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2015 New Orleans Saints Season Preview

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We are about to embark on the most angst-ridden Saints season of the last decade. Join us as we take a look at what might lay ahead for the Saints and Who Dat Nation this coming season.

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It is the goal of every franchise in the NFL to be the one hoisting the Lombardi Trophy in the air as the confetti rains down at the conclusion of Super Sunday.  The New Orleans Saints are no different.  The Vince Lombardi Trophy is considered arguably the most difficult prize to attain in the American sports landscape, yet it has now somehow become the prerequisite for success for the fanbase of a franchise that once aimlessly wandered the national sports wasteland for roughly four decades.

Let's make this clear.  It is highly unlikely that the Saints will be standing tall at the podium next February, much less actually contend for a conference title in 2015.  That doesn't necessarily mean the Saints 2015 season will be an abject failure.  It's just finally time we, as fans, readjust our expectations of the team and what they're capable of accomplishing this year.  2009 was a long time ago, 2006 even longer.  To compare this team to either of those is simply foolish and unfair.  The 2015 Saints may not be destined for greatness, but they certainly aren't destined for nothing.

Many thought the 2014 Saints had the most talented roster in franchise history and would rattle off 13 wins with ease.  The truth couldn't have been further from that assumption.  Just as many foolishly judged the 2014 Saints by the success of the 2013 team, the same pattern may be repeating itself by judging the 2015 Saints by the failures of their 2014 counterparts.  Although there are countless fans that are prematurely treating this season like a slow, excruciating walk to the gallows, let's take a look at how the Saints may actually make believers of the disheartened just yet.

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Schedule

The Saints enter the season with a second place schedule due to finishing 2nd in the NFC South in 2014.  The Saints face the top-heavy NFC East this season, and most advantageously, the Saints also face the weak AFC South.  The biggest advantage lays in facing the other teams in the NFC South six times during the season.

The Saints face four playoff teams from last season, in the Carolina Panthers (twice), Arizona Cardinals, Dallas Cowboys, and Indianapolis Colts.  On the surface, the schedule is pretty agreeable to the Saints, and only one game stands out as a flat-out loss, and that would be an October 25th matchup at Lucas Oil Stadium against Andrew Luck and the Colts, which comes 4 years and 2 days to the day from the Saints 62-7 dumptrucking of the Colts in the Superdome.

Of course, Philly, Dallas, and Houston should represent the more problematic teams for the Saints this year, but it's pretty clear that this Saints team was gifted with a very generous schedule this season.  Don't be surprised if this team, with elite offensive potential and an elite quarterback, takes advantage of it.

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Offense

Speaking of elite offense, even without Jimmy Graham, the Saints should continue to be one of the NFL's top-ranked offenses.  The weapons at Drew Brees' disposal may have seen big changes this year, but they remain weapons nonetheless.  An upgraded offensive line, along with a healthy Brees at quarterback will keep the NFL's most productive offense humming along.  As fans, we've begun accentuating the negatives and downplaying the positives, this starting offense is definitely a positive.

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Defense

The Saints seem to be stuck in a no-win situation on defense.  You know what hadn't really worked on defense?  The old guard.  What seems to be scaring the life out of Saints fans?  The new guard.  Either way, the Saints are presumably screwed, and so are the fans by proxy.  But, maybe this influx of youth is just what the Saints need after the lazy and content defensive disaster of 2014.  Of course, defensive coordinator Rob Ryan is on the hot seat, and special assistant Dennis Allen will be looming over him like some shadowy specter this year.  Whether this is productive, healthy, or insane, will be quite the sight to see this season.

Look, we are all aware that this defense will be far from great, in fact, if they can go from 31st overall to 21st overall, it should be considered a minor miracle.  Make some stops on 3rd and long, luck into a few turnovers, and things might just get interesting.  You know what's really going to make this Saints defense much, much better?  Drew Brees not running for his life, throwing aneurysm-inducing passes into the waiting arms of defenders.  The Saints offense not consistently putting its undermanned defense into terrible field position because the offensive line is abysmal, as it was last season.  That will make huge strides for an unproven defense that should be looking to prove what they've really got.

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Special Teams

Punter is easy, Thomas Morstead remains one of the best in the business.  At kicker, the Saints have decided to go with Zach Hocker, which hopefully was the right call.  Who knows, by the time this is published, the Saints may have signed veteran kicker Nick Novak, who came in for a visit.  Finally, seventh round pick Marcus Murphy has shown signs of being the explosive return man that the Saints have been missing for quite some time.

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Key players for success on offense: C.J. Spiller and Tim Lelito

C.J. Spiller falls right in line with what has made past Sean Payton offenses so versatile and dangerous.  He fills the role that once was held by the likes of Reggie Bush and Darren Sproles.  Now that the obvious tropes are out of the way, let's look at the situation that doesn't get as much attention as the first two sentences.  Mark Ingram has gotten better each year, but he also misses time.  Don't forget that the versatile, dangerous, and reliable Pierre Thomas is no longer here to plug the leaks and pick up those though yards.  C.J. Spiller needs to be healthy and reliable for the Saints offense to really take things to the next level, not just flashy and fun.

Tim Lelito is now technically the "weak link" in one of the Saints' strongest units, the offensive line.  Not because Lelito is bad, but because those around him are proven commodities at their respective positions.  The Saints have valued guard above all other positions on the offensive line during the Drew Brees era, but this is the first time they've really tried to "plug and play" at the position.  Lelito is certainly no weak link by any means, but he will need to prove his mettle this season, Brees' success and the success of the Saints offense may depend on it.

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Key players for success on defense: Brandon Browner and David Hawthorne

Brandon Browner came to the Saints to fill a spot that had become the black hole of despair for a few seasons now.  The cornerback unit saw a substantial overhaul this offseason, and it was spearheaded by the signing of the repeat Super Bowl Champion cornerback.  Browner has attained a reputation as a locker room leader and an intimidating presence across from opposing receivers, and both of these attributes are sorely needed by the Saints.  If Browner can fill these needs, the Saints defense can make up a lot of ground.

David Hawthorne, you ask?  Really, Hawthorne?  Yeah, it's easy to overlook the easily overlooked veteran.  He has been below average at middle linebacker since the day he signed in New Orleans.  Here's the thing, though.  Hawthorne had been surrounded by fellow veterans in the linebacking corps since he arrived in 2012.  Now, he will need to be a leader, and a productive one, as the Saints feature the youngest linebacking corps the Saints have had in the Payton era.  Hawthorne doesn't need to have a Pro Bowl season, but he cannot fade into the background this year, he has to stand up and make solid plays.  If we're consistently watching this guy flail around out there, it could be an unnecessary uphill battle for the Saints rookie linebackers.  As potentially rock-solid as Stephone Anthony may become, he will need a partner he can trust and depend on in the middle.

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Player under the most pressure this season: Kenny Vaccaro

Kenny Vaccaro absolutely has to get back to his 2013 form.  2014 saw his game degenerate significantly, and it may be attributed to the "sophomore slump", but this has to turn around.  With injuries and youth littered throughout the secondary, the 2013 first round pick has to be the anchor in the secondary that not only takes care of the back end of the defense, but is also there to plug the holes when the front seven of the defense is breached, and they will be.

Vaccaro has played with great passion and intensity in his career, and if channeled throughout the defense, he can be a vital and fiery torchbearer for the team.  The potential is still there, and we've seen great play from the young safety, but this is already a turning point season early in his career.  The Saints are counting on him do a lot this season, and neither he or the team can afford to see anything but the absolute best of Kenny Vaccaro in 2015.

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2015 Season Prediction

We could easily wax poetic about the closing of windows and the end of eras, but honestly all franchises strive to win a title, and they all ultimately face the same struggles.  The lofty expectations and hand-wringing may still be a new sensation to us as Saints fans, but expectations shouldn't drop to catastrophic Ditka era levels.  There is a middle ground, and it's at the highest end of that level where the Saints should stand in 2015.

The Saints are realistically an 8-8 team, a potentially dynamic offense counterbalanced by a potentially suspect defense.  I just get the sense that the Saints will catch a couple of breaks that evaded them just a season ago (see: vs Cleveland and vs Detroit).  The Saints will take advantage of these breaks, along with an agreeable schedule and a weak division, to finish the season with a 10-6 record and the NFC South title.