As a result of the lockout eating up a large portion of what is normally the NFL’s free agency period, the 2011 free agent class was sent into total chaos. Events that normally take months to unfold started happening in days, resulting in transactions that may not have unfolded during a regular offseason. While teams aren’t completely done bringing in new faces or re-signing familiar ones, we are now at the point where we can take a step back and begin to examine all of the transactions that the Saints have made since the end of the 2010 NFL season. The following is a breakdown by position group which aims to evaluate how good of a job New Orleans has done improving its roster throughout the offseason. The only position not included is quarterback, since no significant moves were made at that position (we have Brees, other teams don’t, end of story). As always, please feel free to post your own thoughts on the matter in the comments section below!

* – Currently unsigned

Backfield (RB, FB)

Additions/Re-Signings: Darren Sproles (RB), Pierre Thomas (RB), Mark Ingram (RB), Korey Hall (FB)

Departures: Reggie Bush (RB), Lynell Hamilton (RB), DeShawn Wynn* (RB), Ladell Betts* (RB), Julius Jones* (RB), Heath Evans* (FB)

Wow. That’s all I have to say about the Saints’ running attack after the way that this season unfolded. Yes, losing Reggie Bush is unfortunate, but I personally didn’t expect him to stick around. Bush has always been all about the spotlight, and after Ingram was drafted, he was done with New Orleans. He’ll get more touches in Miami, and he’ll get to hang out with LeBron James, who is probably his role model. As for the Saints, what did they do to replace him? Oh you know, only go out and sign one of the more exciting playmakers in football for a bargain price. Much like Bush, Darren Sproles is electric with the ball in his hands, both out of the backfield and in the return game. For just $2 million more than what Bush was scheduled to make in 2011 alone, the Saints get 4 years of Sproles. Fantastic job by Mickey Loomis and Co. to make this happen. The team’s new 4-headed rushing attack of Thomas, Ivory, Sproles and Ingram is one that would make any quarterback drool, and I’m sure Brees is no different. If this group of RBs isn’t enough, the Saints were able to improve at fullback as well. No disrespect to Heath Evans, but with the multitude of options the team has to run the football out of the runningback position, New Orleans’ focus was correctly placed on finding the best run-blocking FB available; Korey Hall fits the bill perfectly. Hall was a fantastic run blocker in Green Bay, and should provide a great deal of help to the Saints’ running game. As for Evans, though he is currently unsigned, I don’t see him staying in New Orleans; very few teams carry two fullbacks.

GRADE: A

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Receiving Corps (WR, TE)

Additions/Re-Signings: Lance Moore (WR), Courtney Roby (WR), Joseph Morgan (WR), David Thomas (TE), Tory Humphrey (TE)

Departures: Jeremy Shockey (TE)

The Saints did what they had to do here. They resigned all of their free agents at these two positions except for Shockey, who became expendable after the emergence of Jimmy Graham last season. While it would have been nice to keep both of them, Shockey was slated to make about $4 million and therefore the team made the smart business move and cut ties with him, allowing them to put that money towards players of greater need. Re-signing Lance Moore was an absolute “must”, and New Orleans ensured he’d remain a Saint by giving him nice job security in the form of a 5-year deal. No big additions here, but the way this passing game has clicked over the past few seasons, none were really needed.

GRADE: B

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Offensive Line (T, G, C)

Additions/Re-Signings: Jermon Bushrod (T), Zach Strief (T), Alex Barron (T), George Foster (T), Carl Nicks (G), Dan Gay (G), Olin Kreutz (C), Cecil Newton (C)

Departures: Jonathan Goodwin (C), Jon Stinchcomb (T)

In a nutshell, the Saints re-signed everyone but Goodwin, but got an upgrade in free agency at his position. Goodwin was the starting center, but he is absolutely not worth the $11 million over 3 seasons that the 49ers gave him, so the Saints wisely let him walk. Matt Tennant, the Saints’ 6th round draft pick in 2010, is who the Saints hope can be his long-term replacement, but for at least this season, the Saints made another fantastic acquisition in their signing of former Bears center Olin Kreutz. To quote ESPN senior NFL analyst John Clayton’s Twitter account, “Adding Olin Kreutz between Carl Nicks and Jahri Evans creates one of the best interior line blocking units in recent memory.” Moving on to guards, Carl Nicks is one of the best in the game, so making sure he didn’t leave as a restricted free agent was obviously a necessity. Bushrod is solid, and with New Orleans’ lack of depth at the tackle position, keeping him in a Saints uniform was important. Retaining Strief is also nice, as he his a capable backup. The rest of this list is mostly training camp fodder (Barron, Foster, Gay, Newton), although Cam Newton’s older brother Cecil may see a greater role than expected due to the fact that he and Tennant are currently the only two centers on the roster. Though the Saints didn’t do much of anything to improve this group, the unit currently in place has done a good job of protecting Brees, so Sean Payton has no reason not to trust them going forward. Seeing an upgrade at tackle would have been nice, but it wasn’t a primary concern.

GRADE: B+

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Defensive Line (DT, DE)

Additions/Re-Signings: Shaun Rogers (DT), Aubrayo Franklin (DT), Jeff Charleston (DE), Cameron Jordan (DE), Greg Romeus (DE), Turk McBride (DE), Curtis Johnson (DE)

Departures: Remi Ayodele (DT), Anthony Hargrove (DT), Jimmy Wilkerson (DE)

Lots of turnover here, but all in the form of vast improvements. Rogers and Franklin will join Sedrick Ellis in what looks on paper to be one of the best 3-man DT rotations in the NFL. Rogers isn’t exactly known for his stamina, so picking up Franklin to give the Saints three stellar defensive lineman was absolutely huge. Speaking of Franklin – the former 49ers lineman ranked in the top 3 among all NFL DTs in run-stopping last season, so it goes without saying that this pickup addresses a gigantic need. No disrespect to Hargrove or Ayodele, but the interior of the Saints’ defensive line just got a lot better; a lot older as well, but definitely better. The outside of the line improved as well, both through free agency as well as the draft. Cameron Jordan, the Saints’ top draft pick, should be able to come in and help immediately. With the team’s top DE, Will Smith, expected to be suspended for the first four games of the season, he’ll have no choice but to learn on the fly to help the Saints overcome that early-season loss. In addition, the Saints added former Detroit Lions DE Turk McBride, a young, solid backup who is of a comparable talent level to free agency departure Jimmy Wilkerson. In sum, the Saints were able to complete a massive defensive line overhaul in a very short amount of time, and should reap the benefits this season in the form of a much-improved run defense.

GRADE: A

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Linebackers

Additions/Re-Signings: Scott Shanle, Jo-Lonn Dunbar, Clint Ingram, Will Herring, Nate Bussey

Departures: Danny Clark, Marvin Mitchell, Kawika Mitchell*, Anthony Waters*

The Saints retained almost every relevant linebacker on the roster and also added a couple new faces – Will Herring from the Seahawks and Nate Bussey from the draft (7th round pick). Herring will likely be a sound backup who should get a good bit of playing time on defense, but will also be a valued special teams member. Also added back to this group is Jonathan Casillas, a young linebacker who showed promise through out the 2010 preseason but suffered a season ending injury in the final preseason game. The only cut thus far has been Danny Clark, a fairly surprising move but likely done to get younger at the position. Thanks to all of these re-signings as well as a field general like Jonathan Vilma at middle linebacker, the unit will have enough depth to hold its own, but it’s no secret that outside linebacker is still a position of weakness for the Saints.

GRADE: C+

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Secondary (CB, S)

Additions/Re-Signings: Leigh Torrence (CB), Johnny Patrick (CB), Fabian Washington (CB), Trumaine McBride (CB), Terraill Lambert (CB), Roman Harper (S), Pierson Prioleau (S), Chris Reis (S), Jonathan Amaya (S)

Departures: Randall Gay (CB), Usama Young (S), Stanley Arnoux (S), Darren Sharper* (S), Matt Giordano* (S)

Lots of names added to the Saints’s list of cornerbacks and safeties, but only three you really need to know for defensive purposes - Patrick, Washington, and Harper. The rest of these guys either won’t make the opening day roster or will be used primarily on special teams. Overall, the Saints definitely upgraded this unit, thanks to a couple key additions at CB. Johnny Patrick was one of the team’s two 3rd round selections, and should compete for playing time with last year’s first round pick, Patrick Robinson, as well as the other free agent CB that the Saints just added. That player, Fabian Washington, played a lot as the nickel corner with Baltimore, and is an exceptional athlete. The CB unit of Greer, Porter, Washington, Robinson, and Patrick is a very formidable one, absolutely one of the NFL’s best. At safety, New Orleans wisely retained Roman Harper, the team’s starting strong safety. Despite his poor showing in the playoff loss against Seattle, he has been an above average player for the Saints throughout his career, he’s still young, and quite frankly, there were no other free agents available who are anywhere near his talent level. The only other notable piece here is Sharper, who still has yet to sign with a team. One side of the coin says he may be hesitant to re-sign with New Orleans because Malcolm Jenkins has established himself as the starter, but the other side says that he may only have a season or two left in his career and returning to the Saints may give him the best shot at one more ring. With or without Sharper, the Saints’ front office has done a great job of making last year’s strong secondary even better.

GRADE: A-

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Special Teams

Additions/Resignings: Garrett Hartley (K)

Departures: Jason Kyle (LS)

Good work by the Saints in locking up a good, young kicker in Hartley for the next five years a modest price (about $2mm/season), but at the same time allowing some flexibility in case things go awry by only guaranteeing about $3mm of that 5-year total. New Orleans also added a few defensive players who won’t get much (if any) time on defense, but will be used to improve a lackluster coverage unit in the kicking game last season.

GRADE: B+

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Overall

As a Saints fan, you can’t be anything but elated about the team’s activity throughout this off-season, both pre- and post-lockout. If I had one gripe, it’s the lack of improvements made to the group of outside linebackers, but the vast improvements made to both the defensive line and secondary should help to cover for any deficiencies from those OLBs. Combine those upgrades with the most potent rushing attack on paper that they have ever had, and you can’t help but be tremendously excited for what’s in store for this New Orleans Saints team in 2011.

GRADE: A

2 Responses to “New Orleans Saints 2011 Off-Season Grades”

  1. awesome!

  2. Great article Mason! A lot of content and good recap of this fast-moving FA period. I agree with the majority of your assessments, however, I think you didn’t dump on the lack of OLB movement enough. I know Casillas and Tez are up-and-coming young talents (Casillas at least), but we are in win-now mode and need that Ready-now backer that can help with the pass rush. Let’s face it Shanle and Clark are not starting quality linebackers. I would have also liked to get a backup to Vilma since it looks like Mitchell wont be retained. I know Jo-Lonn Dunbar played some MLB in college, so i guess he fills that need, but he hasnt really played at the pro level in this integral position.

    Besides this position group I am very saitisfied with the transactions (whether pre-lockout, draft, or post-lockout). I really think P Rob is making huge steps in pushing Tracy for that playing time from what i have heard in the early days of training camp. GWill has been giving him multiple praises. Also look for UDFA WR Jarred Fayson (Another Illinois product – Payton loves his Illinois players) to compete with Adrian Arrington for the 5th spot. Good problem to have!

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