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New Orleans Saints: 2022 Preseason Predictions and Preview

Alvin Kamara, New Orleans Saints

Alvin Kamara and the Saints enter the post-Sean Payton era with a familiar face at the helm in hopes of maintaining team's status as a playoff contender.

The recent history of the New Orleans Saints was tied to the brilliance of their quarterback and their head coach. Now, both are gone. After 15 prodigious years together in New Orleans, the only things Drew Brees and Sean Payton have in common are their jobs in broadcasting and the use of the word "former" as a prefix for their relationship to the Saints franchise.

It is officially — thrillingly, and a bit uneasily — a new era in New Orleans. Payton built a strong foundation, and now it's time to see if those who inherited it can keep the thing standing. That starts with head coach Dennis Allen, who failed spectacularly in his first try as a head coach a decade ago but rebuilt his reputation as Payton's top defensive lieutenant. Few question his acumen as a defensive coach, but there are some questions he'll need to answer in what should be a telling season.

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OFFENSE

The 2021 Saints were the worst offense of Payton's tenure, finishing with the franchise's lowest ranking in total offense (28th) since the Mike Ditka era. They suffered many injuries at key positions, but even when they were at their healthiest, they were not a typically explosive Payton offense without Brees. This unit figures to be at the crux of the team's success this season, and it will have to figure out how to improve without stalwart left tackle Terron Armstrong, who joined the Dolphins in free agency.

After a failed pursuit of Deshaun Watson, the Saints brought Jameis Winston back on a two-year contract to be their starting quarterback. Winston is coming off a torn ACL that ended his 2021 season after seven games, but he is in line to be healthy for training camp.

What remains to be seen is whether the Saints will take off Winston's training wheels. Though he proved he was capable of efficiency, cutting down the interceptions that plagued his Tampa Bay tenure by putting together an impressive 14:3 touchdown-to-interception ratio, New Orleans played an extremely conservative brand of football with Winston under center. He averaged only 25.2 attempts in his six full games as a starter.

Will longtime offensive coordinator Pete Carmichael, who took over the play-calling duties from Payton, let Winston cut it loose? Having better targets should help. The Taysom Hill experiment is apparently over; the versatile Hill is focusing on tight end, so the job is Winston's, with Andy Dalton brought in as insurance.

The Saints expect Michael Thomas to be ready to go after the embattled star missed most of the last two seasons — including all of 2021 — with an ankle injury. The last time Thomas was fully healthy, he smashed the NFL single-season receptions record with 149 grabs. Even if he is not the same player the Saints saw in 2019, his return represents a huge upgrade for a group that struggled mightily in his absence the last two seasons. Add first-round rookie Chris Olave and five-time Pro Bowler and native son Jarvis Landry to the mix, and New Orleans' receiver corps figures to be deeper and more explosive in 2022.

Still, there are some concerns for the Saints. Star running back Alvin Kamara might be facing league discipline after his offseason arrest in Las Vegas on suspicion of battery. If Kamara misses significant time, New Orleans' depth chart behind him is questionable at best, and there's no one else with Kamara's game-breaking ability.

The offensive line, long a source of strength for the Saints, also needs to rebound after a disappointing year that saw many of its starters go down with injury. The Saints need rookie tackle Trevor Penning to hit, and they need improvement out of guards Andrus Peat and Cesar Ruiz.

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DEFENSE

On the defensive side, Allen will retain play-calling duties, and the Saints should once again field a formidable unit.

After a slow start that had some wondering whether he still had it, defensive end Cameron Jordan was arguably the NFL's most disruptive edge defender down the stretch in 2021, closing the season with 8.5 sacks in his last four games.

The Saints pair Jordan with a rotating cast of pass rushers. Marcus Davenport, Payton Turner, Tanoh Kpassagnon and Carl Granderson all played significant snaps when they were healthy, allowing the Saints to keep long, powerful, athletic edge defenders fresh throughout games — a decided fourth-quarter advantage.

Intertwined with the Saints' pass rush is their run defense. New Orleans has had a top-four run defense in each of the last four years. Perhaps it is not a coincidence that game-wrecking linebacker Demario Davis has worn a Saints uniform during this span.

Davis will again headline the linebacker corps in New Orleans, but he may have a new running mate in second-year linebacker Pete Werner, whom the coaching staff is excited about after he posted 62 tackles while starting eight games in his rookie season. Werner should step into a starting Will linebacker role this season.

The Saints waited until after the NFL Draft to find the final piece of their defensive puzzle. They lost both of their starting safeties this offseason, when Marcus Williams signed a $70 million contract with the Baltimore Ravens and Malcolm Jenkins retired. They made up for that in part by signing former Jets safety Marcus Maye, who profiles as a replacement for Jenkins at strong safety, but the draft came and went and the Saints still had a gaping hole at free safety. Then on May 4, the Saints signed All-Pro safety Tyrann Mathieu to a three-year deal. Suddenly, a weakness became a strength.

As a coordinator, Allen often eschewed traditional ideas about positions, collecting players with versatile skill sets and then scheming ways for them to impact the game in multiple ways. Mathieu gives him his most dynamic playmaker yet, a ball hawk capable of lining up at multiple positions. Expect the Saints to take advantage of that, rather than pigeonholing the New Orleans native and former LSU Tiger as a deep-middle free safety.

New Orleans should be set at cornerback. Marshon Lattimore turned in arguably the best season of his fine young career in 2021, and the Saints appear to have found a gem in Paulson Adebo, a third-round pick last year who intercepted three passes as a rookie. C.J. Gardner-Johnson is set to resume his valuable role as a pest in the slot, and the Saints have talented veteran Bradley Roby and 2022 second-rounder Alontae Taylor in reserve.

SPECIALISTS

The Saints shuffled through a half-dozen kickers in 2021 after Pro Bowler Wil Lutz missed the entire campaign with a core muscle injury, but he should be back and ready to resume his role as one of the NFL's better kickers. Punter Blake Gillikin was a revelation in his debut season. Taking over for Saints legend Thomas Morstead, Gillikin averaged 47.7 yards per kick and ranked fourth in the NFL with 29 punts downed inside the 20. Both Gillikin (24) and Lutz (28) should give the Saints long-term stability at the kicking positions. Deonte Harty, formerly known as Deonte Harris, is coming off a down year by his standards as a return specialist, but he remains a feared threat to break the game open at any time with his elite speed, acceleration and elusiveness.

FINAL ANALYSIS

The Saints' top decision makers — owner Gayle Benson, team president Dennis Lauscha and general manager Mickey Loomis — interviewed several highly regarded outside candidates for their head-coaching position but ultimately went the direction everyone anticipated they'd go by hiring Allen. Their reasoning behind the hire was based not only on Allen's coaching ability, but also on his understanding of the roster and the way the franchise has operated. That, combined with an offseason that saw the Saints continue to aggressively manage their roster, was a signal that New Orleans believes its franchise is still positioned to compete for a title.

Prediction: 2nd in NFC South