As the NFL season approaches, Andy Benoit is previewing every NFL team in reverse order of last season’s finish. Up today: the New Orleans Saints, who finished 10–6 and beat the Panthers in the wild-card round before falling to the Vikings in the divisional round.
1. One could argue that Marshon Lattimore is more valuable to the Saints than any other NFL defender is to his team. By handling the nearly impossible task of shadowing No. 1 receivers (in the NFC South, that means Julio Jones and Mike Evans twice a year), Lattimore enables defensive coordinator Dennis Allen to unleash every dimension of his voluminous scheme. Allen employs all forms of zone and man coverage, at times mixing the two and often disguising them. That can’t work without a corner locking down one side of the field.
On the down side, Lattimore blew a few zone coverages last year, mainly thinking it was Cover 2 when the call was Cover 3, but that’s easy to clean up. More challenging is the tenuous No. 2 corner situation opposite him. P.J. Williams can run hot and cold. Ken Crawley is tremendously physical, but too often in illegal fashion, especially at the top of deep routes.
2. An effective free safety can help offset cornerbacking deficiencies. Second-year pro Marcus Williams, for the time being, is known for giving up the 61-yard touchdown to Stefon Diggs to end New Orleans’s season in the divisional round. One head coach who faced the Saints last year told me he felt extra bad for Williams because his staff had thought he was one of the better centerfielders they’d seen all year. If Williams can bounce back emotionally (that’s anyone’s guess), he’s primed for a nice career.
3. With the Saints trading next year’s first-round pick to move up and draft edge rusher Marcus Davenport with the No. 14 pick, you wonder if Allen will continue to be so schematically diverse. The Davenport investment was to boost the natural pass rush, and perhaps the greatest benefit of a strong natural pass rush is it allows your back seven to play simpler and faster. Davenport joins what was already an ascending nickel front four. Cam Jordan improves every year with his unmatched concoction of power, technique and energy. Sheldon Rankins is selfless and adroit at attacking blockers to set up teammates. Last year’s third-round pick Trey Hendrickson is not an elite talent, but his pliability makes him effective inside and outside.
4. Spending $16 million guaranteed on Jets free agent linebacker Demario Davis didn’t make sense. Davis dropped off down the stretch last season while incumbent Saints linebackers Manti Te’o and Craig Robertson elevated as delayed blitzers and run defenders. Factor in sturdy two-down ‘backer A.J. Klein, who can also survive in some passing situations, plus 2017 third-round pick Alex Anzalone, who was used in nickel before going down with a shoulder injury in Week 4, and you have a linebacking unit that, while not spectacular, was certainly already serviceable.
5. How good is reigning Offensive Rookie of the Year Alvin Kamara? Good enough that we’re mentioning him before future Hall of Fame quarterback Drew Brees. Kamara plays only 45% of the snaps but commands probably twice as much of the opponent’s game-planning time as any other Saint. He runs with imperceptible speed and unbelievable balance. His receiving prowess grew exponentially as a rookie, particularly when he aligned on the weak side in empty backfield formations. Kamara can be what the Saints were hoping Reggie Bush would become in the mid-2000s.
6. Head coach Sean Payton is too wise to substantially increase Kamara’s workload during Mark Ingram’s four-game suspension. It’s unknown whether Kamara is even conditioned for that—and early in the season, when players’ bodies are readjusting to live action, is a bad time to find out. Ingram’s snaps should go to free agent pickup Jonathan Williams. And upon return, Ingram should assume his full role. He’s one of football’s most underappreciated backs, consistently getting all the yards that his blocking presents and then some. He’s also fantastic on backfield screens, which are huge in Payton’s high-powered base passing game.
7. As for Brees, there’s maybe never been a more fundamentally sound quarterback, which is why, despite declining arm strength at 39, he’s as prolific as ever. Brees moves within the pocket perfectly. He reads defenses correctly pre-and post-snap 99% of the time. He’s a master at manipulating zone defenders with his eyes and body mechanics. And his precision accuracy can throw receivers open against even the tightest of man coverage. NFL quarterback coaches know Tom Brady is the best, but when they make tutorial tapes for young QBs, it’s Brees’s film they show the most.
8. Brees has two uniquely appealing wideouts in Michael Thomas and Ted Ginn. Thomas has some of football’s strongest hands and terrific mechanics on short and intermediate routes (especially slants). Ginn, to his immense credit, has developed into a reliable No. 2 behind Thomas—nobody who followed his Dolphins career would have guessed that’d ever be the case. The Saints shrewdly exploit Ginn’s lethal speed with designer deep shots and outside-drifting vertical routes from the slot.
9. Though Kamara and Ginn have expanded New Orleans’s perimeter passing game, Sean Payton’s system still centers around attacking defenses at deeper levels between the painted field numbers. Quality safety play is vital against this offense.
10. If New Orleans’s offensive line can stay healthy after an injury-riddled 2017 campaign, it can be better than any in the NFL save for Dallas’s. Left tackle Terron Armstead is a premium athlete. Left guard Andrus Peat is football’s top on-the-move run-blocker. Center Max Unger can execute the difficult reach-blocks that make or break most zone runs. Right guard Larry Warford’s proficiency on double-teams fits Payton’s two-back running scheme. And as a rookie last year right tackle Ryan Ramczyk held his own in solo pass protection on the right AND left sides. That’s extremely rare.
BOTTOM LINE: If the high-octane defense we saw in the second half of last season returns, the Saints are legitimate Super Bowl contenders.