The Saints last two seasons have ended in heartbreaking fashion, with their 2017 season ending on a Hail Mary against Minnesota in the NFC Divisional Round and their 2018 season ending in overtime against the Rams in the NFC Conference Championship in a game in which the Saints could have run out the clock if not for a blatantly missed pass interference penalty. Not much changes for the Saints in 2019, but you have to think they feel their championship window closing, with Drew Brees going into his age 40 season, which makes how their last two seasons have ended all the more heartbreaking.
If Brees plays like he has throughout his career, the Saints should be right back in the mix for the Super Bowl, but that’s becoming less and less of a certainty every season. Brees’ numbers from 2018 look great as always, as he completed 74.4% of his passes for an average of 8.16 YPA, 32 touchdowns, and 5 interceptions, but upon closer inspection he slowed down significantly down the stretch, completing 69.2% of his passes for an average of just 6.67 YPA, 7 touchdowns, and 5 interceptions in his final 4 regular season starts and two playoff starts. Through 11 games, the Saints had a 45.96% first down rate, but that fell to 35.90% during the stretch where Brees struggled. The Saints still could have made the Super Bowl even without Brees at his best if the refs hadn’t missed a call, but it was also a Drew Brees interception in overtime that cost the Saints a chance to win the game in spite of the call.
That stretch could prove to be an aberration, but quarterbacks like Peyton Manning and Brett Favre have lost it quickly at similar ages and the track record of quarterbacks playing at a high level into their 40s is very limited. Tom Brady won an MVP at 40 and it shouldn’t surprise anyone if Brees does the same in 2019, but it also shouldn’t surprise anyone if he continues playing like he did down the stretch last season. At the very least, it’s a concern that Brees seemed to wear out at the end of the season. Even he if gets off to a strong start in 2019, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see him slow down again come December and January.
In order to keep Brees fresh, the Saints have run the ball more in recent years, as Brees’ pass attempts have dropped from 40.5 per game from 2007-2016 to 33.1 per game in the past 2 seasons. Last year, part of that was swapping Brees out for wildcat quarterback Taysom Hill a few times per game. The Saints also have both quarterbacks on the field at the same time on occasion and Hill played 184 total offensive snaps on the season. He threw 7 passes, but primarily played in running situations, averaging 5.30 yards per carry across 37 carries on 136 total run play snaps.
Hill isn’t much of a threat as a passer, so veteran backup quarterback Teddy Bridgewater was re-signed this off-season, even though Bridgewater had an opportunity to start in Miami. Bridgewater was a first round pick in 2014 and showed a lot of promise in his first 2 seasons in the league, completing 64.9% of his passes for an average of 7.25 YPA, 28 touchdowns, and 21 interceptions, with another 401 yards and 4 scores on the ground, but a brutal knee injury during the 2016 off-season cost him close to 2 years and he’s thrown just 25 passes since, 23 of which came in a meaningless week 17 loss last season. It’s possible, but not likely that Bridgewater could see starts if Brees declined quickly like Favre and Manning did, but he wouldn’t necessarily be an upgrade. The Saints are obviously hoping that doesn’t happen, as they attempt to contend for another Super Bowl.
Even if Brees isn’t as good in 2019, the Saints could still be a tough offense to stop. As I mentioned, the Saints have put more of an emphasis on the run game in the past couple years to take the pressure off of Brees. Part of why they’ve been able to do that is improved play on defense that has allowed them to play with a lead more often, but they’ve also been one of the most effective teams on the ground, averaging 4.48 yards per game over the past 2 seasons, 7th best in the NFL over that stretch. Wildcat quarterback Tayson Hill is part of it, but the biggest factor was the arrival of running back Alvin Kamara in the 3rd round of the 2017 NFL Draft.
Kamara only had 120 carries as a rookie, but he led the league with 6.06 yards per carry (4th most in a season in the Super Bowl era by a running back with 100+ carries) and was a perfect complement to lead back Mark Ingram, who averaged 4.89 yards per carry on 230 carries. In 2018, Ingram missed 4 games with injury and Kamara took on more of the load overall even when Ingram returned. His 4.55 YPC average was a significant dropoff from his rookie year, but still one of the better averages in the league and he scored 14 rushing touchdowns on 194 carries. He also improved his carry success rate from 53% as a rookie (6th in the league) to 58% (2nd in the league) in 2018.
In addition to being an effective runner, Kamara is also a weapon out of the backfield, with slash lines of 81/826/5 and 81/709/4 in 2 seasons in the league and a 79.0% career target catch rate with just 8 drops. He can also play on the slot, running 135 routes from the slot over the past 2 seasons, 2nd most in the NFL by a running back. He averaged 2.71 yards per route run on those 135 routes. Overall, he’s finished 1st and 7th respectively among running backs on Pro Football Focus in 2 seasons in the league. Still only going into his age 24 season, he should be one of the best running backs in the league for years to come if he can continue avoiding injury.
Mark Ingram is no longer with the team, so Kamara could have a bigger role this season, but he’s not suddenly about to become a 350-400 touch back. The Saints like to use two backs in tandem to keep Kamara fresher and signed veteran running back Latavius Murray to a 4-year, 14.4 million deal in free agency. Murray isn’t as good as Ingram, but he has a similar skill set and is an experienced between the tackles runner, averaging 4.01 yards per carry on 817 carries over the past 4 seasons. He also has 32 rushing touchdowns in 62 games over those 4 seasons and should get plenty of opportunities near the goal line with the Saints. He’s never done much in the receiving game, with 128 catches for 883 yards and no scores in 77 career games, but the Saints’ offense has a way of getting receiving production out of running backs that ordinarily aren’t great receivers. Murray is a decent replacement for Ingram and the Saints should remain an effective rushing team in 2019.
Along with Alvin Kamara, #1 wide receiver Michael Thomas was a frequent target in 2018, with 147 targets, 11th most in the NFL. Thomas and Kamara combined for 252 targets, which represents 48.6% of the team’s pass attempts, as they lacked as third receiving option (no other pass catchers with more than 427 yards). Like Kamara, Thomas made the most of his targets, with a 125/1402/9 slash line. A 2nd round pick in 2016, Thomas has been one of the best receivers in the league since day 1, finishing 8th, 3rd, and 2nd among wide receivers in the past 3 seasons respectively on Pro Football Focus and totalling 321 catches (most in the NFL) for 3787 yards and 9 touchdowns over those 3 seasons, with a remarkable 76.8% target catch rate. Still only in his age 26 season, Thomas should remain one of the top receivers in the league for years to come. Going into the final year of his rookie deal, Thomas is due a steep pay increase.
Thomas and Kamara could see fewer targets this season because of the addition of free agent tight end Jared Cook, who gives them the legitimate 3rd receiving option that they didn’t have last season. Cook has always been a solid receiving tight end and averaged a 46/590/3 slash line from 2011-2017, but he exploded for 68/896/6 in 2018, setting career highs across the board. Ordinarily I wouldn’t predict a player in his age 32 season and his 10th season in the league to match or surpass his career highs, but Cook is joining a very tight end friendly offense in New Orleans and is the closest thing Drew Brees has had to Jimmy Graham in recent years.
Cook wasn’t cheap on a 2-year, 15 million dollar deal, but the Saints are aggressive in trying to win while Brees is still playing and he fills a huge need for a team that had just 63 total catches by tight ends in 2018. He’ll be backed up by blocking specialist Josh Hill, who is an adequate run blocker, but little else. He’s never surpassed 16 catches in a season in 6 seasons in the league and has 83 catches in 87 career games. He will once again not be much of a factor in the passing game.
At wide receiver, the depth chart is pretty unsettled behind Thomas. Ted Ginn was the week 1 starter opposite Thomas last season, but was limited to 196 snaps in 5 games by a knee injury. He was on a 54/669/6 pace in 5 games and averaged a 50/759/6 slash line from 2015-2017, but he’s going into his age 34 season and could easily see his role scaled back in 2019. Ginn is primarily a deep threat and might not age well, especially if he continues suffering leg injuries.
In Ginn’s absence, youngsters Tre’Quan Lewis, Keith Kirkwood, and Austin Carr all struggled, averaging 1.34 yards per route run, 1.60 yards per route run, and 0.63 yards per route run respectively. Lewis has the most upside of the bunch, as he was a 3rd round rookie last season, while Kirkwood and Carr went undrafted. Lewis showed that upside with a 10/157/1 slash line week 12 against the Eagles, but he was incredibly inconsistent throughout the season. Perhaps he’ll become more consistent in his 2nd season in the league in 2019. He should earn a top-3 wide receiver job.
The Saints also added veteran Rishard Matthews in free agency and he’s an intriguing signing. Matthews quit the team in Tennessee last season over playing time and the team’s handling of his injury, but he averaged a 54/801/6 slash line in 3 seasons prior, despite playing on a run heavy offense. Only in his age 30 season, Matthews has bounce back potential if he’s recommitted to football. He definitely could earn a role in training camp in an unsettled receiving corps.
The Saints had strong play on the offensive line in 2018 too and they return 4 of 5 starters, only losing center Max Unger to retirement. Unger was an experienced veteran, but finished just 19th out of 39 qualifying centers on Pro Football Focus in 2018, so he isn’t that big of a loss. Ex-Viking Nick Easton was signed in free agency to a 4-year, 22.5 million dollar deal, which suggests they view him as a starter, but they also made a big investment in the offensive line during the draft as well, giving up a 2020 2nd rounder to move up from 62 to 48 to select Texas A&M’s Erik McCoy. The hefty price the Saints were willing to pay suggests they had a first round grade on McCoy. Easton was signed at a time when the Saints, without a first round pick, didn’t think that McCoy would be available to them, but now with McCoy in the mix, Easton could easily end up as a reserve.
Even as a rookie, McCoy could be a better option. Not only he is a borderline first round talent, but Easton has struggled in 17 career starts and missed all of last season with a neck injury. Both have the versatility to play guard as well and whoever doesn’t win the position battle will serve as interior depth. It wouldn’t be a shock to see one of them start at left guard at some point this season, as left guard Andrus Peat is coming off of a down year, finishing 87th out of 88 qualifying guards on PFF.
Peat has been better in the past though, finishing 29th among guards on PFF as recently as 2017 and the first round pick can also outside to left tackle in a pinch, which is useful. The Saints clearly believe he can bounce back, keeping him on the roster at a non-guaranteed 9.625 million dollar salary for 2019. He dealt with numerous injuries last season, which could be why he struggled so much. Only in his age 26 season, Peat has obvious bounce back potential, but this could be his final season in New Orleans either way, in the final year of his rookie deal.
The strength of this offensive line is the tackle position, with left tackle Terron Armstead and right tackle Ryan Ramczyk finishing 2nd and 6th respectively among tackles on PFF in 2018. Durability is a serious concern for Armstead though, as he’s played just 54 of a possible 80 games over the past 5 seasons and has never made it through all 16 games in 6 seasons in the league. When on the field, Armstead is still one of the best offensive tackles in the league, earning above average grades from PFF in all 5 seasons as a starter, including a pair of seasons finishing in the top-3 at his position, and he’s still in the prime of his career in his age 28 season. He should continue playing at a high level again in 2019, but will likely miss time with injury again. Veteran backup Jermon Bushrod started in his absence last season, but he’s no longer on the roster, so they could move Peat to left tackle and start either Easton or McCoy at left guard if Armstead gets hurt again.
Ramczyk, meanwhile, has made 31 of 32 starts in 2 seasons in the league, since being drafted 32nd overall in 2018. One of the best right tackles in the league from his first career start, Ramczyk has finished 9th and 6th among offensive tackles on PFF in 2017 and 2018 respectively and could easily remain one of the top players at his position for years to come. He could potentially play left tackle if Armstead gets hurt again, but the Saints understandably seem hesitant to move from him a spot where he’s been so good in his career.
At right guard, Larry Warford remains locked in as the starter for the 3rd straight season. Signed to a 4-year, 34 million dollar deal three off-seasons ago, Warford has been worth it so far, finishing 24th among guards on PFF in 2017 and 32nd in 2018. He hasn’t matched any of his best seasons from his 4 years in Detroit yet, where he finished 6th at his position in 2013 and 13th at his position in 2016, but he’s settled in as an above average starter on a strong overall offensive line.
The Saints didn’t have that many injuries overall last season, finishing with the 6th fewest adjusted games lost to injury, but were dealt a big loss when Sheldon Rankins tore his Achilles in their post-season victory over the Eagles. Injuries are unpredictable on a year-to-year basis, so the Saints are unlikely to have to have as good of injury luck as they had last season and Rankins could easily miss the start of the season because he suffered the injury in mid-January. He’s unlikely to do anything this off-season and is very much a candidate to start the year on the physically unable to perform list, costing him at least the first 6 games.
Prior to the injury, Rankins was on his way to becoming one of the better interior defenders in the league. A first round pick in 2016, Rankins was limited to 335 rookie year snaps by a broken leg and did not play well when on the field, but he earned an average grade from Pro Football Focus on 810 snaps in 2017 and took his game to the next level in 2018, finishing 24th among interior defenders on PFF. Also a strong run stuffer, Rankins had 8 sacks, 6 hits, and a 10.3% pressure rate on the season. It’s concerning that he’s suffered two major injuries in just 3 seasons in the league, but he’s still only in his age 25 season and still has a bright future. Even though it guarantees him 7.69 million for injury, picking up Rankins’ fifth year option for 2020 was an easy decision for the Saints this off-season
Tyeler Davison, a situational run stuffer who played 422 snaps and started next to Rankins in base packages last season, is no longer with the team, but the Saints did add depth at the position this off-season, signing veterans Malcolm Brown, Mario Edwards, and Sylvester Williams. Brown was the most expensive signing, coming over from New England on a 3-year, 15 million dollar deal. The 2015 first round pick never developed as a pass rusher, with 8.5 sacks, 9 hits, and a 6.0% pressure rate for his career, but he’s an above average run stuffer who will fit in Davison’s old role nicely and he might still have some upside, still only in his age 25 season.
If Rankins misses time, situational pass rusher David Onyemata will be their top interior pass rusher. He already played heavily in sub packages last season, totalling 618 snaps on the season, and he was pretty effective, with 4.5 sacks, 1 hit, and an 8.1% pressure rate. A 4th round pick in 2016, Onyemata has gotten better in every season in the league and is set up for a big pay increase on his next contract, going into the final year of his rookie deal.
Sylvester Williams’ contract barely has any guaranteed money on it, so he’s not guaranteed a final roster spot, but if Rankins misses time early in the season he could make this team as a situational reserve. He could compete with 2018 undrafted free agent Taylor Stallworth, who flashed as a run stuffer as a rookie, but managed just a 1.6% pressure rate and played just 318 snaps, for a base package role in Rankins’ absence. Williams is experienced, with 63 career starts in 6 seasons in the league, but he’s never been better than an average starter and is now going into his age 31 season and coming off of a 2018 season in which he played just 376 mediocre snaps with the Lions and Dolphins. He’s not someone who moves the needle as a free agent addition.
Mario Edwards’ contract (4.7 million over 2 years) suggests he has more of a guaranteed role and the converted defensive end could play significant snaps early in the season as an interior pass rusher if Rankins is sidelined. A 2nd round pick in 2015 by the Raiders, Edwards flashed on 599 snaps as a rookie, but injuries have limited him in recent years and seem to have sapped his abilities, as he’s played just 743 underwhelming snaps in 3 seasons since, even getting cut by the Raiders before final cuts last off-season and spending 2018 with the Giants, where he played just 232 snaps in a rotational role. He’s just a flyer for the Saints, but, only in his age 25 season, he’s worth a shot. Maybe he’ll see more snaps this season at defensive end, which he hasn’t played regularly since his rookie season in 2015. The Saints have solid depth at defensive tackle, but this is a much stronger unit with Rankins on the field and close to 100%, which is not a guarantee.
The Saints lost starting defensive end Alex Okafor to the Chiefs in free agency this off-season and he finished 37th among edge defenders on Pro Football Focus on 658 snaps in 2018, but they have some young players ready to step up in his absence. Marcus Davenport, who the Saints gave up the 27th overall pick in 2018 and the 30th overall pick in 2019 to move up and select 14th overall in 2018, is expected to be the new starter, after flashing on 416 snaps as a rookie.
The Saints also have 2017 3rd round pick Trey Hendrickson, who has played just 417 career snaps, but has shown himself to be deserving of a larger role. He has just 2 sacks in 2 seasons in the league, but has added 6 hits and has a 10.3% pressure rate. He could have a mini breakout year in his 3rd season in the league in a larger role. Davenport obviously has plenty of breakout potential as well, after managing 4.5 sacks, 8 hits, and a 10.6% pressure rate as a part-time player as a rookie.
In addition to adding hybrid defensive lineman Mario Edwards, who could see snaps at defensive end, the Saints also signed ex-Panther Wes Horton, although his contract barely has any guaranteed money and he has not played at a high level in 6 seasons in the league. Strictly a situational pass rusher, Horton has just 15.5 sacks, 11 hits, and a 7.9% pressure rate in 77 career games and finished last season as PFF’s 112nd edge defender out of 113 qualifying. He doesn’t add much to this group and shouldn’t be considered a lock for the final roster.
Cameron Jordan remains locked in as their top edge defender and gets a nice 3-year, 52.5 million dollar extension this off-season, despite having 2 years and 19 million left on a 5-year, 55 million dollar deal he signed in 2015. He’s well worth the big money, finishing in the top-6 among edge defenders on PFF in each of the past 3 seasons. He’s totalled 62.5 sacks, 70 hits, and an 11.7% pressure rate in the past 6 seasons and has gotten better as a run stuffer as the years have gone on. Even in his age 30 season, he should continue playing at a high level for at least another couple seasons. He’s probably the Saints’ best defensive player overall and he leads a still talented group even after the departure of Alex Okafor.
The Saints bring back all three starting linebackers, middle linebacker Demario Davis and outside linebackers AJ Klein and Alex Anzalone. Davis led the way with 877 snaps last season. A 7-year veteran, Davis was just an average starter in his first 5 seasons in the league (66 starts), but he has proven to be a little bit of a late bloomer, finishing 22nd and 4th among off ball linebackers in run defense grade on Pro Football Focus in 2017 and 2018 respectively. He’s still not great in coverage and is much better moving forward than moving backwards, but he has also been a consistently good blitzer through his career, totalling 18.5 sacks, 31 hits, and a 16.3% pressure rate on 775 career blitzes. Going into his age 30 season, he’s unlikely to suddenly improve in coverage, but he should remain a useful player for at least another couple seasons.
At outside linebacker, Klein outsnapped Anzalone 670 to 487 last season, but they were working in close to an even split down the stretch (234 snaps for Klein in the final 6 games of the season, as opposed to 239 for Anzalone). Anzalone is the better player, especially in coverage, and could easily outsnapp Klein in 2019, in his third NFL season. Anzalone went in the 3rd round in 2017 and flashed on 158 rookie year snaps as well, before going down with a season ending shoulder injury.
Shoulder problems have plagued him since college and could become an issue again in the future, but he had the talent to be a first round pick if not for medical concerns and he played all 16 games in 2018. He has breakout potential this season if he can continue staying healthy. Klein, meanwhile, is best as a situational run stuffer. Veteran Craig Robertson, who has been adequate in 64 career starts, is also in the mix, but he played a career low 90 snaps in 2018 will likely remain in a pure depth role behind a solid group of starters.
The Saints also frequently line up in nickel packages, which limits snaps for their linebackers. Not only do they frequently use 3 cornerbacks, but they also use 3 safeties more than most, with 3rd safety Kurt Coleman playing 359 snaps last season. Coleman struggled, finishing 85th out of 101 qualifying safeties on Pro Football Focus, and is no longer with the team. He could be replaced with 4th round rookie Chauncey Gardner-Johnson, a versatile 5-11 210 pound defensive back who surprisingly fell in the draft. He can play deep safety, slot cornerback, and linebacker and could easily have a situational role as a rookie.
The 5-11 210 pound Vonn Bell can also play some linebacker. The 2016 2nd round pick has improved in all 3 seasons in the league and finished last season as PFF’s 26th ranked safety, excelling against the run. He’ll continue to start next to Marcus Williams, who plays as the deep safety. A 2nd round pick in 2017, Williams had a great rookie year, finishing 6th among safeties on PFF, but fell to 32nd at his position in his 2nd season in the league. He has obvious bounce back potential though and his best days could easily still be ahead of him, going into just his age 23 season. He could easily be one of the best safeties in the league over the next few seasons.
Cornerback was a position of weakness for the Saints for much of last season, until they acquired Eli Apple from the Giants for a 2019 4th round pick and 2020 7th round pick. Apple started all 10 games and played 609 snaps total after being acquired. He wasn’t great, but he was an upgrade over Ken Crawley and PJ Williams, who finished 124th and 115th respectively out of 131 qualifying cornerbacks on PFF on 409 snaps and 693 snaps respectively. Crawley was better in 2017, finishing among 28th cornerbacks in 13 starts, but he’s a former undrafted free agent and one-year wonder, while Apple is a former 10th overall pick who still has a big upside, only going into his age 24 season. He’ll likely remain the starter and could take a step forward. He had issues with his coaching staff in New York, but he could prove to be a steal for the Saints.
The Saints also get slot cornerback Patrick Robinson back from injury. They signed him to a 4-year, 20 million dollar deal last off-season, hoping he’d put this defense over the top, but he was limited to just 110 snaps in 3 games by a season ending ankle injury. In addition to the injury concern, Robinson is also heading into his age 32 season and has been wildly inconsistent in 9 years in the league, including 5 seasons with the Saints from 2010-2014 after they drafted him in the first round.
Robinson finished 6th among cornerbacks on PFF in 2017, which is why the Saints signed him to a significant contract, but his 2nd highest ranked season in his career was his 2011 season, in which he finished 26th at his position. During his dominant 2017 season, Robinson was playing on a veteran’s minimum contract with no guaranteed money after an awful 2016 season in which he finished 110th out of 132 qualifying cornerbacks on PFF. An aging career journeyman who is capable of high and low levels of play, it’s unclear what the Saints are going to get from Robinson in 2019, but it wouldn’t be hard for him to be an upgrade over PJ Williams, who was their primary slot cornerback in 2019.
Marshon Lattimore remains locked in as the #1 cornerback. Selected 11th overall in 2017, Lattimore won Defensive Rookie of the Year and finished 8th at his position on PFF, but he wasn’t quite as good in his 2nd season in the league, finishing 26th at his position. Lattimore is still only in his age 23 season and obviously has a massive ceiling, so he could easily bounce back this season and could be one of the best cornerbacks in the league for years to come. If the Saints get a full season from Eli Apple and Patrick Robinson and bounce back years from Lattimore and Marcus Williams, this would be a much improved unit.
Unless Drew Brees’ play falls off a cliff, the Saints should be right back in the mix for the Super Bowl in 2019. Some regression from Brees wouldn’t be a surprise, but this team is talented enough to get by with less than Brees’ best and they don’t have an obvious weak spot on paper. It’s very possible the Saints will end up as my pick to win it all this season and they should at least repeat as NFC South Champions, even with every other team in the division looking likely to be better this season than last.
Prediction: 12-4, 1st in NFC South