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Could the New Orleans Saints present a bigger challenge than expected?

The New Orleans Saints are in dire need of a winning season. Might they get one?

New Orleans Saints v Atlanta Falcons Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images

The NFC South is starting to gain recognition as the toughest division in football. Based on the last two NFC champions and NFL most valuable player’s coming from the division, it deserves great respect. Every team has an excellent, franchise quarterback as their leader. There are countless explosive playmakers between all four teams. Notoriously bad defenses (excluding Carolina) are showing signs of improvement, as well.

Atlanta’s stacked roster makes them clear favorites, but repeating as divisional champions, much less win the conference. Tampa Bay had another productive off-season for the umpteenth year. Unlike previous seasons, they are ready to challenge for a playoff spot following last season’s success. Carolina isn’t far removed from being a Super Bowl caliber team. They will command plenty of attention led by Cam Newton and their stout front seven.

That leaves one team falling under the radar. The New Orleans Saints had an eventful off-season, which has left their fans cautiously optimistic. Spending in free agency and adding more draft picks bolstered their roster on both sides of the ball. Unfortunate injuries may have altered some plans, but it shouldn’t drastically change expectations. This is a playoff-caliber team, if their defense progresses and Drew Brees continues to play at an elite level.

Traditional offensive powerhouse

Despite relying on a more balanced attack rather than a high-octane passing offense, the Saints should remain as an efficient unit. Brees is starting to lose some arm strength at 38 years old. It hasn’t affected his production, but they can’t keep putting him in unfavorable situations. Facing double digit deficits on a consistent basis will eventually take a toll on any quarterback. The front office has been committed to adding weapons and strengthening their offensive line.

Trading away Brandin Cooks shouldn’t be a significant loss. His role in the offense deteriorated over the last month of the season. With Michael Thomas’ rapid emergence, it made the speedy playmaker expendable. For all his shortcomings as a pass catcher, Ted Ginn Jr. possesses game changing speed that fits well in Sean Payton’s offense. Brees has built a strong rapport with Willie Snead over the past two seasons. The former undrafted free agent is the perfect possession receiver for Brees at this stage in his career. Brandon Coleman and Coby Fleener are decent complimentary pieces to Brees’ arsenal.

After several forgettable off-seasons, the Saints made some wise personnel decisions. Signing Larry Warford could prove to the biggest of them all. One of the main elements to Brees’ success consists of having a top-tier interior line. The duo of Carl Nicks and Jahri Evans did wonders for him. With stout pass protection, it allowed Brees to feel comfortable in the pocket. Allowing a future Hall of Famer the opportunity to survey the field usually never ends well. Warford isn’t quite on the level of Evans (in his prime) or Nicks. It’s still a significant upgrade to a once problematic position.

Max Unger is expected to be healthy before the regular season. A trio of Warford, Unger, and Andrus Peat should provide much-needed stability. Losing Terron Armstead is a notable loss, but it’s not an insurmountable one. Brees has plenty of experience without the outstanding left tackle. Rotoworld’s Evan Silva posted an impressive stat about New Orleans averaging more points per game without Armstead last season. Whether Khalif Barnes or Ryan Ramczyk starts at left tackle, they will inevitably experience some issues. Brees has endured these problems before and still managed to be productive.

How they incorporate Adrian Peterson into the offense is the most glaring question. It was a puzzling, albeit low-risk signing. Pairing a two-down running back with Mark Ingram seems confusing on paper. There is still upside in this move. Don’t rule out Payton’s knack for getting the most out of limited offensive weapons. The offensive mastermind may not know how to find a defensive coordinator that can improve his team’s defense. He does know how to utilize one-dimensional players such as Devery Henderson and Robert Meachem. Tim Hightower turned out to be a pleasant surprise as well. If Peterson can stay healthy, he should find a role within the offense.

Slowly rebuilding defense

A once perennial playoff team transformed into Jeff Fisher’s worst nightmare. From horrific personnel decisions to underwhelming free agent signings, a porous defense has been the main reason behind three consecutive losing seasons. They have become the biggest punchline in the NFC South. It takes something remarkable to keep an elite quarterback out of the playoffs for an extended period. The Saints managed to achieve an unfortunate feat.

The defense simply lacked talent at every level. Cameron Jordan’s excellence couldn’t make up for a mediocre defensive line. Jonathan Vilma was their last above-average linebacker. A mixture of two-down players and journeymen created one of the worst linebacker units in the league. The same can be said at cornerback, where they haven’t had two capable starters since 2013. Keenan Lewis and Jabari Greer proved to be a formidable starting duo for that one season.

The lasting dark image of New Orleans’ abysmal defense is Jairus Byrd. The former Pro Bowler was expected to elevate a promising defense in 2014. Pairing Byrd with Kenny Vaccaro appeared to be an excellent move. It ended up being three seasons of injuries and sheer disappointment. One of the most coveted free agents in recent memory was reduced to having his ankles broken by Devonta Freeman on national television.

There are still notable flaws within the defense, but this beleaguered group is moving in the right direction. Nick Fairley is a tough loss on the interior. That will put pressure on the highly touted defensive tackle Sheldon Rankins. The 2016 first round pick showed great promise in limited action. Many analysts view him as a player that can join the list of outstanding, undersized defensive tackles. With Cameron Jordan as their main centerpiece, Rankins’ development will be significant on the defensive line.

Another encouraging move comes in the secondary. The Saints were signing cornerbacks off the street last September. A bad defense continued to get considerably worse following multiple long-term injuries at cornerback. Not having Delvin Breaux and P.J. Williams forced undrafted players into starting roles. With Breaux returning and Marshon Lattimore joining them, they could have one of the better cornerback duos in the league. Lattimore is a very physical player that possesses excellent ball skills and instincts. To cope with Atlanta and Tampa Bay’s talented wide receiving corps, New Orleans looks as prepared as ever.

Possible roadblocks

The defense can only improve, but there are still plenty of reasons to be hesitant about their advancement. Jordan is the only consistent pass rusher on the roster. Despite showing flashes in Arizona, Alex Okafor can’t be considered as a legitimate threat. They don’t have any intriguing pass rushing prospects either. The linebacker group remains as their biggest Achilles heel. Adding below average players like Manti Te’o and A.J. Klein in free agency and sticking with underachieving players like Dannell Ellerbe in prominent roles inspires minimal confidence.

As good as the Saints’ offense is, they have some questions in critical areas. Age is going to be a factor at some point for Brees. Will his declining arm strength start to affect the offense? The uncertainty at left tackle could eventually rattle him. Relying on a rookie (Ramczyk) that was destined to be a long-term starter at right tackle or a career underachiever in Barnes shouldn’t be overlooked. Inconsistent players such as Ginn and Fleener are tough to rely on during make-or-break situations.

The blueprint isn’t difficult to figure out. If the defense can develop into an average unit, Payton’s dynamic offense is going to win them games. It’s one of the few things that hasn’t changed from previous years. By making astute personnel decisions on offense and drafting potential difference makers to improve their defense, New Orleans is good enough to produce their first winning season since 2013. How they overcome the gaping holes in their defense will ultimately decide it.