Our 2018 Regular Season Preview continues it’s tour of the NFC South with a romp through the Big Easy, where the New Orleans Saints are gearing up for a Super Bowl run after returning to the Playoffs for the first time since 2013. Of course, Sean Payton’s charges came very close to competing for a Lombardi Trophy last season if not for finding themselves on the wrong end of one of the most memorable plays in Postseason History. Rallying back from a 17-Point Deficit in the NFC Division Round at the Minnesota Vikings, the visiting side took a narrow 24-23 lead with just Twenty-Five Seconds left on the clock, only to see Vikings’ Receiver Stefon Diggs come down with a reception on the perimeter, with Free Safety Marcus Williams unsuccessfully batting him out of bounds. Diggs then proceeded to tip-toe the sideline and take the pass Sixty-One Yards to paydirt, effectively ending both the contest and New Orleans’ campaign in the most heartbreaking of ways. However, heading into 2018, there is plenty to like about this team, particularly with a young, maturing Defense that looks to finally stand on equal footing with one of the most prolific Offenses in the league, led by the ageless Drew Brees. And it’s with that said that we take a look at three key storylines that will likely determine whether the Saints have some staying power in their return to the league’s elite, or if last year’s success was simply fool’s gold.
At last, a Defense
After years of ineptitude on the defensive side of the football that ultimately held back one of the most consistently prolific offenses in NFL History, the Saints appear to finally have a Defense on their hands, which is a terrifying proposition when you think about it. During the Sean Payton/Drew Brees Era, New Orleans ranked no worse than Twelfth Overall in Points Scored and no less than Sixth Overall in Total Yards over the duration of the past twelve years, but only ranked better than Twelfth Overall in Points Allowed just twice and greater than Seventeenth Overall in Total Yards Allowed on only three occasions throughout that same period. The disparity had never been more glaring than in the three years leading up to last season’s rebirth; from 2014 to 2016, the Offense finished Ninth, Eighth, and Second in Points coupled with First, Second, and First in Total Yards, while finishing Twenty-Eighth, Thirty-Second, and Thirty-First in Points Allowed along with Thirty-First, Thirty-First, and Twenty-Seventh in Total Yards Allowed. Needless to say, it’s not unreasonable to proclaim that the Saints’ Defense probably cost this team a realistic shot at a Super Bowl Championship. 2017 though, saw Defensive Coordinator Dennis Allen and his charges finally turn the corner, yielding a far more respectable 20.4 Points (10th Overall) on 336.5 Total Yards (17th Overall), including 224.8 Yards versus the Pass (15th Overall) on 6.0 Net Yards per Attempt (16th Overall), along with another 111.7 Yards against the Run (16th Overall) on 4.4 Yards per Carry (28th Overall), all the while registering Forty-Two Sacks (9th Overall) and forcing Twenty-Five Turnovers (9th Overall). So how did they manage such a turnaround, you ask? Well, a dynamite Draft Class is always a good place to start; with six selections in the first three rounds, New Orleans couldn’t miss, picking eventual Defensive Rookie of the Year Marshon Lattimore (52 TKL, 5 INT, 18 PD, 1 TD, 1 FF, 1 FR in 2017) and the aforementioned Williams (71 TKL, 4 INT, 7 D in 2017) to bolster a Secondary, along with hard-hitting Linebacker Alex Anzalone (16 TKL, 1 PD, 1 FF in 2017). This injection of youth coupled with the presence of the few existing talents that remained transformed this unit into an aggressive, playmaking platoon, which should take yet another step forward after adding further talent in last Spring’s Draft, while signing some heady veterans to provide some much needed experience. Payton & Co. spent a pair of First Round Picks in trading up to select uber-athletic Edge Rusher Marcus Davenport to augment their Pass Rush opposite of First Team All-Pro Defensive End Cameron Jordan (62 TKL, 13.0 SK, 1 INT, 11 PD, 1 TD, 2 FF in 2017). Despite playing his collegiate career in relative obscurity at Texas-San Antonio, Davenport is an absolute freak at 6-6, 256 lbs and running a 4.6 40-Yard Dash at the NFL Combine. If Allen can get this kid up to speed quickly, then the Saints should feature one of the NFC’s better Defensive Fronts, with Jordan and Defensive Tackle Sheldon Rankins (26 TKL, 2.0 SK, 1 INT, 1 PD, 1 FF in 2017) wrecking havoc in the trenches. In the event that the Offense finally collapses due to their Quarterback’s advanced age, the Defense finally looks up to the task of picking up the slack.
As great as last year’s Draft Class was for the defense, arguably it’s most significant member plied his trade on the opposite side of the football, where Alvin Kamara (120 CAR, 728 YDS, 8 TD in 2017) set the league on fire in a system that is tailor-made for his unique skillset. The Sixty-Seventh Overall Pick quickly developed into a bonafide playmaker in Sean Payton’s Offense, with the versatile Tailback showcasing threatening speed on the perimeter coupled with the ability to be a dangerous pass-catcher out of the Backfield. Essentially, he was a virtual mismatch on every snap, particularly if opposing Defenses attempted to cover him with a hapless Linebacker, which is like taking candy from a baby with Brees piloting the vehicle. Kamara quickly earned his Quarterback’s favor, reeling in Eighty-One Receptions on a whopping 100 Targets (a very high figure for a Tailback) for 826 Yards and Five Touchdowns, bringing his Total Yardage in 2017 to 1,901 All-Purpose Yards. However, what really made his inaugural campaign special was the partnership that he formed with fellow Tailback Mark Ingram (230 CAR, 1,124 YDS, 12 TD in 2017). The veteran served as the perfect complement to the youngster, balancing Kamara’s explosive outside bursts, with a bruising, one-cut style between the Tackles. Ingram too saw plenty of work as a pass-catcher, hauling in Fifty-Eight Receptions on Seventy-One Targets for 416 Yards, which allowed Payton to create all kinds of chaos in fielding both players on the field at the same time. These two were the prime reason that New Orleans’ Running Game was so damn effective, averaging a robust 129.4 Yards per Game (5th Overall) on 4.7 Yards per Carry (2nd Overall), all the while scoring a league-best Twenty-Three Rushing Touchdowns. With that said, the Saints will have to go through the first four weeks of the campaign without the services of Ingram, who earned a Four-Game Suspension for Performance Enhancing Drugs during the Offseason. Look for Kamara to carry a greater load of the attack in his teammate’s absence, though it’s far more likely that Payton simply utilizes the short Passing Game to supplement what will be lost without Ingram, for there isn’t much residing beyond the two Pro Bowlers, with Trey Edmunds, Daniel Lasco, and Sixth Round Pick Boston Scott rounding out the Depth Chart.
The Immortal Brees
Since arriving in the Big Easy back in 2016, Drew Brees has been nothing short of a modicum of prolific consistency, spending the past twelve years executing a mammoth assault on the NFL Record Books. This is one of those cases in which the numbers speak for themselves, folks; the Eleven-Time Pro Bowl Quarterback has led the league in Completions six times, Passing Attempts, Completion Percentage, and Passing Touchdowns on four occasions apiece, and Passing Yards a whopping seven times. At the age of Thirty-Nine, he has shown no signs of wearing down, completing an NFL Record 72.0% of his Attempts for 4,334 Yards on a league-best 7.53 Net Yards per Attempt, along with Twenty-Three Touchdowns in comparison to just Eight Interceptions, sporting a Quarterback Rating of 64.6 in 2017, benefitting greatly by the presence of that aforementioned dynamic Backfield. While he’s always lacked stereotypical size and a cannon-like arm, the Eighteenth-Year Veteran continues to make plays on the strength of his otherworldly accuracy and anticipation, which only becomes heightened with the offensive focus shifting to the Running Game. Think about this for a moment, folks: Brees attempted the second-fewest Passes in his tenure with the Saints (536), or 137 less than his career-high of 673 in 2016 to be exact, leading to just Eight Interceptions thrown, which is his lowest figure since arriving in New Orleans. Running the ball more also means he’s generally been the recipient of better protection, as he was sacked just twenty times, the fewest since 2009. With all that said, there are still a few things that need to be improved upon, particularly in the form of Third Down Efficiency. You would expect that an Offense with Brees under Center and a Running Game that was a strong as theirs was last season would have no problem on Third Down, but the surprising fact is that the Saints converted on just 37.6% of their opportunities (19th Overall), a steep drop-off from the league-best 48.1% that they posted in the term before. The primary issue was that New Orleans played much of the season without the presence of Willie Snead (8 REC, 92 YDS in 11 Games in 2017), who had previously thrived in the slot, and have endeavored to replace the oft-injured Receiver who left in Free Agency. Cameron Meredith (66 REC, 888 YDS, 4 TD in 2016) missed all of 2017 with the Chicago Bears due to injury, though was added in the Offseason in an attempt to provide a larger, physical presence inside the hashmarks, while former Saint Benjamin Watson (61 REC, 522 YDS, 4 TD in 2017) was brought back for a second spell in the Big Easy to become a more reliable safety valve than Colby Fleener (22 REC, 295 YDS, 2 TD in 2017). If these new pieces can stay healthy and supply their Quarterback with an intermediate outlet in the middle of the field than you can expect Brees to stave off Father Time for at least one more season.
2018 Outlook: 10-6 (Playoffs)
After very nearly advancing to the NFC Championship Game a year ago, it’s no wonder that the Saints are listed as one of the favorites to hoist their first Lombardi Trophy since 2009. After all, there is PLENTY to love about this football team. Drew Brees is about as sure a thing at Quarterback, even at the age of Thirty-Nine. Sean Payton remains one of the elite offensive minds in the game today, crafting gameplans that continue to get the most out of his charges, while vexing the opposition in the process. Mark Ingram and Alvin Kamara form one of the most dynamic Backfields we’ve seen in years, creating a wealth of mismatches, and are sure to do so again once the former serves his suspension. And after years of mediocrity, the Defense has become a positive factor on the strength of host of young talent that only figures to get better with more experience. Oh, and they still enjoy one of most unique Home Field Advantages in the league at Mercedes-Benz Superdome. So yeah, there are plenty of reasons to fall in love with New Orleans this season. However, everything that we just touched upon becomes nullified in the event that Brees finally succumbs to his advanced age. Payton was quick to pounce on Teddy Bridgewater once the oft-injured Quarterback became available after spending Training Camp with the New York Jets, and the fact that he spent a Third Round Pick to do so is awfully telling in his confidence in the players providing depth at that position. Despite the injuries, Bridgewater is certainly capable of keeping the Offense afloat, though it would be unrealistic to believe that he can take them to the lofty heights of the former Super Bowl MVP. Additionally, navigating through the NFC is quite a task, with the NFC South (which sent three teams to the Playoffs in 2017) itself providing no shortage of pitfalls for Brees & Co. And it’s with that said that while we expect the Defense to continue to grow, we feel that the Offense may not hit it’s stride until after Ingram makes his return, and with the potential for Brees to fall off the proverbial cliff becoming more and more real with each passing week, we just can’t see the Saints running the gauntlet at this point, though stranger things have happened…