ESPN’s NFL scouting Insider Matt Williamson kept a close eye on the New Orleans Saints this year, joining several of our in-game chats with his thoughts on the team. So I reached out to the former Cleveland Browns scout this week to assess the Saints and their needs going forward.
Here are his thoughts on the offense:
Biggest concerns: “I think priority No. 1 has to be retaining (free-agent tight end) Jimmy Graham. I mean, that’s as big a no-brainer as there is in this offseason. And no matter what they have to do to do that, I assume they’ll franchise him. So I think there’s no chance he leaves New Orleans. I’m not going out on a limb there.
“But what worries me -- two things worry me about this offense. First is their offensive line. (Right tackle Zach) Strief and (center Brian) de la Puente are free agents. And (guard) Jahri Evans is expensive. Could he be a cap casualty or a restructure guy? You know, (rookie Terron) Armstead looked good at left tackle. But if they’re tight on funds, that offensive line could be a problem area. And it showed some warts this past year for the first time in a while.
“I think both free agents are underrated, particularly Strief. And I think he’ll be sought after -- though I’m not sure he’s gonna break the bank or anything. And they certainly could use (something like) a third-round pick on whoever moves on. Supposedly it’s a pretty good center draft. Maybe that’s the approach to take. … I don’t know that you can upgrade the offensive line, but you need to at least maintain it.
“Another problem on offense, everyone just assumes that because their passing game’s so good with (Drew) Brees and everybody (there’s no problems), but I don’t think they’re very good at wide receiver anymore. I mean, (Robert) Meachem’s just a guy, and he’s gonna move on. I think (Marques) Colston’s not as dangerous as he used to be. Lance Moore is starting to kind of fall off the planet. I mean, (Joe) Morgan’s shown some things here and there. But in reality, it wouldn’t blow me away if their first-round pick was a wideout in a really good wideout draft.
“I think (rookie receiver Kenny Stills) could be a potential No. 2, maybe as early as next year. And they also have (Nick) Toon, maybe he’s something. Stills, I think, is best suited -- and I feel like I’m in the minority -- to be the Devery Henderson/Meachem field stretcher guy. He’s not quite as fast as those guys, he’s not a 4.2 guy. But he’s a deep threat. And they always have one of those fast, outside-the-numbers type guys. And I think that’s his role.”
On whether they need a true “No.1” receiver: “I don’t know that they need to have a true No. 1 receiver. And I don’t think that there’s 32 No. 1 receivers on the planet. … But I think that they need the next tier down -- you know, a Stevie Johnson (type). Somebody who’s a quality NFL player who can consistently beat single coverage. But I think draft is the way to go with that, as opposed to free agency.”
On running back Mark Ingram: “I think Ingram is ascending. I think he’s looking much better than at any point. And I think it comes down to health (and the way he’s been used). I’ve always been an Ingram guy. I didn’t agree with them trading up to get him -- I thought that was a little crazy. But as much as I’ve liked their backfield these last couple years, it was almost too much of a tell when Ingram was in the game or (Darren) Sproles was in the game. But when you actually give (Ingram) some space, he’s an effective guy.
“I don’t think he’s the Heisman winner we saw running behind a great line at Alabama. I don’t think he’s going to any Pro Bowls. But I think he can be a lead back for a team. And I think he’s been in a terrible situation pretty much throughout his career.”
On whether the Saints should keep all of their top four running backs or consider releasing Pierre Thomas (the most expensive at $2.9 million): “Of all the possible cap casualties, I think Pierre Thomas would be last on my list of who to get rid of. But maybe you get a fifth-round pick for him from the Raiders or Cleveland, then I would consider it. Because I think (Khiry) Robinson and Ingram both deserve more playing time, and what good does four backs do you if they’re not huge on special teams, either?”
On whether Graham is worth $10 million or more per year: “Yes. I think he’s only getting better, too. … He still doesn’t (fully) know how to play the game yet. He’s never gonna be much of a blocker. We did see him get taken away by (New England cornerback Aqib) Talib one time. But if he’s the best player on the field for 10 to 15 games a year, that’s what he deserves. … His overall durability scares me a little bit. It seems like he’s always had something. And he plays through it, and that’s when his slumps happen. Which is admirable -- I think he’s tough. He doesn’t like to block, but I think he’s got a tough mentality. He’s not a basketball player. He’s a football player that is really aggressive and competitive with the ball in his hands, and he wants to be out there. And he plays probably more hurt than people realize.”
More on Armstead: “He’s ridiculously athletic. I didn’t agree with the move when it happened (to start Armstead in Week 16). But I’m not at the facility every day. I thought there was no way this kid from Arkansas-Pine Bluff was gonna be ready late into the season and into the playoffs. But he was an upgrade, and I’m sure he’ll be much better a year from now.”
On whether guard Ben Grubbs is a Pro Bowl-caliber player: “Yeah, or just under. I think he’s worth the money, I think he’s a high-end starter. He’s the guy I trust most on that line, for sure.”
On whether Drew Brees looks as fine as ever: “I would say 95 percent as fine as ever. I still think he turns the ball over more than he should for an elite quarterback, compared to the (Peyton) Mannings and (Tom) Bradys. But I’m comparing him to Manning and Brady.”