2022 NFL Previews: New Orleans Saints

The New Orleans Saints are entering into a new era of the franchise so it is alright for you Saints fans to be a little bit nervous about it. Legendary quarterback Drew Brees retired a year ago and longtime head coach Sean Payton retired (for now?) this offseason. The Saints are going to be almost unrecognizable without those two franchise icons so former defensive coordinator and new head coach Dennis Allen will have his work cut out for him.

Since Allen is a defensive coach, it is safe to say that the Saints’ new identity will be more focused on that side of the ball. That wouldn’t be such a bad idea given the talent on the defensive side of the roster.

New Orleans brings back most of the talent that contributed to a top defense last year. The only position that will look drastically different in 2021 is safety, where Marcus Williams and Malcolm Jenkins will not return after each started 16 games last season.

The Saints took that as an opportunity to greatly improve the position by adding safeties Tyrann Mathieu and Marcus Maye in free agency. Both of those players are very good safeties that have a massive impact on a defense. Mathieu is very well known for his Swiss Army knife-esque skillset and ability to play all over the defense. Maye is lesser known (one of the results of playing on the Jets) but he is a fantastic safety and could finally get the recognition he deserves in New Orleans.

Those two additions will fortify a secondary that actually has the chance to be one of the best units in the league. Cornerback Marshon Lattimore has been a premier lock-down corner since entering the league and is set as the number one option at the position. Paulson Adebo, a third-round rookie last year, was a pleasant surprise for the defense last year and earned the second corner spot after a promising debut season.

The Saints also have veteran options at corner such as Bradley Roby and P.J. Williams, who were both solid in limited roles last season. Throw in defensive back C.J. Gardner-Johnson, a great versatile player that can fill in anywhere in the secondary, and the level of talent that New Orleans has in the back half of the defense is intriguing.

The Saints continue to have talent on the other levels of the defense. At linebacker, the team boasts Demario Davis, a wily veteran that has been the heart and soul of the Saints’ defense since arriving in town in 2018. Despite getting up there in age (33 years old), Davis has remained an effective and productive leader in the middle of the defense.

New Orleans has done a great job of surrounding him with young talent to ensure that the linebacker position remains a strength going forward. Linebacker Pete Werner impressed as a rookie last year, proving that he belongs to start next to Davis, a position he will surely occupy in 2022. The Saints also have third-year linebacker Zach Baun, who has been slowly coming along but may be ready for an increased role this year.

The defensive line also features a veteran leader in defensive end Cameron Jordan, who has been one of the best in the game at his position for a while. Jordan was underrated for a large portion of his career but has been deservedly recognized as one of the elite in the sport recently. He is still the most productive member up front but the team is no doubt looking for the next wave to take over sooner rather than later.

The heir apparent to Jordan’s top pass-rusher throne is defensive end Marcus Davenport. The Saints made a big move when they moved up in the draft to select him in 2018 and he finally started to prove why he was worth the move. Davenport had a career year in 2021, recording nine sacks in just 11 games, and the team is hoping he can build on that. Davenport continuing his ascension as a top pass-rusher would be an ideal situation for the Saints and would give them a smooth transition to him from Jordan.

New Orleans also has plenty of solid depth pieces to build out the defensive line. Defensive ends Taco Charlton, Carl Granderson, Tanoh Kpassagnon, and Payton Turner are probably not starter-caliber pass-rushers but can be effective playing in a rotation. They also have defensive tackles David Onyemata and Shy Tuttle on the interior and both have proven they are worthy of their starting spots.

The Saints will need at least one of them to make a leap this year in order to keep the pass rush operating at the level that it has been at recently. The best bet would be on Turner given his athletic potential and draft status. The 2021 first-rounder will be expected to develop as a pass-rusher at some point so this could be the year.

If the Saints do manage to have a top-tier defense this year it would take a lot of pressure off the offense, which could experience some struggles. The biggest of which is just being without Payton who was one of the best offensive minds in the sport over the past decade-and-a-half.

Another reason the offense could face some issues this year is that Jameis Winston will be the starting quarterback. Winston is the scariest quarterback to have under center because his play is so volatile. On one hand, he can absolutely sling the ball but, on the other hand, he sometimes slings it a bit too much.

It has appeared that Winston had settled down and had become a more reliable quarterback last year but that was in just seven games and with Payton coaching the offense. This year is going to be the true test for Winston. He is going to have to prove that he is a quarterback that can be counted on to make the right reads and throws and won’t lose games with his decision-making.

The Saints’ offense will be set up better for Winston to succeed this season even without Payton’s presence. He will have far better weapons around him on the offense, which will give him a better chance to prove he can be the guy going forward.

The biggest story throughout the Saints’ training camp has been the return of wide receiver Michael Thomas. He had one of the weirdest years ever in 2021, causing the team a ton of off-the-field problems and waiting way too long to have surgery, a decision that resulted in him missing the entire season.

But Thomas is not that far removed from his record-setting performance in 2019 so he realistically could be a top-tier wide receiver again. All the signs so far point to him being back on his game this season, which would be a huge gain for Winston and the offense. It may take time for Thomas to adjust to a new quarterback (the last time he played for the Saints, Brees was still under center) but once he does he could be right back to playing some very good football.

Thomas’s return isn’t the only boost the offense will get this year, though. The Saints also drafted wide receiver Chris Olave in the first round. He was an uber-productive pass-catcher in college and will be expected to come in and make an impact right away, which he should have no problem doing.

New Orleans also signed veteran receiver Jarvis Landry, giving them a very talented top-three group at the position. Landry may not be at the peak of his game anymore but at the very least he can be a very reliable and productive slot receiver. That will allow for players such as Marquez Callaway and Tre’Quan Smith to be used in roles more conducive to their skill levels as opposed to being forced into starting positions.

And let us not forget the key skill player that is returning to the offense: running back Alvin Kamara. He has proven himself as one of the most dynamic all-around backs in the league over his career with his elite talent as a runner and a receiver. Although there is some concern about a possible suspension stemming from an arrest this past winter, when Kamara is on the field he undoubtedly makes the offense better.

The one weapon that Winston won’t have at his disposal is a great tight end, as that is probably the weakest position on the roster. Third-year tight end Adam Trautman was the most productive player at the position last year but his performance was ultimately underwhelming. Trautman still has a chance to prove himself in the league and could solidify himself as the Saints’ starting tight end with an impressive season.

The biggest wild card on the offense is Taysom Hill. The quarterback/tight end/running back/whatever else the offense needs has been a very polarizing player in recent years. It was clear that Payton valued his role in the offense but with the head coach now gone it is unclear what that role will be, or if there will even be a role this year. He may end up getting used to add some playmaking ability to the tight end position but probably will not be as involved as he has been previously.

Another area of the offense with some uncertainty is the offensive line. That group has usually been consistently effective but will be without left tackle Terron Armstead after his departure in free agency. That creates an interesting dilemma because there is no clear option to take over for the Pro-Bowler.

Right tackle Ryan Ramczyk has been one of the absolute best in the league at his position but the team may want to keep him in place and not mess with a good thing. That would leave James Hurst, Landon Young, and rookie Trevor Penning as the available options. Penning, the second first-rounder the Saints selected this year, may have been the favorite at one point but it seems like he can’t stop fighting his teammates long enough to earn the spot. Hurst is probably the safest bet but he doesn’t provide a ton of upside.

There is less uncertainty in the middle of the line when it comes to who will be in the three spots but there is uncertainty with how well they will play. Center Erik McCoy and guards Andrus Peat and Cesar Ruiz all find themselves in different situations. Peat was on a three-year Pro-Bowl streak before playing in only six games last season so the team is hoping he can regain his form and hold down one of the guard spots. McCoy and Ruiz are both highly-drafted young players that have not lived up to their potential yet. The Saints will need both to be much better in 2021, especially considering the loss of Armstead.

The one thing that can be said about this year’s Saints team is that there is quite a bit of continuity. Even with the loss of Payton, the team has kept most of its key pieces in place. Allen has been with the team so his transition to head coach won’t be as jarring as some other teams and the offense should remain mostly the same because offensive coordinator Pete Carmichael is still in place.

With that being said, New Orleans is one of the toughest teams to predict this year. They have such a wide range of outcomes. They could be a surprisingly competitive team and win 10 or 11 games on the strength of their defense or they could win just six or seven games because the offense struggles under Winston. I’m going to split the difference between those two extremes and guess they’ll be an 8-9 team this year.

At the end of the day, the NFL is all about the quarterbacks. Teams can no longer be real threats without at least above-average quarterback play. And if a team was going to be carried by its defense, that unit would have to be much better than this year’s Saints defense (although I do believe they will be very good on that side of the ball).

There are also too many questions on the offense, most notably the offensive line. and even though I like each of the wide receivers individually, there is no familiarity between any of them and Winston, which scares me.

With an easier schedule, I could see New Orleans sneaking into the playoffs but, unfortunately, that is not the case. With at least 10 games against teams that will likely be better than them this season, the Saints will have a tough slate of matchups this year. I can see a path for this team to be better than people expect this year but, ultimately, I don’t think that is the path the Saints will go down in 2022.