Saints stuck in 7-9 rut but have faith 2017 will be better

The New Orleans Saints ended the season with a 38-32 loss to the Atlanta Falcons to finish 7-9. Here is a look at the season and what's next:

Grade: C

Season summary: In many ways, it was "Groundhog Day" season for the Saints -- right down to their hideous final performance on defense in the first half on Sunday. They finished 7-9 for the third straight year and squandered another 5,000-yard season by Drew Brees and the NFL's top-ranked offenses. And now, just like last year, the Saints have to sweat out the next few days to see if Sean Payton will remain their head coach or pursue a possible job opening with the Los Angeles Rams or some other potential suitor.

Assuming Payton stays, though, there is genuine optimism from the players to the coaches to the front office that this 7-9 is different than the previous two seasons. Brees and others have compared the vibe around the team to when they went 7-9 and 8-8 in 2007 and 2008 before winning the Super Bowl in 2009.

The Saints are trending upward with some young talent. And they might have even made a playoff run this season if the ball had bounced their way a few more times. They lost seven games by six points or fewer -- two of them including blocked kicks returned for scores.

New Orleans appears to have scored big with its draft class, led by defensive tackle Sheldon Rankins and receiver Michael Thomas. The young receiving corps, led by Brandin Cooks, Thomas and Willie Snead, is as talented as it has ever been in New Orleans. And they're helping to keep Brees young at age 37. He had his best season in five years.

The defense remains a huge question mark after Sunday’s ugly performance in which the Saints allowed 35 points in the first half (the most in the Payton-Brees era) and 323 yards in the first half (the second most in the Payton-Brees era). But up until that massive New Year's Day dud, the defense has finally started to show some promise under new coordinator Dennis Allen after awful seasons in 2014 and '15. DE Cameron Jordan, DT Nick Fairley and Rankins provided a more consistent pass rush. But a few offseason upgrades on that side of the ball should remain the team's top priority.

Biggest draft need: Defensive end. This has been No. 1 for the past three or four years. Jordan was outstanding this season as a versatile pass-rusher/run defender from the left end. But the Saints still need a more dynamic edge rusher on the other side of him, where they rotated veterans such as Paul Kruger and Darryl Tapp this season.

Key offseason questions

Will Sean Payton stick around? The most important question is the most immediate one. Some recent reports have suggested Payton might be intrigued by the Rams opening or others. But it will still take a perfect storm for him to leave New Orleans after he signed an extension worth more than $9 million per year this past offseason. For one thing, Saints general manager Mickey Loomis would have to sign off on any trade with another team -- and would likely require significant compensation in return. So a team will have to really want Payton to get him. And it will have to be the right team. Payton proved to be picky last year when he ultimately decided to stay in New Orleans after seriously considering other opportunities. Perhaps the Rams will be that team, but this isn't a situation where the Saints and Payton are eager to part ways or "blow things up" and go into total rebuilding mode. By all accounts, Payton and management have both been happy with the progress this year and feel like the team can be in position to contend in 2017.

Should the Saints prepare for life after Brees? The quarterback had a fantastic season at age 37, and he seems determined to keep thriving into his 40s. But the Saints signed him to only a one-year extension through 2017. So they need to decide if they want to extend him even further, and they need to decide whether to invest heavily in a successor. The Saints likely will be drafting just outside the top 10, so any QB they draft in Round 1 would probably come with some question marks. Even if they consider trading up, there doesn't seem to be any sure-thing QB prospect in this year's draft class. More likely, New Orleans will consider taking another flier on a mid-round draft pick, hoping to find its version of Dak Prescott or Jimmy Garoppolo instead of Garrett Grayson, who hasn't panned out yet after the Saints drafted him in the third round in 2015.

Can they take the defense to next level? Though they remain woefully inconsistent, the Saints had made some nice strides on defense this year before Sunday's ugly finish (they had ranked 10th in the NFL in yards allowed over the previous seven weeks). And it will help greatly when top cornerbacks Delvin Breaux and P.J. Williams return from injury in 2017. But the Saints could still use another influx of talent on that side of the ball -- starting with an edge rusher and perhaps another cornerback and linebacker. They also need to decide whether to re-sign free agent Fairley and whether to keep expensive safety Jairus Byrd (or possibly work out a pay cut with him). The Saints have some salary-cap space to play around with, since they are projected to start the year roughly $20 million under the cap. But they need to be smarter with any high-priced free agents they sign. Their biggest shortcoming over the past three years has been their poor spending decisions on high-priced free agents such as Byrd, CB Brandon Browner, RB C.J. Spiller and TE Coby Fleener.