Producing offense has not been a problem with the New Orleans Saints under the direction of coach Sean Payton and quarterback Drew Brees. The Saints are generally among the top teams in offensive yards every season.
It has been the defense that has let the Saints down the last few years, with the team finishing at 7-9 in each of the last three seasons. During the offseason, the Saints attempted to address their shortcomings on defense through free agency and the draft.
Now, as the team gets in the preparation mode for the 2017 season, here are three Saints players primed for breakout seasons.
Willie Snead, WR
The Saints already have a No. 1 receiver in second-year Michael Thomas, and Ted Ginn Jr. is expected to fill the speed role as the team’s No. 2 receiver. Snead is someone who could benefit from playing with them.
Snead was third on the team in 2016 with 72 catches for 895 yards, and he was tied for third with four touchdown grabs. He’s not the biggest (5-foot-11, 195 pounds) or the fastest, but Snead finds a way to get into open space. All he needs to do is create a little separation for Brees to find him.
Entering his third season, Snead should have a better grasp on what NFL defenders will try to do against him. With Thomas and Ginn making defenses worry about the outside, that should give Snead a lot of room to maneuver on the inside and under routes. He could be in a for an even better season than 2016.
Sheldon Rankins, DT
There were high expectations for Rankins when he was taken with the No. 12–overall pick in 2016. But a broken leg during practice prior to the season landed Rankins on the short-term injured reserve list. He returned for the last nine games and was able to manage 20 tackles with four sacks.
Now healthy and teaming again with Nick Fairley, Rankins should help give the Saints some push up the middle from the start of the season.
Disrupting offenses is what he has been doing since his days at Louisville. Rankins racked up 133 tackles, 31.5 tackles for losses and 18 sacks in 46 games at Louisville.
Last season, he had a career-high five tackles against Carolina and had four in the final meeting against Tampa Bay, including one of his sacks.
If he continues to raise his game against NFC South opponents, that is going to mean good news for a defense that was 31st in points allowed and 27th in yards allowed in 2016.
Coby Fleener, TE
While the Saints don’t have a wide receiver-like tight end as they once had in Jimmy Graham, Fleener is more than capable of doing his share. Fleener was fourth on the team with 50 catches for 631 yards last season and added three touchdowns.
Fleener is big (6-6, 251 pounds), so his height gives him an advantage over many linebackers and safeties. Since his days at Indianapolis, Fleener has always been a pass-catching tight end. Thus, his catch total suggests that Brees had confidence in him last season. His average of 12.6 yards per catch was the second highest in his five-year career.
With the Saints adding Adrian Peterson in the backfield, the hope is that teams will have to drop a safety down in the box to stop the Pro Bowl back. Fleener won’t have to worry about teams double covering him like they did Graham, and with defenses having to pay attention to Thomas and Ginn as well, that should leave a lot of room for the tight end to take advantage.