Evaluating Why The Saints Are NFC South Favorites

Last season ended in heartbreak, but they're ready to rebound

Seatacular, Flickr

The NFL offseason has been an enormous drag for the New Orleans Saints and their fanbase. The organization has to be chomping at the bit to get the 2019 season underway after a brutal no-call left coach Sean Peyton begging the league to expand on their replay rules. If for some reason you forgot, the Saints offense was driving down the field into the red zone late in a 20-20 game. There was just 1:49 left on the clock and it was 3rd and 10. Drew Brees took the snap on the Los Angeles Rams 13-yard line and threw a wheel route pass to running back Tommylee Lewis when Nickell Robey-Coleman got away with one of the most egregious missed pass interference calls of all time. 

The Saints had to settle for a field goal, leaving the Rams with ample time to chug their way down the field and tie the game with a Greg Zuerlein 48-yard field goal to send it to overtime. The Saints won the coin toss and started with the ball. Brees got hit by Dante Fowler during a pass and ended up blooping the ball into an interception by John Johnson on the Rams 46 yard line. Zuerlein would eventually nail a 57-yard field goal to send the Rams to the Super Bowl. It was brutal to say the least (and a bad look for the league). Still, the Saints had a fantastic season, winning their division with a regular season record of 13-3.

2019 Odds and Expectations

New Orleans has very high expectations for themselves in 2019, and so does Vegas. They’re tied for the third best odds (8/1) with the Los Angeles Rams, just behind the New England Patriots and Kansas City Chiefs as potential Super Bowl winners after a purely dominant season in which they felt robbed by the officiating. Their odds are justifiable since the team didn’t undergo many changes in the offseason. If it’s not broken, don’t fix it, plain and simple.

The Saints defense dominated rushing attacks last season and should have great success in the category again. Defensive end star Cameron Jordan has 132 defensive stops since 2016, which ranks him third behind Khalil Mack and Von Miller. It’s important to have a stout defensive line heading into the postseason, but it’s also helpful against their divisional opponents that feature some excellent running backs like Carolina Panthers workhorse Christian McCaffrey and Devonta Freeman of the Atlanta Falcons. The Saints rushing defense allowed just 3.6 yards per carry and 80.2 yards per game, both ranking second-best in the NFL. Their defensive line was so dominant that they were able to play more hybrid formations in their secondary. They weren’t just great at stopping the run, either. The New Orleans defense also ranked fifth in quarterback sacks, with 49.

Offensively, the Saints should be right back where they were in 2018 with Drew Brees continuing to age like fine wine. The future Hall of Fame quarterback showed off last season, completing a massive 74.4 percent of his passes, leading the NFL. His DVOA rating (Defense-adjusted Value Over Average) ranked second at 36.8 percent behind only Patrick Mahomes. Brees is also very safe with the football, only throwing one percent of his passes for interceptions. The only quarterback with a better rating in the interception category was Aaron Rodgers. Brees led the offense to the third most points per game (31.5) last season and owned an impressive 112.3 rating. He ranked 11th in overall passing yards, but his DYAR (Defense-adjusted Yards Above Replacement) ranked second in the NFL. The offensive line allowed Brees to get sacked just 20 times last season, the second fewest. It’s very clear that the 40-year-old is still at the top of his game and is fully capable of leading a team of this caliber to a Super Bowl title.

Key Additions

It’s not very often that teams undergo such minimal changes in an offseason, but the Saints shouldn’t have much turnover heading into the new year. 

They did bring in a few new offensive pieces, though. New Orleans added a potential slot receiver in Rishard Matthews, a tight end coming off a fantastic season in Jared Cook, and a heavy between-the-tackle runner in Latavius Murray. These additions should help keep teams guessing as the Saints open up new realms of potential offensive output.

Cook should be a major addition to an organization that has struggled with offensive production from their tight end position ever since they dealt Jimmy Graham away back in 2015. Cook was phenomenal in Oakland last season, contributing 68 catches, 896 yards, and eight touchdowns. For comparison, the Saints tight ends combined for 63 catches, 735 yards, and four touchdowns. Cook ranked fifth in the league in DYAR at the tight end position and ranked 10th, so it’s a nice upgrade. Coach Sean Payton claimed that the team will also create a package specifically for their new tight end, per John Sigler of Saints Wire. He’s a weapon that Brees should look to quite a bit.

Murray joins the running back corps after averaging 4.1 yards per carry with the Minnesota Vikings last season. The 6’3”, 230-pound bruiser specializes in pounding the ball between the tackles and plunging goal line snaps into the end zone. He’s a nice compliment to first-team all-pro running back Alvin Kamara. The Saints rush attack accounted for an NFL-high 26 touchdowns on the ground in 2018 and ranked fourth in total DVOA. Having Murray to turn to near the goal line should keep their rush attack near the top of the league with their stout o-line leading the way.

Matthews recently joined the team along with a number of wide receivers that look to fill out the remaining depth chart for the Saints. It’s always possible that he ends up being the odd man out, but lining up Matthews in the slot (where he’s been most comfortable) could be a nice way to take some attention off of star receiver Michael Thomas. The signing comes after news that Cam Meredith’s surgically repaired knee could force him to miss more time. With Ted Ginn Jr. and Tre’Quan Smith being most useful on the outside, Matthews would be an interesting addition to keep Thomas on the outside at times if they desire. The offense has expanded a bit, as if they weren’t already scary enough.

Key Losses

The talented Max Unger decided to hang up his cleats after an amazing 10-year career playing center. Quarterbacks will tell you that having a center they truly trust is a necessity and Brees just lost his man. The Saints will have a position battle between rookie Erik McCoy (44th overall draft selection), Nick Easton, and Cameron Tom. It’ll be interesting to find out who Brees has the most confidence in, because he will likely have a say in who wins the job.

Edge rusher Alex Okafor left in free agency and signed with the Kansas City Chiefs. The Saints had to shed salary somewhere, and Okafor was one of the casualties. This leaves the door wide open for 2018 first round pick Marcus Davenport to step in and take the reigns as a full time edge rusher for the team. He impressed the organization enough as a backup, tallying 4.5 sacks, 12 quarterback hits, and six tackles for loss. Davenport wasn’t a first round pick for nothing.

The Saints have moved on from longtime running back Mark Ingram as he signed a three-year, $15 million deal to join the Baltimore Ravens. This includes $6.5 million in guaranteed money. New Orleans elected to save a bit of money annually by adding Murray, who earned a four-year, $14.4 million contract with $7.2 million in guarantees. Ingram is a flashy name, but the Saints should survive and maintain their levels of production without him.

Latest Injury News

Defensive Tackle Sheldon Rankins succumbed to an Achilles tear in the first round of the playoffs against the Philadelphia Eagles. The former first-round pass rusher finished second on the team with eight sacks behind Cameron Jordan. Reports suggest that Rankins will start the season on the PUP list and is likely to be out until December, which led to the Saints adding Malcolm Brown in free agency.

On top of the Rankins injury, the team has some injuries that are keeping players from potentially being available for training camp. Edge rusher Marcus Davenport (foot), wide receiver Cam Meredith (knee), running back Shane Vereen (undisclosed), defensive back Chris Banjo (knee), and guard Larry Warford (undisclosed) should all be sidelined as training camp starts for veterans on July 25th. Nickel back Patrick Robinson returns from an ankle injury and should be a nice shot in the arm for the Saints secondary.

Schedule Analysis

The Saints open the regular season at home against the Houston Texans for Monday Night Football. Their defense draws a dynamic offense right off the bat. They struggled early on in 2018, dropping their first two games to the Minnesota Vikings and New England Patriots, allowing a combined 65 points. Next, they travel to Los Angeles on a short week with plans to get revenge on the Rams. Coach Payton recalled the horrific officiating blunder of the NFC Championship game, noting that the loss “was a lot more difficult” for the team to deal with. The NFL publicly acknowledged the missed call.

New Orleans will travel to Seattle to face the Seahawks in a tormenting environment in Week 3. It’s a difficult start to the season, but the Saints are a tough-nosed team capable of pulling out some wins in difficult situations. Next comes some easier opponents as they host the Dallas Cowboys and Tampa Bay Buccaneers. They’ll travel to the Jacksonville Jaguars and to the Chicago Bears (all winnable matches) before hosting a younger Arizona Cardinals squad, and then their bye comes strategically in the middle of their season during Week 9.

Eight games in and the Saints will still have just one match against a divisional opponent. Next, they draw three straight NFC South games. The Saints will host the Atlanta Falcons, travel to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, host the Carolina Panthers, then travel to Atlanta for a Thanksgiving battle (with just three days of rest). They’ll finish off their season hosting the up and coming San Francisco 49ers, hosting the talented Indianapolis Colts, and then travel to the Tennessee Titans and back to Carolina to close out the regular season. There’s potential for this to be a difficult schedule from start to finish, but the Saints should have no issues taking the NFC South again after going 4-2 against their divisional opponents last season. The Saints opponents’ combined record in 2018 stands at 125-131, but the younger teams they face are vastly improved for the 2019 season.

What To Expect

When all is said and done, the Saints should be NFC South champions and could have an edge as the best team in the NFC. They were a powerhouse last season and there’s no reason to expect anything different in 2019. They have the terrific offensive line, stellar defensive line, killer rushing attack, and wisdom of a very experienced and dominant quarterback. This could potentially be one of their final runs with Brees reaching the age of 40, so expect the team to rise up as they seek vengeance from a 2018 season that was wrongfully taken from them.