This feels like a watershed season for the Saints — and perhaps the storied Sean Payton-Drew Brees tenure. After three consecutive 7-9 campaigns, players and coaches are motivated to return to the playoffs. The Saints privately believe they are flying under the radar and poised for a breakthrough season. And if the defense can stay healthy and muster some semblance of a pass rush, the Saints should have enough offensive firepower to challenge for the NFC South crown and return to the playoffs in the ultra-competitive NFC race. But they’ll need some breaks to go their way for a change.
As Brees goes, so go the Saints. Even at 38, Brees remains one of the elite passers in the league. He compensates for his lack of prototype size and arm strength with anticipation and an encyclopedic knowledge of Payton’s complex offense. Few quarterbacks are given more control at the line of scrimmage, and Brees is a master at reading defenses before the snap and beating coverages with his quick release and uncanny accuracy. Even without big-play threat Brandin Cooks, Brees should enjoy another big season.
The emergence of Michael Thomas and the acquisition of Ted Ginn Jr. made the speedy Cooks expendable. Thomas uses his powerful hands and 6'3" frame to physically dominate defensive backs on competitive balls downfield. He compares to former Saints great Marques Colston with his uncanny body control and innate feel for getting open against zone or man-to-man coverage. With Cooks gone, Thomas is Brees’ clear go-to receiver in the red zone. On another team, Willie Snead might not be a factor, but in the Saints’ intricate, timing-based attack, he excels with his smarts, sure hands and precise route-running. He’s a favorite target of Brees on third down. Ginn fills Cooks’ role as the deep threat, and even at 32, he can still take the top off a defense with his sprinter’s speed.
Tight end Coby Fleener lacks the big-play ability of past Saints tight ends, but he’s a good athlete capable of producing a big game if defenses concentrate too much of the team’s receiving corps. Fleener does most of his damage on seam and intermediate routes. He needs to become stronger on competitive catches in traffic.
Mark Ingram has blossomed into one of the league’s best all-around backs. He drives through tackles with his powerful legs and low center of gravity and has become a dependable receiver in passing situations. He’s the clear starter. The Saints believe Adrian Peterson has plenty of juice left in his 32-year-old legs and can share the workload with Ingram. If he can stay healthy, he’ll provide insurance for Ingram, who has battled injuries throughout his career. Look for Ingram and Peterson to alternate series and share the workload.
If the offensive line can stay intact, it has the potential to be one of the better groups of the Brees era. Health, however, is a concern. Veteran center Max Unger suffered a foot injury in the offseason and is expected to miss the start of the regular season.
Losing Unger for any significant period of time would test the Saints’ depth along the interior. Right guard Larry Warford was signed in free agency to replace Jahri Evans and be a road-grader in the running game. The Saints will run behind him and powerful right tackle Zach Strief in short-yardage situations. If left tackle Terron Armstead can stay healthy, this could be the season he earns his first Pro Bowl invite. The Saints are so deep at tackle 2015 first-round pick Andrus Peat has permanently switched to left guard. Athletic first-round draft pick Ryan Ramczyk was one of the top tackle prospects in the draft.
The Saints showed progress in their first full season under coordinator Dennis Allen, playing better than their 27th overall defensive ranking. They were improved against the run and solid in short-yardage and goal-line situations. The goal this season is to make more big plays.
Once again, everything comes down to the pass rush. End Cameron Jordan and interior lineman Sheldon Rankins have shown the ability to pressure the passer, but the Saints need someone to emerge as a double-digit sack specialist. Jordan has quietly developed into one of the NFL’s best all-around ends and is the anchor on the right side. He lacks the explosive first step to beat elite tackles off the edge but wins the battle at the line of scrimmage with textbook technique and powerful hands. Nick Fairley and Rankins combined for 10.5 sacks inside, and both are terrific athletes with the size to anchor against the run. But Fairley has been ruled out for the 2017 season with a heart issue, so the Saints will need even more production from Rankins after he missed seven games of his rookie season with a fractured fibula.
The left end spot remains a question mark. The Saints have a number of candidates on the roster but likely will use a committee to man the position. Alex Okafor, signed as a free agent in the offseason, has the ability to become an effective pass rusher but needs to stay healthy. The Saints are hoping he’s their end version of Fairley, a low risk/high reward reclamation project. Behind Okafor is reliable veteran Darryl Tapp, and a pack of young edge rushers, led by third-year men Hau’oli Kikaha and Obum Gwacham and rookies Trey Hendrickson and Al-Quadin Muhammad. Kikaha has the most promise.
Improving the linebacker corps was an offseason focus. The Saints desperately need veteran Dannell Ellerbe to have an injury-free season on the weak side. When healthy, he is their best playmaker at the second level because of his speed and range. Craig Robertson and free-agent signee Manti Te’o will compete for the starting job in the middle. Both excel at reading offenses and getting the defense in the proper play and alignment. The Saints added free agent A.J. Klein and rookie Alex Anzalone in an effort to improve their depth. Pass coverage has been a problem for this unit and could be again if Ellerbe can’t stay on the field.
On paper, the secondary looks like the strength of the defense, assuming the group can stay healthy. Safety Kenny Vaccaro is a jack-of-all trades whom Allen likes to use all over the field. He’s smart and fearless. Second-year free safety Vonn Bell struggled in coverage at times and should be much improved in Year 2. He and Vaccaro are sure tacklers. Rookie Marcus Williams and veteran Rafael Bush will factor into Allen’s three-safety look in sub-packages. Williams has the playmaking potential the Saints have lacked in recent years.
Cornerback Delvin Breaux hopes to return to his 2015 form after an injury-riddled 2016. He overpowers receivers with his size and strength in press coverage. A host of candidates will compete for the starting spot opposite him. Rookie Marshon Lattimore was the top-rated corner in the draft and has the athletic potential to become a lock-down player early. P.J. Williams is a terrific athlete with excellent man-to-man cover skills. Sterling Moore is a savvy veteran who plays with great confidence.
The Saints hope a new coordinator and new return man inject life into their moribund special teams. Bradford Banta is charged with improving the units. The 32-year-old Ginn was signed to inject juice into the return game. He remains a dangerous threat on returns with his breakaway speed. The Saints are confident Wil Lutz has solved their longstanding placekicking issues. After a shaky start, he settled down nicely and finished the season by converting his final 13 field goals. There are no issues in the punting game, where veteran Thomas Morstead is one of the most consistent, powerful and reliable punters in the game.
The Saints quietly believe they can follow in the footsteps of their division brethren, the Carolina Panthers and Atlanta Falcons, and make the leap from also-rans to champions. There is precedent here. The Saints went 7-9 and 8-8 in 2007 and 2008, respectively, then bolted to a 13-0 start in 2009 and went on to win Super Bowl XLIV. Brees has compared the vibe and roster this season favorably to 2009. The team is stacked with young talent from three consecutive solid drafts. If the defense can stay healthy and the Saints can survive a brutal early schedule, they could contend for a wild card berth.