Our 2019 NFL Preview nears it’s conclusion as we check in on the New Orleans Saints, who look set to take another shot at Super Bowl glory after a second consecutive postseason ended in heartbreak. After a superb 13-3 campaign and second consecutive NFC South title, the Saints fell in Overtime of the NFC Championship Game to the Los Angeles Rams thanks in large part to a controversial Pass Interference that wasn’t called, leaving virtually the entirety of the state of Louisiana up in arms. In an attempt to put that disappointment behind them, the Drew Brees/Sean Payton Administration appears to have reloaded once again, as their prolific Offense and blossoming young Defense has cemented themselves as the clear-cut favorites to represent the NFC in Super Bowl LIV. However, now in the twilight of his career, does Brees have enough left in the tank for one more run? Will Alvin Kamara be able to carry the load as their feature Tailback? Can Michael Thomas justify the lucrative Contract Extension that he inked in the Offseason? Will the Defense remain on their path of growth? Let’s take a look and find out, shall we, folks?
While a specific, longstanding partnership featuring Quarterback and Head Coach in the Northeast immediately comes to mind, there is another successful tandem down in the Big Easy that has been knocking on the proverbial door for quite a while, and that’s Drew Brees (74.4%, 3,993 YDS, 7.65 NY/A, 32 TD, 5 INT, 81.9 QBR) and Sean Payton. Since the two arrived together in New Orleans back in 2006, the franchise has prospered unlike any other previous point in their history; the Saints have gone 125-83 (.601) over the past thirteen years, including seven trips to the Playoffs, five NFC South titles, and of course, a Super Bowl Championship back in 2009. Brees, for his efforts has been by far and away the most prolific Quarterback in the league during that span, leading the NFL in Completions on six occasions, Passing Attempts four times, Completion Percentage five times, Passing Yards a whopping seven times, and Passing Touchdowns on four occasions. Somehow, the twelve-time Pro-Bowler and two-time Offensive Player of the Year has never earned an MVP trophy, though he certainly came close last year in leading the league in both Completion Percentage (74.4%) and Passer Rating (115.7) at the ripe old age of Thirty-Nine. It begs the question though if he can in fact continue to play at such a high level for the foreseeable future. After all, he’ll be Forty by the time the Regular Season kicks off, and apart from that aforementioned Quarterback in New England, there isn’t much of a precedent for players at that position to be playing at such a level at this stage of their careers. Of course, it certainly helps to have Payton on the sidelines helming what has long-been one of the most devastating Offenses in the league; during his reign in charge, New Orleans has ranked tops in the NFL in Total Offense six times, and outside of the Top-Four just TWICE in thirteen years. Furthermore, we’re talking about a Quarterback that hasn’t really shown signs of slowing down; his Completion Percentage (74.4%), Interception Rate (1.0%), Passer Rating (115.7), Fourth Quarter Comebacks (6), and Game-Winning Drives (7) all represented career-bests, while his QBR (81.9), Net Yards per Attempt (7.65), and Sack Percentage (3.4), each checked in as his best showing in nearly a decade. While he has no doubt benefitted tremendously from his relationship with Payton and the luxury of operating in the same productive system for well over a decade, make no mistake that he is every bit the maestro within it, operating with a surgeon-like precision. And when you have a Supporting Cast like he does, it’s easy to feel younger…
The Future is Now
While the Saints remain flush with young talent on both sides of the football, there are two names in particular who have made their Quarterback’s transition into the latter stages of his career a seamless one, and that’s Alvin Kamara (194 CAR, 883 YDS, 4.6 Y/C, 14 TD) and Michael Thomas (125 REC, 1,405 YDS, 11.2 Y/R, 9 TD). Among the most dangerous at their respective positions, these two playmakers have spent much of the last two seasons absolutely tormenting opposing defenses week after week. With fellow Tailback, Mark Ingram (138 CAR, 645 YDS, 4.7 Y/C, 6 TD), missing the first four games of the season due to a suspension, Kamara exhibited why he is arguably the most versatile weapon in the league, ranking Second in the NFL in Total Touchdowns (18), Seventh in both Total Touches (275) and Yards from Scrimmage (1,592), and Sixth in Total Yards (1,800). While he was featured more heavily as a rusher in 2018, he’s still a nightmare catching passes out of the Backfield, reeling in Eighty-One Receptions on 105 Targets for 709 Yards and Four Touchdowns. Even with Ingram leaving in Free Agency, don’t expect this guy to assume a more traditional role at Tailback with a heavier workload, for the Saints did an excellent job of bolstering their depth at the position with veteran talent, acquiring Latavius Murray (140 CAR, 578 YDS, 4.1 Y/C, 6 TD), who has been a Starter in past stops with the Raiders and the Vikings. A major reason that Ingram left was because New Orleans broke the bank for Thomas, who enjoyed a breakout campaign that resulted in being selected First-Team All-Pro. The 26-Year Old led the league with 125 Receptions, and as a result was inked to a lucrative five-year, $96.25 Million Contract with $60.6 Million in Total Guarantees, keeping him in the Big Easy for the foreseeable future. Providing further support, General Manager, Mickey Loomis, continued his offseason winning streak in signing another veteran playmaker, Tight End, Jared Cook (68 REC, 896 YDS, 13.2 Y/R, 6 TD), who in what was an otherwise dismal season for the Raiders, totaled career-highs in Receptions (68), Receiving Yards (896), Touchdowns (6), and Catch Percentage (67.3%). The 32-Year Old is now on his fourth time in five years, but costing the club just $15 Million over the following two years, is practically a bargain considering what he’s capable of doing in this Offense. Expect fireworks, folks, for there figures to be plenty.
Staying on Schedule
While the Saints’ Offense has been one of the most feared in the league over the last thirteen years, and should be again in 2019, the x-factor for this team’s success over the past two years has been the emergence of their young Defense. As dominant as they’ve been offensively over the past decade and change, this team has generally been pretty lousy on the defensive side of the football, ranking Twenty-Third Overall or worse on eight different occasions, including Thirty-First or worse three times. And that’s precisely how a team that has ranked inside of the Top-Four in Total Offense so frequently has managed to go 7-9 in five seasons. However, that appears to be ancient history, for it’s hard to think of them possessing more quality defensive talent at any other point of the Sean Payton Era. While they were simply above-average last season, ranking Fourteenth in both Points Allowed (22.1 P/G) and Total Defense (349.1 Y/G), it’s the fact that their performance represents tremendous growth, which figures to continue under the watchful eye of Defensive Coordinator, Dennis Allen. New Orleans was one of the nastiest units against the Run, stifling opponents to the tune of 80.2 Yards per Game on just 3.6 Yards per Carry, both of which ranked Second Overall, while also accumulating Forty-Nine Sacks, which placed them in a tie for Fifth Overall. A Secondary featuring Defensive Backs, Marshon Lattimore (59 TKL, 1 TFL, 4 FF, 3 FR, 2 INT, 12 PD), Vonn Bell (88 TKL, 4 TFL, 3 QBH, 1 FF, 1 FR, 3 PD), and Marcus Williams (59 TKL, 1 FF, 1 FR, 3 INT, 3 PD), only got better after a Midseason Trade for former Giants’ Cornerback, Eli Apple (52 TKL, 1 TFL, 1 FR, 2 INT, 9 PD), and figures to continue improving given that each player is Twenty-Five Years Old or younger. Up front, Pro-Bowl Defensive End, Cameron Jordan (49 TKL, 18 TFL, 21 QBH, 12.0 SK, 1 FF, 1 FR, 6 PD), remains one of the most productive at his position, while young Defensive Tackle, Sheldon Rankins (40 TKL, 12 TFL, 15 QBH, 8.0 SK, 1 FF, 1 PD) was borderline dominant before tearing his Achilles in the Playoffs. If the latter can return to his form of 2018 following rehab then this group should wreck havoc in the trenches, particularly if last year’s First Round Pick, Marcus Davenport (22 TKL, 6 TFL, 12 QBH, 4.5 SK, 1 FF, 2 PD), takes steps towards reaching his potential. The aforementioned Loomis bartered away a slew of Draft Picks, including a pair of No. Ones, for the right to select the freakishly-athletic Edge-Rusher out of Texas-San Antonio, only for the Rookie to go thirteen games without a single Start, and miss three more altogether due to injury. Both Payton and Allen have expressed their happiness with Davenport’s development throughout Training Camp, and if he continues to improve, then there is little reason to think that this unit a whole cannot crack the league’s Top-10 in 2019.
2019 Forecast: 12-4
It’s hard to fathom a team in recent memory that has suffered from back-to-back postseason heartbreaks like the New Orleans Saints have; from the shocking Hail Mary against the Minnesota Vikings that buried them in the 2018 NFC Division Round to last year’s controversial non-call on what appeared to be blatant Pass Interference on a crucial late drive against the Los Angeles Rams ended their dreams of Super Bowl glory in last year’s NFC Championship Game, this team sure has experienced the deepest depths of defeat. However, if they’re truly able to put those two dramatically disappointing finishes behind them, then this team, at least on paper, wears the visage of the odds-on favorite to represent the NFC in Super Bowl LIV. For all intents and purposes, New Orleans is LOADED on both sides of the football. Seriously, what more could you want from a contender? Super Bowl-winning Head Coach? Check. An outrageously-prolific veteran Quarterback still operating at the top of his game? Again, check. An Offense littered with playmakers? Once more, check. An ascending Defense built on the backs of glowing, young talent? Yet another check. One of the most decisive Home Field Advantages in the sport? One last check. Provided the Defense doesn’t regress or Bress finally feels his age, and falls off the proverbial cliff, this team should win at least ten games in their sleep. Realistically, the only real deterrent to not securing a second consecutive No. One Seed in the NFC is the difficulty found within their own Division, the NFC South, which for all intents and purposes is shaping up to be absolutely hellish this season. We’ve said it on multiple occasions now, but with the Falcons and Panthers reloading, and the Buccaneers finally appearing to get their act together, there are simply no easy encounters. While they’re still the cream of the crop, that’s six contests that will be crucial for the Saints’ success, for they could be the difference between earning Home Field in the Playoffs, or a less-desirable path to the Super Bowl.