The New Orleans Saints will have new starters in at least ten positions in 2021. Key offseason personnel losses like QB Drew Brees, WR Emmanuel Sanders, DTs Sheldon Rankins and Malcom Brown, LBs Kwon Alexander and Alex Anzalone, CB Janoris Jenkins, and P Thomas Morstead have raised several questions throughout the roster.
Most national observers are focused on the Saints quarterback position, where Jameis Winston and Taysom Hill will wage a battle to replace Brees. There are several other areas of potential concern on this team, which has won four straight NFC South championships.
Many so-called experts are projecting a significant decline for the Saints after the retirement of Brees and the offseason losses. They are overlooking how much talent New Orleans still has at several positions.
With training camp just weeks away, here are the Saints' strongest positions.
SAINTS DEFENSIVE EDGE
New Orleans lost DE Trey Hendrickson in free agency, who led the team in sacks (13.5) and QB pressures (33) in 2020. While Hendrickson had a terrific year, those statistics surpassed what he had produced over his three previous seasons combined. The Saints still have one of the league's deepest edge positions.
Thirty-two-year-old DE Cam Jordan was elected to his fourth straight Pro Bowl and sixth such honor in the last eight years. However, Jordan's statistical production was his lowest since 2014 and the second-lowest of his career.
A potential Hall of Famer, Jordan looks to bounce back to his dominant form. Unlike earlier in his career, he won't be the sole focus of opposing offenses up front and should benefit from more single-team blocking.
Third-year DE Carl Granderson looks on the verge of a breakout campaign like Hendrickson had in 2020. Granderson is a long-limbed athlete with an excellent burst around the edge. He improved his discipline in 2020, making him even more difficult for opposing blockers to handle him.
Marcus Davenport hopes to finally consistently show why the Saints traded up to select him with the Number 14 pick in the 2018 NFL Draft. Davenport has struggled with injuries in all three of his NFL seasons and is coming off a career-low 1.5 sacks and 21 tackles in 11 games.
When healthy, Davenport has flashed the potential of a highly disruptive player. Despite a disappointing season, he still registered 17 QB pressures last year and had 10.5 sacks and 43 pressures over his first two seasons.
New Orleans used a first-round pick, number 27 overall, on University of Houston defensive end Payton Turner this spring. Turner has explosive athleticism to go along with his prototypical size (6’5 and 270-Lbs.) and had 8.5 sacks and 18 tackles for loss over his final two collegiate seasons.
Turner needs to refine his technique but shows the strength, agility, and instincts to immediately challenge for playing time. The Saints also added former Kansas City DE Tanoh Kpassagnon in free agency. Kpassagnon is another raw project but has great size at 6’7 and 289-Lbs. and freakish athletic ability.
One under-the-radar player to watch at this position is former Buccaneers DE Noah Spence, who has struggled with injuries over the last few seasons. Spence was a second-round pick by Tampa Bay in 2016. He’s a natural pass rusher who had 5.5 sacks and 12 QB hits as a rookie. Since then, injuries have caused him to miss 39 of the last 64 games, including all the 2020 campaign.
Much has been made about the major questions New Orleans has at cornerback outside of Marshon Lattimore. What gets lost is how much talent the Saints have at the safety position.
Free safety Marcus Williams was so highly valued by the team that they applied the franchise tag to him for only the third time in their history rather than let him test free agency. The 24-year-old Williams has 14 interceptions and 33 passes broken up over his four-year seasons. He has terrific instincts and as much range as any safety in the NFL.
Second-year defensive back Chauncey Gardner-Johnson was one of the most consistently dynamic players on the New Orleans defense in 2020. A fourth-round steal in the 2020 NFL Draft, Gardner-Johnson can play deep safety, up close to the line of scrimmage, and is one of the league's best slot defenders.
Thirty-three-year-old safety Malcolm Jenkins had a rough start in his return to New Orleans, who he played with from 2009 to 2013. By mid-season, Jenkins had settled into a pivotal role of deep coverage with Marcus Williams in double-high safety alignments and providing stellar run support at the line of scrimmage.
A liability as a man-to-man cornerback, P.J. Williams has played well in off-ball coverage and as a versatile safety for the Saints over the last two years. Williams is an excellent tackler and reacts well to throws in front of him.
J.T. Gray doesn't see much action in the team's defensive sets. Gray is one of the league's best special teams players, earning All-Pro recognition in 2019 and providing standout athleticism to the unit.
SAINTS RUNNING BACK
New Orleans has arguably the NFL's best 1-2 punch at running back with Alvin Kamara and Latavius Murray. Kamara is the league's most dynamic offensive weapon, capable of taking over a game as a runner or a receiver.
Kamara has at least 81 receptions, 1,700 yards from scrimmage, and 14 touchdowns in three of his four NFL seasons. An ankle injury to All-Pro WR Michael Thomas last season forced Kamara to almost single-handedly carry the offense at times. He responded with career bests in rushing yardage (932), receptions (83), and led the league with a team record 21 touchdowns.
Latavius Murray has been the ideal complement to Kamara in his two years with the Saints. The 31-year-old Murray actually has more 100-Yd rushing games (3) than Kamara (1) over the last two years.
Murray has 1,293 rushing yards, 11 touchdowns, and has averaged 4.4 yards per carry with New Orleans. He’s a power runner between the tackles with underrated breakaway speed and offers a reliable check-down option as a receiver.
With Kamara and Murray leading the way, snaps are scarce for the other New Orleans backs. Veteran Ty Montgomery took full advantage of his opportunity in 2020.
A free-agent addition prior to last season, the 28-year-old Montgomery had been a versatile runner and receiver his previous five seasons in the NFL. Injuries and the presence of Kamara and Murray limited Montgomery to just six games and 72 offensive snaps with the Saints last season.
When COVID-19 protocols depleted the New Orleans backfield during the regular-season finale at Carolina, Montgomery was given a chance to shine. He responded with a 105-yard rushing performance against the Panthers. His versatility should earn him a bigger offensive role in 2021.
The Saints lost fullback Michael Burton in free agency but added former Carolina FB Alex Armah. The 6’2 and 255-Lb. Armah could be a monster lead blocker for the New Orleans running attack.
Veteran RB Dwayne Washington has been a capable runner when called upon but is also one of the team’s best special teams contributors. Washington has been with the Saints for three seasons but will be in a fight for his roster spot against two promising young backs.
The Saints have had great success during the Sean Payton era at developing undrafted running backs into offensive contributors. Second-year RB Tony Jones Jr. could push for a roster spot after impressing coaches as a rookie. Stevie Scott III, an undrafted rookie back from Indiana, has great size and is a strong runner between the tackles.
SAINTS OFFENSIVE LINE
The outstanding running abilities of Kamara, Murray, and Taysom Hill helped the Saints finish sixth in the league with 141.5 rushing yards per game and lead the NFL with 30 rushing touchdowns.
Their job was made easier by a dominant performance by the offensive line. New Orleans dictates the tempo of games by establishing control of the trenches, imposing their will on opposing defenses.
Tackles Ryan Ramczyk and Terron Armstead are the best tandem in the league, routinely shutting down the league's best pass rushers.
Armstead, who turns 30 this month, is the elder statesmen of the line and has been voted to three straight Pro Bowls. Ramczyk, 27, is perhaps the league's best offensive lineman and recently signed a long-term contract extension.
Erik McCoy, a second-round choice in the 2019 NFL Draft, is a Pro Bowl-caliber center and an outstanding run blocker and pass protector. Right guard Cesar Ruiz was the team's first-round selection last season. He got off to a slow start and had struggles in pass protection, but was a strong run blocker and flashed the potential of a bright future.
Twenty-seven-year-old guard Andrus Peat has often drawn criticism from the New Orleans fan base, but when healthy is a solid inside presence who's gone the three Pro Bowls.
The Saints have experienced and versatile depth with James Hurst, Derrick Kelly, and Will Clapp. Coaches are also high on 2021 sixth-round pick Landon Young.
The offensive line paves the way for their dynamic running backs. They also provide exemplary pass protection that will be vital to the team's success as Jameis Winston or Taysom Hill look to step into the Hall of Fame shadow left by Drew Brees.
The Saints have some of the league's best players at their respective positions in Kamara, Ramczyk, Armstead, McCoy, Jordan, Williams, WR Michael Thomas, LB Demario Davis, and CB Marshon Lattimore.
That talent, along with a few of the NFL's most dominant units by position, ensures that this team will again be contenders in 2021.
Follow Bob Rose on Facebook or on Twitter @bobbyr2613.
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