With two weeks still remaining before the NFL's annual rookie draft, the title (and point) of this article may seem a little rash. Including injuries and what ever else goes on with the other NFC clubs, a lot could happen between now and September 7th, the day the Saints face the Atlanta Falcons to kick off their 2014 campaign. However, if you dive a little deeper into the current situation, the reasoning is logical. Therefore, here's why the Saints will finish the 2014 regular season as the NFC's top seed.
1. Trimmed fat allowed for the Saints to improve in other areas
The Saints started off their 2014 offseason with an exodus of aging veterans, telling Jabari Greer, Will Smith, and Roman Harper that they were no longer in the team's plans. Soon after, wide receiver Lance Moore and Darren Sproles (in exchange for a fifth round pick) both received the boot as well. By getting rid of some of the cap casualties and older players, the Saints picked up extra cap space and made the necessary resignings to improve the team. Those of note were starting right tackle Zach Strief, running back Pierre Thomas, tackle Bryce Harris, linebacker Parys Haralson, wide receiver Joe Morgan, and hard-hitting safety Rafael Bush. The newcomers, however, proved to be the most exciting. Stand-out safety Jairus Byrd, future Hall of Fame cornerback Champ Bailey, and fullback Erik Lorig were all brought in to give the Saints a different look.
2. This is the first "normal" off-season for the Saints in a few years
As of late, the Saints have been an aberrant team. Aside from the NFL lockout in the summer of 2011, which affected all of the teams, the Saints have experienced two changes at defensive coordinator, Drew Brees' elongated contract disputes, the dreaded BountyGate (which included the loss of several draft picks), and a year without head coach Sean Payton. The Saints finally have a normal amount of draft picks, and the players will be able to spend an offseason knowing that all is well within the organization. Don't forget Rob Ryan will have an offseason with the majority of players already knowing his system.
3. A lot of mystery surrounds the rest of the NFC South
The Saints, while adding new, better players, have kept a solid core of players this offseason and are coming off of a year in which they completed the best defensive turnaround in NFL history. They would go on to finish with an 11-5 record, and make it to the Divisional round of the playoffs. On the other hand, the Buccaneers, Falcons, and Panthers all have serious questions surrounding their organizations. In the Falcons case, they have a disastrous 4-12 season hanging over their heads. Will all of their players come back from injury as normal? Have the Falcons seen the end of their time at the top? These are legitimate questions that will have to be answered.
The Panthers have had a pretty abysmal offseason, more or less. The team has seen its left tackle Jordan Gross (one of the best tackles in the league) and its top four receivers (Steve Smith, Brandon LaFell, Ted Ginn Jr., and Domenik Hixon) have left for other teams. Prior to signing aging, veteran receivers Jericho Cotchery and Jason Avant, Roman Harper, the Saints' former strong-safety, had the most catches on the Panthers' active roster.
For the Buccaneers, they have always been a mediocre team that can never make it over the hump. Lovie Smith will help them improve a little bit, but his first season with the team will likely be a learning year. The Bucs have been a young, capable team for the past couple of years, but they never live up to the standards.
4. The Saints' schedule compared to the rest of the NFC powers
To my surprise, the Saints actually have a very manageable schedule in 2014. Even though they open up the season with two road games, most of the schedule resides in the Saints' favor. They play both the Packers and the 49ers (the toughest teams on their schedule) at home, they have a three-game home stretch from weeks ten to twelve, five of their final eight games are at home, and they play five primetime games (they have a 22-9 record in these games since 2006). In addition, the Saints' divisional cross-overs come against the AFC and NFC North, two pretty mediocre and unproven divisions.
The Seahawks, on the other hand, see the Broncos, the Packers, the Eagles, the 49ers and Cardinals twice a piece, and the Chiefs. Their schedule also features two game road streaks twice. Don't forget the Super Bowl curse, either, which has held up as the past two champions failed to even make the playoffs the next year.
The 49ers will face a nearly identical schedule as the Seahawks, but they drew an even shorter stick, as they will see a two game road streak three times in 2014.
The Packers, a team that will look to get back in to the swing of things with Rodgers back at the helm, are even worse off. They have to travel to both the Saints' and Seahawks' place, where each finished 8-0 and 9-1 (including the playoffs) at home last season respectively. Their schedule also consists of the Patriots, Eagles, and twice having to worry about the Bears and Lions.
5. The Saints have less time to win than each of the other top NFC powers
With retirement knocking at Drew Brees' door, the Saints are all in for a championship from here on out, and Mickey Loomis' offseason spending patterns proves it. Of course each team is gunning after the Big Dance year in and year out, but the Saints have to even more so due to their aging Hall of Fame quarterback and offense as a whole. Sean Payton addressed the whole "Is the Saints' door of opportunity closing?" notion this offseason and rejected it wholeheartedly. But the elephant in the room can't be ignored forever: the Saints' time as a perennial NFC power is coming to a close, for now at least. Brees has three, maybe four (that's a big maybe), years left in the tank, and the Saints as a team are a full go to send him on his way with another ring while they still have time to do so. The Seahawks, 49ers, Falcons and Packers are still relatively young and have a clear picture as to who will lead their respective teams for the next seven years or so.
The Saints will assuredly be neglected in the NFC as the season inches closer, as the Seahawks and 49ers have already been labeled as the "teams to beat" by most. But those guys better watch out because the Saints are coming after them with a vengeance in 2014.