Sean Payton and the Saints look to reclaim the top spot in the NFC South
The goal for the New Orleans Saints is a straightforward albeit difficult one: Secure home-field advantage in the postseason. Easier said than done in the brutally competitive NFC, which has produced four of the past five Super Bowl champions. Still, it’s imperative for the schizophrenic Saints, who were 8–0 at the Superdome in the 2013 regular season and 3–5 on the road. In the postseason during the Sean Payton/Drew Brees era, they are 4–0 at home and 1–4 on the road. It’s no coincidence that the Saints’ lone Super Bowl title came in 2009 when they played host to the NFC Championship Game. Since then, three of the Saints’ four seasons have ended on the West Coast with playoff losses at Seattle and San Francisco. Somehow, the Saints need to win enough games in the regular season to secure home-field edge in the playoffs and force their competition to visit them in January rather than vice versa.
As long as the crafty Brees is under center and the aggressive Payton is on the sideline, the Saints are going to gain yards and score points at a high rate. Brees will turn 36 in January, making him the third-oldest quarterback in the NFL, but he remains as prolific as ever. Only Peyton Manning passed for more than Brees’ 5,162 yards and 39 touchdowns in 2013.
While Brees remains one of the truly elite quarterbacks in the game, there are legitimate concerns about the rest of the offense. The line yielded 37 sacks last season, the most in the Brees/Payton era. The staff believes the late-season promotion of athletic Terron Armstead to left tackle will be a big part of the solution. The Saints are counting on Armstead to blossom after a full offseason in the club’s strength and conditioning program. Right tackle Zach Strief was re-signed to protect Brees’ other flank. He engulfs opponents with his massive 6'7" frame, but speed rushers can sometimes give him trouble for the same reason. The strength of the unit is inside, where Pro Bowl guards Jahri Evans and Ben Grubbs form a powerful tandem to anchor the pass protection. The Saints will open the season with a new center. The staff is high on Tim Lelito, a former undrafted free agent who will try to make the switch from guard. Depth is a concern up front.
Depth isn’t the problem in the Saints’ receiving corps — production is. Backs and tight ends caught 63 percent of Brees’ passes last season, mainly because his receivers struggled to get open. Then again, when you have a freakishly talented tight end like Jimmy Graham, it’s hard not to look his way. Graham has usurped Marques Colston as Brees’ go-to man in the red zone and should again rank among the league leaders in catches and touchdowns. The steady Colston remains a reliable target on third down, but injuries have taken their toll on the ninth-year veteran. The Saints hope speedy rookie Brandin Cooks can add some much-needed explosiveness to the receiving corps. He led FBS schools with 32 catches of 20 or more yards as a junior. He will compete with second-year receiver Kenny Stills for the starting spot opposite Colston and play a featured role in Payton’s nickel packages. Stills should build on his surprisingly productive rookie season (32 catches with a team-high 20.0 yards per catch).
The Saints’ backfield will continue to employ a running back-by-committee approach, partly by strategic design and partly out of necessity. It’s make-or-break year for Mark Ingram. The former Heisman Trophy winner showed signs of promise down the stretch in 2013 and led the club with a 4.9-yards-per-carry average, but the Saints tellingly did not pick up the fifth-year option on his contract, rendering him a free agent after this season. He should be motivated for a big season and needs it. If Ingram slips, look for Khiry Robinson to assume his carries. The former free agent from West Texas A&M has a rare combination of power and shiftiness. Pierre Thomas is the top option in Payton’s nickel and two-minute offense.
Injuries forced coordinator Rob Ryan to scrap his 3-4 scheme for a 4-2-5 alignment, and the Saints responded with one of the most remarkable turnarounds in the league. A year removed from allowing the most yards in a season in NFL history, the Saints ranked fourth in total defense, primarily because of their imposing young line. End Cameron Jordan and outside linebacker/end hybrid Junior Galette form one of the best pass-rush tandems in the league. Both are quick and explosive off the edge. The unit’s unsung hero is towering end/tackle Akiem Hicks, who collapses the pocket with his powerful bull rushes. Brodrick Bunkley and John Jenkins anchor against the run at nose tackle. Their dirty work allows linebackers Curtis Lofton and David Hawthorne the freedom to roam and make tackles sideline to sideline.
The overhauled secondary is led by cornerback Keenan Lewis and safeties Jairus Byrd and Kenny Vaccaro. Lewis thrived in Ryan’s bump-and-run system and emerged as a shutdown corner in his first season in New Orleans. More often than not, teams choose to throw away from his side of the field. The Saints paid big money to lure Byrd to New Orleans in free agency. The hope is that he’ll produce more takeaways with his instincts and playmaking ability in center field. Vaccaro lacks Byrd’s ball skills but is the perfect complement with versatility and physical intimidation.
Veteran Champ Bailey has the inside track for the starting spot opposite Lewis. The Saints are hoping to squeeze a final productive season or two out of the future Hall of Famer. Former first-round pick Patrick Robinson, Corey White and second-round draft pick Stanley Jean-Baptiste will compete for the nickel and dime spots. All have the rangy size Ryan loves.
The Saints are a mixed bag here. Punter/kickoff specialist Thomas Morstead is one of the best in the league. His powerful right leg accounts for scores of hidden yards each game. Veteran kicker Shayne Graham is solid if not spectacular as he enters his 14th season. The return units are dying for a spark. Cooks and Travaris Cadet will get the first crack at punt and kickoff return duties, respectively.
The Saints are the class of the NFC South. Their young defense should only improve in its second season under Ryan, and the offense remains the most prolific in the division. A fifth playoff berth in six seasons looks certain, but the Saints must find a way to overcome NFC kingpins Seattle and San Francisco out West. The Saints hold one major advantage in the potential competition for home-field advantage: The NFC South is a cupcake festival compared to the NFC West gauntlet. If the Saints can win enough games to earn home-field advantage in the playoffs, they’ll be a threat to represent the NFC in Super Bowl XLIX. But that’s a big “if.” Otherwise, the 49ers and Seahawks remain a slight cut above the Saints in the NFC.