints allowed a 116.2 passer rating, which is the highest rating allowed in NFL history. Let’s put this in perspective. The best career rating in NFL history is Aaron Rodgers at 104.1. So on average, every quarterback who played the Saints was a souped-up version of Rodgers. Every quarterback suddenly turned into the most efficient quarterback of all time (and by a really wide margin) once he took the field against New Orleans’ defense.

It was not a new problem, either. The Saints have finished 31st or 32nd in total yards allowed three of the last four years. They finished 31st in points allowed in 2012, 28th in 2014 and 32nd in 2015. They did finish fourth in yards and points allowed in 2013, and no, I still can’t fully explain how that happened.

[Yahoo Fantasy Football is open for the 2016 season. Sign up now]

Now, back to that Fleener signing. How did the Saints react to their historic defensive problems, with a limited amount of salary-cap space to work with? They gave a five-year, $36 million contract to Fleener, a tight end who had an underwhelming 2,154 yards in 17 touchdowns in four seasons, mostly catching balls from Andrew Luck.

My daughter gets gift cards for Christmas or her birthday, and she’ll beg every day to go to that store, and will continue to beg until she finally uses it. She never knows what she wants to buy. She just wants to spend her gift card on anything, basically the first thing she’ll see. It kills her to have some cash and not use it immediately. That’s the Saints in free agency. There doesn’t seem to be any real plan but there is an urgent need to immediately spend whatever cap room they can create. It’s just constant impulse buying like a pre-teen going to Target with a gift card. That’s one reason the Saints are in the mess they are now.

All that said, they still have Sean Payton and Brees. Payton seemed like he had a foot out of the door last year, but stuck around. That’s huge, because he’s still a really good coach. Brees is one of the 10 greatest quarterbacks in NFL history. Seriously, look at his resume, he checks every box you could imagine (we’ll go more in-depth on this idea in a moment). And when you have a coach-quarterback combination that good, you have a path to being competitive.

Still, that defense. Yikes.

Drew Brees isn’t showing signs of slowing down at age 37 (AP)
Drew Brees isn’t showing signs of slowing down at age 37 (AP)

OK, back to the Coby Fleener signing. While it made little sense given the Saints’ other needs, I also do get the idea of keeping your strengths strong. And Fleener should have a career year with Drew Brees, like Ben Watson had last year. Though I also wonder if Fleener is the type of player who will always leave us wanting more. Still, I’d bet Fleener has a nice season.

Maybe linebackers James Laurinaitis and Craig Robertson and defensive tackle Nick Fairley help the defense. Dumping cornerback Brandon Browner almost certainly helps, after his putrid 2015. But Laurinaitis is on the decline, Robertson is good in coverage and provides depth but isn’t a big-impact player, and we’re still waiting for Fairley’s breakout season. Defensive tackle Sheldon Rankins looks like a fantastic pick at No. 12, though we’d have said the same about the Detroit Lions taking Fairley with the 13th pick in 2011. Veterans like Marques Colston and Jahri Evans were aging rapidly, but it’s still tough to part with two great players who helped build a championship foundation. Grade: C-

For as bad as the Saints looked at times, they did go 7-9. Of course, they were 4-8 before the schedule got friendly down the stretch. If they avoid some of the horrendous losses that they suffered at home last year (Tampa Bay? Tennessee? Really?) then they could easily outperform their ranking here. They’ll definitely be able to outscore some teams.

The defense.

I always hear that Drew Brees’ numbers are a reflection of his era. Like that disqualifies him from ranking too high on greatest ever lists. Well, why don’t all quarterbacks in this era put up the same numbers Brees does? There are eight 5,000-yard seasons in NFL history and Brees has four of them. If Brees is putting up video-game numbers simply because he plays in a pass-friendly era, why does he have more 5,000-yard seasons this century than everyone else combined? Brees led the league in passing last season, despite missing a game. That’s his sixth passing title, the most in NFL history. He has the most passing yards per game in NFL history and the highest completion percentage too. If his incredible success is just because of the era he plays in, why is Brees significantly outdistancing most of his peers? Oh, yeah, and he has a Super Bowl ring too. He also practically saved a franchise that for decades was one of the NFL’s worst, which is a big reason he’s the greatest free-agent signing in NFL history. Calling Brees a top-10 all-time quarterback is probably selling him short. Top five is where the debate should begin.

It’s surprising a player as good as Cameron Jordan could be on a defense that was historically bad. Jordan had 10 sacks last year, has 30 the last three years, and is one of the best defensive ends in football. And he’s just 27 years old. If Sheldon Rankins plays like he did at Louisville and linebacker Stephone Anthony continues to develop, the Saints have some good players to build their front seven around.

Cosell: “I thought Drew Brees played well last year. I don’t think there’s a drop-off in the way Drew Brees throws. He was never a big-armed guy. I thought the year before, 2014, there were times I didn’t think he threw it as well. Last year I thought he threw it pretty good and he had a good season. And they’re adding pieces.”

[Click here for Greg Cosell’s podcast previewing the Saints and the rest of the NFC South]

From Yahoo’s Dalton Del Don: “Mark Ingram saw 70 targets over his first four years in the league. He saw 60 last season (catching 50 of them) in just 12 games. It’s huge for his fantasy value if this trend continues into 2016. Ingram has played 16 games just once during his career, but it’s easy to forget he’s still just 27 years old, and there’s little competition in New Orleans’ backfield. He’s rushed for 15 touchdowns over his past 24 games, so he brings value there too. In today’s landscape in which so many committees exist, there’s no reason Ingram shouldn’t be treated as a top-10 fantasy back entering 2016.”

[Yahoo Fantasy Football is open for the 2016 season. Sign up now]

C.J. Spiller, last year’s weird free-agency impulse buy, had all of 351 yards from scrimmage, and 80 came on one overtime touchdown catch against the Dallas Cowboys. There has been a regular complaint for years that Spiller isn’t used enough, which started with his Bills career and continued last year in New Orleans. What’s the common thread here? I’m more willing to believe that multiple coaching staffs, including one coached by offensive guru Sean Payton, haven’t forgotten Spiller is on the roster. There’s probably a reason Spiller doesn’t play as much as everyone thinks he should. But who knows, maybe this is the year the Saints decide to feature Spiller more. If he doesn’t, perhaps it’s not the coaching staff’s fault.

WHEN WILL DREW BREES START TO DECLINE?

John Elway, Joe Montana, John Elway, Fran Tarkenton and Steve Young all retired at age 38. Brees turns 38 next Jan. 15. Brett Favre, Peyton Manning and Tom Brady have forced us to rethink a quarterback’s expiration date, but Brees is entering a danger zone. There are only five quarterbacks who have made a Pro Bowl at age 38 or older, and only two quarterbacks have done it past age 38 (Warren Moon and Favre). Brees’ production late in his career has been remarkably consistent — he’s basically the Tim Duncan of quarterbacks — but time catches up to everyone. A shoulder injury early last year was scary, though Brees bounced back quickly from it and had a great season. Brees will eventually hit the wall, but it would be a surprise if it happens this year. He’s not showing his age yet.

I don’t like the Saints because of their defense. But if the defense goes from historically awful to just garden-variety bad under new full-time coordinator Dennis Allen, the wins will come. It doesn’t matter if Drew Brees’ targets change, his floor seems to be 4,500 yards and 30 touchdowns, and that’s conservative. It’s hard to see New Orleans catching Carolina in the NFC South, but second place is possible with some defensive improvement.

Much like the Chargers, the Saints’ eventual life without their great quarterback is scary. Sure, Luke McCown played well in a Week 3 loss at the Carolina Panthers that was a lot closer than anyone remembers. But the Saints and Drew Brees are synonymous, perhaps more than any player-franchise combination through NFL history. At some point Brees will simply lose effectiveness. Sometimes it happens fast, and if it happens this year the Saints will bottom out.

I’m clearly not high on the Saints, and that’s because I don’t see how their defense goes from what it was in 2015 to respectable in 2016. Perhaps if Dennis Allen does an incredible job coaching, Sheldon Rankins is in the defensive rookie of the year hunt, players like cornerback Keenan Lewis and linebacker Dannell Ellerbe stay healthy and guys like Kenny Vaccaro and Jairus Byrd (who was 2014’s weird impulse buy) make plays, my ranking will be way off and I’ll quickly move up the Saints in the power rankings. But for now I see more flaws in the Saints than I do in the teams above them in my rankings.

32. Cleveland Browns
31. San Francisco 49ers
30. Tennessee Titans
29. San Diego Chargers

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Frank Schwab is the editor of Shutdown Corner on Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at shutdown.corner@yahoo.com or follow him on Twitter!

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