The Saints came so close to the Super Bowl last year and were a whisker away from the Championship Game the year before. Now, with Sean Payton and Drew Brees running out of chances to double up on their 2009 success, can they take the final step a decade on?
Improvements – Defensive Line
Ultimately the Saints made very few moves with six free agent signings and five draft picks, only one of which was in the top 170. New Orleans did add former Patriot Malcolm Brown and Mario Edwards Jr, adding to a defence that was pretty staunch a year ago, accruing fifth most sacks (49) and only allowing three more rush yards (1283) than the Bears for second fewest in the league.
Admittedly these moves may have been to protect against Sheldon Rankins missing the start of the season but they now have great depth on the D-Line. The addition of Chauncey Gardner-Johnson and Saquon Hampton at Safety mean that they’re pretty strong on the back end too.
Biggest Hole – Linebacker
If there is a weakness to this team it’s in the middle of the defence. The Saints traded for Kiko Alonso on cutdown day but between AJ Klein and Demario Davis, it lacks superstars. That being said, it’s still an average to good unit in the league and shows the strength of this team as a whole.
While the signing of Jared Cook will give Drew Brees a safety blanket, beyond Michael Thomas, there is a lack of depth at Wide Receiver as they will look to Tedd Ginn Jr to play a big role for the team. While Thomas is playing, and happy on a new contract, the Saints offence should flow, but if the Ohio State alum gets shutdown, or even injured, the Saints will be very reliant on Cook and Alvin Kamara to move the chains.
One to Watch – Marcus Davenport
Entering his second season, Davenport is tipped for a great year, benefitting from a revamped defensive interior. If the Saints are leading a lot this year, they need a closer coming off the edge to finish drives in the fourth quarter. Davenport had 4.5 sacks as a rookie but the speed rusher should hit double digits as a sophomore opposite Cameron Jordan.
As the Saints continue to develop their defence, fourth round pick Chauncey Gardner-Johnson also deserves a mention. He will start as a backup to Vonn Bell but see snaps in subpackages. Gardner-Johnson has experience in various positions across the secondary and has the range to disrupt opposition passing games, as well as earn a pick or two.
Leading Question – Will Drew Brees’ arm last?
It was clear to see down the stretch last year that Brees was struggling to throw down the field. While Jared Cook will offer a good intermediate option, it will be tough for the Saints to compete late in the season and particularly in January with a dink and dunk offence. A bye is a must for them to make a deep postseason run.
Schedule – NFC West & AFC South
Travelling to the Jaguars, Titans, Rams and Bears, as well as hosting the Bears, Texans and Colts, on top of a tough division schedule mean that the Saints will have to work to retain the NFC crown. That being said, they have experience in tough games and winning key games down the stretch, perhaps more than anyone in the NFC over the last couple of years.
Verdict – 12-4
The Saints may drop a game compared to last year as the division catches up but I think that the Saints still have the edge and will win the games that matter, especially with the Superdome home advantage. The Saints will be playing in January and they should have just enough to get a much-needed bye. Once there, they are as primed as anyone to go all the way.
Photo: USA Today