The New Orleans Saints have a record of 6-2 at the midway point of their season. They notched their fifth consecutive victory with a 38-3 win at Tampa Bay on Sunday to put them in 1st place of the NFC South. New Orleans will have several tests over the second half of the year as they look to win their fourth consecutive division title and put themselves in a position for a championship run.
The Saints have already overcome several obstacles through the first part of the year. Especially on the offensive side of the ball where injury has ravaged a talented receiving corps and the skills of their Hall of Fame quarterback were openly questioned at the start of the campaign. New Orleans ranks 9th in passing offense and 11th in rushing at the midway point of their season.
Now healthy as they enter the second half of their schedule, the Saints look like one of the league's most balanced offenses. Here’s how those offensive positions graded out over the first half of their season.
A slow start to the year caused several critics to speculate about a sharp decline in the skills of 41-Yr old quarterback Drew Brees. He’s responded by throwing 17 touchdown passes and just 3 interceptions, leading the league in completion percentage at 74%, and averaging 279 yards per game since Week One.
Even more impressive, Brees has done it with an injury-depleted receiving corps. All-Pro WR Michael Thomas has played in just two games because of ankle and hamstring injuries. Offseason acquisition Emmanuel Sanders got off to a slow start as he was learning the offense, then missed two games after a positive test for COVID-19. Tight end Jared Cook missed one contest and was slowed in another, and undrafted rookie WR Marquez Callaway missed a game with an ankle injury.
Brees may not have the arm strength he used to or move around as nimbly as he once did. He can still dissect defenses among the best who’s ever played and has proven that he still has the physical tools to make the New Orleans offense among the league's most dangerous.
MID-SEASON GRADE = A
Alvin Kamara leads the NFL with 1,036 yards from scrimmage, scoring 8 touchdowns and averaging 129.5 yards per game. He leads the team with 471 yards rushing, averaging 4.9 yards per carry. Kamara is on pace to shatter league records for receiving production from a running back in a single season. His 60 receptions for 565 yards not only leads the team, but is among the league leaders in both categories.
Latavius Murray has been an effective complement to Kamara, rushing for 321 yards and two scores while adding 12 receptions for 92 yards. Murray runs with power between the tackles, but also has the speed to break big plays in the open field. Fullback Michael Burton has been an excellent lead blocker for the Kamara/Murray tandem and has also has been an effective rusher in short yardage situations.
They list Taysom Hill as a backup quarterback, but his importance to New Orleans is as a versatile offensive chess piece. Hill has scored two touchdowns, rushing for 141 yards and adding 6 receptions for 74 yards while completing 4 of 5 passes for another 86 yards. He’s most often used as a read-option quarterback, but is also an effective receiver from the slot.
The success of the New Orleans offense has often depended on the productivity of their backs as both rushers and receivers. With the injuries through the team's receiving corps, Kamara has carried the offense at times. Yet, despite the extra attention from opposing defenses, he continues to be productive at a record-breaking pace. Murray has proven himself capable of shouldering the rushing load if necessary, while Hill's versatility keeps defenses on their heels.
MID-SEASON GRADE = A
The duo of Michael Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders has been on the field together for just eight quarters this season. Sanders was working up a valuable chemistry with Brees, catching 18 passes for 215 yards in two games before missing two contests with a positive COVID test. Thomas is one of the most unstoppable weapons in the league and led the NFL with 1,725 receiving yards and a league record 149 catches in 2019.
Rookie WR Marquez Callaway has quickly emerged as a viable receiving option in shorter zones with the speed to threaten defenses deep. Third-year wideout Tre'Quan Smith (26 receptions, 305 yards, 3 touchdowns) has finally shown signs of consistency and has improved his production. All-Pro kick returner Deonte Harris is electric in the open field and has been a bigger part of the offense, with 15 receptions for 160 yards and a touchdown.
To be fair, injuries have prevented this group from showing what they can truly do as a unit over the first half of the year. Health permitting, they should be dangerously effective over the second half of the season. Thomas and Sanders are two of the most feared receivers in the game. Their absence has actually made the unit better, forcing Callaway, Harris, and Smith to develop with increased snaps. The three have proven that they can not only be effective when called upon, but even more importantly have earned the trust of their quarterback.
MID-SEASON GRADE = C
Pro Bowler Jared Cook missed one game and was slowed by injury in another but still has 21 receptions for 279 yards and a team-high 4 touchdowns. He has been the team's most effective deep threat and leads the offense with 13.3 yards per catch. Rookie 3rd round pick Adam Trautman has just six receptions for 73 yards and a score, but has impressed coaches with his blocking and showed promise of a bright future with his athleticism. Josh Hill has the trust of Brees as a short yardage receiver and is one of the league's best blockers at the position.
Cook is a matchup nightmare for defenses, too big for most defensive backs and too athletic for most linebackers. Hill is a quiet but important contributor to the offense, especially in the running game. Trautman could be a bigger part of the offense down the stretch now that he’s had some time to learn the playbook.
MID-SEASON GRADE = B
The Saints had some issues early in the year with pass protection, especially along the interior. As the season has progressed, they've fortified those problems and have imposed their will on defenses in the last several games. Center Erik McCoy is playing at a Pro Bowl level, showing power at the point of attack and excellent mobility outside on screens and outside runs. Guards Andrus Peat, Nick Easton, and rookie 1st round choice Cesar Ruiz have improved with each game. All three have an impressive combination of power and athletic ability and have stymied interior defenders in recent weeks.
Tackles Ryan Ramczyk and Terron Armstead are an elite pair of edge blockers whose skills help their teammates on the inside. Both Armstead and Ramczyk shut down the league's top pass rushers, often making them irrelevant in the outcome of a game. That both tackles can do this in one-on-one assignments allow the Saints to block defenses inside with more double-team combinations.
The Saints have dominated defenses over the last few games, which allows them to be equally effective with the pass as well as their running attack. Brees has been sacked just 10 times this season and hurried very little in recent contests. The New Orleans line has also created cutback lanes for Kamara and Murray, allowing their backs the opportunity to spring big plays.
MID-SEASON GRADE = A
The Saints have overcome injuries and some of the NFL's top-ranked defenses over the first half of the year to rank 9th in the league in total offense and 4th in scoring. They now host the 4-4 San Francisco 49ers to kick off the back half of their schedule. San Francisco came into the year as one of the NFC favorites for the Super Bowl, along with the Saints, but injuries have ravaged the defending conference champs on both sides of the ball.
The 49ers still have a formidable defense, ranking 7th in total yardage and 10th in points allowed. They'll present a tough challenge for the New Orleans offensive line up front with a dangerous defensive line, while linebackers Fred Warner and Dre Greenlaw have the athleticism necessary to match Kamara in the open field. Their defensive backs have been vulnerable down the field, but are a physical crew and will return Pro Bowl CB Richard Sherman to the lineup.
The Saints lost a close but entertaining game to the 49ers at home last year by a 48-46 score. The 46 points and 465 total yards from New Orleans were both season-highs against San Francisco. The Saints have the offensive tools to repeat that success against a 49er defense who has surrendered 71 points over their last two games and over 400 yards three times this season.
The Saints had one of the league's most balanced offenses, despite several injuries over the first part of the season. Now, with their full complement of weapons, New Orleans could roll through the rest of the NFL with a dominant offensive performance.