The New Orleans Saints are poised to take the next step in their rebuilding campaign and should be a factor in the NFC playoff race for years to come. Bolstered by a pair of excellent draft classes, the Saints boast exciting young playmakers on both sides of the ball, giving future Hall of Fame quarterback Drew Brees a chance to make one more Super Bowl run at the end of his career. The roster returns 21 starters from a team that reeled off eight consecutive wins and claimed the NFC South title a year ago. And motivation shouldn’t be a problem after the heartbreaking loss to Minnesota in the NFC divisional playoffs. This is a smart, talented, confident team eager to make amends for the bitter end to the 2017 season.
In Sean Payton and Brees, the Saints feature one of the most prolific coach-quarterback batteries in the game. Like Tom Brady, Brees shows no signs of slowing down at age 39. He knows Payton’s sophisticated offense like the back of his hand and is a surgeon under center, routinely getting the Saints in the right play with his pre-snap reads and checks. He remains one of the most accurate passers in NFL history, as evidenced by his NFL-record 72 percent completion rate in 2017. His arm strength has diminished in recent years, but he compensates with anticipation and a quick release. Few are better at identifying and targeting an opponent’s weak spot.
The Saints no longer rely solely on Brees to move the football. The backfield duo of Mark Ingram and Alvin Kamara is one of the best in the league -- though the Saints will be without Ingram for the first four games due to a PED suspension. Both players are capable of taking over a game, but in different ways. Ingram does most of his work between the tackles, using his low center of gravity, powerful legs and uncanny balance to break tackles and move the chains. The slippery Kamara is a nightmare for defenders in open space and a deadly weapon on screen and slip passes out of the backfield. The Saints also signed veteran Terrance West to weather Ingram's absence.
Michael Thomas’ 196 receptions are the most by anyone in the first two years of an NFL career. His crisp routes and reliable hands have made him Brees’ go-to man in the red zone and on third down, where he uses his excellent leaping ability and 6'3" frame to make competitive catches against tight coverage. Father Time has not caught up with 31-year-old Ted Ginn Jr., who still has the speed to take the top off of defenses that don’t respect the deep passing game. The Saints are counting on former Chicago Bear Cameron Meredith to rebound from a severe knee injury and provide an upgrade in the slot in three-receiver packages. If he’s healthy, the Saints might have a steal. Rookie Tre’Quan Smith, the team’s third-round pick, provides insurance in case Meredith falls short of expectations.
The offensive line might be the most underrated front five in the NFL. When healthy, left tackle Terron Armstead has Pro Bowl ability. He neutralizes elite edge rushers with his athleticism and strength. Second-year pro Ryan Ramczyk is a future star at right tackle. He started 16 games as a rookie and is equally effective on the left side. He doesn’t receive the accolades of fellow 2017 draft classmates Kamara and Marshon Lattimore, but he is just as highly regarded by Saints coaches. Guards Andrus Peat and Larry Warford have the size and power to establish a solid pocket for Brees, a key in the Saints’ offense, and the athleticism to pull on traps and screen passes. Outside of veteran free-agent signee Jermon Bushrod, the depth is unproven and a potential concern.
The Saints overhauled their defense with an influx of high draft picks and free agents in 2016 and 2017, and the results have started to show. The defense isn’t dominant, as evidenced by the team’s No. 17 overall ranking last season, but it ranked among the league leaders with 42 sacks and 25 takeaways.
Cameron Jordan has anchored the left end position for the past seven seasons. He plays the run as well as any edge defender in the league and has an uncanny knack for batting down passes at the line. One of the best technicians in the game, he dominates offensive linemen with his powerful hands at the point of attack. Coming off a career year, Jordan is considered one of the most complete ends in the NFL and the undisputed leader of the defense.
The Saints have spent years trying to find a bookend to complement Jordan on the right side and believe they have finally found one in rookie Marcus Davenport. He will compete with veteran Alex Okafor for the starting spot opposite Jordan. Whether he wins the job or not, he’s going to play early and often in passing situations. A former high school wide receiver, he has rare size (6'6", 264) and speed (4.58 40) for the position. He’ll be the pet project of respected defensive line coach Ryan Nielsen.
Sheldon Rankins had a quiet sophomore campaign, but the Saints are still high on the former first-round pick. He commands double teams in the middle and frees up teammates to make plays. The Saints would like to see him make more plays of his own. Ditto brawling run stuffer Tyeler Davison, who completes the front four at the other tackle spot.
Demario Davis was signed to captain the defense on the second level. He’s the most athletic middle linebacker the club has had since Jon Vilma. A.J. Klein moves to the strong side, where he’s more comfortable as a playmaker against the run. Alex Anzalone flashed potential as a rookie starter on the weak side, but he must remain healthy. Depth is solid here with veterans Mike Mauti, Craig Robertson, Nate Stupar and Manti Te’o.
Lattimore was a revelation as a rookie, starting all 13 games in which he played and becoming the first Saints corner to make the Pro Bowl since Eric Allen in 1995. Lattimore owns all of the traits of a shutdown corner: fluid hips, instinctive ball skills and rare recovery speed. Opponents rarely threw his way down the stretch, and he should see even fewer opportunities this season. The other corner spot remains a question mark. But the Saints have options. Ken Crawley, P.J. Williams and Patrick Robinson are all capable starters. Crawley plays with confidence and swagger but needs to cut down on the penalties. Robinson is expected to man the slot position, a weak spot in the defense in recent years.
Free safety Marcus Williams’ solid rookie season was overshadowed by his infamous missed tackle in the NFC playoffs against Minnesota. He plays like a cornerback with excellent range and ball skills. Vonn Bell is an excellent blitzer and big hitter but can be exposed in coverage. The Saints are confident that veteran safety Kurt Coleman can still make plays on the back end and were excited to sign him in free agency. He brings much-needed experience and savvy to the position group. He’ll be employed often in coordinator Dennis Allen’s three-safety packages.
The kicking game is in good shape with punter Thomas Morstead and kicker Wil Lutz, a pair of reliable veterans who rank among the best at their respective positions. Morstead has a powerful right leg and expertly limits returns with hang time and directional kicks. He’s one of the most underrated weapons on the roster. Lutz came into his own in his second season and has the range to make 55-yarders with ease. The return and coverage units are not nearly as proficient. Diminutive rookie Boston Scott will get a crack at beating out Tommylee Lewis and Ginn for both return jobs.
The Saints are the class of the NFC South and ready to compete with the Eagles, Vikings, Rams and Packers for NFC supremacy. The offense remains one of the most dynamic in the NFL, and the talented young defense should only be better with experience. The Saints face a brutal schedule and will do well to equal last year’s 11-5 record, but they’ll again be a factor in the NFC playoff race and are a solid sleeper pick to go all the way.