The New Orleans Saints have had their championship aspirations end in heartbreaking fashion in the last moments of playoff games in each of the last three seasons. In the 2018 divisional round, the Saints secondary gave up miracle 61-yard touchdown pass on the last play of the game to lose to the Minnesota Vikings. In the 2019 conference championship game, the defense could not stop the Los Angeles Rams on two 4th quarter drives, one in the final two minutes that would send the game into overtime and an ultimate defeat. The first round of the 2020 playoffs once again saw the Saints unable to stop an opponent with the game on the line. Again the opponent was Minnesota, who this time took the opening drive of overtime for the game-winning touchdown.
Rotten luck, offensive stumbles, defensive shortcomings in crucial moments, and incompetent officiating all played a part in one of the most talented teams in the NFL from adding another championship trophy. The Saints will again be a Super Bowl favorite in 2020, possessing perhaps the league’s deepest and most talented rosters. While nearly every position on the New Orleans roster has talent well down the depth chart, here are three spots that are somewhat thin as we head toward the 2020 season.
The Saints have the NFL’s most productive wideout in record-setting All-Pro Michael Thomas and added a bonafide complimentary threat at the position with the signing of veteran Emmanuel Sanders in free agency. New Orleans is still thin beyond those two stars here though. Tre'Quan Smith has flashed some promising signs in his first two seasons but has never been consistent and disappears in crucial moments. Beyond Smith, there is a handful of unproven undrafted players in either their first or second seasons.
Thomas and Sanders are proven stars, and Drew Brees will have other talented pass catchers to throw to in tight ends Jared Cook and rookie Adam Trautman along with running back Alvin Kamara and Taysom Hill. If opposing defenses manage to contain the Saints top two wideouts though, the offense could become very limited if nobody else on the roster at this position steps up to become a threat.
We have made much of the New Orleans defensive backfield’s failures in big moments of the biggest games, but the Saints also could not get pressure on the quarterback in those key situations. Cameron Jordan is one of the league’s best all-around defensive ends, and the team has built a deep and disruptive front line. Defensive end Marcus Davenport has been a terrific compliment to Jordan at the other edge when he’s been on the field. Davenport has missed significant time in each of his two seasons with foot injuries though, raising questions about his durability.
Without Davenport in the lineup, New Orleans has a weaker rotation of Trey Hendrickson, Mario Edwards Jr., and 2nd year Carl Granderson. Even with the 14th overall selection in the 2018 draft in the lineup last year, the Saints failed to get necessary pressure on Minnesota quarterback Kirk Cousins in the playoffs. The Saints must also get an interior disruption from their defensive tackles, especially from David Onyemata and a return to health of Sheldon Rankins. But it is Cam Jordan and Marcus Davenport who must live up to their lofty expectations and get opposing quarterbacks on the ground in the key moments of big games.
The Saints could look to bolster their pass rush by adding a star end like Jadeveon Clowney or Everson Griffen, or perhaps a veteran pass rusher like Clay Matthews, all of whom are still available.
Like receiver and defensive end, few teams possess a more talented starting duo than the Saints do with Marshon Lattimore and Janoris Jenkins at cornerback. This tandem can nullify the most talented NFL wideouts. Most teams use multiple receiver packages however, and deeper receiving corps have given the Saints problems.
Opponents have targeted backup corners P.J. Williams and Patrick Robinson with astonishing success, including the last drive of the last year’s playoff loss to Minnesota. Second year safety C.J. Gardner-Johnson was outstanding in slot coverage for the Saints last season, but New Orleans did little else to bolster the position this offseason. They added former XFL star Deatrick Nichols along with adding undrafted rookies Keith Washington and Tino Ellis, but the top two corner spots behind Lattimore and Jenkins still belong to Williams and Robinson as we head towards training camp.
Former New Orleans starter Eli Apple signed with the Carolina Panthers on Thursday, but a few talented cornerbacks remain on the free agent market if the Saints wish to upgrade their depth. Former top draft picks Darqueze Dennard, Dre Kirkpatrick, and Morris Claiborne are all still available, and would solidify the team’s ability to handle opponents with deep receiving units.
These positions were not solely responsible for the Saints playoff shortcomings in the last three years. But they are spots that could stand an upgrade in depth as the Saints look to shore up any potential weaknesses in pursuit of their second Super Bowl championship.