The wheels on the 2016 season for the New Orleans Saints are finally seeing some speed as OTA’s have zoomed on by, and they now accelerate towards team minicamp on June 14th.
The Saints have a clear destination that they want to get to; and the plan on how to get there seems simple enough in many regards with the following just being a few:
- Fix one of the league’s bottom-tiered defenses the past two years
- Protect quarterback Drew Brees better
- Improve communication especially on the defensive side of the ball
- Don’t shell out wads of cash in free agency (but when you’re already strapped for additional cash, how can you?)
- Get the most out of the players you already have, in order to groom quality backups and future starters
For the most part, the Saints have been adhering to the path; but just like any fun road trip it has the possibility of becoming a Pro Football version of the classic 1983 film National Lampoon’s Vacation in a heartbeat.
(Go ahead and cue Lindsey Buckingham’s “Holiday Road” song from the movie soundtrack, in your brain):
But hey: every journey is not perfect — and some are filled with some positive pit stops and perilous pitfalls along the way with the Saints already experiencing some of them.
Positive Pit Stops
Those much needed breaks along the highway were a release from the cramped confines of the vehicle, even if you have a 32′ TV in the back of headrests for the kiddos.
The chance to stretch your legs, get a bite to eat, or maybe even discover something you hadn’t planned on was a welcome treat.
The Saints are have some of those along the way too and it’s good to see.
The Addition of James Laurinaitis:
Jun 2, 2016; New Orleans, LA, USA; New Orleans Saints outside linebacker James Laurinaitis (53) during organized team activities at the New Orleans Saints Indoor Training Facility. Mandatory Credit: Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports
When middle linebacker James Laurinaitis was first signed, the groans of fans in New Orleans were unified and for plausible reasons; with the former St. Louis / L.A. Rams star coming off an injury-marred season.
The Saints’ luck with snagging injured players is not the greatest — and he was viewed as a poor fit for what they needed, with second year player Stephone Anthony “clearly” entrenched as the team’s starting middle linebacker.
But the move was later revealed to be one to showcase Laurinaitis as the middle linebacker; and move Anthony over to the “Sam” / strongside linebacker spot, with what so far seems to be positive results.
Let’s just say this: when Brees is giving high praise to a sneaky adjustment Laurinaitis made on the fly in practice, I’ll take it as a good sign.
Laurinaitis has a laid back demeanor while also being very personable and witty, which fits well within the team and the city of New Orleans itself.
He is the leader of the defense without him having to say he is; in a way that echoes shades of former Saints linebacker Jonathan Vilma.
The addition of others like linebackers Nate Stupar and Craig Robertson, who is said to be making plays in OTA’s, should help strengthen a position that has been a weakness for the Saints.
January 25, 2010; New Orleans, LA, USA; New Orleans Saints players in a pre-game huddle prior to the NFC Championship Game vs. the Minnesota Vikings at the Louisiana Superdome. Mandatory Credit: Derek E. Hingle – US PRESSWIRE
There seems to be a genuine attempt by the players to bond together which was, in my opinion, was one of the main reasons they had success during the 2009 Super Bowl season.
We’ve already seen the bow-fishing trips by the defensive line as well the recent go kart expedition that hit a snag of it’s own with the players making the most of it.
When asked the other day about the roster, defensive coordinator Dennis Allen used the phrase “buying in” to describe the progression so far — which is likely something we haven’t seen in the past few seasons to be honest.
In interviews. the players are being asked where do they “foresee themselves” being used; to which they respond, “Wherever they need me”.
It’s a stack contrast from the Junior Galette and the Brandon Browner types that have recently poisoned the team.
Rookie Draft Class
May 26, 2016; New Orleans, LA, USA; New Orleans Saints wide receiver Michael Thomas (13) catches a pass during organized team activities at the New Orleans Saints Indoor Training Facility. Mandatory Credit: Layne C. Murdoch-neworleanssaints.com
So far, the 2016 rookie class for the Saints has been making some real strides coming into the grind of the NFL from college.
Head coach Sean Payton has given some positive words on first round pick defensive tackle Sheldon Rankins and fourth round project defensive lineman David Onyemata, calling them a “quick study” and “smart”.
Recently, both second round pick and Ohio State teammates wide receiver Michael Thomas and safety Vonn Bell have been getting some recognition with their playmaking abilities.
Thomas has been mentioned repeatedly in post practice reports and has gained the confidence of Brees very quickly, especially when it comes to quick adjustments in running route patterns.
SaintsNation.com writer and podcast host Brian Pavek has told me he has a “three year rule” when comes to a draft class, and that is a good barometer to follow, but hopefully this could be one to break that a little earlier than normal.
When you’re putting some travel time in, there are bound to be some bumps and unpredictable mishaps along the way such as flat tires, forgetting something, or the “Dad — I have to pee” five minutes after leaving a restroom.
The Saints are not totally derailed yet, but there is some cause for concern early on if your paranoia meter is sensitive.
A Kikaha To The Groin
Sep 13, 2015; Glendale, AZ, USA; New Orleans Saints linebacker Hau
When the alert went off on my phone that Hau’oli Kikaha had torn his ACL, I happened to be in a class for my other job besides writing for Big Easy Believer; and I’m pretty sure that the sound of me gritting my teeth boomed over the voice of our instructor.
The Saints pass rush last season was lacking and inconsistent at best, with the general consensus they’d either draft one to go opposite Cam Jordan, or sign a veteran free agent.
They did neither and were banking on Kikaha to make the jump from linebacker to straight edge rusher; but now with that scenario no longer in play, they’ll need to hope that players like Kasim Edebali or Obum Gwachum can step in or better yet: step up.
The only thing is Edebali has been woking off the side with a trainer at OTA’s with a possible injury, and Gwachum is relatively new to the position in his second year after playing defensive end for only a season at Oregon State in 2014 — where he started as a wide receiver.
In free agency, the only two names floating as proven pass rushers are Dwight Freeney and Greg Hardy; and I’d be surprised if the Saints don’t at the very least take a look at Freeney.
Either way, it’s a huge blow to a position and player that had some really good promise to succeed this year.
Finding A Security Guard
Dec 27, 2015; New Orleans, LA, USA; New Orleans Saints New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees (9) center poses with guard Senio Kelemete (65) and tackle Zach Strief and center Max Unger (60) and offensive tackle Tony Hills (76) and offensive guard Tim Lelito (68) and tackle Terron Armstead (72) and guard Jahri Evans (73) and offensive tackle Mike McGlynn (77) following win against the Jacksonville Jaguars in a game at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome. The Saints defeated the Jaguars 38-27. Mandatory Credit: Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports
Remember back when it was pretty much a no-brainer who would be starting on the offensive line for the Saints?
The offensive line that used to be a mainstay for New Orleans has been reduced to a question mark; largely due to inconsistent performance and repeated shuffling due to that, or just injuries.
But the microscope of major concern has recently been centered on the offensive guard spot.
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Like pass rusher, the Saints decided not to address that position in either free agency or the draft; but did manage to land some undrafted free agent options like Landon Turner to throw in the mix with veterans like Senio Kelemete and Tim Lelito.
A recent report from NOLA.com’s Larry Holder reveals that 2015 first round pick Andrus Peat has been seeing “all the snaps” at guard on the right side; while Kelemete and Lelito have been used on the left side on first team reps.
Peat seems to have the right spot sewn up unless right tackle Zach Strief flounders — which would open the door for Peat to take over with tackle being his more natural position.
That of course would lead to the search for a viable guard candidate on the right side, and local WWL New Orleans Radio and TV football analyst Mike Detillier has mentioned the Saints bringing back Jahri Evans into the fold.
No disrespect meant to Mike, but I just don’t see that happening; but what I do see is this spot possibly not shaking itself out until well into training camp or even heading into the preseason.
The Former Buffalo Bills Bitcoins Investment
Jun 2, 2016; New Orleans, LA, USA; New Orleans Saints free safety Jairus Byrd (31) during organized team activities at the New Orleans Saints Indoor Training Facility. Mandatory Credit: Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports
A tale of two former Buffalo Bills: one was supposed to turn the defense around while the other was going to open up the playbook on offense.
When safety Jarius Byrd and running back C.J. Spiller both arrived in New Orleans in successive years (Byrd in 2014 and Spiller in 2015), they were heralded signings that quickly turned to heckled ones — as both players suffered injuries prior or during the season that limited or erased their playing time.
I’ll give Spiller a pass for right now, since he did say recently to reporters that he is healthy again; and ready to contribute after being injured in 2015.
Byrd is an entirely different story.
The investment for the high priced free agent have been met with more limitations than contribution; and this season has been dubbed by many as his “make or break” to remain on the roster.
What isn’t helping calm the fires of pessimism is during OTA’s it was reported by NOLA.com’s Kat Terrell that Byrd was sitting out due to rehabbing a knee injury that has hampered him since 2014, the very same one which landed him on injured reserve.
It frankly wouldn’t surprise me if he had another procedure done; although nothing has been reported yet and is pure speculation on my part.
Payton has responded like it’s not a major thing that Byrd is out; and tersely responded to a reporter’s question by saying “he’ll be ready for training camp” but we’ve all heard that one before with not only Byrd, but others as well.
Which of course brings us right back to where we first began our journey with the Saints so far in 2016 — a journey filled with some positive pit stops and perilous pitfalls along the way.
Cue up that Lindsey Buckingham song again…….