Saints counting on newcomers at every level of revamped defense

The New Orleans Saints should have at least six new starters when the NFL season opens. Here's a starting lineup projection:


Quarterback (Drew Brees): The 38-year-old led the NFL in passing yardage for the seventh time last season with 5,208 and he is now just 5,830 yards away from breaking Peyton Manning’s career record of 71,940.

Running back (Mark Ingram): Adrian Peterson may be stealing the spotlight, but that doesn’t mean he’ll take over Ingram’s job as the Saints’ lead back. Ingram, 27, ran for a career-high 1,043 yards last season and is a strong pass-catcher and pass protector.

Running back (Adrian Peterson): The Saints are a pass-first team, but I’m putting two running backs in their starting lineup since they have two of their biggest stars sharing the backfield. Peterson, at 32 years old, is determined to prove the laws of aging running backs don’t apply to him.

Wide receiver (Michael Thomas): The second-round pick from Ohio State had the second-most catches (92) by a rookie receiver in NFL history last year. The big target also had 1,137 yards and nine TDs in 15 games.

Wide receiver (Willie Snead): The slot receiver went undrafted and bounced around with three teams before breaking out in New Orleans in 2015. He has a combined 1,879 yards and seven TDs over the past two years and could play a bigger role after Brandin Cooks was traded.

Tight end (Coby Fleener): Had a disappointing debut in New Orleans after signing a big contract in 2016 (50 catches, 631 yards, 3 TD catches). But a full year in the system should help boost his production.

Left tackle (Andrus Peat): This is a guess since the Saints just lost stellar left tackle Terron Armstead to shoulder surgery during minicamp. Peat primarily starts at left guard, but his natural position is left tackle, and he filled in when Armstead was hurt last year. Bryce Harris, Khalif Barnes and rookie Ryan Ramczyk are also candidates.

Left guard (Senio Kelemete): If Peat moves to left tackle, veterans Kelemete and Josh LeRibeus or a young backup like Landon Turner could fill in at left guard. Kelemete is a valuable backup who can play guard, center and tackle.

Center (Max Unger): Unger has quickly emerged as one of the Saints’ most valuable players and leaders after arriving from Seattle in the 2015 trade for Jimmy Graham. He has been sidelined by foot surgery this summer, but the Saints are hoping he’ll return before Week 1.

Right guard (Larry Warford): The Saints’ most expensive free-agent addition this offseason at $8.5 million per year, Warford is a powerful fifth-year pro who was just coming into his prime with the Detroit Lions.

Right tackle (Zach Strief): The Saints drafted their future right tackle, Ramczyk, with the 32nd pick. But the 33-year-old Strief isn’t ready to hand over the job just yet after having one of the best seasons of his 11-year career in 2016.


Defensive end (Cameron Jordan): The versatile 6-foot-4, 287-pounder should be coming off of his third Pro Bowl season. He got left out partly because he had only 7.5 sacks, but he tied for the NFL lead with 17 tackles for loss and ranked in the top seven with 24 quarterback hits and five batted passes.

Defensive end (Alex Okafor): The Saints got the 26-year-old at a bargain rate in free agency after minor injuries marred his first four seasons with the Arizona Cardinals. But he has the potential to fill their biggest need as a weakside edge rusher.

Defensive tackle (Sheldon Rankins): The Saints’ first-round pick in 2016 missed the first half of the season because of a broken fibula, but he finished strong with four sacks and a forced fumble. The 6-foot-2, 305-pounder has breakout potential as a disruptive 3-technique.

Nose tackle (Tyeler Davison): The third-year pro earned a starting job last summer after being drafted in the fifth round in 2015. He started 15 games despite battling foot and shoulder injuries.

Middle linebacker (A.J. Klein): The Saints signed Klein away from the rival Carolina Panthers on the first day of free agency. He was stuck behind stars Luke Kuechly and Thomas Davis in Carolina but made 23 starts in four years, collecting 146 tackles, four sacks, four forced fumbles and an interception.

Weakside linebacker (Dannell Ellerbe): When healthy, the ninth-year veteran has been one of New Orleans’ most dynamic defensive players. Unfortunately, he has been limited to just 15 games in two years because of nagging injuries.

Cornerback (Delvin Breaux): The physical 6-foot-1, 196-pounder emerged as a Pro Bowl-caliber cornerback after migrating from the Canadian Football League in 2015. But he was limited to six games last year because of a broken fibula and shoulder injury.

Cornerback (Marshon Lattimore): The 11th pick in the draft has dynamic speed. But he’ll need to develop fast to earn a starting job since he just turned 21 and had only one full year as a starter at Ohio State. He’ll compete with third-year pro P.J. Williams and veteran Sterling Moore, among others.

Strong safety (Kenny Vaccaro): The 2013 first-round pick has developed into one of the Saints’ defensive cornerstones. He was having one of his best seasons last year with 67 tackles, two interceptions and two forced fumbles before serving a four-game suspension for a positive Adderall test.

Free safety (Vonn Bell): Bell started 14 games as a rookie second-round draft pick in 2016. He had 87 tackles, two forced fumbles and a sack.

Nickel safety (Rafael Bush): I went with three safeties instead of three linebackers because that’s the Saints’ most common lineup. They re-signed the versatile veteran Bush in free agency, but rookie second-round pick Marcus Williams should also contribute as a ball-hawking center fielder.

Special teams

Punter (Thomas Morstead): One of the NFL’s best punters over the past eight years, Morstead’s 47.0 yards per punt rank second in league history. He made the Pro Bowl in 2012.

Kicker (Wil Lutz): The undrafted rookie endured some highs and lows after signing with the Saints in Week 1 last year -- including some costly blocked kicks that weren’t entirely his fault. But he didn’t miss a kick over the final six games.

Long-snapper (Thomas Gafford): The Saints just signed the 10th-year veteran in June to compete with undrafted rookie Chase Dominguez. The position is wide open after the team decided to part ways with veteran Justin Drescher.