Crossover Post: Zone Reads and Inside the Pylon Discuss Patriots-Saints

The New England Patriots play the New Orleans Saints on Saturday for preseason week 2. My old college friend and roommate, Dave Archibald, a lifelong Pats fan who contributes to Inside the Pylon, reached out to me, a lifelong Saints fan, for a Q&A session about the teams and what to watch for beforehand.

My answers on the Saints have gone live on ITP. Dave’s answers on the Patriots will run on our site tomorrow.

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What’s Wrong with the Saints?

After the last few weeks, I can no longer pretend the New Orleans Saints’ fortunes this season are a result of bad luck, getting bad breaks at the end of close games. This may have been true early on, but it’s clear the team is overall performing significantly worse than expected this season, and, with the Carolina game as evidence, is capable of even lower lows than I’d previously thought possible. After playing arguably the worst game any team has played all season, a 41-10 home loss to a 3-8-1 team that was somehow not as close as that score suggests, New Orleans sits at 5-8, still with a chance to make the playoffs but with a team that is a total mess.

I’m going to try to take a look at what’s gone wrong this year, from specific problems to general trends. A game this week against a team that’s possibly more dysfunctional than the Saints might help, but they can’t count on that every week, so here’s what they need to honestly examine and start repairing.

 

Offense:

1. The receivers aren’t getting it done

Marques Colston has gone overnight from a receiver with excellent hands and body control to having one of the highest drop rates in the league. Jimmy Graham has disappeared from multiple games and seems increasingly averse to contact. Darren Sproles’ absence has really hurt the team’s ability to spread the field in the passing game. Brandin Cooks had been fine until he was placed on IR, but comparing the draft capital spent on him to the returns some of the other members of the 2014 receiver class have provided has to be a little disappointing.

Kenny Stills is the biggest bright spot, a steal of a fifth-round receiver who was used primarily as a deep threat his rookie year but has strong route-running and ball skills. Still, though, this receiving crew has turned thin overnight, and the team passed on a chance to add multiple parts in the draft this year (more on that later).

2. Brees has made some sloppy decisions

Drew Brees hasn’t declined as much as some observers want to claim, but at a time when the rest of the team seems to be slowly declining as well, any mistakes he makes are magnified. He’s made some baffling decisions that have cost games– think the late interception in Detroit. He’s thrown multiple pick-sixes again.

If the rumors they want to take a QB high in 2015 are true, it only disappoints me even more that they didn’t stand pat at No. 27 and take Teddy Bridgewater. (If there’s one team that should appreciate an accurate, decision-sharp, but physically underwhelming QB, it’s the New Orleans Saints.) Of course, Brees’ struggles are in part due to points 1 and 3…

3. The line is not living up to expectations

The team let Brian de la Puente, a Pro Bowl center and another one of their undrafted free agent finds, walk in the offseason. They’ve generally done well with their next-man-up philosophy to not overpay middling or slightly-above-average talent, but occasionally they miss and don’t have a backup plan. Tim Lelito, a fine run blocker, wasn’t ready to take over at center, so the team signed 35-year-old Jonathan Goodwin back away from San Francisco (after they’d poached the New Orleans free agent a few years back). He has been… adequate.

Jahri Evans and Ben Grubbs aren’t quite playing to their expected level anymore. The whole team is aging, and collectively, each player’s small decline is adding up to a serious decline overall.

4. The play-calling can get silly

Sometimes I think Sean Payton is a little too interested in coming up with clever or creative ways to get one yard. Other times I think he calls too many plays with limited options despite having a quarterback who’s among the best at surveying the field and making the best of multiple decisions. Other times, he leaves Jimmy Graham off the field in the situations he’s designed for.

Payton’s fourth-and-short play calling in the last two years has included a fullback dive, a designed pass to the fullback in the flat, a quarterback sneak by a guy who measures six-foot-even, quite a few tosses or slow-developing stretch runs to Mark Ingram, and, in the coup de grâce for opinions of Payton’s short-yardage play-calling, a third-string tight end getting a handoff on an end-around. Payton seems to love being either overly fancy or utterly predictable in these situations. The Saints are at their best when they do what they do best– namely, give Drew Brees options, and make sure one of those options is Jimmy Graham.

 

Defense:

1. An overall lack of talent

I’d like to take a minute to talk about how the current Saints roster has been a bit hamstrung by two things:

  • The Bountygate penalties stripped two second-round draft picks from the team, players who could reasonably be expected to be above-average starters. (Now that Roger Goodell has been revealed to be a total fraud when it comes to being moral and just in his adjudication, this seems much more unfair. You can read Houston attorney Stephanie Stradley’s excellent series on Bountygate for more detail; this is a good start.)
  • The Saints keep trading up in the first round, and it keeps costing them picks that could be used for depth.

Since 1999, the Saints have traded up six times in or into the first round. (The 1999 trade was all Mike Ditka, but the next five were current GM Mickey Loomis’ decisions, so he bears serious responsibility for this approach to drafting.) Some cursory research suggests this is easily the highest number of any team in this time. What’s worse, they keep doing it even though the results don’t seem to really merit it:

  • 1999: The Saints trade their entire draft, plus next year’s first- and third-rounders, to Washington to move up for Ricky Williams. He is with the team for three years before being traded to Miami, although the team does get a first-round pick back for him. Unfortunately…
  • 2003: The Saints trade their first-round pick (No. 17) and Miami’s first-round pick (No. 18), to move up to No. 6, while also moving up from No. 54 to No. 37 in the second round, and acquiring the No. 102 pick in the fourth round.
    At 6, they select defensive tackle Johnathan Sullivan, who turns out to be a tremendous bust who ate his way out of the league after three seasons. To add insult to injury, defensive tackle Kevin Williams was taken No. 9; he enjoyed perennial Pro Bowls in his prime and is still in the league in his 13th season.
    (Another fun note: While No. 37 selection Jon Stinchcomb enjoyed a fine career as the Saints right tackle, the No. 54 selection was Anquan Boldin, of whom it’s safe to say he’s had the better career.)
  • 2005: The Saints trade No. 16 and their 2006 third-rounder to the Texans for No. 13. They take Jammal Brown, which was a surprise, as most pundits had Alex Barron as the higher-ranked OT. It was the right decision, though: Barron was a bust, as was DT Travis Johnson (the Texans’ selection at 16). Meanwhile, Brown made All-Pro in his second season. Unfortunately, a hip injury sidelined him for all of 2009, and the Saints, confident that 2007 fourth-rounder Jermon Bushrod could handle the job, subsequently traded Brown to Washington for what ended up being a 2011 third-round pick (see below as to how they used that pick).
    As a footnote, the third-rounder the Saints surrendered was used to select Eric Winston, who never reached the heights Brown did as a player, but was a very good right tackle for Houston who never missed a game in seven seasons. So if you’re keeping score, the Saints got four years of Pro Bowl-caliber play by trading a pick that netted seven years of above-average play– and this was one of their most successful first-round trades.
  • 2008: The Saints trade their first-round pick (No. 10) and third-round pick (No. 78) to New England for their first- (No. 7) and fifth- (No. 164) picks. This isn’t much value to give up, but the Saints select defensive tackle Sedrick Ellis, who gives them five mostly disinterested years before retiring when his rookie contract expires. (Rumors were that the Saints wanted to give up a king’s ransom to move up to No. 5 to select Glenn Dorsey, which the Chiefs refused; that would have been much worse simply for the amount of draft capital lost.) Naturally, the Patriots’ selection at 10, Jerod Mayo, has enjoyed a career as one of the better inside linebackers in the league.
    This one has a silver lining, though: the No. 164 pick was Carl Nicks, who was one of the best guards in the league for the four years he was with the Saints, before signing a huge free-agent deal with Tampa Bay. (Tampa Bay being Tampa Bay, he then immediately suffered a toe injury and a MRSA infection that crippled his effectiveness to the point where the team released him (in a mutual decision) in July.)
  • 2011: The Saints trade their second-round pick and next year’s first-round pick for New England’s No. 28 first-round pick, then select Mark Ingram. You probably know how I feel about running backs as fungible assets. You probably also know how I feel about physically mediocre running backs with substandard moves and vision who take four years to finally become effective. An awful decision that even the best running of Ingram’s career hasn’t made look better. (Or the fact that by staying put in the second round, the Saints could have just drafted DeMarco Murray instead.)
    Some bad luck here: The Saints’ third-round pick was No. 72; the No. 70 selection was Justin Houston and the No. 71 was Murray. At 72, the Saints selected Martez Wilson, a similarly-graded prospect whom they released after two and a half seasons and who is currently not under contract anywhere in the NFL.
  • 2014: In the deepest wide receiver draft in history, the Saints trade up from No. 27 to No. 20 to select Brandin Cooks. Cooks was having a fine enough year (if not in the league of the other first-round rookies) until he went on injured reserve, but it’s arguable that the receiver Arizona selected with the Saints’ third-round pick, John Brown, has been nearly as productive as Cooks (and would be just as productive if the Drew throwing to him was named Brees and not Stanton).

I bring up all this in the section on defense because the team likes to make mention of how many undrafted free-agent rookies they find and are able to get contributions out of. Well, it’s time to face the flipside of that coin: They often do this because they have to, because their trading up spreads their draft capital too thin. And this year, those guys have not been getting it done. (To be fair, neither have most of the drafted guys.) When you trade up constantly, you lose the steady stream of day one and two picks that are supposed to be your starters, the core of your team. When you lose that stream, you have to start looking at lower picks, undrafted free agents, and cheap veteran free agents to fill those roles.

Sometimes you get a great contributor (Junior “SACKMAN” Galette has been one of the more valuable UDFAs in recent memory), but more often, you have guys who are simply overmatched. While the Saints have found some late-round and undrafted gems, this well simply doesn’t have a high enough success rate to be able to sustain building a team this way in lieu of day one and day two picks. As a result, the overall level of talent is just not there. There are Pro Bowl players on the defense, but no real star. And once you get beyond the five or so best players on the defense, the cracks show pretty quickly.

2. Jairus Byrd might be a colossal bust

The Byrd signing was a gamble, especially given his history of foot injuries, but if he was able to play at the expected level, he would have been a valuable addition to the Saints’ defense, a center fielder who range would allow the team to mix and match a variety of looks and coverages in front of him. That never materialized. I certainly don’t regret letting Malcolm Jenkins (another first-rounder who never lived up to expectations) walk, but without either one of them, the position is undeniably downgraded.

The real issue is if Byrd can’t rebound: The Saints’ gamble on offering him a major contract may quickly turn into an albatross. Rebuilding will be even harder with the guaranteed money facing Byrd tied to the cap for a player who can’t play.

3. Still can’t find a second cornerback

The team might want to start thinking about finding some new scouting for the secondary, because this isn’t about a lack of capital. The team nailed the Jabari Greer and Keenan Lewis signings, correctly identifying underrated corners who were strong in coverage, but virtually every other move at the cornerback position has failed: from signing Jason David to drafting Patrick Robinson in the first round to drafting Johnny Patrick in the third round to signing Champ Bailey this year (a signing that cost them $500,000 guaranteed for a player who never played a snap) to drafting Stanley Jean-Baptiste this year, none of their significant moves have worked out. The team is getting significant minutes from Corey White (2012 fifth-rounder) and Brian Dixon (undrafted rookie) out of sheer necessity, because so many of their other attempts to find cornerbacks haven’t worked. And, unsurprisingly, they’ve been overmatched. (Greer’s ACL tear, which effectively ended his career, is the hidden explanation for the Saints’ struggles– the team simply no longer has a second capable cover corner.)

The Jean-Baptiste one is the most baffling. As someone who had Phillip Gaines rated as a first-rounder, it’s been a little frustrating seeing him move into Kansas City’s starting lineup while the Saints struggle at the position, but even so, I thought Jean-Baptiste was someone who had enough natural talent to get on the field right away. Instead, he’s played eight total snaps on defense this year. That’s less than one snap a game. I don’t know why SJB can’t get more playing time, unless he’s completely unable to pick up the defense. If that’s the case, it’s unacceptable to use a high pick on someone without verifying that sort of thing. (I admit, in my own ranking of Jean-Baptiste, I failed to account sufficiently for his combination of rawness and age– I can live with a 21-year-old who needs some time to get up to speed, but a 24-year-old needs to be able to contribute almost immediately.)

The only team that’s gotten less contribution out of a corner taken in the first three rounds is the Jets, who drafted Dexter McDougle early in the third round despite the fact that he missed most of his final season at Maryland with an injury, only to see him succumb to another season-ending injury before the year even started.

The Saints simply have to do better at identifying and developing starting-caliber cornerback talent.

4. Nobody can tackle

I don’t know how you teach a team to tackle. I also don’t know how you teach a team to take proper angles of pursuit. These are pretty basic fundamentals; NFL players should know them by the time they get to the Show.

The Saints have a lot of rebuilding to do. It’s possible the Drew Brees era is functionally over, due to the decline of the talent around him. By the time the cap room is cleared and the roster is re-stocked, he may be too old to benefit. For the most part, the Mickey Loomis – Sean Payton team has been able to build a contending roster around Brees that maximizes his skills. As he ages and the talent around him declines, though, it’s time they looked honestly at what they’re doing wrong in roster building and start making the changes that will allow them to return to perennial contention.

This story has been updated to reflect the Saints’ 2005 first-round trade. GM Mickey Loomis has traded up in the first round five times in twelve seasons.

Saints Add Defense: Stanley Jean-Baptiste and Ronald Powell

In the Drew Brees / Sean Payton era, the New Orleans Saints have been one of the best teams in the league, winning at least 11 games in four of the past five seasons. That other season, of course, was the year Payton was suspended as punishment for “Bountygate”, where the Saints had two different coaches as his temporary replacement, and the fallout essentially led to a lost season. During that 2012 season, the Saints defense was in shambles and, by most metrics, graded as the worst in the NFL. Skip ahead to 2013: Rob Ryan has taken over as defensive coordinator from Steve Spagnuolo, and the Saints now feature a top-notch defense. In this year’s draft the Saints used four of their six picks on defense, specifically targeting players who fit Ryan’s scheme. I’ll discuss two guys I liked that they picked up on days two and three, Stanley Jean-Baptiste and Ronald Powell.

 

ROUND 2, PICK 58

Stanley Jean-Baptiste, CB, Nebraska

Stanley Jean-Baptiste is a natural fit in New Orleans just based on his name. Okay, having covered that, we can move on to Ronald Powell… no? You want to hear more? OK.  SJB is a cornerback who fits the new bigger-is-better mold whisked in by the Seattle Seahawks’ championship defense. He stands 6’3″ and plays a physical press technique which Rob Ryan loves to utilize on the outside. For this column, I watched all five of SJB’s tapes available on Draft Breakdown. I saw a number of plays where he played well and some areas where he needs to improve. I’ve left out all running plays because there’s not much to say about them: His play against the run is adequate, with no standout plays or glaring holes.

Let’s start with an area of concern for Jean-Baptiste: his deficiency in running with receivers when he isn’t able to get his hands on them. (Now, as I stated, the Saints are not likely to use him in off-coverage like this, so it may not be a big deal.) In his game against Southern Missouri, SJB plays a ton of off-man coverage. So you see plays like this, where he bites hard on a double move. The receiver drops a perfectly placed ball there, but more to the point, this is not what we want to see out of our cornerback play. In this specific instance, perhaps he was fooled because earlier in the game he jumped a similar route and intercepted it for a touchdown. And on this play, we see SJB simply get burned deep on a slight-hesitation-turned-‘go’ route by second-round pick Allen Robinson. Against the Julio Joneses of the world, this is a touchdown.

Now, by no means does SJB consistently fail in off-man coverage. Again against Allen Robinson, this time in overtime, he mirrors him step for step— admittedly, on a play where Robinson doesn’t get out of his break properly. On another play, while facing one of the craftiest route runners in the nation in Jeremy Gallon, SJB is able to run with him while maintaining his responsibilities the entire time. He plays Gallon very well the entire game. One mental lapse stood out on this play; if you pause right before the snap, you can see only 10 defensive players on the screen, and SJB inexplicably runs with the slot receiver when it is unfathomable that he doesn’t have outside responsibility.

Stanley Jean-Baptiste shines is in press coverage where he’s able to reroute or shut out the receiver. His physicality shows up frequently in the Illinois game. On this play, his jam at the line causes the receiver to completely lose his balance. Here we see him utilize his hands to guide the receiver outside, where he can use the sideline as a defender and shield off any possible idea of an inside move. We see both his strength and weakness on this play, again against Allen Robinson. SJB first gets a nice jam, which forces Robinson further inside; however, both SJB and the safety bite on a double move. Fortunately for Nebraska, this did not result in a touchdown– this time.

The Saints signed center-field safety Jairus Byrd to a 6-year, $54M contract this offseason to pair with the outstanding and versatile Kenny Vaccaro, their first-round pick from the 2013 draft. This pair should be one of the more formidable safety duos in the entire NFL. Rob Ryan’s defense counts on physical play outside with his corners and confusion around the line of scrimmage with multiple different looks up front. With Stanley Jean-Baptiste, I believe they have a player who can step right in and play that left cornerback role opposite Keenan Lewis. And as we’re about to see, with Ronald Powell, they added some flexibility up front as well.

 

ROUND 5, PICK 169

Ronald Powell, ER/LB, Florida

I first looked at Ronald Powell only a few weeks before the draft. Although he’s listed as an outside linebacker everywhere, Powell was used primarily as a hand-in-the-dirt defensive end, which is quite incredible when you realize he measures a mere 6’3″ and 237 lbs. His size didn’t seem to slow him down; he matched up reasonably well against the SEC’s offensive tackles, as we’ll see momentarily. In the NFL, I don’t see the Saints using Powell with his hand down often, but I do believe he has the athleticism and versatility to be used a number of ways in Rob Ryan’s defense. I took a look at Powell’s games against Georgia and Miami from 2013 and Florida State in 2011 (he missed the entire 2012 season due to two ACL tears).

On this first play, I want to show why you wouldn’t want to use Powell much as a true defensive end. It doesn’t require much explanation: Miami’s left tackle simply throws him to the ground, so you can imagine what might happen one-on-one against the Tyron Smiths and Duane Browns of the world. This isn’t to say he’s incapable of it, but it’s not optimal at his size. Powell is often much quicker off the snap than the offensive tackle, as in this play, where he gets a hit on Aaron Murray, disrupting a throw which otherwise results in a touchdown. His technique isn’t sharp, but his speed usually gets him there, as it does in this play against Miami. Here, Powell shoots a gap that opens between the tackle and guard and loops around for a sack.

I want you to watch these back-to-back passing plays against Florida State from Powell’s freshman season. In the first play, Powell wastes a number of steps on his path to quarterback E.J. Manuel and, as a result, is swallowed up by the left tackle. On the very next play, Powell attacks the edge from the outset, and at 1:22 you can that the left tackle has to extend his left arm to push Powell out of the pocket. It doesn’t work, as Powell is able to bend completely around the edge for a sack, showing off both speed and strength in the process.

His strength at the point of attack often depends on the size of the player trying to block him. He’s able to overpower weaker tight ends, as he does here tackling the runner for a two-yard loss. Here, he’s double-teamed by a tight end and running back tandem, and is simply unfazed, staying with the blockers to chase the ball carrier and coming off them to make the tackle. Now, against bigger and better run blockers, such as in this play against Georgia, he can be turned to create a path for the runner. If you watch these entire tapes I believe you’ll notice the same theme.

So far we’ve only seen Powell playing on the edge. As I said earlier, I believe his versatility is what the Saints crave. Florida primarily used him on the edges, but they also also moved him all around the place. On this play, Powell is lined up at middle linebacker. Now, make no mistake: when he is playing inside, he is coming on a pass rush, and the offense knows it. Nevertheless, Powell meets the guard at nearly full speed, and through his lower pad level, is able to briefly stun him. With the help of teammate Dominique Easley clearing away both the center and right guard, Powell is able to pressure the quarterback into a throwaway that nearly draws an intentional-grounding penalty. On a similar play against Georgia, he does draw the grounding flag, as he bursts through the gap on the right side of the offense.

Due to his pass rushing acumen, Powell doesn’t drop into coverage particularly often. When he does, it looks more or less something like it does in this play, where all Powell does is move into the flat with the fullback. I didn’t see a single play where he dropped into coverage over the middle or anywhere except the flats. If it happened, it wasn’t worth noting. I do believe that Powell has the athleticism to play in deeper coverages in limited packages. There’s no stiffness in his movements, as I’m sure you’ll agree. At Saints rookie camp, Rob Ryan has been working Powell out at SAM linebacker; you can read about it in this interview from the Saints’ own website, where Ryan also discusses Stanley Jean-Baptiste and the rest of their rookie class.

 

THE WRAP UP

The Saints only had six picks in the 2014 draft, and as I’ve detailed above, I like both SJB and Ronald Powell. As for the rest: I believe wide receiver Brandin Cooks will immediately be able to contribute to the Saints offense as a nice weapon for Drew Brees. He’s a fairly polished route runner and can get open all over the field (and is crazy fast). His diminutive stature might limit his catching radius and his success on 50/50 balls. I do not see him as the next Steve Smith– perhaps the next Mark Duper, but hey, that wouldn’t be a bad result at all.

I didn’t watch enough of either fourth-rounder Khairi Fortt or fifth-rounder Vinnie Sunseri to comment. (ed note: I watched Sunseri and I saw someone whose instincts, open-field speed, and tackling abilities could make him a special-teams ace. The notes some of our other writers have on Fortt suggest someone whose technique needs improvement and who finds himself out of position, but whose sheer athleticism has been able to make up for it.) The Saints sixth-round pick, Tavon Rooks, is a complete project at offensive tackle. In the only game I watched, Rooks was consistently overpowered by FCS powerhouse North Dakota State’s defensive line. At 6’5″ but only 299 lbs, Rooks will need to add significant core strength before he’ll be able to see the field. Zone Reads editor and Saints homer Nath tells me the Saints have had success developing late-round offensive line picks in the past, and that appears to be the idea behind this selection. (ed: See: Zach Strief, Carl Nicks, Jahri Evans, Jermon Bushrod, Brian de la Puente, Terron Armstead…)

Overall, the Saints had an intriguing offseason. They fortified their defense both via free agency and through this draft class (while also adding a new weapon for the offense). If they are hoisting another Lombardi trophy in New Orleans next year, then it’ll almost certainly be in part because this rookie class was able to produce immediately, along with the continued addition of new players in the secondary and the growth of the ones already there. Of course, in the end, it all comes back to the two guys who have been the foundation of this era of Saints ball: Drew Brees and Sean Payton.