After three straight 7-9 campaigns, the Who Dat Nation is becoming restless. The past few seasons have felt more akin to the Jim Haslett era than the current Sean Payton and Drew Brees golden era. New Orleans is mired in mediocrity, not bad enough to bottom out as long as Brees is under center, but lacking enough defensive talent to vault the franchise back into the playoffs.
The Saints are on the cusp of playoff contention, but postseason football continues to elude the franchise for one critical reason: The Saints have performed poorly in the talent evaluation department. A steady diet of underachieving draft picks has forced the franchise to overpay players in free agency, which in turn led to salary cap flexibility issues during the past few seasons.
Last season, New Orleans played only four games that yielded a double-digit margin of victory or defeat. Seven of the Saints' nine losses were by six points or less, and conversely, five of the Saints' victories were by seven points or less. When the margin for error in the NFL is this razor thin, the Saints cannot continue to perpetually miss on evaluating players and hope to remain competitive.
This season brings renewed hope-and a healthy dose of apprehension-but as long as Brees is the quarterback in New Orleans, games will be high-scoring and full of excitement.
Throughout the Payton-Brees era, the Saints' offense has usually been highly productive, and last season was no exception. Despite finishing below .500, the Saints led the league in total offense, while Brees threw for over 5,000 yards yet again.
During an impressive rookie campaign, Michael Thomas emerged as the franchise's leading receiver. Following the offseason trade of Brandin Cooks to New England, Thomas has solidified himself as the Saints wide receiver of the future and Brees's top target this season.
Joining Brees in the backfield in 2017 will be former Minnesota Vikings superstar running back Adrian Peterson, the franchise's biggest offseason acquisition. Peterson, 32, missed the majority of last season with Minnesota because of a torn lateral meniscus.
Payton will have plenty of weapons to utilize with Peterson, returning starter Mark Ingram, and third-round draft pick Alvin Kamara. The potential lethal running back trio features speed, power, explosiveness, experience, and toughness. Most importantly, the presence of several running back options should help lighten Brees's offensive burden.
The versatile skillset of New Orleans's running back corps should give Payton plenty of options to dial up creative plays on Sundays this fall. The addition of Peterson is one of the most exciting free agent signings in franchise history, and the league's best offense might somehow perform even better this fall.
For as consistently excellent as the Saints have played on offense, the defense has been just as equally inept. Defensive coordinator Dennis Allen inherited a mess from his predecessor when he took over for Rob Ryan late in the 2015 season, and his first full campaign overseeing the defense in 2016 was abysmal at best. Last season, the Saints ranked No. 27 in total defense, allowing the second most points in the league (454) and most passing yards per game (273). Seriously, it was a train wreck.
The Saints addressed the team's porous secondary by drafting Ohio State cornerback Marshon Lattimore at No. 11 and Utah safety Marcus Williams at No. 42, and five of New Orleans's seven draft picks were on defense.
But injuries derailed the Saints defense before the season even started last year. Second-year edge rusher Hau'oli Kikaha tore his ACL during the summer. Defensive tackle Sheldon Rankins, the Saints' 2016 first-round draft pick, broke his fibula during preseason practice. Cornerback Delvin Breaux battled through injuries throughout the season. James Laurinaitis, a veteran middle linebacker acquired to add experience and leadership, suffered a quadriceps injury. Cornerbacks Damian Swann and PJ Williams both missed the majority of the season. After leading the team in tackles as a rookie in 2015, Stephone Anthony turned in a head-scratching and disappointing sophomore season.
Football is a violent game, and injuries, whether minor or major, are a certainty. When injuries occur, a team's depth chart is utilized and tested—the teams with the more talented backups and stronger depth will continue to perform at a high level. The Saints have failed to assemble quality depth on defense during the past half-decade, and as a result, the unit's performance on the field has often been dreadful.
That's why it's important to note the failed draft picks and free agent signings. Each one matters and has impacted the Saints negatively.
The Saints' defense does not have to be a top-five unit for New Orleans to end the franchise's playoff drought, but the unit cannot rank in the bottom third of the NFL again and hope to post a winning record.
The Saints have taken strides to improve the defense through the draft during the past three seasons, and many of the recent top picks have flashed signs of being consistently effective starters. If New Orleans has some better luck avoiding injuries, there's no reason Allen cannot have this unit performing in the top half of the NFL during his second full season as defensive coordinator.
The Saints return most of the key contributors from the special teams unit last season. Punter Thomas Morstead returns, following another superb season as one of the top punters in the NFL. Kicker Will Lutz excelled kicking extra points, notching 49 of 50 PATs in 2016, but needs to improve on his 82 percent field goal percentage. The Saints used several returners last season, and Tommylee Lewis, Travaris Cadet, and Marcus Murphy are back this fall. With a versatile skillset, rookie Alvin Kamara could also contribute to the return game.
Starting off the season with three of the first four games on the road (including a game in London versus Miami) will be challenging, but New Orleans is more than capable of surviving that tough stretch. The Saints' offense is one of the best in the league, but unless the defense can improve, the Saints will continue to wallow in mediocrity and miss the playoffs again. At some point, the Saints' injury fortunes must reverse and the team will win a couple more of the close games, right? The Who Dat Nation will find out September 11, when the Saints open on the road against the Minnesota Vikings.
New Orleans: 10-6, wildcard playoff berth
Photos by Gustavo Escanelle