A Rundown Of Pros And Cons For The Black And Gold As Training Camp Nears
By Rick Sarro
One play away from the NFC Championship game.
One play from the opportunity to seek a spot in Super Bowl 52.
You know the play if you’re a New Orleans Saints fan. If by chance you’re not a card-carrying, flag-waving, umbrella-poking member of Who Dat Nation, then most likely you still know what play I’m referring to.
The Minneapolis Miracle. Let’s leave it at that and spare ourselves the heartbreak of reliving the most gut wrenching play in the Saints’ 52-year history.
The off-season, free agency, draft, mini-camps and OTAs have come and gone. Training camp will open July 25, and the Saints will be the NFC South’s defending divisional champs, and considered one of the Top 5 teams in a very deep and competitive conference.
Like it or not, the players and coaches will be fielding a lot of questions about another playoff run through training camp and the exhibition season. You will undoubtedly hear from the team that 2017 was last year and 2018 is a new year with a different team.
Let’s can the chatter about this being “a different group of guys” and “every season is different” and “we are starting from scratch.”
The truth of the matter is this Saints team is not much different from the core of last year’s and about the only thing starting from scratch will be the biscuits at training camp breakfast.
Credit GM Mickey Loomis, head coach Sean Payton and the scouting gurus for the best draft in team history in 2017; some productive free agent acquisitions; and solid depth among the 53-man roster that has this franchise sitting in a position of considerable strength.
For the 2018 team, they filled their No. 1 need at defensive end with a high stakes first-round deal and moved up; added some help across both lines and the secondary; and took a flyer on what could be the most vertically challenged player in the NFL this year.
As I try and wrap my head around the upcoming season, I see many positives, along with areas of concern that may be problematic in some way or another. A long NFL season has its ups and downs — players rise and fall; some things look good on paper but flop when the whistle blows; there may be a run of wins or a string of losses.
The one X factor that you can’t control that always has a huge impact on any team is injury.
What you can predict is the unassailable fact that there will be injuries. No one goes through the NFL battle zone free from them. The questions are who gets hurt, the extent of the injury, the impact on production and how long will the player be sidelined?
There are some injuries you can prepare for by adding depth in certain positions. But all in all, teams just keep their fingers crossed and hope they dodge the bullet.
Let’s start where the Saints can’t afford or absorb an injury of any kind, and that’s with quarterback Drew Brees.
The 39-year-old future Hall of Famer will open training camp in great shape and good health, as he usually is. And again, he will be one of the top two quarterbacks in the NFC, along with Green Bay’s Aaron Rogers.
Brees is always New Orleans’ primary positive on the pro/con scale.
The Saints will go as far as No. 9 will take them. There’s nothing earth-shattering about that. It’s been that way since he arrived and began his walk on the Hall of Fame path in 2006.
His 2017 numbers were playoff worthy. He completed 386 out of 536 attempted passes for 4,334 yards; made 23 touchdowns against 8 interceptions; averaged 8 yards per pass; and, of course, had a league-leading 73-percent completion rate again.
He spread the ball around to six different receivers, and his accuracy was again uncanny. The 20 sacks may be a bit high, and the targeted passes to tight ends were low, but that’s more of an issue with lousy tight end play.
The negative is — if Brees goes down, who goes in?
Loomis and Payton signed veteran Tom Savage from the Texans. They brought in former Ohio State quarterback J.T. Barrett as an undrafted free agent and still have special teams star/QB Taysom Hill on the roster. Savage is capable and Barrett may be an interesting long-term project.
But the Saints don’t have a Philadelphia situation with a Nick Foles waiting for his chance to become Super Bowl MVP.
Running back Mark Ingram will sit out the first four games of the regular season due to a league-imposed suspension for PED use. It’s a problem for any team to lose its leading rusher for 25 percent of the season; it’s especially a problem for a Saints offense that shifted its dependency on the run game in 2017.
Ingram is coming off his best overall year, with 1,124 yards rushing off 230 carries; a 5 yard per carry average; with 12 touchdowns along with 58 catches (third highest on the team) for another 418 yards.
He’s healthy, rested, happy, motivated and a great complement in Payton’s passing schemes. He will be all that again in 2018, and continue his Thunder role to Alvin Kamara’s Lightning presence in the backfield. But his absence for four games to open the season will force Payton into Plan B, which he says won’t involve putting the load on Kamara.
The reigning NFC’s offensive Rookie of the Year averaged only 15 carries per game in his break-out 2017 season. Trying to add another 10 handoffs to Kamara might diminish his ability in both the run and passing game.
Run by committee will be Payton’s fallback measure. Trey Edmunds and Daniel Lasco are options. If late-round draft pick Boston Scott, all of 5 feet, 6 inches, from La. Tech, pans out, then maybe the shortest player in the NFL might end up being long on talent.
No one saw Kamara coming and not many defenders will see the diminutive Scott coming out of the backfield either.
The Kamara Effect on the offense and the team as whole can’t be overstated. He was human electricity when he had the ball in his hands. Kamara’s skill in eluding tacklers and gaining yards after first contact or the catch were uncanny. He elevated both the offense and defense in ways not always seen on the stat sheet. Kamara, a third-round draft reach, displayed a sheer joy of playing the game that was infectious across the roster, in the locker room and on Brees himself.
Opposing defenses will have tape on Kamara’s tendencies and formations this season, which is a headwind. But expect Payton and his offensive staff to find different schemes and plays in which to use his unique set of skills.
Expect Loomis to sign a veteran free agent running back at some point in August to help until Ingram’s return for the Oct. 8 home game against Washington. A silver lining to this Ingram issue might be the schedule, as the Saints open at home against Tampa Bay and Cleveland. Road dates at Atlanta and the N.Y. Giants are next in line, though.
There are three very winnable games with or without Ingram.
I have a check in the pro column for the offensive line.
The core returns with Terron Armstead and second-year phenom Ryan Ramczyk at tackle, vets Larry Warford and Andrus Peat at guard and mainstay Max Unger at center. Twelve-year veteran Jermon Bushrod returns to the team for added depth. There are a couple of rookie linemen in camp, including 6-foot, 10-inch Nate Wozniak from Minnesota.
The worry is always injury and the durability of Armstead and Peat, who always seem to miss a stretch of games.
If this crew can remain healthy, with the help of reserve rotation, then Brees will find time to throw, and the backs will see holes to run through.
I expect the receiving corps to match or exceed their production this season. And it begins with the talented and grounded Michael Thomas. His team-leading 104 catches for 1,245 yards and five scores makes him Brees’ go-to guy.
Thomas won’t win many foot races. Fortunately, he lacks the obnoxious diva behavior sometimes seen among the NFL’s elite receivers. His route running, sure hands and toughness in traffic separate him from many All Pro but mouthy wideouts.
He’s durable, and Payton needs to keep him that way, and on the field. Veteran receiver Ted Ginn, Jr., is back to stretch the field; he somehow retains that extra burst of speed. Brandon Coleman returns, and will be under pressure to up his execution.
There was one notable free agent signing, with the addition of Chicago Bears receiver Cameron Meredith, who missed all of 2017 with an injury. If he’s healthy, at 6 feet, 3 inches, 207 pounds, Meredith will see a lot of snaps and targets. He led Chicago in receiving in 2016. But I’m not sure what that means in the scheme of the Bears’ morbid offense of late.
Slot guy Willie Snead is gone. In comes former LSU star Travin Dural and Central Florida rookie Tre’Quan Smith, whom Payton had high praise for during OTAs.
Brees will have enough wideout targets. But will the tight ends be better with the addition of 15-year veteran Ben Watson (who has great leadership and locker room presence)? Josh Hill and Michael Hoomanawanui are OK but not spectacular.
The team flirted with bringing Jimmy Graham back. But his asking price was too high for his career stage, so he found a home in Green Bay.
Defensive coordinator Dennis Allen got an early Christmas gift with the selection of first-round draft pick defensive end Marcus Davenport.
The Saints beat writers and media will be challenged to get more than a few words out of the rookie from UT-San Antonio. Davenport is a smart and well-spoken youngster, but averages no more than five words per response. He has been well-schooled in football clichés.
What he does bring to the defensive line is a pass rushing force to play opposite All Pro Cam Jordan. Davenport, a former wide receiver turned pass rusher at UTSA, is big, strong and fast, according to Payton, but needs schooling in technique and recognition of offensive formations and how to attack them.
He should win a starting position. But expect second year DE Trey Hendrickson to push him, along with veterans George Johnson and Hau’oli Kikaha. There’s decent depth now at the defensive end spot if everyone stays upright.
The key to the Saints’ pass rush is still Jordan and the inside push from former top pick Sheldon Rankins.
The defensive line worry is stopping the run. The line allowed more than 4 yards per rush last season. That’s not awfully bad, but it helped the opposing offenses get a 41-percent third down conversion rate.
What turned the Saints into a playoff team in 2017 was the improvement in the defensive secondary. Bar none, it had the most critical positive impact on the team’s performance compared to the last three to four years, when the Saints had the worst defense in the NFL.
Last year’s NFC Defensive Rookie of the Year Marshon Lattimore (yes, the Saints had both offensive and defensive rookie of the year winners) was simply one of the best at locking down the opposition’s top receiver.
You can’t discount his five interceptions; but his knocking down passes and breaking up third down attempts and run support were equally impressive. Lattimore did miss three games with injury, which leads to the question of what more he could do if he were completely healthy.
Ken Crawley and P.J. Williams rotated in and out at the other cornerback spot. They will get a boost with the return of former top draft pick Patrick Robinson, who left the Super Bowl champion Eagles to return to New Orleans.
Rookie safety Marcus Williams was second on the squad in tackles (59) and INTS (4) and ran the secondary beyond his rookie status.
If not for that one defensive miscue in Minnesota (no further details needed), Williams would have had a nearly perfect first year in the NFL.
He needs to bounce back from that adversity, that play, that mistake, and prove 2017 was no one-year wonder. I think he can and will.
If there is one area where Allen and his defensive brain trust will circle the wagons, it will be linebacker. I’m not saying the Saints are depleted of talent; but consistency and durability are question marks.
They lost rookie starting outside backer Alex Anzalone three games into last season. Veteran A.J. Klein went out around mid-year and Danielle Ellerbe could not stay healthy and was let go.
Klein is a stalking, tackling monster down the line, and his void was difficult to fill. Veteran Craig Robertson was the mainstay who took over the linebackers. They will rely on him, Klein, Nate Stupar, Manti Te’o and Anzalone. I don’t expect much from any of the two or three rookies in camp.
Now that the Lombardi Super Bowl Trophy resides in Philadelphia, it is clear the league’s power ranking has shifted to the NFC.
And unfortunately, many of the conference’s better teams are on the Saints schedule this season.
New Orleans will match up against the NFC East with the Eagles at home on Nov. 18; at New York; at home against the Redskins and new QB Alex Smith; and at Dallas — a team that some feel is playoff ready.
Add in games at Minnesota (yes, it’s time to avenge that Miracle loss) and a Nov. 4 home date versus the dangerous L.A. Rams. The Saints slate also includes the AFC North, with Cleveland early, Baltimore, Cincinnati and Pittsburgh.
Toss in the annual home and away series against South Divisional rivals Atlanta, Carolina and Tampa Bay, and the Saints will face six playoff teams from 2017 (Pittsburgh, Philly, L.A. Rams, Minnesota, Carolina and Atlanta).
Success in the NFL begins and ends with quarterback play. Those six playoff opponents, including the Vikings with Kirk Cousins, have established All Pro caliber quarterbacks, which will test the Saints defense again.
My own Top 6 NFC power ranking is Philadelphia, Minnesota, New Orleans, Atlanta, Green Bay and L.A. Rams.
If that holds true, and my pros outweigh the cons, be looking for another playoff run for the Saints.
Rick Sarro’s perspectives and commentary can be heard on Soundoff 60 nightly, Monday through Sunday evenings, at 9 pm; broadcast on channel 4 on Suddenlink.