The Sean Payton era has already become, by far, the greatest era in Saints history. Since his arrival in 2006, the New Orleans Saints' offense has been top 6 in total yards in every season (finishing first four times) and has been top 10 in scoring in five of seven seasons. To call this man an offensive genius isn't a stretch, but is more of a common nickname for a man who has demanded offensive excellence since day one.
Of course leading this era on the field has been Drew Brees, who has written his way into the history books and is a definite 1st ballot Hall of Famer. But there's still more work to do in New Orleans, and the Saints offense is more than ready to do its part.
We are finally here, leading up to the huge week 1 rivalry game against the Atlanta Falcons. Since the Saints roster has finally been cut down to 53, let's take a closer look at the offense that is, for the most part, still in tact from a year ago.
Saints keep three quarterbacks
Perhaps one of the most questioned moves by the Saints staff, Luke McCown and Ryan Griffin both make the 53 man roster. While it is certain that only one of them will be active on game day, many Saints fans are shaking their heads with this move. When a team has a durable and reliable superstar like Drew Brees, the chances of holding on to 2 other quarterbacks seem slim, especially with Sean Payton leading the way. One can say that if Brees goes down for the season, the team is done anyways, so why keep 2 backups? This move simply proves that the Saints still like Griffin, but there is still some work to do. It could be as simple as holding for kickers on field goal and extra point attempts (a job that McCown seems to do) or it could be that the Saints simply need more time to make the decision as to who the backup QB will be moving forward. Neither one of them stood out over the other in preseason.
I think this is also the time to point out that Drew Brees has absolutely spoiled us. When the EXPECTATION for your QB is 5,000 yards, you have to know that you are enjoying the privilege of watching an all time great. His numbers continue to be sick, but I can see where those stats actually take a dip this year. Like say, 4,900 passing yards?
Prediction: The Saints have 2 QBs on the roster by mid season. Brees throws for just under 5,000 yards and 35 TDs, which would be a drop off from last season. The only reason for the "drop off" will be because of an improved rushing attack.
The Saints will not miss Darren Sproles
While Saints fans may miss the dynamic running back, the offense should be just fine without him. As a matter of fact, one can say that the production of Sproles may have something to do with the Saints' lackluster running game over the past couple of years. The Saints finished 25th in rushing yards a year ago, but something feels different about this group in 2014. Mark Ingram has been running like the inspired back that we were hoping to get following his great career at the University of Alabama. The ceiling on Khiry Robinson seems high. And we all know that Pierre Thomas is more than willing to play any role necessary to make his mark. His 77 catches a year ago were no accident, as he will get another shot at being that primary pass catcher out of the back field. It seems like the Saints also believe in Travaris Cadet to get some action on passing plays, but his primary role continues to be as a return man. I would assume that we will see a three headed monster in New Orleans once again.
We might not get to see Erik Lorig in action for the first half of the season, but Austin Johnson looks like a very capable fullback for a position that the Saints do not use very often. Keeping both FBs only tells me that Lorig is either getting cut or placed on IR.
Prediction: Now in his final year of his contract, I can see Mark Ingram flirting with 900 rushing yards and 9 TDs. I would expect the Saints to emphasize the importance of establishing the rushing attack, as this team has had much bigger success when the running game is clicking.
Brandin Cooks could be a difference maker in the passing game
If you are wondering where some of the departed Sproles' targets will go, then look no further than the Saints' first round pick out of Oregon State. With blazing speed and a strong work ethic, Brandin Cooks will fit right in to an offense that is not short on weapons as is. Fan favorite Marques Colston may be another year older, but I think another 75 catch season with close to 1,000 yards receiving is a realistic possibility. Barring a sophomore slump, Kenny Stills could also benefit from both the addition of Cooks and the return of speedy deep threat Joseph Morgan. I would expect an increase in catches from last year's 32 receptions, but I assume that his NFL leading 20 yards per catch may take a bit of a dip. Nick Toon makes the roster over veteran Robert Meachem, but we can only be slightly optimistic with his progress at this point.
With defenses having to figure out who to cover in this deep receiving crew, we should expect more of the same with different players having big games every week. Well, that is of course with exception to the monster that is Jimmy Graham. The game's best tight end had over 50 yards receiving in 10 of his 16 games last year. With more rule changes favoring the receiver on pass plays, the 6'7" Graham will continue to be unstoppable. Benjamin Watson continues to be a solid veteran presence and should aid the Saints rushing attack in two TE sets. Josh Hill continues to make progress as the potential future #2 tight end in this offense.
Prediction: NFL defenses will have no choice but to pay attention to Cooks when he is on the field. He has first class speed and very good hands. When he is lined up all over the field, there is no way that the defense will be able to do enough to cover Graham, Colston, Stills, and/or Morgan. Whether as a decoy or as a play maker, Cooks will do things on the field that will be invaluable to assisting in the production of the offense as a whole. He is another reason why the Saints will not miss Sproles. While he may not have Sproles-type numbers in year one, I think we can safely count on 55-65 catches for around 750 yards and 5 TDs from the rookie wideout. He may have his fair share of big individual performances, but his presence will be bigger than what the stat lines may show every Sunday.
Terron Armstead is the key to the Saints success on offense
The offensive line had its fair share of ups and downs in 2013, but things started to fall into place when Armstead took over at left tackle. The running game became more consistent and Drew Brees was better protected. No Saints fan wants to see Brees take the beating that he took last season behind his line. After never being sacked more than 27 times in a season, Brees was sacked 37 times in 2013. The athletic second year tackle out of Arkansas Pine Bluff may not be a new face, but he is entering his first season as the full time starter. We will learn a lot about what he can do for Drew in 2014 because he absolutely must protect his blind side if we expect to make another Super Bowl run.
The Pro Bowl duo of Ben Grubbs and Jahri Evans return at the guard positions. These two guys have to stay healthy in order for the Saints to take that next step in the running game. Veteran center Jonathan Goodwin has returned and made the most out of his opportunity, beating out his much younger competition in Tim Lelito. One would assume that Lelito is first up if any of the interior offensive linemen go down. Veteran tackle Zach Strief should continue his consistent play on the right side, completing a very solid offensive front.
Prediction: While Saints fans are hopeful that the offensive line gets off to a better start in 2014, there is a chance that the unit could start off a little rusty out of the gate. Grubbs and Evans haven't seen much action in the preseason and Armstead is still a relatively new starter. How much does Goodwin have left in the tank? While on paper the offensive line looks better than it was a year ago, cohesiveness on the line can take some time. Armstead's development at left tackle along with Goodwin's steady play will be the key all season long.
With a more favorable schedule and tremendously talented roster, the 2014 version of the New Orleans Saints should be a top 5 offense once again. It will be interesting to see if Sean Payton and the offense REALLY run more rushing plays in order to balance out this normally pass heavy offense. If the pieces fall into place and the Saints are able to produce a top 10 rushing attack, a deep run into the playoffs seem pretty close to guaranteed.