New Orleans Saints 2015 Year in Review: Completely One-Dimensional
The New Orleans Saints' 2014 season was a serious disappointment. They had taken a huge step back after a nice stretch of sustained success, going 7-9 and missing the playoffs.
The hope for 2015 was to make that past season just a small hiccup -- an anomaly rather than the beginning of a downward trend.
There were some major personnel changes in the offseason, though. Jimmy Graham was sent to Seattle in a blockbuster trade that saw the Saints add Max Unger and a first-round pick. They also lost Pierre Thomas and Kenny Stills to free agency, leaving a big void in their passing offense. Other notable losses were Ben Grubbs and Jonathan Goodwin from the offensive line, and Curtis Lofton, Patrick Robinson and Junior Galette on the defensive side of the ball.
To join Unger in filling some holes on the offensive line, they brought in Mike McGlynn and used their 16th overall pick on Andrus Peat. After losing Darren Sproles and Thomas in consecutive years, C.J. Spiller was signed to add another receiving threat to the backfield.
A lot of additions were also made in an effort to shore up their defense, which was among the league's worst in 2014. They made plenty of acquisitions at linebacker, drafting Stephone Anthony and Hau'oli Kikaha and signing Dannell Ellerbe and Anthony Spencer. In the defensive backfield, they brought in Brandon Browner and Kyle Wilson.
New Orleans went on to turn in yet another 7-9 season, finishing third in the NFC South and once again missing the playoffs. Let's take a look at how the season played out, and what they should do moving forward.
A huge bright spot for Saints fans was the play of their offense, which didn't miss a beat despite the large turnover in starters.
Using our Net Expected Points (NEP) metric (which you can read more about in our glossary), they were the second most efficient unit in the league when adjusted for schedule, generating a 0.15 NEP per play. They ranked sixth in Passing NEP per play and 11th in Rushing NEP per play.
While he's doing it without the fanfare he used to receive, Drew Brees is still playing at an elite level. He led the league in passing yards for the fourth time in the last five years with 4,870 while throwing 32 touchdowns and only 11 interceptions, his fewest since 2009. The impressive yardage numbers didn't come at the expense of efficiency, either -- among the 37 quarterbacks to record 200-plus drop backs on the year, Brees ranked sixth with a 0.24 Passing NEP per drop back rate.
Despite the fact that players responsible for over 50 percent of the Saints' passing targets from 2014 were gone, the unit as a whole didn't miss a beat. Brandin Cooks and Willie Snead both stepped up in big ways and saw over 100 targets each. They were both efficient with their opportunities as well -- among the 86 wideouts to see at least 50 targets last year, Cooks ranked 35th and Snead ranked 40th in Reception NEP per target. Ben Watson stepped up to fill the void at tight end, tallying 110 targets and finishing seventh among the 28 tight ends to see at least 50 targets with a 0.72 Reception NEP per target.
Mark Ingram not only stepped into a new role as a receiving back, recording 60 targets through 12 games (his previous career high was 36 targets in 13 games), but he was the team's top back in the running game, averaging 13.8 carries per game. He made the most of those carries, and his 0.07 Rushing NEP per carry ranked ninth among the 72 backs to carry the ball at least 50 times on the year.
Of course, the offense couldn't roll the way it did without being solid up front. Despite losing two starters from 2014, the offensive line turned in a strong year. Notably, third-year tackle Terron Armstead stepped up and had an outstanding season. As a testament to the play of the line, in addition to Ingram finishing ninth, Tim Hightower managed to rank 10th in Rushing NEP per carry on the season despite not having seen game action since 2011.
Our NEP database goes back to the 2000 season. Of the 480 team performances that had encompassed heading into this season, the worst schedule-adjusted Defensive Passing NEP per play was a 0.29 from the 2009 Jacksonville Jaguars. The 2015 Saints demolished that record, posting a 0.36. To put that into context, the gap between the 2015 Saints and 2009 Jaguars is bigger than the gap between those Jaguars and the next seven worst teams in our database.
The Saints finished 2015 ranked 23rd against the run, but that didn't save them from finishing as the worst overall defense in our database as well, with a 0.22 Defensive NEP per play. The gap between the Saints and the 31st-ranked Bears defense this season was as big as the difference between Chicago and the 10th-ranked Bengals defense. It really feels impossible to overstate just how bad the New Orleans defense was this year.
The additions at linebacker failed to have any significant impact and, unsurprisingly, Brandon Browner was an absolutely massive liability when he was on the field.
The New Orleans pass rush was also among the worst in the league. They had only 30 sacks as a team, and produced a sack only once on every 19.13 opposing drop backs, the fifth worst mark in the league.
Drew Brees is 37 years old, and while his window may not be open for many more seasons, as long as he's still playing like he has been, the Saints will be competitive on offense. Receiving mainstay Marques Colston has already been released this offseason, but Brees showed last year that personnel turnover won’t slow him down at all.
Of course, all of the offensive success isn't going to be able to carry an all-time terrible defense.
New Orleans cut ties with defensive coordinator Rob Ryan during the season, and Dennis Allen replaced him for the interim. They have since announced that Allen will retain the position as the official defensive coordinator in 2016, and they will hope that he can provide a boon to a unit that has been the Saints' Achilles heel on more than occasion.
If they can field an even middling defense for 2016, their high-powered offense will keep them right in the thick of the playoff hunt, maybe even allowing them to make another deep playoff run or two to cap off Brees' excellent career.