New Orleans Saints 2022 NFL Season Preview

Quarterback

For years, the Saints were aggressive with the salary cap in an attempt to keep as many talented players as possible around an aging Drew Brees, trying to maximize their Super Bowl window before Brees opted to hang them up. It led to the Saints having a 49-15 record from 2017-2020, the best regular season record in the league over that stretch, but, because of a combination of poor playoff performances and bad luck, none of it resulted in even a Super Bowl appearance, before Brees opted to hang them up following the 2020 season.

At that point, it would have been understandable if the Saints opted to go through a full rebuild, parting ways with highly paid players now to clean up their salary cap situation a couple years down the line, but, instead, they continued their aggressive strategy, bringing back most of the 2020 team’s core, in order to try to continue competing with new quarterback Jameis Winston, an up and down starter for 5 years with the Buccaneers (86.9 QB rating total) who had impressed the Saints’ coaching staff behind the scenes in his one season as Brees’ backup in 2020.

The 2021 season got off to a pretty good start for the Saints. Despite some early injuries to key players, they began the year 5-2. Winston wasn’t the primary reason for their early success, as the Saints once again had one of the best defenses in the league, finishing 2nd in defensive efficiency, and they were one of the most run heavy teams in the league, finishing the season 4th in the NFL in carries and just 30th in pass attempts, with Winston attempting just 25.2 passes per game over his first 6 starts, but Winston did a good job managing the game, completing 59.0% of his passes for an average of 7.27 YPA, 14 touchdowns, and 3 interceptions during that 5-2 start, while ranking 19th out of 39 eligible quarterbacks on PFF.

Unfortunately, Winston tore his ACL midway through that seventh game, ending his season. Injuries were a theme for the Saints last season, as they had the 8th most adjusted games lost to injury in the league, especially on offense, where they had the 2nd most adjusted games lost to injury, a big part of the reason why the Saints finished the season just 28th in offensive efficiency. Winston wasn’t their only quarterback to get hurt either, as they ended up having to start three different backup quarterbacks, Trevor Siemian (88.4 QB rating), Taysom Hill (75.4 QB rating), and Ian Book, a 4th round rookie who was completely overmatched in his only start.

Despite all of this, the Saints still finished 9-8 and just outside of a playoff berth, carried by a dominant defense, but they had yet another tough cap situation ahead of them going into this off-season and things got worse when long-time head coach Sean Payton decided he didn’t want to be around for the post-Drew Brees era and retired, at least temporarily. This seemed like another good opportunity for the Saints to hit the reset button and go through a rebuild to clear their long-term cap.

However, the Saints instead continued their aggressive strategy, bringing back most of their key players again, at the expense of next year’s cap situation, which has them a league worst 65 million over as of right now. The Saints also acquired an additional first round pick in this year’s draft from the Eagles, at a cost of their third round pick, their 2023 1st round pick, and a 2024 2nd round pick, an odd move considering the Saints didn’t know who would be available in the middle of the first round when the Eagles’ pick was.

There wasn’t much the Saints could do about their quarterback situation, without the financial flexibility to add a high priced quarterback in a trade, so they opted to bring back Winston on a 2-year, 28 million dollar deal, paying him like a low end starter and hoping that, with better health and talent around him on offense, he can lead a more effective offense than he did a year ago. Winston may also still have further untapped upside, as a former #1 overall pick entering his age 28 season. Even still, the Saints will need their defense to continue playing at a dominant level for this team to be true contenders this season, which could easily not happen, not only because the Saints have key defenders who are over 30, but also because elite defensive play is much harder to maintain year-to-year than elite offensive play.

Winston should be ready for week 1, but the Saints still wanted to upgrade their backup quarterback situation this off-season, letting Trevor Siemian go, moving Tayson Hill to tight end, and signing Andy Dalton to be the #2 quarterback, giving them a long-time experienced veteran to turn to if needed. Dalton wasn’t great in his 9 seasons as a starter in Cincinnati, but he was a serviceable starter for them for 133 games (87.5 QB rating) and has turned into a high end backup over the past two seasons since leaving Cincinnati, with a 83.0 QB rating in 15 starts with the Cowboys and Bears.

Dalton probably wouldn’t be a huge dropoff from Winston if he had to make starts, even if he is in his age 35 season. The Saints also kept Ian Book as a developmental prospect, not wanting to give up on the 2021 4th round pick after just one bad start. Unless he flops in training camp and the pre-season, he should make the active roster as a 3rd string quarterback. Both Winston and Dalton are likely to be low end starters, so this is not an overly impressive quarterback room, but it’s passable enough that the Saints could make the post-season if enough things go well on other parts of this team.

Grade: B-

Receiving Corps

One area that is definitely improved around Winston this season is the receiving corps, which was among the worst in the league in 2021, limiting their passing game significantly. The Saints had six different wide receivers play over 200 snaps for them last year and most of them showed very little. Lil’Jordan Humphrey and Deonte Harty averaged 1.83 yards per route run and 2.69 yards per route run respectively, but both only played just 217 snaps and 298 snaps respectively and would be projections to a larger role, especially Harty, a undersized 5-6 170 gadget type player. Aside from Humphrey and Harty, their leader in yards per route run was Marquez Callaway, who saw significant action and led the team in receiving, but he did so with just a 46/698/6 slash line, averaging a middling 1.53 yards per route run. After Callaway, none of the other receivers averaged more than 1.25 yards per route run.

In 2022, the Saints are expecting to get Michael Thomas back after he missed all of last season with an ankle injury, which also affected him significantly in 2020, limiting him to a 40/438/0 slash line in 7 games and 2.14 yards per route run, down from 119/1400/8 per 16 games and a 2.50 yards per route run average his first four seasons in the league prior to 2020, finishing 8th, 3rd, 2nd, and 3rd among wide receivers on PFF in those four seasons respectively, after being selected by the Saints in the 2nd round in 2016.

Thomas has been through a very significant ankle injury and he won’t have the benefit of playing with Drew Brees in a pass heavy offense anymore, but he’s still relatively young, in his age 29 season, and has the potential to bounce back in a big way if he can stay healthy this season, even if he’s not the player or the statistical producer he was in his prime. The Saints also used one of first round picks on wide receiver Chris Olave, after trading up again, and then signed veteran Jarvis Landry in free agency, to give the Saints at least a solid top-3 at the position. Olave might not have a huge impact right away, but he figures to be a good #2 receiver option as a rookie and could easily end up as the team’s #1 receiver long-term.

Landry has been a #1 option before, averaging a 96/1086/5 slash line in 5 seasons from 2015-2019, while not missing a game due to injury, but he’s missed the first 6 games of his career due to injury over the past two seasons, while seeing his slash lines fall to 72/840/3 and 52/570/2 respectively, and now heads into his age 30 season. Landry’s production was capped by a conservative passing game in Cleveland over the past two seasons though, with his 1.96 yards per route run average in those two seasons actually being a slight increase from the 1.91 yards per route run he averaged in the previous 5 seasons. Injuries and age are becoming a concern, but Landry has never been reliant on athleticism, mostly thriving as an underneath possession receiver. He should be a good fit in New Orleans, where he won’t need to be the primary option.

The Saints also retain Marquez Callaway, who gives them good depth with some upside, having averaged 1.51 yards per route run over the first two seasons of his career since going undrafted in 2020. Deonte Harty, also a former undrafted free agent, remains as well and should play the same gadget role, which he has excelled at in three seasons in the league, averaging 2.10 yards per route run, albeit on a total of just 533 offensive snaps over that stretch. Tre’Quan Smith was even brought back as a free agent and, even though the 2018 3rd round pick hasn’t shown much in his career, averaging 1.14 yards per route run, he’s still only in his age 26 season and gives them further depth at a much improved position group.

The Saints still don’t have much at the tight end position though, so tight ends figure to not be a big part of this offense, with the wide receivers being a much bigger focus. Adam Trautman was the nominal starter and he was a 3rd round pick by the Saints in 2020, but he hasn’t developed into more than a solid blocker yet, averaging just 1.10 yards per route run as a pass catcher. He’s still only going into his age 25 season and still has time to develop as a pass catcher, but I wouldn’t expect a huge leap out of him in year three.

Behind Trautman, Nick Vannett is also mostly a blocking specialist (1.14 yards per route run in his 6-year career) and a mediocre one at that, so he would be a very underwhelming option as the #2 tight end. Juwan Johnson, a 2020 undrafted free agent, will likely remain in the mix as a rotational passing down specialist, but he has averaged just 0.81 yards per route run in two seasons in the league and isn’t much of a blocker.

The wild card of the tight end group is Taysom Hill, who was Sean Payton’s long-time pet project at quarterback and now will focus mostly on the tight end position, with Sean Payton gone and Hill underwhelming as a passer in 9 career starts (84.6 career QB rating). Hill isn’t going to be a normal tight end though, as he’s undersized at 6-2 225, won’t block much, and will also likely continue seeing action in the backfield in a variety of roles, including as a short yardage back and potential wildcat quarterback. Hill has averaged 5.35 YPC with 16 touchdowns on 221 career carries, which is more than he’s done as a receiver (34 catches for 388 yards and 7 touchdowns), so making him a true tight end wouldn’t make the best use of his abilities, as he is at his best in the open field. 

Hill’s age is a concern, as he’s already going into his age 32 season and could start to decline athletically in the next couple years. The 4-year, 40 million dollar extension the Saints gave him during last season now looks like a big mistake with Payton gone, especially since there isn’t an easy way for the Saints to get out of the contract until 2024, at which point he’ll have made 20 million over the next 2 seasons to be primarily a gadget player. With a much more talented group of wide receivers, the Saints issues at tight end aren’t as big of a deal.

Grade: B+

Running Backs

Top running back Alvin Kamara figures to be heavily involved in the passing game again this season, as he has been since entering the league as a 3rd round pick in 2017. Kamara did not match the 82/706/4 slash line and 2.15 yards per route run he averaged in his first four seasons of his career, falling to 47/439/5 and 1.62 yards per route run in 2021, but that was predictable with this passing offense as a whole taking a step back without Brees, and Kamara still finished 8th in the NFL among running backs in yards per route run and 7th in total receiving yardage.

Kamara also saw a career high in carries with 240, up from an average of 168 and a max of 194 in a season across his first four seasons in the league, on a much run heavier Saints team than he had played on in the past, actually having that career high despite missing four games with injury and playing a career low 13 games. Kamara wasn’t particularly effective on those carries though, dropping drastically from a 4.97 YPC across his first four seasons in the league to a 3.74 YPC last season.

Kamara might have been given too many touches, but his underwhelming efficiency wasn’t really his fault, as he averaged 2.80 YPC before contact, 74.7% of his rushing total and not far off from his career average of 3.03. Kamara also lacked long runs last season, with just 6 carries over 15 yards representing just 14.5% of his rushing yardage total, as opposed to 45 such carries and 30.9% of his rushing yardage total in his first four seasons in the league, which tends to vary more due to randomness than anything. He could easily bounce a few more long runs this season.

All of this suggests Kamara should have a good chance at a bounce back year in 2022, still only in his age 27 season, even if he’s unlikely to produce at the same level he did when Brees was his quarterback. One potential problem is an off-the-field situation which, depending on how and when it is resolved, could lead to Kamara being suspended, either in 2022 or in 2023. As of right now, 2023 seems more likely, with the legal process slow to play out and the league unlikely to issue a suspension until legal proceedings have completed, but there is a possibility Kamara has to sit at least a few games of this season with a suspension, which would be a big loss for the Saints’ offense.

The Saints are likely to remain run heavy in 2022, even with an improved receiving corps, so depth behind Kamara is going to be very important, even if he doesn’t end up missing time. Kamara isn’t the biggest back at 5-10 215 and, with a huge role on passing downs, the Saints wisely try to avoid overloading Kamara on running downs. Last season, the Saints tried several different running back options behind Kamara, but ultimately settled on reacquiring an old friend, bringing back veteran Mark Ingram in a trade with the Texans.

Ingram spent the first 8 seasons of his career in New Orleans, through the 2018 season, and averaged 193 carries for 909 yards (4.71 YPC) and 8 touchdowns per season in his final 5 seasons in town, overlapping with Kamara for two years and forming a highly effective running back tandem. Ingram then left for a bigger workload and more money from the Ravens, had an effective season as the lead back there in 2019, rushing for 1,018 yards and 10 touchdowns on 202 carries (5.04 YPC), but was limited to 72 carries in 11 games and a 4.15 YPC average in 2020 and was ultimately let go by the Ravens the following off-season, now on the wrong side of 30. 

Ingram spent the first half of last season doing little with the Texans, but then the Saints traded for him and he wasn’t bad the second half of the season. With the Saints, Ingram had 68 carries in 7 games, making 3 starts in Kamara’s absence, and averaged 3.82 YPC with 3.12 yards per carry after contact, as well as 1.31 yards per route run, which was in line with his career average of 1.25 yards per route run. Ingram now heads into his age 33 season and is a reserve caliber running back at this stage of his career, but he could remain decently effective in a limited role, as long as Kamara remains on the field.

Tony Jones finished 3rd among Saints running backs with 54 carries, but turned those into just 2.63 YPC, necessitating the addition of Ingram. The Saints were high on Jones going into last season, but he went undrafted in 2020 and probably will continue struggling going forward. The Saints also didn’t really add competition for him, with their 4th running back likely to be undrafted rookie Abram Smith, who has impressed the Saints this off-season, but ultimately could end up like Jones. Their depth situation isn’t really a problem as long as Kamara is on the field, but with a potential suspension looming for him, this depth situation could quickly become a problem, with Ingram being close to the end and only a pair of unproven undrafted free agents behind him.

Grade: B+

Offensive Line

Even with the Saints being aggressive with the salary cap, they couldn’t bring back all of their key free agents this off-season. On offense, their biggest loss was left tackle Terrom Armstead. He was an elite tackle for stretches through his 9 seasons with the Saints, but he missed at least some time with injury in every season and he now heads into his age 31 season, after a 2021 season in which he finished 28th among offensive tackles on PFF, but was limited to just 468 snaps in 8 games by injury, so it was understandable the Saints wouldn’t match the 5-year, 75 million dollar deal Armstead was given by the Saints this off-season.

The Saints replaced Armstead with their other first round pick, selecting Northern Iowa’s Trevor Penning, a high upside player who is an incredible athlete for his size, but who comes into the league very raw, playing at a lower level of competition and showing consistent problems with penalties throughout his collegiate career. He’s unlikely to be as good as Armstead in year one and is not even a lock to be the week 1 starter, with swing tackle James Hurst earning a middling grade from PFF in 13 starts last season and having a history of being a reliable spot starter (64 starts in 8 seasons in the league). He’s a low upside option, especially now in his age 31 season, but he would probably give them a lower floor at the position than Penning. Most likely, Penning will start for at least most of the season and Hurst will remain a reserve, but Penning will have to at least earn the job.

Penning is one of four recent first round picks on this offensive line and the other three have had mixed results. By far their best selection has been Ryan Ramczyk, who was selected 32nd overall in the 2017 NFL Draft and immediately became one of the league’s best right tackles, finishing 8th, 7th, 1st, 14th, and 7th among offensive tackles on PFF in five seasons in the league. After only missing 1 game in his first four seasons, Ramczyk missed 7 last season, part of the Saints’ overall injury problems on offense, but he’s still only going into his age 28 season, so he’s a safe bet to bounce back and be healthier again in 2022. He’s arguably the best player in the league at his position.

Their other two first round offensive linemen, guards Andrus Peat and Cesar Ruiz have not been nearly as good. Peat was selected 13th overall all the way back in 2015 and his career got off to a good start with three straight above average grades from PFF, but even then he had injury problems, which since seem to have gotten the best of him, leading to him finishing below average in PFF in four straight seasons, following those three straight above average seasons. 

In total, Peat has missed 29 games with injury in 7 seasons in the league, with at least some time missed in every season, including a 2021 season in which he played just 303 snaps in 6 games and finished 75th out of 90 eligible guards on PFF. He’s only in his age 29 season, but I wouldn’t expect much different from him in 2022. He’s very overpaid on a 5-year, 57.5 million dollar that makes him the 7th highest paid guard in the NFL in terms of average annual salary, but Saints have regularly restructured his contract to borrow from future cap space, so they don’t have an easy way out of it any time soon.

Ruiz, on the other hand, is only going into his third season in the league, but he’s finished below average on PFF in each of his first two seasons in the league, including 60th ranked finish out of 90 eligible guards in 2021, as the Saints’ only offensive lineman to be healthy enough to make all 17 starts. Ruiz could be better in year three, even if only by default, but it’s looking increasingly unlikely that he will develop into an above average starter long-term.

Center Erik McCoy is the only starter on this offensive line who isn’t a former first round pick, but they did give away a future 2nd round pick to move up from later in the 2nd round to select him in the 2019 NFL Draft, so they have a lot of draft capital invested in him too. His career got off to a great start, when he finished as PFF’s 4th ranked center as a rookie, but he fell to 11th in his second season and 24th last season, when he also missed the first 5 games of his career. He’s only in his age 25 season and still has a lot of upside long-term, so he could easily bounce back and be at least somewhat improved in 2022 compared to 2021, but his future doesn’t look nearly as bright as it did a couple years ago. The Saints will have to make a decision on his long-term future soon, heading into the final year of his rookie deal without an extension.

James Hurst gives them good depth, with the ability to move inside and play guard as well if needed, but he was their only reserve to earn even an average grade from PFF last season, out of the eight who saw action, and the Saints didn’t make any significant additions this off-season, hoping to potentially get better play if needed out of 2020 undrafted free agent guard Calvin Throckmorton (938 snaps) and 2021 6th round pick offensive tackle Landon Young (67 snaps), who both struggled mightily when forced into action due to injuries last season, with Throckmorton actually making the 3rd most starts on this offensive line and finishing as PFF’s 88th ranked guard out of 90 eligible.

Hopefully the Saints won’t need their reserves nearly as much as a year ago, when their offensive line was arguably the most injury plagued in the league. They’ll miss free agent departure Terron Armstead, but he was a declining, aging player who only played 8 games last season and they did a decent job replacing him with Trevor Penning. This group should be better this season even without Armstead purely because players like Calvin Throckmorton are unlikely to have nearly the role they did a year ago. Guard is still a weakness, but overall this should be a pretty good overall offensive line if they can stay relatively healthy.

Grade: B+

Edge Defenders

The Saints’ had a dominant defense last season and they have consistently had an above average defense throughout the past few seasons, but, as I mentioned, there are reasons to expect them to fall off at least somewhat on defense this season. One of those reasons is simply the fact that elite defensive play is much harder to maintain year-to-year than elite offensive play, but, on top of that, the Saints have some key players on the wrong side of 30 who could drop off significantly.

One of those players is edge defender Cameron Jordan, who has been one of the best players in the league at his position for years, finishing in the top-18 among edge defenders on PFF in 7 straight seasons, playing the run at a high level and adding 78 sacks, 80 hits, and a 11.9% pressure rate in 112 games over that stretch. Jordan is going into his age 33 season though and, while a big drop off isn’t guaranteed for Jordan in 2022 and he could continue playing at a high level, at this point in his career, it would not be a surprise if he declined significantly and I would at least expect him to decline a little bit. 

Jordan has been very durable in his career, somehow never missing game with injury in 11 seasons in the league, even though he’s played an average of 58.1 snaps per game over the past 10 seasons, and that durability probably helps his chances of aging better than most elite edge defenders, but I wouldn’t expect him to be as good as he was a year ago. He’s likely to remain at least an above average every down player, but any noticeable decline by Jordan is going to have a noticeable effect on this defense.

The Saints are probably hoping to offset any potential decline from Jordan by getting more out of his counterpart Marcus Davenport, another former first round pick, selected 14th overall in 2018, after the Saints gave up a future first round pick to move up from later in the first round to acquire him. It’s not hard to see how they could get more out of Davenport this year, as he’s played at a high level for most of his four seasons with the team when on the field and just needs to stay healthy, but that’s easier said than done for a player who has averaged 440 snaps per season in four years in the league, while missing 17 total games and never playing more than 13 games or 533 snaps in a single season.

When on the field, Davenport has earned an above average grade from PFF in all four seasons in the league, including three straight finishes in the top-28 among edge defenders and a career best 6th ranked finish in 2021, actually earning a higher grade than Jordan, albeit across just 437 snaps in 11 games. Also a high level run defender, Davenport has 16.5 sacks, 22 hits, and a 14.1% pressure rate in 35 games over the past three seasons, while averaging 36.3 snaps per game, showing the talent that made him a first round pick in the first place. Only in his age 26 season, he could be in for a huge year in 2022 if he can stay healthy, but that’s a huge if, considering his history.

The Saints are also hoping to get more out of another first round pick, Payton Turner, who went 28th overall a year ago. It would be hard for them to get less out of him, after he played just 144 middling snaps in 5 games as a rookie, mostly due to injury. He probably won’t play a huge role behind Jordan and Davenport unless one of them gets hurt, but he’s good insurance to have and still has the upside to be an above average starter long-term, even if it’s unlikely that happens this season. If Turner shows well, he could earn a significant sub package role, as the Saints could use their top-3 defensive ends together in obvious passing situations, with one of the three lined up on the interior, likely either Jordan (6-4 288) or Turner (6-6 270).

With Davenport and Turner missing time with injuries last season, Carl Granderson actually ranked 2nd among Saints edge defenders with 448 snaps played and he was pretty decent across that snap count, after also showing some promise on a snap count of 291 the year before. The 2019 undrafted free agent would probably be overstretched in a big role for an extended period of time, but he would need multiple major injuries ahead of him on the depth chart for that to happen, going into the season as no higher than the 4th edge defender, behind a trio of former first round picks.

The Saints also have experienced veteran reserve Tanoh Kpassagnon, who has a good chance to be healthier than a year ago, when he was limited to 220 snaps in 8 games, and who could continue playing a reserve role in 2022. He’s been an underwhelming player in 5 seasons in the league though, finishing below average on PFF in three of five seasons in the league, across an average of 381 snaps per season. He’s not guaranteed to have a role though, in a deep position group. Cameron Jordan could decline, given his age, which would have an obvious negative effect on this position group, but they have a pair of former first round picks with upside to do more this season, which could easily offset any decline from Jordan.

Grade: A

Interior Defenders

The Saints also should get more out of their top interior defender David Onyemata, who was suspended for the first 6 games of last season, limiting him to 11 games (430 snaps). Onyemata continued to excel when on the field though, both as a run stopper and as a pass rusher, with 2 sacks, 8 hits, and a 11.3% pressure rate, finishing as PFF’s 8th ranked interior defender overall, his 3rd season in the top-23 at the position over the past 4 seasons, a stretch in which he has totalled 16 sacks, 26 hits, and a 9.5% pressure rate in 57 games, including back-to-back top-9 finishes among interior defenders on PFF.

Onyemata is another player who is going to be on the wrong side of 30, going into his age 30 season this year, so he’ll start to decline in the next few years, but he hasn’t shown any signs of that yet and it wouldn’t be a surprise if he continued to play at the same level for at least another year. Even if he does regress a little bit, he should be able to offset that by playing more games, which will almost definitely be the case, barring a fluke injury, with just two games missed due to injury in 6 seasons in the league.

Aside from their depth at the edge defender position, another reason the Saints could use three defensive ends together regularly in sub packages is to mask their lack of depth at the interior defender position, behind Onyemata. The Saints had five reserve interior defenders play between 115-315 snaps for them last season, but three of them are no longer with the team, and the two remaining, Malcolm Roach (194 snaps) and Albert Huggins (219 snaps), both struggled mightily in their limited action last season and are both former undrafted free agents (2020 and 2019 respectively) with no track record of success. They could compete for reserve roles in 2022, but only out of a lack of other options.

Shy Tuttle is a solid starter in base packages, finishing as PFF’s 11th ranked interior defender against the run in 2021, but he is only a base package player, pressuring the quarterback at just a 4.3% rate in his career, including 2.6% last season, leading to him being limited to 387 snaps per season in three seasons in the league, and just 494 last season. The 2019 undrafted free agent should remain a good run defender, but Tuttle isn’t a real sub package option. To get their best four pass rushers on the field, the Saints will have to line one of their top-3 edge defenders inside next to Onyemata in passing situations. 

The Saints added a pair of veterans, Jaleel Johnson and Kentavius Street, in free agency, but both are very underwhelming options who shouldn’t be guaranteed a role, even as a reserve. Street was a 3rd round pick by the 49ers in 2018, but he played just 38 snaps in his first two seasons in the league, due to injury and ineffectiveness, since then, and he’s finished 127th out of 146 eligible and 138th out of 139 eligible interior defenders over the past two seasons respectively as a reserve, across snap counts of 380 and 352 respectively. He’s only in his age 25 season, so there may be theoretical upside here, but he’s just as likely to not make this team as he is to carve out a role and be useful, signing for just 300k guaranteed.

Johnson is more experienced, averaging 411 snaps per game over the past four seasons, but it hasn’t been good experience, as he’s finished below average on PFF in all four of those seasons, including a 129th ranked finish out of 146 eligible across 322 snaps with the Texans last season. Johnson was a 4th round pick back in 2017, but he hasn’t developed into even a useful reserve and, now in his age 28 season, that’s unlikely to change. 

The Saints also used a 6th round pick on interior defender Jordan Jackson, but he’s unlikely to have a positive impact if forced into action as a rookie, even if he does have some upside long-term. Onyemata and Tuttle are good starters in base packages, Onyemata is a sub package player as well, and the Saints could use three defensive ends together in sub packages to mask their lack of depth at the interior defender position, but their lack of depth is still a big concern, especially if an injury were to strike, as none of their reserves inspire any confidence.

Grade: B

Linebackers

Another key player on this defense over 30 is their top off ball linebacker Demario Davis, who heads into his age 33 season. Like Cameron Jordan, Davis hasn’t shown much sign of decline yet and has been very durable in his career, never missing a game due to injury in 10 seasons in the league, while finishing in the top-25 among off ball linebackers in 5 straight seasons, on an average of 1,009 snaps per season. Even if he does drop off from a 15th ranked finish among off ball linebackers on PFF in 2021, which is not a guarantee, Davis should remain at least a solid every down off ball linebacker in 2022, but, if he’s not his normal self, that will have a noticeable impact on this defense.

Fortunately, the Saints do seem to have a budding young linebacker in Pete Werner, a second round pick a year ago, who only played 394 snaps as a rookie, but flashed in a big way, finishing 10th among off ball linebackers on PFF, showing a lot of promise both in coverage and against the run. In 2022, he has a clear path to a much bigger role, with middling veteran Kwon Alexander (535 snaps) being let go this off-season, and, while Werner is a projection to a larger role, he could easily be an above average every down option in 2022 and beyond. He might not end up as good as Davis long-term, but he seems like a good long-term replacement for him and, even if Davis declines noticeably in 2022, he and Werner should still be a great linebacker duo.

Depth is a little bit of a concern at the position with Alexander gone, but they do have a pair of intriguing young linebacker options in Kaden Elliss (192 snaps) and Zack Baun (194 snaps), who both saw limited action last season. Elliss was only a 7th round pick in 2019 and had played just 5 snaps in his career prior to his limited role last season, but he showed a lot of promise in his limited role in 2021. However, he’s still an obvious projection to a larger role, he wasn’t highly drafted, and, while Baun hasn’t shown much in two seasons in the league, struggling across just 276 total snaps, he was a 3rd round pick and could wind up ahead of Elliss on the depth chart on the basis of a higher upside. Regardless of who wins the third linebacker job, they are unlikely to see a significant role unless Davis or Werner get hurt.

Grade: A-

Secondary

The two biggest losses for the Saints on defense this off-season were their two starting safeties, with Marcus Williams signing with the Ravens on a 5-year, 70 million dollar deal as a free agent and Malcolm Jenkins opting to hang them up, ahead of what would have been his age 35 season. Jenkins was past his prime, but he was still a solid starter last season, while Williams was one of the best safeties in the league, finishing 8th among safeties on PFF, so they won’t be an easy duo to replace.

The Saints signed a couple new safeties in free agency, adding Tyrann Mathieu and Marcus Maye on a pair of 3-year deals worth up to 22.5 million and 28.3 million respectively, and they could be a solid duo, but it’s very unlikely either of them will be as good as Williams was a year ago and both come with a significant issue. For Mathieu, the issue is just that he’s now going into his age 30 season, making him another key player over 30 on this defense. 

Mathieu was one of the better safeties in the league in his prime, finishing in the top-21 at his position on PFF in 4 of his first 7 seasons, including back-to-back years in 2018 and 2019, but he’s only earned slightly above average grades from PFF over the past two seasons since then, including a 40th ranked finish with the Chiefs in 2021, so it looks like his best days are behind him at this point. He could remain a solid starter, but I wouldn’t expect a big bounce back from him and it’s possible he could continue declining further.

Maye is a couple years younger, only going into his age 28 season, but he’s coming off of a torn achilles that ended his 2021 season midway, and could easily struggle to return to form in his first year back. Maye was also in the middle of a down year before getting hurt, ranking slightly below average across 362 snaps, down from finishes of 4th and 21st the previous two seasons. Maye also ranked 11th among safeties the year before that in 2018, but again missed significant time to injury, playing just 393 snaps total, so his durability issues aren’t new. Maye has a higher ceiling than Mathieu, if he’s healthy and can bounce back from his poor start to 2021, but that’s not a guarantee.

The Saints also brought back top reserve safety PJ Williams, a versatile player who can also line up as a slot cornerback. Williams fared well in a reserve role last season, earning an above average grade across 545 snaps, but that’s kind of uncharacteristic for him, as he’s finished below average in three of the past five seasons overall, on an average of 634 snaps per season as a reserve. He could continue being a solid part-time player and reserve, but he’s been inconsistent in the past, so he could also struggle.

With Marcus Williams gone, the Saints’ best defensive back is clearly their top cornerback Marshon Lattimore. Lattimore was PFF’s 13th ranked cornerback last season, but he’s been a bit inconsistent in the past, as last season was his best finish since his dominant rookie season in 2017, when the 11th overall pick was PFF’s 8th best cornerback and allowed just a 45.3 QB rating. However, in the following three seasons, he allowed a 95.6 QB rating and never finished higher than 29th among cornerbacks. He bounced back in 2021, but still allowed a 99.7 QB rating, making up for it by deflecting a career high 18 passes, most in the NFL. He’s still early in his prime in his age 26 season, but his history of inconsistency is concerning and he could easily not have as good of a season in 2022 as he had in 2021.

The rest of the Saints cornerback depth chart is unsettled, but that’s not because they lost any key players or had key players who struggled last season. Paulson Adebo (851 snaps) and Chauncey Gardner-Johnson (627 snaps) were their #2 and #3 cornerback last season and both remain after earning middling grades from PFF last season, but the Saints also have other options. I already mentioned that PJ Williams can play the slot from time to time, which could also be paired with Gardner-Johnson seeing some action at safety, where he has played in the past, but the Saints also have veteran Bradley Roby, their #4 cornerback last season, who was surprisingly kept after taking a pay cut this off-season, and they used a 2nd round pick on cornerback Alontae Taylor, who also figures to compete for a role this season.

Adebo is still likely to keep his starting job opposite Lattimore though, as the 2021 3rd round pick got a lot better as his rookie season went on, after understandably going through growing pains early in the season. Even though he was only a middling cornerback overall on the year, Adebo was PFF’s 26th ranked cornerback from week 10 on. He’s only shown it for about half a year, but it wouldn’t be a surprise at all if Adebo continued his above average play into 2022 and beyond and became a good long-term starter.

Gardner-Johnson also has a good chance to keep his job, as the primary slot cornerback. He’s been inconsistent against the run in his career, but has earned an average or better coverage grade from PFF in all three seasons in the league, playing both slot cornerback and safety, and is still only going into his age 25 season. He’s not an option to play significant snaps as an outside cornerback, but he’s still a versatile player who should remain a solid slot coverage option.

Bradley Roby’s return to the team was a surprise, as was acquired from the Texans before last season only when the Texans were willing to eat 7.6 million of his 10 million dollar salary and, when he only played 395 snaps as the 4th cornerback for the Saints in 2021, it seemed unlikely he would be brought back, owed 9.5 million non-guaranteed in 2022, but Roby was willing to take a big pay cut down to 3.5 million, surprising because he’s been a consistently solid cornerback for most of his career and, even in his age 30 season, likely could have started for several teams around the league. 

Roby has earned an average or better grade from PFF in 7 of 8 seasons in the league, with an average of 673 snaps played per season, including a 25th ranked finish among cornerback across 10 starts as recently as 2020. Even with Gardner-Johnson and Adebo being solid options ahead of him on the depth chart, it wouldn’t surprise me if Roby was able to earn a regular role in this secondary. He and Alontae Taylor will most likely be the primary reserve outside cornerbacks behind Lattimore and Adebo, with Gardner-Johnson and PJ Williams as their slot/safety options, and Maye and Mathieu starting at safety. They’ll miss Marcus Williams, but this is still a talented secondary.

Grade: B+

Special Teams

The Saints had a middling special teams unit in 2021, but they have a good chance to be a lot better this season, with kicker Wil Lutz returning from injury after missing all of last season, giving them a big upgrade at by far their biggest special teams weak spot last season. Replacement kickers combined to hit just 81.6% of their extra points and 83.3% of their field goals in 2021, a big drop off from the 97.3% and 86.6% that Lutz hit over the previous five seasons, consistently finishing as one of the best kickers in the league, ranking in the top-14 among kickers on PFF in all healthy five seasons, with three seasons in the top-6. His return will be a big boost for this team.

Aside from the kicker spot, the rest of this special teams unit was pretty good last season. Punter Blake Gillikin was decent and Deonte Harty did a solid job as both a kickoff and punt returner, with Aesop Winston also giving them another punt return option behind Harty. In terms of their core special teamers, the Saints had four players in the top-50 at the position on PFF, Kaden Elliss, JT Gray, Dwayne Washington, and Andrew Dowell, who are all expected to return this season. With Lutz coming back to give this already capable unit a big boost, this could easily be a top-10 special teams unit in terms of DVOA, which they were in 2018, 2019, and 2020.

Grade: A-

Conclusion

The Saints contended for a playoff spot in 2021, despite an offense that ranked 28th in efficiency, because of an elite defense that ranked 2nd in efficiency. They’ve kept most of their key players, borrowing significantly from future years’ cap space to do so, and their offense should be significantly better this season due to better health, after having the 2nd most adjusted games lost to injury in the league last season. They’re still unlikely to have a better than average offense, but their special teams should also be better and, if they get dominant defensive play again, they could definitely make the post-season, in a weaker NFC than a year ago. 

Another dominant defensive performance is not a guarantee, given the relative non-predictiveness of defensive performance, as well as the fact that the Saints have several key defenders in their 30s who could drop off suddenly, but, on paper, the Saints do still have one of the best defenses in the league, so another strong performance is certainly a possibility, even if they’re not quite as dominant as a year ago. Overall, there is definitely enough here that I could see a post-season berth, but they’ll need enough things to go right and, once in the post-season, they’re unlikely to have the offensive upside to go on a deep run. I will have a final prediction at the end of the off-season when all previews are completed.

Prediction: TBD, TBD in NFC South

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