8:15 PM EST, ESPN – Line: Saints -6, Over/Under: 49
Week Two of the NFL concludes tonight in Sin City as the New Orleans Saints head west to face the Las Vegas Raiders in the grand opening of their new home, Allegiant Stadium in Las Vegas, Nevada. By now we’ve become rather familiar with the story of the Saints (1-0, 1st in the NFC South), who look to keep their championship window open yet one more season while putting behind them some crushing postseason defeats. In winning the formerly parity-filled NFC South in each the last three seasons and compiling a league-best 37-11 (.771) during that period, New Orleans has been the most successful franchise in the National Football League… during the Regular Season. However, the quality that they’ve routinely exhibited on the gridiron has yet to translate into the Playoffs, where they’ve come up short in just about every way imaginable. In 2018, it was a catastrophic missed tackle leading to a walk-off 61-yard touchdown that finished them off in the Division Round at Minnesota. In 2019, it was an inexcusably blown Pass Interference that kept them from taking the lead at home against the Rams in the NFC Championship, ultimately falling in overtime. And then back in January, they perished once more against the Vikings, this time at home in the Wild Card, with a failed 4th Down sealing their fate. Notice a pattern here? Despite all their firepower and experience, this has become a team that when the pressure is on them has either crumbled, ran out of gas, or been simply unlucky. So how can they ensure that this season will be different from it’s predecessors?
After their latest postseason gaffe, the prevailing feeling around this franchise is of one that is running out of time. After all, their longtime Quarterback, Drew Brees (60.0%, 160 YDS, 4.87 NY/A, 2 TD, 0 INT), has been performing at a high level in what for all intents and purposes should be the twilight of his esteemed career for a few years now, and at the ripe old age of 41 (he’ll be 42 by the time the Playoffs start) the fear that he could fall off the proverbial cliff at any given moment is a very real concern. However, the thirteen-time Pro Bowler has defied age for years now, leading the league in completion percentage for three seasons running, all the while piloting an Offense that has finished no lower than Fourth Overall in Points since 2016. So how do you help an aging Quarterback, you ask? Supply him with a plethora of talent, that’s how, and Head Coach, Sean Payton, and the Front Office have done a solid job of doing precisely that over the past few years. Once a weekly punchline, the Defense has improved by leaps and bounds since 2017, ranking Seventeenth, Fourteenth, and Eleventh Overall over the past three campaigns. The skill positions have been bolstered considerably around him, with New Orleans finding All-Pro Wideout, Michael Thomas (3 REC, 17 YDS, 5.7 Y/R, 0 TD), and versatile Tailback, Alvin Kamara (17 Touch, 67 YDS, 3.9 Y/Tch, 2 TD), in successive Drafts. Since 2017, Thomas has been the most prolific pass-catcher in the league, hauling a ridiculous 378 receptions for 4,375 yards and twenty-three touchdowns, punctuated by an NFL-record 149 catches in 2019, in which he also led the league with 1,725 receiving yards. Kamara on the other hand, has been as versatile a weapon as you could imagine out of the Backfield, reeling in exactly eighty-one receptions in each of his first three seasons with the club, averaging a healthy 99.5 Yards from Scrimmage per Game on 6.1 Yards per Touch, while hitting pay-dirt on thirty-seven occasions. And with that said, is it any wonder that the Saints tied him down on a five-year/$75 million extension with $34.3 million in guarantees? Oh, and they also managed to keep adding talent, acquiring veteran Receiver and former Super Bowl Champion, Emmanuel Sanders (3 REC, 15 YDS, 5.0 Y/R, 1 TD), on a two-year/$24 million deal ($10 million guaranteed), in an attempt to provide some alternatives to Thomas in the passing game, which unfortunately after the Season Opener, just became all the more imperative…
“I’d probably say I played awful… Certainly, we are used to playing at a much higher level offensively and especially in the passing game. So, we’ll get that back on track.”Drew Brees, New Orleans Saints Quarterback
Insurance policies are never a bad thing, particularly when you have a Quarterback over the age of forty, and that same notion also applies to players that you rely upon heavily. This, of course, brings us to the aforementioned Thomas, who at times last season appeared to be the ONLY Saint catching passes from Brees. As prolific a tandem as they’ve been, it also made them fairly predictable in the passing game, which allowed opposing defenses to key in on the 27-year old Wideout. Well, that’s one happened in New Orleans’ 34-23 victory over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers last Sunday. Overshadowed by the first matchup between 40-year old Quarterbacks in NFL History, was a significant blow to the Saints’ Offense, as Thomas suffered a high ankle sprain that is threatening to keep him sidelined for at least the next three weeks. Payton certainly understands the value of having other options, which was the case last year when Brees suffered a broken bone on his right thumb in the second week of the campaign. While losing their Quarterback for five weeks is typically a death sentence for most outfits, that wasn’t the case here, for Teddy Bridgewater rose to the occasion and went and undefeated 5-0 in place of Brees. Fast forward a year, and the same thing appears to have to Thomas, with Sanders being counted upon to fill the void, which he did against Tampa; leading 24-17 early in the Fourth Quarter, the two-time Pro Bowler shook his coverage as Brees found him for a crucial 5-yard touchdown to put the game out of reach. Tight End, Jared Cook (5 REC, 80 YDS, 16.0 Y/R, 0 TD), added five catches for eighty yards, while the aforementioned Kamara hauled in five passes for fifty-one yards and a touchdown in the victory, with both players also expecting to see more targets in Thomas’ absence.
Meanwhile, for the third consecutive season it appears that the Raiders (1-0, T-1st in AFC West) are in the first year of a new era. Two years ago it was the beginning of Head Coach, Jon Gruden’s, second tenure with the franchise that he rose to stardom with back in the beginning of the century, with the 57-year old returning after an 11-year stint in the Commentator’s Booth on Monday Night Football. Last year, it was the first year under new General Manager, Mike Mayock’s, watch as the club had a plethora of picks for the longtime scout to utilize to rebuild the roster. And now, 2020 will mark the first season in which the team will be playing in their new home, Allegiant Stadium in Las Vegas. Of course, the Raiders are no stranger to relocation, having moved to Los Angeles back in 1982, only to return to Oakland fourteen years later in 1995. Despite these “resets”, this is a team that is essentially in the second year of a major roster renovation; Gruden signed an unprecedented, ten-year/$100 million contract back in 2018 which offers the luxury of time to rebuild the way that he, and later alongside Mayock, see fit. Veterans on bloated contracts have since departed. The proverbial treasure chest of draft picks recouped in the trades of high-profile stars such as Khalil Mack and Amari Cooper have been cashed in. In fact, in the time that has passed since the Raiders last met the Saints (a 35-34 victory back on September 11th, 2016), there are only four players remaining on the roster from that encounter, only three of which are Starters, including Quarterback, Derek Carr (73.3%, 239 YDS, 7.97 NY/A, 1 TD, 0 INT), and Offensive Linemen, Rodney Hudson and Gabe Jackson.
Over the last two years, the rebuild has been built upon their work in the Draft, with sixteen picks between 2019 and 2020, nine of which were in the first three rounds, including five first rounders. Any executive will tell you that the way to properly build a team is through the Draft, and for the Raiders, who had long been associated with poor performances in this event, their newfound emphasis on the league’s crucial springtime showcase was a welcome breath of fresh air. And this is where Mayock comes in; though he had been working in the media for over a decade, few were more respected in the field of scouting than he, making his hiring all the more appropriate given he and Gruden’s shared background on television. So what has Las Vegas found with all those of picks, you ask? Well, the early returns have looked promising. Sophomore Tailback, Josh Jacobs (24th Overall), has been a workhorse, rushing for a franchise rookie record with 1,150 yards and seven touchdowns in 2019, while Receiver, Hunter Renfrow (149th Overall), and Tight End, Foster Moreau (137th Overall), both proved reliable targets in the passing game as rookies combining for seventy receptions, 779 yards and nine touchdowns. Furthermore, Defensive Backs, Jonathan Abram (27th Overall) and Trayvon Mullen (40th Overall), have solidified their role as starters, while Defensive End, Maxx Crosby (106th Overall), proved to be quite the find with sixteen tackles for loss, ten sacks, and four forced fumbles. Anytime, you can come out of a Draft with seven starters, you’re doing something right, and the Raiders hope that they will have repeated that success with this latest crop of youngsters, who were predominantly chosen to add more speed and explosiveness to the Offense, which sorely lacked it, particularly in the passing game. So with the 12th Overall Pick, Gruden and Mayock chose the fastest player in the Draft, Henry Ruggs, out of Alabama to provide a vertical threat to a unit that has been starved for one in recent years. As one-fourth of the Crimson Tide’s star-stud Receiving Corps, Ruggs was a veritable big play machine during his time in Tuscaloosa, averaging a robust 17.5 Yards per Reception in college.
“That was a little bit like Walter Payton used to play… It was hot as hell. He got beat up early. He insisted on coming back and he insisted on getting the ball as a runner and receiver. He is special. He deserves some national attention — and I hope you give it to him.”Jon Gruden, Las Vegas Raiders Head Coach
So with all this youth and energy at their fingertips, how did the Raiders kick off the 2020 season, you ask? Well, they sure had to sweat it out, but they were nevertheless successful with a 35-30 victory over the Carolina Panthers last Sunday. There was a lot to like about this performance, though there were still plenty of wrinkles that need to be ironed out moving forward for a team that are desperately looking to take another leap after improving from 4-12 in the first year of Gruden’s second term with the club, to 7-9 in 2019. Trailing 30-27 with just over eight minute left to play, the visitors engineered nine-play, 75-yard drive that took up 4:21, culminating in a 6-yard rushing touchdown for Jacobs, his third of the day. It was the eighth lead change of the affair, and the Raiders would make sure that it would indeed be the last; on the ensuing possession, the Panthers advanced to the Las Vegas 46-yard line and on 4th & 1 were stopped cold in their tracks by the aforementioned Abram, seeing his first action since the previous Season Opener in which he suffered a shoulder injury that caused him to miss the rest of the campaign. In the end, it was a balanced effort for the Offense, amassing 372 total yards (239 passing/133 rushing), with Jacobs putting in a strong showing of 139 yards from scrimmage and three touchdowns, while Carr deftly spread the football around to nine different targets en route to completing an efficient 22-of-30 passes for 239 yards and a touchdown. Make no mistake, this season is shaping up to be a HUGE one for the 29-year old; rumors of Gruden’s satisfaction (or lack thereof) with the Quarterback that inherited have persisted over the past two years, and with only two years left on his contract, including a minimal dead cap hit after this campaign, the general consensus is that Carr will need to prove his worth and then some to prolong his stay with the franchise that drafted him back in 2014.