REASONS TO BE BULLISH: When a fighter absorbs one heavy body punch after another, that fighter usually wears himself down in the late rounds. But that wasn’t the case with the Saints last season despite losing so many key players to injury. The fact that many of these players are returning and the roster has been significantly improved in key areas influenced my decision to make them one of my favorites to go from playoff viewing to a deep run. But what puts them at #1 is the fact that they play in the NFC, which will offer a much smoother path to the Super Bowl than the loaded AFC, which is as deep as I remember in nearly three decades in the league can.
The Saints’ 9-8 record last season was impressive considering they lost quarterback Jameis Winston (ruptured cruciate ligament) in the last 10 games and used four different players in the position. had to do without two-time All-Pro wide receiver Michael Thomas (ankle) all year; lost defensemen David Onyemata (suspension) and Marcus Davenport (shoulder) for six games each; and had an offensive line that was constantly changing, as Terron Armstead (elbow/knee) and Ryan Ramczyk (knee/COVID-19) missed nine and seven games, respectively, and guard Andrus Peat missed the last 11 games due to a torn pectoral star running back Alvin Kamara was sidelined for four games with a knee injury, and backup Mark Ingram missed four contests due to injury and COVID-19 after being traded back to New Orleans midseason.
Can we really expect this calamity to strike New Orleans again this year? I do not think so. In the meantime, the roster seems to be loaded. Winston and Thomas are on schedule to be ready for training camp and the receiving corps could be among the deepest in the league after being one of the shallower units last season. The Saints didn’t have a player to reach 700 yards or 50 receptions last season, but this year they should have Thomas, who averaged 118 catches for 1,378 yards in his first four seasons, fast rookie first-rounder Chris Olave, free- Agent pickup Jarvis Landry and returning threat Marquez Callaway, who had a team-high six and received touchdowns in 2021.
On defense, they signed free-agent safeties Tyrann Mathieu and Marcus Maye and drafted cornerback Alontae Taylor in the second round. They also used the second of their two first-round picks against Trevor Penning, who could be running to replace the late Armstead.
REASONS TO BE PROTECTIVE: There have been significant turnovers in some places, particularly with the head coach. Sean Payton retired after 15 seasons, nine playoff appearances and one Super Bowl championship. He cast a long shadow over the organization and was at the heart of every football decision. How will the Saints adjust to his absence? Last but not least, a smooth transition is expected as defensive coordinator Dennis Allen is promoted to succeed Payton. Allen was 8-28 in more than two seasons as the Raiders coach, from 2012-14, but it’s unfair to judge him by that. The Raiders were one of the most dysfunctional franchises in the league at the time. Allen inherited a situation where the team was well over the salary cap and didn’t have a 2012 draft pick for the first three rounds before finally receiving an equalizer pick.
It’s worth noting that the Saints could be without their most dynamic player for some time given the possibility of a suspension looming for Kamara, who is facing battery charges following his arrest in February. Also keep an eye on changes in the secondary page. Both starting safeties are gone after Malcolm Jenkins retired and Marcus Williams signed with the Ravens. Armstead, a three-time Pro Bowler at left tackle, signed with Miami in free agency. Mathieu and Maye are talented safes, but how long will it take them to become comfortable on a new team and in a new system? The good news for the Saints, however, is that there appears to be only one real contender (Tampa Bay) for the division title. That’s another reason they’re my pick for the deepest playoff run among teams that didn’t qualify for the postseason last season.