For the Saints to put the bitter taste of last year’s finish behind them, they’ll need a handful of players to step up and perform up to expectations.
That was often an issue last year. While many players might have played over their heads during the 2013 season, several others regressed and failed to live up to expectations in 2014. A middle ground is going to have to be found for the story of 2015 to have a chance at a happy ending.
There are hopes the defense will rebound this season. For that to happen, New Orleans is going to need these three players to get back on track:
Safety Kenny Vaccaro
Vaccaro’s biggest issue last season was that he tried to do too much.
It wasn’t a lack of talent or understanding. And it wasn’t about the Saints not knowing how to use him or Vaccaro not understanding his role. The reason he’s on this list and many are talking about him needing to bounce back is because his instincts led him astray in a couple of very visible moments last season.
Without those hiccups, the level of concern surrounding Vaccaro is much lower. The good news is that he is well aware of how and why he endured those gaffes, he understands what he should have done differently, and he seems to have learned from it.
To be fair, there were some other issues and growing pains last season when Vaccaro was slotted at strong safety. He was used all over the field as a rookie and mostly covered the slot during his collegiate career. It was a position that was basically new to him.
With those bumps and bruises now behind him, the third-year player should be in good position to bounce back and live up to his potential.
Defensive tackle Akiem Hicks
It’s possible the hype surrounding Hicks during last year’s training camp had him on a track toward disappointment before the season even started.
Entering last year’s camp, the defensive tackle was coming off a season in which he recorded 4½ sacks, leading many to project that he would finish 2014 with a more inflated figure. Instead, he finished the year with two sacks, leaving many to wonder why he didn’t live up to expectations.
The truth is, those expectations were built on false pretenses. Hicks recorded only 17 other pressures during the 2013 season. His sack total was the result of him converting his pressures far more often than what would be considered normal. In 2014, he actually had more hurries and quarterback hits (25), yet finished with fewer sacks. The difference was he produced at what would be considered a normal rate.
Judging Hicks by the number of sacks he records is a faulty way to go about business, but he does have some areas in which he can improve. He needs to push the pocket better this season to help create opportunities for his teammates and continue to bring strong run defense to the table.
With a better secondary and improved line play, he should be afforded more opportunities to do just that.
Safety Jairus Byrd
Even before a knee injury cut Byrd’s season short, he did not appear to be the All-World safety the Saints were expecting during the first month of the season.
Byrd appeared uncomfortable in the scheme, struggled to make tackles, and didn’t make the difference in the passing game many expected.
That should change.
Byrd started the season at a disadvantage, missing most of the offseason program because of a back injury. He then worked as quickly as he could to get up to speed. It never seemed he quite settled in.
Unless his talent somehow evaporated over the past 12 months, Byrd should bounce back and be the Pro Bowl player New Orleans was hoping for. Once that happens, this secondary should get a major infusion of talent.