METAIRIE, La. – Over the next week or two, I’ll take an in-depth look at each of the New Orleans Saints position groups, ranking them in order of offseason needs. I asked ESPN NFL scouting Insider Matt Williamson for his insight on each of those position groups.
But first, I asked Williamson for his overall take on the Saints after their disappointing 2014 season -- which was as much of a surprise to him as anyone:
“Well, in the preseason they were my pick to win the whole thing. They were my Super Bowl champion. And obviously that didn’t quite go as planned," Williamson said. "I’m not exactly sure what to pin it on, either. A lot of teams, when they crumble, you say, ‘Wow, their offensive line fell apart’ or, ‘The left tackle got hurt.’ Or some big reason why things changed so drastically. And I don’t know what that one thing would even be with the Saints.
“Obviously their defense was much better a year ago than it was this past year. But is that enough to go from a Super Bowl contender to a top-13 draft pick? And the offense obviously wasn’t as good either. Is coaching involved? Is it [quarterback Drew] Brees? I think a lot of their stars ... there’s such cap issues that it’s a pretty top-loaded team. The bottom of their roster is never gonna carry things. It’s gonna be Brees and [Jimmy] Graham and whoever. And if you look at where all their money is, a lot of those guys really didn’t come through. The guards [Jahri Evans and Ben Grubbs]. Jimmy Graham to some degree, although I think he plays hurt a lot. Brees to some degree. (Defensive end) Cameron Jordan, for sure. And the safeties [Jairus Byrd and Kenny Vaccaro].
“Just those guys I mentioned, they have a lot of resources tied up in those guys. And did any of them play like a Pro Bowler? That’s borderline. I don’t think they did.”
For the record, I completely agree with that assessment, as I’ve written several times in recent weeks. I don’t think the Saints have put themselves in “salary cap hell." But they have invested a large portion of their cap space into a handful of guys that they need to play like Pro Bowlers. And they almost all regressed across the board in 2014.
“It gives you less room for error, as opposed to having the total roster,” Williamson said of the way the Saints have invested their cap space. “And I don’t disagree with the philosophy, either, because in the end all that matters is, ‘Hey, can you get a ring?’ And they had a Super Bowl-caliber roster, I thought, at the beginning of the season. So I’m all for teams taking a shot to make a run, especially because Brees isn’t gonna play forever.”
As for what went wrong on defense, Williamson said:
“My biggest reservation about picking them as Super Bowl champ last year was corner. And I thought [Keenan] Lewis was a quality player. He was one of the few that actually I thought played better than expected. I thought he had a really good year for a majority of the season. And I would call him a No. 1 corner right now, which is big praise. But they had no others.
“And I knew that going into the season, but I figured, ‘Hey, Byrd’s gonna be in deep center field. He’ll make up for a lot of issues. They’ll cause a lot of turnovers. Vaccaro’s gonna be a [Pittsburgh’s Troy] Polamalu, all-over type of guy. (Defensive coordinator) Rob Ryan will dial up a bunch to help that off-corner and their nickel corners. If you only have one major weakness, you should be able to scheme around it.’ But their second and third corners got attacked all year, and they just had no answer for it.”