NFL Summer Reset: New Orleans Saints defense has bounty of problems

By Frank Cooney, The Sports Xchange  |  July 22, 2016 at 12:40 AM
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After two consecutive disappointing 7-9 seasons and a display of the most generous defense in the NFL, the New Orleans Saints open full training camp July 27 with an order to attack.

"We want to be an attacking and aggressive style of defense," said new defensive coordinator Dennis Allen. "We want to try to dictate the tempo to the offense, as opposed to them being able to dictate the tempo to us. We want to play hard and we want to play fast."

Despite outstanding output by quarterback Drew Brees and an offense that ranked eighth in the NFL in points and second in yards, the Saints were outscored, 476-408, hence the losing record.

The defense was dead last in points allowed and, for the second consecutive year, 31st in yards allowed. The Saints gave up more points only once in franchise history, back in 1980 when they yielded 487 points and finished 1-15 with Archie Manning at quarterback.

As head coach Sean Payton welcomes 18 returning starters, including nine on defense, he might find a silver lining in the fact that the Saints played seven rookies and a first-year player on that 2015 defense, with four of them starting.

The Saints allowed 129.4 rushing yards a game at 4.9 per carry.

So it was no surprise when the Saints used two of their first three draft picks on defense, taking Louisville defensive tackle Sheldon Rankin (Round 1, No. 12 overall) and Ohio State safety Vonn Bell (Round 2, No. 61). Later they targeted defensive tackle David Onyemata (Round 4, No. 120), a raw beast from Manitoba, Canada.

New Orleans also acquired two free-agent veterans off last year's Rams roster -- middle Linebacker James Laurinaitis ($8 million, three years) and defensive tackle Nick Fairley ($3 million, one year).

So as not to ignore the needs of Brees, the Saints signed free-agent tight end Coby Fleener (Indianapolis Colts, $36 million, five years, $18 million guaranteed). Fleener, a favorite target of Andrew Luck at Stanford and Indy, should offset the departure of tight end Benjamin Watson (Baltimore Ravens, $7 million, two years).

And after releasing 6-foot-4 receiver Marques Colston, the team drafted another big target for Brees in Ohio State's 6-foot-3, 212-pound Michael Thomas (Round 2, No. 47).

Here is a closer look at the newcomers and key players and how they should factor into the Saints' 2016 team:

TRAINING CAMP SCHEDULE

SITE, LOCATION, ROOKIES, VETERANS

The Greenbrier, White Sulpher Springs, WV, 7/20, 7/27

2015 RECORD: 7-9

DIVISIONAL RECORD: 3-3

COACH: Sean Payton

10th season as Saints/NFL head coach

93-61 overall; 6-4 postseason

STARTERS RETURNING:

18; 9 offense, 9 defense, kicker, punter

OFFSEASON STANDOUT: Wide receiver Michael Thomas.

--While the Saints were in dire need of defensive help in this year's draft, it was easy to see why they used their second-round pick -- the 47th overall selection -- to grab Ohio State wide receiver Michael Thomas. The Saints had a vision for the 6-foot-3, 212-pound Thomas, to possibly succeed all-time leading receiver Marques Colston, and Thomas hasn't disappointed in his first month and a half with the club. He has wowed coaches, teammates and media alike with his route-running and catching -- particularly in the red zone, one of Colston's strengths during his productive 10-year stay with the Saints. Needless to say, Thomas has already become a favorite of Drew Brees, who connected with Colston for more than 700 completions and 72 touchdowns during their time together.

NEWCOMERS

The draft -- A closer look at the Saints' picks (5):

--Round 1/12 -- Sheldon Rankins, DT, 6-1, 299, Louisville

Needing a pass rusher and run-stopper, the Saints may have gotten both. Rankins had 14 sacks and 26 tackles for loss the last two seasons and will get a chance to have an immediate impact on the defense.

--Round 2/47 -- Michael Thomas, WR, 6-3, 212, Ohio State

After releasing 6-foot-4 Marques Colston, the Saints wanted to find a big receiver who Drew Brees can target -- especially in the red zone. Thomas is already looking the part and has drawn praise from Brees.

--Round 2/61 -- Vonn Bell, FS, 5-11, 199, Ohio State

The Saints traded their third- and fourth-round picks to get back into the second round and take this aggressive, ball-hawking defender. He's been impressive and is looking to earn a spot in their three-safety looks.

--Round 4/120 -- David Onyemata, DT, 6-4, 300, Manitoba, Canada

The Saints pulled off another trade to get more help for the defense, this time getting a raw, but explosive player who can play end or tackle. He'll need time to adjust to the American game, but coaches love his potential.

--Round 7/237 -- Daniel Lasco, RB, 6-0, 209, California

Rushed for 1,115 yards and 12 touchdowns as a junior, but was slowed by injuries last season. The Saints liked his versatility and ability to play special teams and he will get a long look when the pads go on in training camp.

PLAYERS ACQUIRED

--K Connor Barth: Will be in the mix to compete for kicking job.

--DT Nick Fairley: Lions' former first-round pick was signed to help add depth to a thin position.

--TE Coby Fleener: A big downfield target for Drew Brees was needed after Benjamin Watson departed.

--S Roman Harper: Back for another stint with Saints; should add savvy to secondary.

--LB James Laurinaitis: Saints jumped at a chance to sign heady veteran who rarely comes off the field.

--LB Craig Robertson: Is expected to add some depth at an area of great concern and help on special teams.

--LB Nate Stupar: Like Robertston, UFA was added for versatility and ability to play special teams.

--DE Darryl Tapp: Pass rushers always a welcome sight in New Orleans.

KEY LOSS: TE Benjamin Watson (16/16)*

--Watson, who had his finest year as a pro with 74 catches for 825 yards and six touchdowns last season, left to sign a two-year contract with the Baltimore Ravens.

OTHER LOSSES:

--LB James Anderson (6/2), CB Brandon Browner (16/16), S Rafael Bush (1/1), WR Marques Colston (13/4), G Jahri Evans (11/11), QB Matt Flynn (0/0), LB David Hawthorne (11/5), T Tony Hills (8/0), LB Ramon Humber (14/4), RB Kendall Hunter (2/0), G Mike McGlynn (12/0), CB Chris Owens (4/0), RB Khiry Robinson (8/0), K Josh Scobee (4/0), G Ryan Seymour (1/0), DT Kevin Williams (16/14)*

Total games played/started lost: 139/73

*Number in parentheses is games played/games started in 2015

-- Frank Cooney, founder and publisher of The Sports Xchange and NFLDraftScout.com, is in his sixth decade covering football and 26th year on the Pro Football Hall of Fame Selection Committee. TSX's network of NFL insiders provided information for this report.

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