Recently, we explained why the Dallas Cowboys have a good shot at putting together back-to-back playoff seasons, but as we all know - our sights are set a little higher. But in order to make a run at the title, the Cowboys have a tough path ahead as there are several strong teams in the NFC that will challenge them come January. In today’s installment of our Eye on the Enemy series, we take a look at last year’s no. 2 seed in the NFC, the New Orleans Saints.
If you think Cowboys fans have it tough, try being a Saints fans these last few years. Since 2014, the Cowboys have won their division in three of the last five seasons, but for the Saints, that year marked the first of three straight 7-9 seasons. The good news for them is they’ve turned things around these last couple years, but the bad news is, they’ve endured heart-breaking playoff losses in each of the last two seasons. Everyone remembers the walk-off touchdown by Minnesota Vikings receiver Stefon Diggs when Saints defensive back Marcus Williams made one of the worst tackling attempts we’ve seen in recent history. And if you thought it couldn’t get any worse, the Saints fell victim to one of the worst pass interference no-calls fans have ever seen in last year’s NFC Championship game.
But the Saints are locked and loaded for another big year. Just how good is their team? Let’s take a look at their 2019 projected starting unit.
Why they can be dangerous
For three straight seasons the Saints offense has finished in the top four in points scored. It doesn’t matter what offensive juggernaut emerges in any given year (Atlanta, Philadelphia, or Kansas City), New Orleans is always right there with them in terms of offensive production. And there is zero reason to think this will change. With an ageless quarterback in Drew Brees and arguably the best running back/wide receiver duo in the league in Alvin Kamara and Michael Thomas - the Saints have big time playmakers. The team also gave Brees another weapon in free agent tight end Jared Cook. The veteran is 32 years old, but is coming off his first Pro Bowl season where he had 68 catches for 896 yards and six touchdowns - all career highs.
What’s holding this team back?
Saints fans have to be pleased with the improvement on the defensive side of the ball in recent years. During their three-year stretch with a losing record, New Orleans finished in the bottom five in points allowed in all three seasons. Since then, the team has finished 10th and 14th respectively. The Saints have moved away from former defensive coordinator Rob Ryan, who Cowboys fans know all too well, and now have former Vikings head coach Dennis Allen running the defense. They’ve also invested a lot of draft capital recently as the team has spent their top pick in the first round on defense in each of the last four seasons, which has netted them Sheldon Rankins, Marshon Lattimore, and Marcus Davenport (who actually cost two-first rounders because the team moved up 13 spots to select him in 2018).
Despite the improvements, the Saints defense still needs work. Outside of edge rusher Cameron Jordan, the defense is lacking playmakers. It’s a young group and the potential is there, but until that translates onto the field, the Saints defense is still just so-so. In each of their two heartbreaking losses in the playoffs, their defense let them down in the end.
Should we be worried about them in 2019?
The offense has the firepower because of Brees, Kamara, and Thomas, but that engine runs courtesy of the great protection they have up front. It goes unnoticed just how good the Saints offensive line is. They are outstanding on the edges with Terron Armstead (fifth highest cap hit for tackles) and 2017 late-first-round steal Ryan Ramczyck. And guards Andrus Peat and Larry Warford are solid players inside. The only question mark is at center after the team lost Pro Bowler Max Unger when he retired after 10 seasons. The Saints drafted Texas A&M star center Erik McCoy with their top draft resources (48th overall). If he’s not ready, the team signed Nick Easton to a four-year, $22.5 million deal in March, so however it shapes out - the Saints offensive line will again be an area of strength for the team.
Of the 23 starting quarterbacks that had at least 400 passing attempts last year, Brees was sacked the least amount of times (17). There were 13 quarterbacks who were sacked at least twice that much, including Dak Prescott who was sacked over three times as often (56). This is great news for a New Orleans team that wants to keep their 40-year-old quarterback upright. And when he’s got time, the Saints are very dangerous.
Should we be worried about them for the future?
A lot depends on how long Brees can keep playing at a high level. He’s played 18 seasons in the league, and he’s thrown over 30 touchdowns in 10 of them, including last season. Not only that, he had a career low of five interceptions (Jourdan Lewis had one of them) last season. Brees is no longer the gunslinger he once was. After 12 straight seasons of 4,000+ yards passing (including five seasons of 5,000+ yards), Brees came up just shy in 2018. He’s been on a downward trend in passing yards as the team has transitioned into one of the stronger running teams in the league. And as Tony Romo’s 2014 season will attest to - that’s not a bad thing. Brees’ efficiency was outstanding as he had a career high 115.7 passer rating last season, which moved him in front of Romo on the all-time list.
Even though they lost Mark Ingram in free agency, the team signed veteran running back Latavius Murray to a four-year deal. Murray was Pro Bowler in 2015 when he rushed for over 1,000 yards. The Saints running game should be in great shape going forward.
The team is going to have to spend a nice chunk of change to keep Michael Thomas and Alvin Kamara, but whether or not this team stays competitive could depend on how their young defenders perform. Their defense is laced with under-performing first-rounders, whether they are their own picks or another teams (Malcom Brown, Patriots and Eli Apple, Giants).
Of course, the biggest wild card for them for the future comes from their quarterback position. They traded away a third-round pick and paid $7 million to have Teddy Bridgewater as insurance for 2019, but is he part of their plans going forward? Bridgewater is only 27 years old and had a Pro Bowl season the one and only year he played a full 16 game season. However, if Brees can just coast with this level of efficiency, he might be able to stretch out a few more quality seasons behind center.
For other installments of this series, make sure to check out:
A players value was determined using the Approximate Value numbers from Pro Football Reference. They were taken from the last season that player saw action and prorated over a full 16 game season (if a player missed games).
Not all contracts are created equal so the cost comes from cap numbers from Spotrac; however, the actual figure used is either cap hit, average salary, or yearly cash - depending on the nature of their contract. These values are selected to better represent the team’s investment in that individual player.