Our 2023 NFL Preview heads south to the Big Easy, where the Saints look to reestablish themselves as a powerhouse within the NFC. After posting five consecutive winning seasons, New Orleans came crashing down to Earth in their first season after (former Head Coach) Sean Payton’s departure, finishing with ten losses for the first time since the venerable tactician was hired back in 2006. Of course, Payton’s exit came a year after the retirement of (longtime Quarterback) Drew Brees, and while the franchise opted for continuity in the form of promoting (Defensive Coordinator) Dennis Allen, that decision ultimately failed to net the desired results for a team that fashions itself as a contender. Injuries all over the offense derailed one of the annually prolific units in the NFL, with Allen and (General Manager) Mickey Loomis looking to correct those issues in the offseason, particularly at Quarterback with the signing of (four-time Pro-Bowler) Derek Carr. After a bitter end in Las Vegas, will Carr thrive in a new setting? Will Alvin Kamara and Michael Thomas return to their playmaking ways? Is Allen on the hot seat? Let’s take a stroll through Caesars Superdome and find out, shall we?
A Needed Change of Scenery
After enjoying fifteen years of success with Drew Brees pulling the proverbial trigger at Quarterback, including seven division titles, nine playoff appearances, and the franchise’s first and only Lombardi Trophy in Super Bowl XLIV, the Saints have struggled mightily to replace the inevitable Hall of Famer since he hung up his helmet following the conclusion of the 2020 campaign. Over the last two seasons, FIVE different players have started at QB, including the likes of Jameis Winston, Taysom Hill, Andy Dalton, Trevor Siemian, and Ian Book, en route to achieving lukewarm levels of success with an overall record of 16-17 (.484) during that period of time. Simply put, a change was needed, and rather than search for a solution in last April’s NFL Draft, Allen and Loomis opted to bring in another veteran, acquiring the services of Derek Carr shortly after his long-awaited release from the Raiders. Ironically, Allen was part of the brain trust that selected the Fresno State product thirty-sixth overall back in 2014, and though the skipper would be fired not long into the passer’s rookie campaign, that wouldn’t stop him from becoming the most prolific Quarterback in the franchise’s storied history. In nine seasons with the Silver & Black, Carr (pictured above) completed 64.6% of his passes for an average of 248.0 yards per game on 6.43 net yards per attempt, with 217 touchdowns in comparison to just ninety-nine interceptions, with the club often living and dying on the strength of his arm, evidenced by thirty-three game-winning drives, twenty-eight of which were fourth quarter comebacks. Unfortunately, those figures didn’t lead to much success for the Raiders, who went 63-79 (.443) with him under center, with just two playoff appearances during that time and ZERO postseason victories to show for it. Granted, whether they were in Oakland or Las Vegas, the team rarely had anything close to a strong supporting cast around him, particularly on the defensive side of the football, yet year in and year out were always rumored to be in search of his successor. After being benched for the final two games of last season, Carr was placed on the trade block though with no suitors willing to meet the asking price he was released, with the Saints happy to provide the 32-year-old with a needed change of scenery. New Orleans signed him to a four-year, $150 million contract with $100 million in total guarantees, though there is a relatively early out in the deal that would allow the club to shed his remaining salary in 2025 with just $11.4 million in dead cap space. Allen and Loomis are banking on the veteran bouncing back with a supporting cast that still harbors a wealth of talent on both sides of the football, though as we will detail shortly, there are a pair of playmakers that will need to get their grooves back in order for this team to truly get back to where they want to be…
Flying High Again
During the Brees/Payton Era (2006-2020), the Saints were annually one of the elite offenses in the NFL, ranking no worse than twelfth in total yards during that span, including ELEVEN top-five finishes (SIX at number one overall), while ending a campaign in the top-five in points scored on TEN occasions. Needless to say, that is what happens when you pair an elite offensive coach with a soon-to-be Hall of Fame Quarterback. As you can imagine, New Orleans was littered with playmakers during that period as well, with a few carryovers from that era still to be found, namely (Pro-Bowl Tailback) Alvin Kamara and (former Receiving Champion) Michael Thomas. A five-time Pro-Bowler, Kamara became the prototype for the modern Tailback, equally dangerous catching passes out of the Backfield as he was taking the handoff. During his first four seasons, nobody at his position hauled in more receptions (326), receiving yards (2,824), and touchdowns (15), while also rushing for another 3,340 yards and forty-three scores to boot. However, he was always more effective when there was a more conventional counterpart sharing reps alongside him (think Mark Ingram), so that he could be better utilized in the passing game. As he has become more of a traditional rusher over the past two years, he has gone from averaging an explosive 5.0 yards per carry to just 3.9, while missing five games due to various injuries. Unfortunately, the 28-year-old will be suspended for the first three games of the upcoming campaign due to his role in an incident in Las Vegas from last February. As for Thomas (pictured above alongside Kamara), he went from racking up an astounding 470 receptions from 2016 to 2019, while leading the league in receiving yards with 1,725 during that latter season, to missing FORTY games over the past three years due to hamstring and ankle injuries. Now 30-years old, the three-time Pro-Bowler has finally received a clean bill of health, and (alongside Carr and Kamara) will be expected to return this offense back to the realm of the league’s elite. Though they may not reach the heights that they enjoyed with Brees and Payton in the proverbial cockpit, it stands to reason that they should be much better than the side that ranked twenty-eighth and nineteenth in total offense over the last two seasons. 2022 first round pick, Chris Olave performed well as a rookie with seventy-two receptions for 1,042 yards and four touchdowns, while the Backfield will welcome the addition of (former Lions Tailback) Jamaal Williams, who led the NFL with SEVENTEEN touchdowns last season. Simply put, this unit reads top-ten on paper, and if they can live up to expectations then there is little reason to believe that the Saints won’t be the team to beat in what appears to be a rather mediocre NFC South.
Warming up the Hot Seat
As we stated in the opening, when the aforementioned Payton decided to step down from his post as Head Coach, the Saints opted to stick with continuity, partially due to their annually precarious cap situation, but also because this roster was one of the most talented in the league. And it is with that being said that Loomis & Co chose to promote Dennis Allen after spending the last seven seasons as Defensive Coordinator. Indeed, the 50-year-old should be commended for the job that he had done taking one of the very worst defenses in the NFL and slowly developing them into a top-ten unit. Simply put, New Orleans was downright bad defensively for years. Like REALLY F@#$%^& BAD, ranking twenty-seventh or worse in total yards allowed from 2014 to 2016, but since then have shown steady improvement, ranking seventeenth, fourteenth, eleventh, fourth, and seventh overall in that same category before climbing up to fifth last season. In 2022, Allen (pictured above) may be in charge of the whole team now, but that didn’t mean his defense would take a step backward; the Saints allowed 20.3 points per game (9th Overall) on 314.9 total yards (5th Overall), including just 184.4 yards against the pass (2nd Overall) on a scant 5.4 net yards per attempt (3rd Overall), while yielding a 50.0% success rate in the red zone (6th Overall). However, in addition to the offense being a bit of a mess, there were some cracks in the foundation of the defense that began to reveal themselves over the course of the campaign, particularly against the run, where they were gashed for 130.5 yards per game (24th Overall) on a generous 4.5 yards per carry (20th Overall). This often meant that his troops were defending shorter down and distance than they would prefer, leading to opponents converting 41.6% of their third downs (24th Overall). Another issue was a complete lack of takeaways. It is rare to see a team that finishes so high in as many defensive categories as they have without the benefit of turnovers, but that was indeed the case, with New Orleans totaling the third fewest in the league (14), including just seven interceptions (30th Overall). Many of their defensive playmakers are getting long in the tooth, with (Pro-Bowlers) Cameron Jordan, who just signed a two-year extension worth $27.5 million in full guarantees, and Demario Davis each thirty-four years of age, while (former All-Pro Safety) Tyrann Mathieu is also on the wrong side of thirty. It would be awfully ironic that after the defense has carried this team for two years while the offense goes through its troubles, that the pendulum appears set to swing the other way, and it will be on Allen and his coaching staff to ensure that that doesn’t happen, otherwise a third consecutive season without the playoffs could spell the end for the skipper in New Orleans…
Projected Finish: 9-8
After missing the playoffs for a second straight season, the Saints abandoned the strategy of fielding the motley crew of Quarterbacks that have stunk up the joint during that time and opted for a more consistent veteran solution in the form of Carr. Granted, while he is certainly a better option over the individuals that precede him, this guy comes with his own question marks, particularly after a disappointing end to his tenure with the Raiders, in which he was benched for the conclusion of the campaign. And at the end of the day, this is a team that will be living and dying on a myriad of ifs coming true. IF Carr can regain his touch within a talented offense and QB-friendly scheme, and IF Kamara and Thomas can turn back the clock and rediscover their playmaking ways, and IF an aging defense can avoid falling off the proverbial cliff, then New Orleans should be the class of an uninspiring NFC South. However, IF one or more of those factors fail to come to pass, then this group will find themselves once again fighting for their life with three other fairly mediocre teams, with their future beyond 2023 nigh impossible to predict.