The 10th anniversary of the New Orleans Saints 2009 championship season is upon us and expectations for the franchise to return to the Super Bowl are higher than ever. During the off-season, New Orleans managed to retain nearly all of its key contributors. They didn’t make many headlines in free agency or the draft, yet they quietly addressed needs across the roster.
The illustrious Drew Brees era could end after this season, potentially closing the Super Bowl window that the arrival of Brees opened nearly 15 years ago. Several young starters are approaching the ends of their contracts in the next year or two, adding even more pressure to win now.
With all of this in mind, let’s take a look at some of the factors that could help or hurt the Saints in 2019.
New Orleans Saints 2019 Season Preview
Can Young Defense Continue Improving?
No one needs to remind Saints fans how poor their defenses have been for much of the last decade. However, the 2016-2018 draft classes and a handful of smart, thrifty free agent signings have brought a solid core of defenders to the franchise.
While the unit had some great games in 2017, the improvement really came near the middle of 2018, most significantly against the run. New Orleans allowed 31.5 fewer rushing yards per game and 0.8 fewer yards per carry than in 2017. They finished the season ranked second in both categories.
The Saints also made strides in the passing game after an ugly start thanks to a mid-season trade for cornerback Eli Apple and a pass rush that was dominant for much of the season. However, the defense still allowed the fourth-most passing yards per game and the fifth-highest yards per attempt average in the league. New Orleans seemed to struggle most against teams with top receiver talent like the Pittsburgh Steelers and Atlanta Falcons.
Communication in the secondary has to be better. When everyone knows their assignments, the Saints defensive backfield is a force to be reckoned with. Yet, they find themselves out of place far too often, giving up far too many big plays as a result.
A more consistent pass rush will take pressure off the secondary. While New Orleans finished the season tied for fifth with 49 sacks, they didn’t consistently affect the passer. In two postseason outings, the Saints managed just one sack. Things may have been better if 2018 first-rounder Marcus Davenport had stayed healthy, but he suffered a toe injury just as he was hitting his stride.
Davenport’s progress will be the biggest factor towards improving the pass rush in 2019.
Quiet Draft Class Could Overachieve
The Saints 2019 draft class figured to be a lackluster haul. Due to several 2018 trades, New Orleans entered the draft with just five picks, including only one pick in the first four rounds. Still, New Orleans managed to come away with a promising group of players with the help of some additional trades.
They selected Erik McCoy, now their starting center in the middle of the second round, and highly graded safety Chauncey Gardner-Johnson in the fourth round. Both Gardner-Johnson and Saquan Hampton, a sixth-rounder at safety, made the Saints roster a year after two 2018 defensive back selections (Natrell Jamerson and Kamrin Moore) were cut after the preseason.
Elliss flashed early in camp and saw a significant amount of starting reps as Alex Anzalone dealt with an injury for much of August. He outshined a handful of veteran linebackers to earn a spot on the initial roster. Mack also made a good early impression but missed much of camp and preseason with an injury. He still showed enough upside for the Saints to sign him to the practice squad.
This class reminds me of the Saints 2016 draft, which is often overshadowed by their excellent 2017 draft class and also had just five selections. Two of those picks are among the best players on the team (Michael Thomas and Sheldon Rankins) while Vonn Bell is a bonafide starter and David Onyemata a major contributor. Running back Daniel Lasco, cut last season is the only outlier.
So far, McCoy is already a starter, and Gardner-Johnson figures to get significant playing time rotating in at strong safety and in the slot. The rest all have high upsides and starting potential.
Progress Report on Free Agent Additions
We haven’t gotten much of a look at Cook so far. He saw limited action in the first two preseason games and was targeted only twice, catching one pass for four yards. At some point, Cook suffered an unknown injury and missed the last two preseason games. However, he returned to practice in a limited capacity last week, indicating that his injury may not be serious.
Cook’s limited action and production in preseason shouldn’t be too much of a concern. Coaches clearly didn’t want their biggest free agent acquisition to get too banged up in preseason and he showed plenty of promise in training camp. Most importantly, Cook has already developed good chemistry with Brees. All signs point to Cook having a great season.
Murray didn’t see a ton of preseason action either as fellow running backs Dwayne Washington and Devine Ozigbo dominated snap counts while fighting for the third running back job. However, Murray was fairly productive when he did play, gaining 27 yards on seven carries and catching all three of his targets for 22 yards.
Much to my surprise, there hasn’t been much hype surrounding Murray since he joined the Saints in March, and I suppose these preseason numbers won’t help. Perhaps it’s because many are still getting over the loss of fan-favorite Mark Ingram in free agency. For this reason, it could take some time for Murray to build his reputation in New Orleans.
At a glance, the four-year $24 million contract awarded to Easton may seem like a lot after he lost the starting center job to McCoy. However, Easton is now the Saints top backup at center and both guard positions, so he will potentially see a lot of playing time.
Left guard Andrus Peat has often slid over to left tackle when starter Terron Armstead is unavailable, and that figures to be the case again this year considering New Orleans currently lacks depth at tackle. If Peat has to play left tackle, Easton will come in at left guard. Essentially he’ll enter the game if any offensive lineman aside from right tackle Ryan Ramczyk has to leave the field.
A versatile, starting-caliber backup offensive lineman is a great thing to have, even at $6 million per year.
Brown already seems like an upgrade over departed nose tackle Tyeler Davison. While he didn’t record any preseason stats, Brown looked powerful and dominant against the run.
Edwards spent most of the summer at defensive tackle, recording two tackles in preseason action. He’s proving to be a good rotational option behind Onyemata while Rankins gets healthy. We won’t truly see what impact Edwards can have until Rankins returns, which will allow Edwards to spend time on the edge as well.
Players Who Could Exceed Expectations
Although Murray is slated to have a significant offensive role, no one is talking about how much of a weapon he is. Murray wasn’t brought to New Orleans simply to serve as a “relief back” to Kamara. He’s proven to be a play-maker and should thrive in the Saints offense.
Murray’s three targets and catches in the first preseason game indicate he’ll have a significant role in the passing game. While Murray hasn’t been used much in the passing game since his days as an Oakland Raider, he has a respectable career average of 6.9 yards per catch. New Orleans turned Ingram into an effective receiving back and should be able to do the same with Murray.
Murray has gained 3,698 rushing yards in his five seasons but averages a mediocre 4.1 yards per carry. Expect that average to rise as Murray runs behind a better offensive line than he had in Oakland or Minnesota. Murray has the potential to at least match Ingram’s production, especially since head coach Sean Payton stated that he doesn’t want to increase Kamara’s workload.
New Orleans didn’t sign or draft any notable wide receivers during the offseason, and Smith, a 2018 third rounder could be a big reason why. It’s fair to say Smith underachieved in his rookie season, catching just 28 passes for 427 yards and five touchdowns. He caught only two passes for 25 yards in the postseason and had six games with no catches.
Nevertheless, Smith had two huge games last season that showcased his potential. Against the Washington Redskins, he recorded 111 receiving yards and two touchdowns on three catches. A month later, Smith caught 10 passes for 157 yards and a touchdown against the Philadelphia Eagles.
Smith should be able to get open more frequently in his second year. He’s now had a full NFL offseason to train, study, and develop chemistry with Brees. It also helps that Thomas sees a lot of double teams and bracket coverages each week. This opens up plenty of opportunities for Smith as long as he can run his routes effectively and gain the trust of Brees.
Most of the Saints 2017 draft picks were thrown right into the starting lineup as rookies. However, coaches have taken a cautioned approach with third-rounder Hendrickson. He rotated in at both defensive line spots throughout his rookie year, but only twice played more than 50% of defensive snaps in a single game. When Davenport joined the team in 2018, Hendrickson was buried in the depth chart and played in just six games.
Now Hendrickson is the team’s top rotational option on the edge following the departure of Alex Okafor in free agency. So far, Hendrickson has embraced the larger role. He added weight in the offseason and turned heads with his efforts early in camp. During preseason, Hendrickson consistently found ways into the backfield. Against the Los Angeles Chargers, a player blocking him was penalized for holding on three separate occasions.
Hendrickson will play a quietly important role this year and will have to step up if Davenport or Cameron Jordan miss time. So far he seems up to the task.
Wide Receiver Corps
If Smith doesn’t make strides in his second year, it will be largely up to a 34-year old Ted Ginn and former undrafted free agents Keith Kirkwood and Austin Carr to help Thomas attack defenses. The addition of Cook should add much-needed variety to the passing game, but it was surprising that New Orleans didn’t make a meaningful move at wide receiver
Several low profile receivers such as Emmanuel Butler, Simmie Cobbs, and Lil’Jordan Humphrey impressed in preseason. Still, New Orleans didn’t retain any of these players on the roster and instead kept most of their wide receiver group from last season. Perhaps the Saints brain trust is sending us a clear message: they like their young receiver depth and expect significant progress from them in 2019.
Outside Cornerback Depth
New Orleans successfully added depth at safety with the selections of Gardner-Johnson and Hampton, but did nothing to bolster their paper-thin depth on the outside. Currently, their top backup is Ken Crawley, who had some success as a starter in 2017 but fell apart early in the 2018 season against a slate of high-powered passing attacks. This prompted the trade for Apple, after which Crawley played defense in just four games.
Now the player who forced New Orleans to make an aggressive midseason trade will re-enter the starting lineup if Marshon Lattimore or Apple have to miss time. Fortunately, Crawley looked decent in preseason aside from a few familiar mistakes, but what happens if both starters suffer serious injuries? Special teams ace Justin Hardee, who has played 77 NFL snaps on defense will likely line up across the field from Crawley.
This is easily the biggest weakness on the Saints 2019 roster and it’s surprising that the front office did so little to at least add competition at outside corner. Then again, coaches see far more of these players than we do. Maybe they have seen Crawley’s confidence return and perhaps Hardee has developed into a solid corner behind the scenes. Hardee did play well throughout preseason, though he mostly faced third-string offenses.
Saints 2019 Season Outlook
Fortunately, the Saints most obvious concerns are related to depth. This is a far cry from very real concerns like quarterback ability, inept coaching, and bad player attitudes that several franchises are dealing with right now. These types of issues tend to unravel a team’s season quickly, whereas depth issues usually take time to show up if they do at all.
It would come as a shock if these Saints miss the playoffs. Expectations are much higher than that, but the always-competitive NFC South won’t make it easy. This is largely the same Saints team we saw last season with a couple of upgrades. Unless New Orleans is decimated by injuries, it’s difficult to argue that they can’t at least return to the NFC Championship game.
However, anything less than another Super Bowl win should be considered a disappointment after all the progress made in 2017 and 2018. A Hall of Fame-caliber quarterback can only play that way (and want to play) for so long, and time is running out for this franchise.
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