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49ers opponents 2016: One last run for Drew Brees, Sean Payton?

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Our review of the San Francisco 49ers 2016 opponents continues on with the New Orleans Saints.

49ers opponents: Cowboys | Panthers | Panthers

The 2016 NFL Combine gets going next week, and we are less than three weeks away from the start of free agency. Since news is going to start picking up shortly, I thought it was a good time to begin our annual review of the San Francisco 49ers upcoming opponents.

We will be providing three breakdowns. This first one will review the previous season for each team. It will also include a list of each team's free agents, and a look at some potential needs heading into free agency and the draft. The second one will come in April, providing a look at where teams are at following free agency, and what the draft means for each team. The third set will come in July, providing a recap of the offseason and a look ahead to training camp for each team.

Today, we move on to the New Orleans Saints. After three straight seasons of traveling to the Big Easy, the 49ers will get to host the Saints at home in 2016. The last time the 49ers host New Orleans at home? The 2012 playoff game. Always a fun memory (we'll ignore the week after).

it was an up and down season for the Saints, to say the least. The team lost their first three games, won four of five, lost four straight, and then won three of four to close the season at 7-9. Football Outsiders ranked their offense No. 7 in the NFL, and their defense No. 32. It was that kind of year as there were stretches where it felt like last team to score would win their games. It led to two of the more entertaining games of the season if you like shootouts. They beat the New York Giants 52-49 in Week 8, and lost to the Carolina Panthers 41-38 in Week 13. Defense is for losers!

Drew Brees put together another big yardage season, overcoming an early shoulder injury and a torn plantar fascia to finish with 4,870 passing yards and 32 touchdowns. It was his lowest touchdown total since 2007, and one has to wonder how much losing Jimmy Graham impacted that number as much or more than the foot injury. The Saints traded Graham to the Seattle Seahawks for center Max Unger last offseason, and while the Saints offense did some big things, I imagine it would have been just a little bit better with Graham out there.

Wide receiver Brandin Cooks emerged as a presence in 2015. In his second season, Cooks finished with 84 receptions for 1,138 yards and nine touchdowns. Willie Snead was another big story, emerging from undrafted free agency to catch 69 passes for 984 yards and three touchdowns.

On the defensive side of the ball, cornerback Delvin Breaux joined the team from the CFL, and led the Saints with three interceptions. It was a pretty awful year for the pass defense, but Breaux was one positive moving forward. They also got a strong rookie season from first round pick Stephone Anthony. He led the team with 112 tackles and is looking like a very solid building block for a defense that has a lot of work in front of it. Second round pick Hau'oli Kikaha had 52 tackles and four sacks as an outside linebacker.

Shortly after the season, word got out that Sean Payton might want to consider a new opportunity elsewhere. He was briefly mentioned in connection with the 49ers, Colts, and Giants, but he finally held a press conference and announced he was going to stay in New Orleans.

Free Agents

Unrestricted free agents: WR Seantavius Jones, OG Jahri Evans, ILB David Hawthorne, S Rafael Bush, TE Benjamin Watson, DT Kevin Williams, OLB Ramon Humber, TE Michael Hoomanawanui, OLB Anthony Spencer, QB Luke McCown, CB Kyle Wilson, S Jamarca Sanford, OG Mike McGlynn, OT Tony Hills, K Kai Forbath, RB Tim Hightower, OLB James Anderson, QB Matt Flynn, CB Christopher Owens, RB Kendall Hunter, RB Travaris Cadet

Restricted free agents: TE Josh Hill, OG Tim Lelito, OG Senio Kelemete, RB Khiry Robinson, OG Ryan Seymour

Exclusive rights free agents: DE Lawrence Virgil, DT Austin Brown

The Saints have a little over $7 million in cap space, with three teams currently holding less space. The big question for them is what to do with Drew Brees' contract. He is entering the final year of his contract and has a $30 million cap figure thanks primarily to a $19.75 million base salary and $10 million in prorated signing bonus on his most recent extension. Considering Brees played well in spite of the plantar fascia, the 37-year old quarterback seems like he has at least two or three more years in him. The Saints could lower his cap figure with an extension, but they also need to figure out how long they want to commit to Brees. It is a balancing act that could lead to hurt feelings, and will need to be managed carefully.

Beyond that, the team released guard Jahri Evans, and has OG Mike McGlynn due to hit free agency. They need to figure out their offensive line no matter who is at quarterback. Tight end Ben Watson is the other notable name, with the grab bag of running backs all potentially in the mix for modest contracts.

Potential Needs

The Saints need to add defense in a big way. Anthony and Kikaha were solid hits in 2015, but the defense could use upgrades at virtually every other position. I suspect a majority of their draft picks end up being on the defensive side of the ball.

On offense, the line was solid enough, but there is turnover with Evans departure, and McGlynn's potential departure in free agency. Additionally, Watson's potential departure could raise the need at tight end. They got strong stuff from Willie Snead and Brandin Cooks, but the Drew Brees offense would always welcome another pass catcher.