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Enemy Intel: Are the retooled Saints better or just different?

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Enemy Intel: Are the retooled Saints better or just different?

Since free agency opened March 10, front offices around the league have been busy retooling rosters and preparing for the upcoming season. Here at CSNWashington.com, we’ve kept a watchful eye on the moves made by teams that appear on the Redskins’ 2015 schedule. Who’s gotten better? Who’s slipped a bit? Let’s take a closer look.

Up today…

New Orleans Saints (Week 10)

2014 record: 7-9.

Key additions: RB C.J. Spiller (Bills), C Max Unger (Seahawks), LB Dannell Elerby (Dolphins), CB Brandon Browner (Patriots), WR Josh Morgan (Bears), LB Anthony Spencer (Cowboys), OT Andrus Peat (1st round pick/Stanford), LB Stephone Anthony (1st round pick/Clemson), LB Hau’oli Kikaha (2nd round pick/Washington) and CB Kyle Wilson (Jets).

Key departures: TE Jimmy Graham (Seahawks), LB Junior Galette (released Friday), K Shayne Graham (unsigned), WR Kenny Stills (Dolphins), G Ben Grubbs (Chiefs), LB Curtis Lofton (Raiders), CB Patrick Robinson (Chargers), C Jonathan Goodwin (unsigned) and RB Pierre Thomas (unsigned).  

Key move: Following a hugely disappointing 7-9 season in a division that was totally winnable, the Saints decided to shake up the roster. Management’s biggest move was also their first: shipping tight end Jimmy Graham, a three-time Pro Bowler, and a fourth round pick to the Seahawks in exchange for center Max Unger and a first round pick. As surprising as the move was, it gave the Saints a two-time Pro Bowler (Unger) at a position of need, another first round selection and some much needed salary cap flexibility.

What it all means for the Redskins: Well, the Saints will certainly have a different look and feel in 2015. But are they better?

That’s hard to say right now.

We can, however, glean one thing from New Orleans' flurry of offseason moves: Coach Sean Payton wants a more ground-oriented attack, perhaps to take some pressure off 36-year-old quarterback Drew Brees, who remains elite but is starting to show slight signs of decline.

Which brings us to what figures to be the key matchup when the Saints come to town Nov. 15: Brees and Co. vs. the Redskins’ retooled defense.

With Max Unger anchoring an improved line, the Saints’ offense will revolve around Brees, wide receivers Marques Colston and Brandin Cooks and, more important, the one-two punch of running backs Mark Ingram and C.J. Spiller, who spent the previous five seasons in Buffalo. Ingram had a breakout year in 2014, notching career highs in rushing yards (964) and attempts (226) and inked a four-year extension in March. Spiller, meantime, is the type of dual-threat back (a la Reggie Bush, Darren Sproles and Pierre Thomas) that Payton has in the past used to exploit mismatches.

Sure, Graham is off to Seattle, eliminating a potential nightmare of a matchup. And Kenny Stills, the Saints' third most targeted receiver last season, is now in Miami. But just take one look at Brees’ new arsenal of weapons and you quickly realize that, on paper at least, the Saints' recalibrated attack could be just as dangerous as the one that ranked ninth in points last season.

 

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John Legend, Lil Jon and other factors weighing on Redskins' decision with free agent Preston Smith

John Legend, Lil Jon and other factors weighing on Redskins' decision with free agent Preston Smith

Edgy describes Ryan Anderson’s demeanor, playing style and music choices.

The Washington Redskins’ outside linebacker and Preston Smith's primary backup desires “hard (expletive)” rap before games while working up a physical and mental lather. Tracks from Mystikal, Lil Jon and “any Young Jeezy” crank through Anderson’s headphones. R&B crooners need not apply.

During this season, one of Anderson’s position coaches offered a musical example of why the second-year defender must modify his habits for a more harmonious future.

“[The coach] told me at one practice this year to stop trying to do so much (on the field),” Anderson told NBC Sports Washington. “Just be John Legend instead of Mystikal or Lil Jon. When you think about that, it makes sense. Be smooth, calm down, be John Legend.”

If the organization believes an Anderson transformation from supporting cast to starter is possible, call it a rap on Smith’s career with the Redskins.

Smith ranks among Washington’s most prominent free agents. The organization showed little initiative in signing the edge rusher to an extension before or during the 2018 campaign.

“I'd love to have [Preston] back for sure, but obviously free agency is what it is,” Redskins coach Jay Gruden said late in the regular season. “He's earned the right to go out and shop himself around, but I'm hopeful that we can get him back."

Slot receiver Jamison Crowder, running back Adrian Peterson and safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix also hit open waters once their contracts expire at the end of the current business year.

From the Redskins' perspective, whether any return depends on salary cap scenarios and perception of replacement options.

Washington has $15.5 million in salary cap space available for 2019 according to Spotrac.com, and a lengthy list of roster needs. Letting Crowder and Clinton-Dix escape creates more holes. The Redskins have a backup option at running back with Derrius Guice returning from injury.

The outside linebacker scenario falls somewhere in between, though no direct battle exists between Smith, a second-round in selection in 2015, and Anderson.

Smith, a three-year starter, played in 81 percent of all defensive snaps last season. He has not missed a game in four seasons.

His backup took the field on 16 percent of snaps last season. Injuries sidelined Anderson for five of 32 career games.

Smith’s four sacks in 2019 set a career-low, yet doubles Anderson’s overall total.   

Despite the limited sack total, Pro Football Focus rated Smith eighth among all NFL outside linebackers last season.

“I still think his future is very bright in the National Football League,” Gruden said.  “He is young, he is strong, he is long, he is smart. Obviously, from a production standpoint, he only had four sacks this year and that's low for a guy like that. But, I think he will get more and more the more he plays."

Anderson’s primary advantage is financial.

NFL.com considers the 26-year-old Smith the 17th best free agent this off-season, meaning a sizable pay raise in his future after concluding a four-year, $5.8 rookie contract.

Anderson, whose rookie contract extends through 2020, is on the books for a $1.7 million cap hit next season.

The Redskins do not need exemplary production from the burly 2017 second-round selection. Receiving a steady and forceful effort as a run stuffer and pocket-collapser works.

“Ryan Anderson has been in and out with the injuries, but he's done solid (work) with his assignments,” Gruden said.

An unwillingly participant in media sessions during his rookie season, Anderson turned engaging with reporters in Year 2. Chatting while seated in front of his locker at Redskins Park, he labeled his sophomore season “up and down,” but also recognized growth with his mental game.

“This year [the game] finally started to slow down for me. (Unlike) last year, everything wasn't a blur,” Anderson told NBC Sports Washington.

Washington often uses its outside linebackers to create a perimeter edge, forcing opposing ball carriers inside where teammates await. That is a good use of the powerful 253-pound Anderson.

Whether the Redskins use him as the 2019 starter is beyond his control.

“I’m just trying to get myself together so I’m in the best shape, so there’s no question about the position when I’m playing," the University of Alabama product said. “I don’t want to go out there and get the snaps I’ve been asking for and then I’m not producing.”

Anderson also plans on letting the assistant coach’s Legend-ary advice sink in.

“I’m a guy that doesn't even really listen to that kind of music,' Anderson said of Legend's soulful fare, "but at that the end of the day it makes sense.”

As does going with the flow until the Redskins sort out their off-season strategy at outside linebacker. 

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2019 NFL mock draft: Redskins roundup in the first round

2019 NFL mock draft: Redskins roundup in the first round

A quick reminder about gauging NFL mock drafts three months out before the actual fun in late April: Focus more on the position than the player.

<<GALLERY: 2019 NFL MOCK DRAFT 11.0>>

Public draft boards remain fluid and will remain in this flexible state for several weeks before hardening in early March after the Combine. Compared to pro scouts and front office personnel, outside analysts are always behind the curve. Opinions change once sources share internal projections and rumors spread.

There is also more time for homework on a concentrated batch rather than all of college football.

Alabama safety Deionte Thompson lived in the top 10 before the college football playoffs. Two games later, mock drafters dropped him into the 20’s after struggles against Oklahoma and Clemson. Kentucky edge rusher Josh Allen, Oklahoma guard Cody Ford, Kansas State offensive lineman Dalton Risner and Alabama running back Josh Jacobs are among the prospects positively trending.

Team needs, however, remain stable for weeks, outside of the rogue trade or contract extension. Clubs are not permitted to enter into contract negotiations with unrestricted free agents until March 11.

With the knowledge of strengths and weaknesses, study how many players at a position of interest are mocked with a general range of your team’s selection. This is more important for now than a specific prospect at a precise draft slot.

Now, it wouldn't be kosher to put entire mock drafts from other entities on our site (Click here for my latest full two-round mock draft).

Instead, here’s a sampling of what football thinkers are envisioning for the Redskins in the first round.

CBS and USA Today: Kyler Murray, QB, Oklahoma

We have a trade. CBS moves the Redskins to the Green Bay’s selection at 12, while USA Today jumps Washington all the way to nine via Buffalo. Both scenarios have Washington selecting a Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback reared in the Big 12 Conference. Apologies for the Robert Griffin III flashbacks.

As discussed here, the Redskins may at least need to jump Denver at 10 and Miami at 13 for a passer, assuming Murray or Ohio State’s Dwayne Haskins slip past the Giants (6) and Jaguars (7).

NFL.com: Malcolm Brown, WR, Oklahoma

Pro Football Focus: JJ Arcega-Whiteside, WR, Stanford

Analyst Daniel Jeremiah states Brown, a true speed threat, makes for a “tempting” option assuming Washington sorts out its quarterback situation. PFF’s Steve Palazzolo writes Washington “needs to replenish their receiving corps and Arcega-Whiteside has one of the best combinations of body control and contested-catch skills in the draft.”

All fair points, but consider me a tad dubious about the Redskins going with a pass catcher at 15. The Redskins certainly need receiver help and more offensive playmakers overall. Adding a veteran ready to help meshes more with a coaching staff and perhaps front office likely putting more of a premium on immediate success after missing the playoffs for a third consecutive season. If slot target Jamison Crowder re-signs, that may eat up any remaining dollars directed for a receiver.

ESPN: Jachai Polite, OLB, Florida

Mel Kiper Jr. sends an edge rusher to Ashburn, specifically Florida’s Jachai Polite, who finished with 11 sacks this season. This need races to the top of Washington’s list should the team move on from free agent Preston Smith, and does not believe 2017 second-round pick Ryan Anderson can handle the gig.

SB Nation: Byron Murphy, CB, Washington

“There are a number areas Washington could address with the No. 15 pick,” writes Dan Kadar. “Cornerback is one of them, and Murphy is pro-ready corner thanks to his instincts and ability to play the ball in the air.”

Again, fair points, and Murphy’s cover skills have some league voice considering him the draft’s top corner ahead of LSU’s Greedy Williams. However…

The Redskins could not really justify a corner in the first round if Josh Norman stays. Now, should they decide the high-priced defender provides more value as a salary cap casualty, then corner becomes a screaming need. It also looks like there will be a handful of corners potentially around on Day 2, including Clemson's Trayvon Mullen.

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