The New Orleans Saints had a 12-4 record in 2020 and won their fourth straight NFC South championship. They accomplished this despite an injury-ravaged receiving corps all season and down years from some of their biggest stars.
Quarterback Drew Brees missed four games with a serious rib and lung injury. He wasn't the same player upon his return to the lineup, but a decline in his Hall of Fame skills also attributed to offensive struggles.
Jameis Winston is expected to replace the retired Brees as the New Orleans starter in 2021.
We last saw the 27-year-old Winston in significant action with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in 2019. He led the NFL with 5,109 passing yards and threw for 33 touchdowns, but also led the league with 30 interceptions.
The success of the Saints in 2021 hinges on Winston's ability to be productive and avoid turnovers.
New Orleans is also counting on a return to form from three stars that struggled at times in 2020, but who have been paramount to the team's success over the last four years.
WIL LUTZ, KICKER
Lutz converted 23 of his 28 field goal attempts in 2020 and 57 of 58 extra points. He made all ten of his field goal tries between 30 and 40 yards, but his 82.1% field goal percentage was the lowest of his five-year career.
Lutz especially struggled over the final portion of the season, missing four field goals and an extra point over a seven-week stretch.
His inconsistencies cost the team points, but also caused coach Sean Payton to take uncharacteristic risks because of shaky confidence in his kicking game.
Lutz has been one of the NFL's most consistent kickers during his career. He converted over 89% of his opportunities between 2017 and 2019, including 80 of 86chances inside 50 yards.
Lutz' strong leg makes New Orleans a legitimate scoring threat from an opponent's 40-yard line, a luxury most teams don't possess.
CAMERON JORDAN, DEFENSIVE END
Cam Jordan earned his fourth straight Pro Bowl bid in 2020. It was the sixth time he had earned such honors in his ten-year career.
However, the achievement in 2020 seemed more based on reputation than achievement.
Jordan has played in every one of the Saints 171 games since being selected in the 1st Round of the 2011 NFL draft by New Orleans.
He had 7.5 sacks, 28 QB pressures, and 11 tackles for loss last season. He played in 78% of the team’s defensive snaps, the fewest of his career.
Rarely handled by a single blocker earlier in his career, we saw exactly that occurrence against Jordan several times in 2020.
Nagged by injuries throughout the year, the Saints are counting on a big bounce back season from Jordan, who turns 32 on July 10 and has been one of the greatest players in franchise history.
MICHAEL THOMAS, WIDE RECEIVER
Cam Jordan and Wil Lutz were affected by nagging injuries in 2020 but did not miss a game. The same cannot be said for All-Pro WR Michael Thomas
Thomas suffered a severe ankle injury in the opening week that kept him out of action for nine games last season.
Thomas had at least 92 receptions and 1,100 receiving yards in each of his first four seasons. He led the league with 1,725 yards in 2019 on an NFL-record 149 receptions. Over nine games in 2020, including playoffs, Thomas caught just 45 passes for 511 yards and zero touchdowns.
The 28-year-old Thomas is one of the most unstoppable receivers in the NFL because of his physicality, precise route running, and outstanding hands.
His ankle injury rendered him ineffective even when he did play in 2020, crippling a passing attack that was already dealing with a struggling Brees.
Michael Thomas, Cam Jordan, and Wil Lutz are all considered among the league's best at their respective positions. The season that the Saints put together in 2020 was even more impressive considering that these three stars played below their normal effectiveness.
Now healthy, New Orleans will need Thomas, Jordan, and Lutz to reclaim their place among the NFL's dominant players for a playoff push in 2021.
Follow Bob Rose on Facebook or on Twitter @bobbyr2613.
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