I’ll start this post with a question: has any NFL team ever had such a cruel ending to their season in back to back years as the Saints? In 2017, they were 24-23 up in the divisional round and had the Vikings 3rd & 10 on their 39 yard line with 10 seconds left before Case Keenum found Stefon Diggs for the Minneapolis Miracle. Fast forward 53 weeks and the Saints are driving to take the lead with a field goal and run the clock down against the Rams. On 3rd down, Brees looks to have found Tommylee Lewis for an easy completion before Nickel Robey-Coleman assaulted the receiver, uncalled, stopping the clock and leaving the Rams plenty of time to get a field goal of their own and go on to earn a place in the Super Bowl in overtime.
All of this is an extended way of saying that New Orleans are a Super Bowl team in waiting. The window is closing, admittedly, as Drew Brees enters the season aged 40, which clearly became a problem later in last season. Outside of Brees’ gradual decline the Saints are running on all cylinders, they kept all of their main talent in house and added Jared Cook at Tight End, who will be a big step up and reduces the workload of Josh Hill.
While the Saints are clearly focusing on the present, and that is obvious with how they are using draft picks to trade for experienced players rather than focusing on developing for life after Brees. However, with the five picks they did make in the 2019 draft, they added real talent, steals in fact, in certain positions later in the draft. Erik McCoy will be a big factor at Centre, allowing the relatively immobile Brees to keep his eyes down the field rather than the oncoming rush. Chauncey Gardner-Johnson will add depth to the secondary as a movable chess piece on subpackages.
What about the competition? Ultimately New Orleans didn’t win the NFC last year, but they were very close. In terms of getting in to the playoffs, the Saints have a challenging division, but I would be surprised to see the Falcons or Panthers beat the Saints over the course of a 16 game season having faded badly in 2018, with five and seven game losing streaks respectively. The Buccaneers will be improved but are a season and a defence away from challenging for a division crown.
At the sharp end of the NFC, the Vikings, Cowboys, Seahawks and particularly the Eagles will expect to make a deep run but ultimately they need to make big strides or have everything fall their for them to be challenging late in January.
That leaves the Rams and the Bears as the biggest threats and arguably both have lost more than the Saints over the offseason. As reigning NFC champions, the Rams have a target on their back but have lost some of their luxury talent like Ndamukong Suh as they have to start paying their talented younger players. There are big injury concerns around Cooper Kupp and Todd Gurley for differing knee issues, and it will be interesting to see how they are managed over the course of the season. Most concerning though is that it looks like Jared Goff has, to an extent, been found out, particularly when the receivers are depleted.
As for the Bears, their loss is more on the sidelines, as Vic Fangio is no longer guiding their dominant defence. There is clear talent in the likes of Eddie Jackson and Khalil Mack but it will need knitting together by Chuck Pagano. On offence, Jordan Howard was effectively replaced by David Montgomery and they have good receiving corps but they face the same question as the Rams, is Mitch Trubisky the truck guiding this team or a trailer behind it?
So, are the Saints favourites? The simple answer is yes. The real answer is yes, if – and it is a big if – Drew Brees’ arm lasts the season. Ironically the three main NFC challengers all appear to be most limited by Quarterback of all positions. Gone are the days that Brees could throw for 5000 yards with ease, the past two he has been closer to 4000 (4334 in 2017 and 3992 in 2018, though he was rested in week 17). While the jaw-dropping number are diminishing, Brees is still playing good football, with his second highest yards per play average and his fewest ever interceptions with five, as well as 32 touchdowns in 2018. The challenge for the Saints will be keeping the locker room harmony for a third straight year and Drew Brees playing his best football later in the season and playoffs, not in October, because in reality this may be their last shot at Super Bowl glory.