Drew Brees and the Saints still have Super Bowl aspirations
It's been a decade since Drew Brees, Sean Payton and the New Orleans Saints went to and won the Super Bowl. The Saints came close to returning to the big game the previous two years only to see their seasons end in heartbreaking fashion. But there are ample reasons to believe the window is still open in New Orleans.
If the Saints aren't the most talented team in the NFL, they're in the conversation. Drew Brees continues to play at an elite level despite turning 40, and the core of the roster is in its prime. Eighteen of the 22 players who started in the NFC Championship Game are back, including eight of the 10 Saints who made the Pro Bowl the past two seasons.
The strength of the team will again be on offense, where the Saints have evolved into a balanced, ball-control attack that relies on Brees' field-generalship, a dominant offensive line and the playmaking skills of Michael Thomas and Alvin Kamara.
Payton's creative play calling and complex scheme also bedevil opponents. The Saints overwhelm defenses by employing a plethora of formations, pre-snap movements and personnel groupings, sometimes as many as 11 in a single game. Such a creative, complex and unconventional offense requires smart, talented players to run it, and the Saints have an abundance of them on offense. It all starts with Brees, who has shown no signs of slowing down. The 18-year-veteran is maniacal in his weekly preparation, and the Saints lean heavily on him to make pre-snap checks and adjustments.
Kamara has blossomed into one of the best all-around running backs in the league and will have an expanded role with backfield mate Mark Ingram now in Baltimore. Kamara is the not the biggest, strongest or fastest back in the league, but he has few peers as a pure runner because of his excellent vision and athleticism. Backup Latavius Murray is not nearly as explosive as Ingram, but at 6'3", 230, he has the size and vision to be a weapon in short-yardage situations. Dwayne Washington rushed for 108 yards in the season finale in his only extended action and gives the Saints a reliable third option in the backfield.
The running game is bolstered by Taysom Hill, a Swiss Army Knife weapon as a tight end, fullback, wide receiver and read-option quarterback in short-yardage situations. At 6'2", 221 with 4.4 speed, Hill is a powerful runner who is also a threat to burn teams in the passing game if they try to load the box to defend him.
Thomas has improved in each of his first three NFL seasons and blossomed into the Saints' first-ever All-Pro receiver a year ago. Thomas is not extraordinarily big or fast, but he plays with a fierce competitiveness, physically dominating defensive backs at the line of scrimmage and in coverage downfield. The No. 2 spot behind Thomas is up in the air. Veterans Ted Ginn Jr. and Cameron Meredith are the primary candidates. Meredith is trying to regain the productive form he showed in Chicago before suffering a severe knee injury. It remains to be seen how much Ginn has left in the tank at 34. The Saints like young reserves Tre'Quan Smith, Keith Kirkwood and Austin Carr.
If defenses continue to focus on Kamara and Thomas, Jared Cook should become the X-factor in the middle of the field. The veteran tight end still has the speed to threaten downfield and is the most legitimate threat the Saints have had at the position since Jimmy Graham. Josh Hill is a reliable No. 2 option and has developed into an outstanding blocker.
As good as the Saints' perimeter game is, the strength of the offense lies up front, where they boast elite talent across the line. Terron Armstead and Ryan Ramczyk form the best tackle tandem in the league. Both are smart, athletic and sound technicians. Guards Andrus Peat and Larry Warford are powerful road graders in the run game and anchor the interior for the 6'0" Brees to operate in the pocket. Free agent Nick Easton and rookie Erik McCoy will compete to replace the retired Max Unger at the starting center spot.
Dennis Allen and staff have done an underrated job transforming the defense into a rock-solid unit after years of historically bad performances. The Saints aren't dominant in any one area but are solid on all three levels and play well as a unit, especially against the run.
Their best player is Cameron Jordan, who anchors the left end and is equally adept as a run defender and pass blocker. He has improved every year he's been in the league and rarely takes a snap off. The Saints have been searching for a bookend complement to Jordan for years and believe they've found one in Marcus Davenport. The 2018 first-round pick flashed play-making potential as a rookie, but injuries hampered his progress. He is already a sound run defender, and the Saints believe he can develop into a double-digit sack man with improved strength.
Defensive tackle Malcom Brown was signed in free agency to replace Tyeler Davison and serve as the designated run stuffer inside. Mario Edwards Jr. and David Onyemata will share the 3-technique position until Sheldon Rankins returns. Onyemata has intriguing potential because of his power and athleticism but remains a work in progress. The jury is out on Rankins, who was playing at a Pro Bowl level before suffering a season-ending Achilles tendon injury in the playoffs. The timetable for his return is unknown.
The linebacker corps might be the most improved unit on the team. Demario Davis leads the unit as the play-calling captain in the middle. He makes plays from sideline to sideline with his speed and instincts and also has proven to be an effective blitzer. A.J. Klein and Alex Anzalone flank Davis on the strong and weak sides, respectively. Both are smart, disciplined and rarely out of position in their run fits. Experienced depth is a question mark beyond Energizer-bunny backup Craig Robertson.
The expectations for the secondary ride on the ability of Marshon Lattimore and Marcus Williams to rebound from sophomore slumps. The Saints assign Lattimore to the opponent's best receiver and ask him to blanket him in single coverage. Typically, he wins more often than he loses. Eli Apple solidified the corner spot opposite Lattimore after arriving in a midseason trade with the Giants. The Saints believe he will improve after a full offseason of work with position coach Aaron Glenn. Patrick Robinson and P.J. Williams will compete for the starting nickel back spot in the slot.
The Saints could use more plays from the safeties. Marcus Williams' production dropped off precipitously in his second season, but the Saints remain high on his potential. Vonn Bell is at his best in attack mode as a down safety near the line of scrimmage. Fourth-round pick Chauncey Gardner-Johnson has the talent to play early in sub-packages.
Punter Thomas Morstead and placekicker Wil Lutz are Pro Bowl-caliber players. Morstead has a powerful right leg and masterfully limits returns with hang time and directional kicks. He's the main reason the Saints annually rank among the league leaders in punt coverage. Lutz has developed into one of the most reliable legs in the league. He is accurate to 55 yards and can even hit from 60 in the climate-controlled Superdome. The return units continue to be a thorn in Payton's side. Veteran return specialist Marcus Sherels was signed in free agency to bolster the punt return game. Hill is a battering ram on kickoff returns but is more of a straight-line runner and isn't very shifty.
A lot of things went right for the Saints in 2018, and these things have a way of evening out from year to year, so it will be a surprise if they can duplicate their 13–3 record from last season. Regardless, they have no glaring weaknesses and are the clear team to beat in the NFC South. As long as Brees continues to play at an elite level, the Saints will be in the thick of the race for home-field advantage in the NFC.