The transition from the Sean Payton/Drew Brees era is officially complete. A year after the franchise quarterback hung up his cleats, New Orleans' long-time head coach retired as well, paving the way for defensive coordinator Dennis Allen to be promoted.
In two stints, Allen has been a member of the Saints coaching staff for 12 years. The 49-year-old was a defensive coach from 2006-10, a period which included the team's lone Super Bowl run. Allen returned to the Saints in 2015 as a senior defensive assistant and was promoted to defensive coordinator mid-season, after his predecessor, Rob Ryan, was fired. The promotion marks the second head coaching job Allen has held. Allen was the head coach of the dumpster fire known as the Oakland Raiders from 2012-2014, where his teams posted an 8-28 record. He was fired four games into his third season after the team started off winless. Let's hope the second time's the charm for his head coaching résumé.
After four years of winning the NFC South, the Saints slipped to 9-8 last season, finished second in the division, and missed the playoffs. Some fans would consider that a miraculous finish given the circumstances. The Saints lost starting quarterback Jameis Winston to an ACL injury in Week 8, then endured a five-game losing streak, and started an NFL-record 58 different players (including four quarterbacks) during the season due to injuries and COVID. Yet, they closed the year out by winning four of five games, finished with a winning record, and were a tiebreaker away from making the playoffs. Resiliency is part of the fabric of this franchise's DNA.The 2022 season brings renewed hope for a team that was put through the wringer a year ago. Key returns of Winston, injured wide receiver Michael Thomas, and fresh faces in free agency have fans buzzing about what this new era under Allen may bring.
The return of quarterback Jameis Winston could spell big things for a Saints offense which sputtered following Winston's midseason injury last season. Before going down, Winston had thrown 14 touchdowns to just three interceptions in an offense lacking in playmakers, especially in the receiving corps.
Winston should have a bevy of talented options to throw to this season, with the return of All-Pro receiver Michael Thomas from ankle injuries, the free agent signing of Pro-Bowler Jarvis Landry, and new first round draft pick Chris Olave. To put into perspective how lackluster New Orleans' receiving game was last season, running back Alvin Kamara led the team in receptions with 47. Michael Thomas had 40 catches in only seven games in 2020, and caught an NFL record 149 passes in 2019, his last
Thomas is joined by fellow veteran Landry, a five-time Pro Bowler, who signed with the Saints this offseason. Landry spent the last four seasons in Cleveland and is coming off his worst year statistically but battled injuries to both himself (he missed five games) and his quarterback. Yet, the former LSU and Lutcher High School standout returning to his home state could be the jolt of energy the eight-year veteran needs to rejuvenate his career.
Rounding out the Saints talented trio of wide receivers is Chris Olave, the Saints first round draft pick. Olave, who like Thomas hails from Ohio State, posted over 930 yards, 65 receptions, and 13 touchdowns in his final season as a Buckeye. Toss in last season's key contributors including Marquez Callaway, Deonte Harty (formerly Harris), and Tre'Quan Smith, and this group has the potential to be one of the most fearsome receiving corps in the NFL this season.
A worrisome x-factor for the offense is the potential loss of star running back Alvin Kamara for an extended period. Following an offseason arrest, the possibility of a multi-game suspension still looms large. Kamara's production decreased last season amid the chaos surrounding the offensive unit, but the return of a prominent passing game would open some lanes for the All-Pro back. Kamara faced defenses with eight or more defenders in the box more frequently than ever last season, as teams sold out to stop New Orleans' most potent weapon.
An injury (and suspension) free season promises magic for the Saints' offense.
The Saints defensive unit has been one the anchors of this team the past few years. As Brees' play declined in his final seasons and when Winston was sidelined midway through 2021, Payton relied on Allen's unit to carry the team, punish the opponent and help squeak out victories to keep the playoff hopes alive in the midst of offensive woes.
With Allen now serving as head coach, the Saints promoted defensive assistants Ryan Nielsen and Kris Richard as co-defensive coordinators, a title that should make any Saints fan nervous. Although the Who Dat Nation can hope for the best, the idea of co-anything in football is usually a disaster. Fortunately, with Allen still in house to oversee things and a solid core of veteran talent, New Orleans may avoid the dreaded co-coordinator curse.
The defensive line is talented but not entirely reliable. Defensive end Cam Jordan closed out the 2021 season on fire, recording 8.5 sacks in the final quarter of the regular season to help the team finish with a shot at the postseason. If fellow D-Linemen Marcus Davenport, Payton Turner, and David Onyemata can consistently stay on the field, the sky's the limit for this group.
Linebacker Demario Davis is still the heartbeat of the defense, but there needs to be progression from the rest of the group, including Pete Werner, Kaden Elliss, and Zack Baun. The secondary has the potential to be very special. Shutdown corner Marshon Lattimore is one of the best at his position, C.J. Gardner-Johnson is one of the fiercest competitors, blessed with the uncanny ability to get under opponents' skin, and second-year corner Paulson Adebo has the makings of a special player. Two new safeties join that trio in the defensive backfield: Marcus Maye and Tyrann Mathieu. The latter addition made headlines as the former LSU and St. Augustine star is returning to his hometown, bringing leadership, Super Bowl experience, and an unrivaled playmaking ability to the Saints defense. Needless to say, it's great to see the Honey Badger repping a Louisiana team once again.
The most underrated hit to last season's roster was kicker Wil Lutz missing the entire season. The week-to-week margin for error any given Sunday is razor thin and having a reliable kicker can sometimes mean the difference between contending for a division title and watching the playoffs at home. Lutz is as consistent as they come in the kicking world.
Everything that could go wrong, did for the Saints last season. That can't possibly happen again. Right? Regardless of how football karma bounces for New Orleans this year, the biggest reason to believe this team will be back in the playoffs is the return of so many key pieces. Winston is a solid quarterback, Thomas is one of the best receivers in the league, and Lutz has swung many tight games in his career. How first year head coach Dennis Allen adapts to being back as the top dog on the sidelines remains the biggest question mark. What did he learn as a Payton disciple, and how did his past unsuccessful head coaching experience shape the way he operates this time around? If we learned anything from the Payton/Brees era, it's this: A good coach plus a good quarterback generally equals positive results. Time to get some W's.