The fact that the Saints missed the playoffs by less than a game, while sporting a losing record, is simply unbelievable. But that shows how up in the air the NFC South is, and how minor improvements can have drastically positive consequences. They ranked first in total offense and in the top 10 in points, but ranked near the bottom in total yards and points allowed. The offense should continue to put up big numbers, so the real question is how the defense can improve.
How will the running backs factor in this season?
After being labeled as one-dimensional on offense, the Saints significantly improved their running game last season. Much of this was the result of Mark Ingram finally breaking out for a great year after getting the opportunity to carry the load. With the outbreak from last year, he will surely remain atop the depth chart. However, the Saints went out and signed C.J. Spiller to complement Ingram. Spiller is hoping for a comeback campaign of his own, after suffering through yet another injury-shortened season. In addition, third-year back Khiry Robinson figures to get some playing time. New Orleans will certainly look to make its running game a more significant part of the offense, especially after trading away Jimmy Graham and Kenny Stills. Drew Brees still has strong receiving targets, but the 1-2 punch of Ingram and Spiller could be among the league’s best backfield duo. It will be interesting to see how many reps both backs get and also the run-pass balance on play calls during the preseason.
Can second-year wide receiver Brandin Cooks step up?
As long as Brees is getting the snaps, the Saints' passing game will remain potent. Marques Colston will line up opposite Cooks at wide receiver. With two of last season's top three receiving targets traded away, the young Cooks will certainly need to play beyond his years. He showed plenty of speed and production with 550 yards as the team’s third-leading wide receiver last year and will have to make a large jump this season. In addition, Colston must become more of a red-zone threat like he once was, considering Graham doubled him in touchdowns last year (10:5). The veteran Colston led the team with 17 receptions of 20-plus yards, so he still remains a constant deep threat.
Can the defensive line return to its 2013 form?
The Saints have plenty of youth along their defensive line. However, both Akiem Hicks and Cameron Jordan struggled last season, which contributed to the Saints’ lackluster defense. Both ends had very down years compared to the 2013 season. Hicks managed just 42 tackles and two sacks, while Jordan’s 7.5 sacks were down from 12.5 the year before. Inconsistency was one of the main issues, as each showed flashes of brilliance at times but failed to have much of an impact at others. Jordan especially can put up impressive sack numbers, but he’s going to need some help from the pass coverage to give him some extra time to get to the opposing quarterback.
Will the secondary live up to its potential?
The Saints were one of only eight teams to allow over 4,000 passing yards in 2014, and that surely had to be disappointing, especially after signing Jairus Byrd to a huge free-agent contract. However a knee injury ended his season after just the fourth game, leaving the defense with a glaring hole. Kenny Vaccaro was ranked as one of the least effective safeties in the league after a strong rookie season the year prior. Cornerback Keenan Lewis also struggled, one of the reasons why the Saints signed free agent Brandon Browner, who has been a member of the past two Super Bowl-winning teams. More than anything else, Byrd will need to stand out in this secondary. The Saints need him to be healthy all year, or last year’s problems could easily come back to haunt them.
Can the Saints stop the run?
The Saints couldn’t cover the pass well, and they arguably couldn’t stop the run any better. They ranked second to last in yards allowed per rush, while giving up a league-high 19 rushes of 20 or more yards. Their linebacker corps is best highlighted by OLB Junior Galette, although he is certainly more of a pass rusher, after collecting 10 sacks. Meanwhile, they added Anthony Spencer and Danell Ellerbe, who both have serious injury questions after only limited game time last year. David Hawthorne is the leading returning tackler, but this group has plenty of questions surrounding it. Ellerbe in particular will need to bounce back and have an impact against the run if the Saints want to improve upon last season's disappointing numbers.