The New Orleans Saints tried to add more weapons on offense.
It was one of their biggest priorities last offseason, and they made moved to address their needs. But free-agent receiver Cameron Meredith battled a knee injury that ultimately cut his season short, and rookie receiver Tre’Quan Smith flashed talent but was inconsistent.
It is possible the Saints already have the players they need for a vastly improved group of wide receivers next season, but they can't take it for granted. That's why adding more targets is the Saints' biggest responsibility this offseason.
Having Michael Thomas account for nearly 33 percent of the completed passes would be fine if the next wide receiver on the list caught more than 7 percent of the completed passes. Thomas should continue to be targeted somewhere close to 150 times per season. But the offense needs to find someone who is worth more than 45.
The New Orleans Saints defense will be able to build on its momentum without undergoing significant changes next season.
Perhaps the Saints' greatest achievement this season was hiding this flaw for so long. Everyone knew the offense was devoid of weapons, and then the team added Dez Bryant and then Brandon Marshall. It made sense. The target distribution showed a huge flaw within the offense, but it was hard to get too worked up about anything when the team made scoring 40 points look easy.
Then the bottom fell out in a 13-10 loss against Dallas on Nov. 29. The offense was never the same down the stretch.
“We played some pretty good defenses, and yet I think it’s a fair question,” coach Sean Payton said. “We had a stretch — maybe it was unrealistic to (keep up with) what we were scoring and how we were scoring and that feeling coming off of games like Cincinnati and the Rams early in the year.”
Some of those good defenses figured out ways to slow down Thomas and Alvin Kamara enough while limiting the other weapons enough to stall the offense.
One of the other things that became obvious is that the deep passing game evaporated as the season wore on. Drew Brees posted a 142.0 quarterback rating on passes traveling 20 or more yards through the air during the first 12 weeks of the season. Over the final five weeks of the season, Brees' rating fell to 62.8 on the same passes.
The argument here isn’t for another deep threat, though that remains an integral part of the offense. What the Saints seem to need more than anything is a wide receiver who can get open quickly and win in the short and intermediate areas of the field. If that player can also get deep, all the better. A solid receiving tight end would also mitigate some of the need.
But as the Saints become more of a ball-control offense, these types of players can help mitigate the aging process a little and keep the offense moving as the bumps and bruises pile up in a long season.
Meredith looked like someone who could fit the bill, and the Saints think a lot of Keith Kirkwood. The answers might already be on the roster, but the team has to be sure if it decides to move forward with what it has.
It might seem like a stretch to create panic about a roster that did everything it had to do to make the Super Bowl, but it will be hard to get back to that point unless the offense figures some things out this offseason.
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Figure out the running back situation
Mark Ingram is going to turn 30 during his next contract, which is supposed to be the age when running backs stall out and stop being productive.
But Ingram isn’t like other running backs. He has only averaged 165 carries per season after eight years in the NFL. That has kept some the wear and tear off of his legs. Think about it this way: Ingram only has 92 more career carries than Le’Veon Bell, who has only played five seasons.
The Saints should be aware of Ingram’s age, and if they’re interested in retaining him, they should structure an offer with his age in mind.
But New Orleans (or any other team, for that matter) shouldn’t be fearful of a bad deal with Ingram. They can be smart about how they structure the offer.
Should New Orleans be one of those teams? It depends.
Ingram served a four-game suspension at the start of the regular season, and the Saints failed to find a dependable replacement despite bringing in several running backs to fill the void. The early stretch showed how important he is to the offense.
On the other hand, the Saints did not make a full-blown effort to replace Ingram. They were only looking for a stopgap and almost certainly would have made a more significant effort if they'd been looking to solve a long-term problem.
The question is whether there are better solutions for next season.
Keep the rush strong
It will take some work to ensure the pass rush remains one of the strengths of the Saints' defense next season.
The group came together and helped alleviate some of the issues that arose in the secondary. But ensuring similar success next season will take some work this time around. Alex Okafor is expected to opt out of his contract and reach free agency, and defensive tackle Sheldon Rankins is working his way back from a torn Achilles.
The Saints think highly of their first-round pick, defensive end Marcus Davenport, who flashed at times throughout his rookie season and finished with 4½ sacks in 13 games. The rookie battled confidence issues but will enter this offseason knowing he belongs in the NFL, and with a clear picture of what he needs to do to improve.
The Saints should look to add another edge rusher if Okafor decides to sign with another team.
If Rankins misses a few games at the beginning the season, New Orleans will have a significant task in replacing his production on the interior defensive line. David Onyemata will help carry some of the burden, but that would leave the Saints thin at that position. They'll need more help.
Rebuild depth on the offensive line
The Saints have disguised losses on the offensive line the past few years, but their depth got tested as injuries mounted. By the end of the year, they had a good idea of what their reserves are capable of doing.
Will Clapp and Cameron Tom provide two intriguing players on the inside. It is not yet clear if the Saints and Jermon Bushrod will decide to stick together next season. Either way, some competition, if not upgrades, could be useful in various spots across the line.
Sean Payton spent about three days holed up inside his house.
Guard Andrus Peat is nearing the end of his rookie contract, and center Max Unger set to turn 33 before the start of the season, so the Saints need to develop more players who can potentially grow into starting roles. It is unclear if the Saints see any of the young offensive linemen in that light, though they did work to keep Tom from signing elsewhere last season.
The sixth offensive lineman, whether it's a tackle or guard, has essentially been a starter for the Saints the last few years because injuries have impacted the line. Losing Senio Kelemete through free agency last year was a big hit. New Orleans patched the hole, but it was temporary. The Saints still need a better option.
Address backup quarterback and safety
Brees is 40 years old. The Saints need to take his backup role seriously.
That doesn’t necessarily mean trading for someone like Teddy Bridgewater if Bridgewater decides to leave, but the Saints need to have someone who can win a few games if things go wrong. You have to have an insurance policy if things go sideways with an older quarterback.
The Saints think a lot of Taysom Hill and believe he can develop as a quarterback, but it wouldn’t hurt to have another player at the position.
New Orleans could also use another safety. Vonn Bell and Marcus Williams both played well, but it wouldn’t hurt to bring in more depth behind those two to compete with Kurt Coleman.