Drilling in: Saints unit by unit analysis

Drew Brees completed 72 percent of his passes last season for the Saints.Photo: Brad Rempel-USA TODAY Sports

A detailed breakdown of the lineup

QUARTERBACKS: Starter -- Drew Brees. Backups -- Tom Savage, Taysom Hill, J.T. Barrett IV.

Brees is coming off a season in which he set an NFL record for completion percentage (72.0), and at age 39 he's entering a season in which he should need no more than a handful of games to break Peyton Manning's career passing yardage record. Savage was brought in to replace Chase Daniel as veteran insurance, and Hill and Barrett are intriguing projects.

RUNNING BACKS: Starters -- Mark Ingram II, FB Zach Line. Backups -- Alvin Kamara, Trey Edmunds, Jonathan Williams, Boston Scott, Terrance West, Shane Vereen.

Ingram and Kamara formed a record-setting tandem a year ago as each had more than 1,500 yards from scrimmage. But Ingram will be suspended for the first four games this year, meaning the Saints must find a replacement as Kamara's sidekick for the first quarter of the season. West was brought in to add an experienced candidate, but it's more likely that a younger player -- Edmunds or Williams, or even sixth-round draft choice Boston Scott -- will be the next in line to carry the ball while also taking on special-teams roles. Line is a valuable blocker who rarely touches the football.

TIGHT ENDS: Starter -- Michael Hoomanawanui. Backups -- Josh Hill, Benjamin Watson, Garrett Griffin, Deon Yelder.

Head coach Sean Payton values the tight ends as blockers and passers, though the Saints haven't had a serious downfield receiving threat since trading away Jimmy Graham three years ago. Finding a receiving tight end was an offseason goal, but the right opportunity to get one never arrived in the draft and the Saints settled for the 37-year-old Watson in free agency. He brings depth and leadership behind Hoomanawanui and Hill. Griffin has an uphill battle to make the team, and Yelder is an intriguing undrafted free agent.

WIDE RECEIVERS: Starters -- Michael Thomas, Ted Ginn Jr. Backups -- Brandon Coleman, Tommylee Lewis, Cameron Meredith, Tre'Quan Smith, Travin Dural, Austin Carr, Dan Arnold, Josh Huff, Keith Kirkwood, Eldridge Massington, Josh Smith.

One of the offseason priorities was improving the depth behind Thomas and Ginn. Meredith was brought in to do just that, especially as a slot receiver, though he will be slowed initially as he works his way back from knee surgery. Tre'Quan Smith might wind up having a bigger impact than Meredith, and Coleman has developed as a blocker but remains inconsistent as a receiver. Lewis made the team last year as a punt returner, but he will have to have a strong training camp and preseason as a receiver in order to keep a spot amid the increased competition.

OFFENSIVE LINEMEN: Starters -- LT Terron Armstead, LG Andrus Peat, C Max Unger, RG Larry Warford, RT Ryan Ramczyk. Backups -- G/T Jermon Bushrod, G/C Josh LeRibeus, T Rick Leonard, T Michael Ola, G Andrew Tiller, G Trevor Darling, C Cameron Tom, C Will Clapp, G John Fullington, G Landon Turner, T Nate Wozniak.

This is one of the strengths of the team, but the depth is questionable. Armstead and Peat have had injury issues, but form a strong left side when healthy. Unger is the anchor, Warford is solid and Ramczyk exceeded expectations in his rookie season even as a No. 1 pick. Only Bushrod and LeRibeus have significant experience among the backups. Leonard is a fourth-round draft choice who played just two seasons on the offensive line at Florida State. Clapp has a chance to stick as a seventh-round draft choice because he can play guard and center and the Saints are thin on the interior. Wozniak is an interesting prospect as a 6-foot-10 converted tight end.

DEFENSIVE LINEMEN: Starters -- RDE Alex Okafor, RDT Tyeler Davison, LDT Sheldon Rankins, LDE Cameron Jordan. Backups -- DE Marcus Davenport, DE Hau'oli Kikaha, DE George Johnson, DE Trey Hendrickson, DE Al-Quadin Muhammad, DE Alex Jenkins, DT David Onyemata, DT Henry Mondeaux, DT Devaroe Lawrence, DT Taylor Stallworth, DT Woodrow Hamilton IV, DT Jay Bromley, DT Mitchell Loewen.

The Saints expect Davenport to be a difference maker. That's why they traded next year's No. 1 draft choice to Green Bay to move up 13 spots and pick him. If he's ready to have an impact right away, he will be part of a formidable end tandem with Jordan, and a deep group with Okafor, last year's starter before being injured, and Kikaha, who has been injury-plagued. The tackle position features three solid youngsters in Rankins, Davison and Onyemata, but it's time for Rankins, who was solid last season, to become an impact player in his third season.

LINEBACKERS: Starters -- WOLB Alex Anzalone, MLB Demario Davis, SOLB A.J. Klein. Backups -- MLB Manti Te'o, WOLB Craig Robertson, SOLB Nate Stupar, SOLB Jayrone Elliott, WOLB Colton Jumper, WOLB KeShun Freeman.

This is one of the most competitive areas of the team as Davis enters as a key free-agent acquisition to battle Te'o. Davis is likely not only to start in the middle, but to be an every-down player. Anzalone, a surprise starter as a rookie last season, Klein, a smart, versatile leader, and Stupar, a special-teams standout, are all coming back from injuries. Te'o and Robertson are solid, dependable veterans. Jumper is a long shot, but he was impressive during the offseason program.

DEFENSIVE BACKS: Starters -- RCB Marshon Lattimore, FS Vonn Bell, SS Marcus Williams, LCB Ken Crawley. Backups -- Nicker CB Patrick Robinson, RCB P.J. Williams, RCB De'Vante Harris, LCB Arthur Maulet, FS Kurt Coleman, SS Chris Banjo, FS Justin Hardee, SS Natrell Jamerson, FS Kamrin Moore, SS Linden Stephens, FS J.T. Gray, SS Sharrod Neasman.

This group features a lot of talent, but not a lot of experience. Lattimore is the reigning Defensive Rookie of the Year and Crawley emerged as a solid starter last season after being a healthy inactive to start the season. Peterson was brought in to be the nickel back and a leader, and P.J. Williams is a promising backup. It will be difficult for both Harris and Maulet to make the team after Peterson's arrival. Marcus Williams had a very good rookie year and is expected to start. Bell is a third-year player who will have to hold off a challenge from Coleman in order to keep his starting position. Coleman will be a key player even if he doesn't win the starting job. Hardee showed potential last season, Jamerson and Moore are draft choices who have a chance to make the roster and Banjo is likely to stick around as a special-teams leader.

SPECIAL TEAMS: K Wil Lutz, P Thomas Morstead, LS Zach Wood, KOR Alvin Kamara, PR Ted Ginn Jr.

The Saints' specialists have stabilized after some uncertainty heading into last season. Lutz showed significant improvement from his rookie season to his second season last year, making 31-of-36 kicks, Morstead had one of the better seasons in his 10-year career and Wood came in last season to stabilize a position that was in a state of flux throughout last offseason. Kamara was explosive as a kickoff returner last season, but the Saints want to limit his exposure on returns. Ginn was disappointing as a returner in his first season with the team.

Comments