The New Orleans Saints have spent the past two offseasons trying to emulate the prior year's Super Bowl champion. Last offseason, the Saints got bigger in the secondary by bringing in safety Jairus Byrd and drafting Stanley Jean-Baptiste, two big defensive backs to play alongside Keenan Lewis and Kenny Vaccaro, just like the unit the Seattle Seahawks deployed to put a stranglehold on the league and win the 2013 Super Bowl.
With the trade of Graham, head coach Sean Payton and the New Orleans Saints are making a huge bet on themselves, assuming that they can continue to produce on offense regardless of who suits up for the team. In the past nine seasons, the Saints have had a top-six offense. The team is gambling that systematic knowledge from their vets, such as wide receiver Marques Colston and running back Mark Ingram, improved play from second-year wide receiver/do-everything-player Brandin Cooks and improved offensive line play will all make up for the loss of the ridiculously talented Graham.
Along with Unger, the Saints are hoping that Tim Lelito can improve, and that first-round pick Peat can step up and take some snaps as well. Payton noticed the amount of duress that quarterback Drew Brees was subjected to last season. Brees had 20 turnovers, and while some of those can easily be attributed to the mental pressure of needing to score 30 points a game to win, some of them were due to the pressure of having defensive ends living in his pocket. Brees was sacked 29 times last season and was constantly trying to make plays in a collapsing pocket.
The Saints have allowed a plethora of offensive linemen to leave the team in recent offseasons, from Carl Nicks to Jahri Evans, and the offensive line has become progressively worse, with issues coming to the forefront last season. The Saints have placed an emphasis on their offensive line, in order to protect their quarterback. With time to operate in the pocket, the team thinks that Brees can get the same production (or better) from less heralded receivers and running backs.
Payton also showed his renewed interest in the running game with the acquisitions of running backs Tim Hightower and C.J. Spiller. Both are reclamation projects of sorts, but Spiller could easily be a steal if the Saints turn him around (a stronger, younger player filling the role Darren Sproles left). Hightower can be a nice power runner to back up Ingram and Khiry Robinson.
Of course, the Saints still have Brees, and they brought back tight end Benjamin Watson along with some familiar faces at receiver. Payton singled out Nick Toon at training camp, expecting a big year from him: "I've said this before, but I think this year will be a good opportunity for him." Cooks is expected to land a bigger role, and with a better offensive line Brees will have more time to hold the ball, which will allow Cooks to get farther down field.
On the defensive side, the Saints lost some other big names, with linebacker Curtis Lofton having left the team and Junior Gallette having been released. But the Saints added some key components. The weakest point on the team last year (maybe even weaker than the offensive line) was the second cornerback position, with everyone who wasn't being covered by Keenan Lewis destroying the Saints. With the aforementioned acquisition of Browner, the Saints fill that spot, acquiring a bruising corner who can take care of that role perfectly. With Byrd expecting to return from an injury, and another year under Vaccaro's belt, the Saints are poised to have a very solid defense. The team also picked up a reclamation project in the secondary, adding safety Kenny Phillips.
Defensive coordinator Rob Ryan said the Saints got too full of themselves after the 2013 season, having "drank the Kool-Aid a little bit too much." He also said, "We did a lot of talkin' last year and got our butts kicked…I know we'll be great, but, hey, we'll just prove it this year." The Saints are expecting Cameron Jordan to bounce back this year. With the addition of Kevin Williams, the team also hopes to beef up its defensive line and run defense. If the Saints can ascend back to the level of Rob Ryan's first year on defense, the team could (and should) be back in the playoffs this year, making 2014 merely a fluke.
Linebacker is where the biggest changes occurred. The Saints made versatility and coverage a priority for linebackers this season after watching tight ends, slot receivers and running backs burn them in the middle all of last year. Anthony looks like he's a stud in the making, and the other rookie linebacker Hau'oli Kikaha only adds more versatility and athleticism at a position that was sorely lacking both last year. Dannell Ellerbe was also added to the roster as a veteran linebacker on what is a nearly completely redone linebacker corps.
After a season like the one the Saints had in 2014, many changes are expected. You don't go from being a perennial playoff team to 7-9 and not reshuffle the deck. Under the direction of Mickey Loomis and Payton, that definitely wasn't going to happen. Trading Graham is a move that completely changed the foundation of the team, but the Saints have used it to strengthen their offensive line and to give a boost to their defense. Payton said about the Graham trade: "Drew understands it would be nice for us to get to 26 points and win by seven instead of being down 10." For his part, Brees seems to be on board, talking on SportsCenter about trusting the Saints and expecting to win another Super Bowl in his career. Youth and reclamation projects are mostly what the Saints could add this year, as they were against the salary cap. But it's a good fit for the Saints this year, for just like younger players and reclamation projects, the Saints have to prove themselves after a rough season.