“Counterparts to be counted on” is a 32-part series where we the “Front Office” of www.couchpotatogm.com analyze one offensive player and one defensive player on each team that MUST have a particularly strong individual season in 2016 for their respective teams to have a successful 2016 campaign. The Saints have struggled in recent years particularly on the defensive side of the ball. Can they capitalize before the Brees’ window closes?
New Orleans Saints “Counterparts to be Counted On” 2016
Coby Fleener – I considered Fleener a “Role Player” deserving of a home at the start of free agency. However, the fit in New Orleans and the 5-year $36 million price tag suggests that he is a “Counterpart to be Counted On” in Sean Payton’s offense. We saw what Jimmy Graham did after his rookie season in four seasons in New Orleans. He averaged 89 receptions, 1,099 receiving yards, and 12 touchdown receptions. Of course, Graham was traded to the Seattle Seahawks during the 2015 offseason which netted center Max Unger and 2015 first round selection, linebacker Stephone Anthony. Journeyman tight end Benjamin Watson who will be playing for the Baltimore Ravens in 2016 posted career highs in receptions (74) and yards (825) and tied a career high with six touchdown catches in 2015 with the Saints. So as far as Fleener’s fantasy football prospects things are looking very good.
However, the move tight end will have to be more than a reliable target between the 20s to be a difference-maker in New Orleans. In order for the Saints to truly get the desired return on their investment and compete in 2016 he will need to be a force in the red-zone. He will also have to continue to improve as a run blocker as the Saints attempt to control the line of scrimmage and time of possession to help mitigate their defensive personnel concerns. The tight end position is essential in Sean Payton’s offense and Drew Brees makes use of the mismatch the tight end routinely possess against linebackers and defensive backs frequently. Additionally long time Saint, Marques Colston was released at the end of the 2015 season after posting career lows in receptions, yards and touchdowns. The 6’6″ Fleener along with 2016 2nd round selection WR Michael Thomas will be called upon to provide ‘big’ catch radius targets for Brees. As it stands the Top 2 receivers on the Saints’ depth chart are Brandin Cooks and Willie Snead both on the smaller side, measuring below 6 feet tall. Fleener is slated for a career year if he can manage to stay healthy now that he no longer has to share/split snaps with Dwayne Allen. However the following questions remain. Is Coby Fleener a difference-maker? Or a role player?
Jarius Byrd – Do you recall 2009? The year the New Orleans Saints won the Super Bowl. That high powered Saints offense and opportunistic, ball-hawking defense. The New Orleans Saints had hoped to recapture some of that with the signing of Jarius Byrd to a 6-year $56 million deal ($28 million guaranteed) in 2014. But unfortunately the Saints’ 2nd highest paid player (2016 salary) has missed 15 games over the last two seasons and New Orleans has finished 31st in total defense during those two campaigns. Obviously, the Saints’ defensive woes can’t be placed solely on Byrd’s shoulders. The Saints appeared to be on to something with Cameron Jordan and Junior Galette applying pressure on the edge but Galette wore out his welcome in N.O. and frankly no one other than Cameron Jordan has played at a high level consistently. The Saints have too few proven/healthy commodities on defense and two years into his 6-year deal Byrd, a supposed cornerstone piece of the Saints defense has been an utter disappointment. Through his first five professional seasons Byrd had become one of the NFL’s premiere ball-hawks at the safety position. Routinely around the football and forcing turnovers including: 22 interceptions (league high 9 in 2009), 11 forced fumbles, 5 fumble recoveries and 2 defensive touchdowns. The Saints as a team only managed nine interceptions in all of 2015 (tied for 26th in the NFL). In two seasons (17 games) in the “Big Easy” Byrd has managed one solitary interception.
Suffice it to say the Saints are going to need a LOT more from their prized 2014 free agent signing in 2016. The additions of Nick Fairley and 2016 first round selection DT Sheldon Rankins were expected to take some pressure off Cameron Jordan in terms of affecting the quarterback which would hopefully allow Byrd to make a plays on the ball. Unfortunately, Rankins broke his fibula and may miss the entire regular season. At the very least, Byrd and his cohorts including: Delvin Breaux, Keenan Lewis, Damian Swann, Kenny Vaccaro and Vonn Bell must improve the overall pass defense as they gave up the most passing TDs in a single season in league history (45) last year. It looks bleak but Byrd must stay healthy and lead a fairly young secondary. He must do so by being the vocal leader in the defensive backfield and getting them into position as well as playing like his hair is on fire. That means being a better open field tackler, creating turnovers and keeping receivers in front of him. Free safeties are the last line of defense and if the Saints don’t want to get shredded by the likes of Cam Newton, Matt Ryan and Jameis Winston again, he/they had better play at a much higher level in 2016.