The New Orleans Saints began their preseason with a stirring 24-20 comeback over the Jacksonville Jaguars last Thursday night. While the game didn't count in the standings, it at least gave fans a small preview of the newcomers to the 2018 Saints. While most of the talk this time of year is about highly drafted rookies, key free agent acquisitions, and bubble players as the roster cutdowns near, it may be easy to forget that the Saints have built one of the most balanced rosters in the NFL.
The team has stars at nearly every position on each side of the ball, a key factor in winning the NFC South title a year ago. In order for the Saints to repeat as division champions, and make a run for the Super Bowl as many have predicted, they will once again need all-star performances from their stars. Players such as Marshon Lattimore, Alvin Kamara, and Michael Thomas are young Pro Bowlers looking to take the next step towards superstardom.
A player like safety Marcus Williams, who had an outstanding rookie season, looks to rebound from a tragic playoff mistake to end 2017. Today however, we take a look at a few established New Orleans veterans, and one newcomer to the team, who have some very important questions of their own to answer in 2018.
Mark Ingram, running back
Ingram is coming off of the best season of his seven year career. His 230 carries, 1,124 rushing yards, 12 rushing touchdowns, 58 receptions, and 416 receiving yards were all career highs, and earned him a trip to the Pro Bowl. Ingram is an underrated every down back, and has been a vital part of the New Orleans offensive game plans. He sits just 735 yards away from passing Deuce McAllister as the team's all-time leading rusher, and is one of only four players in franchise history to have multiple 1,000 yard rushing seasons.
Unfortunately, Ingram became one of the team's main offseason storylines for events off the field. The 28-yr. old former Heisman Trophy winner will serve a four game suspension to begin this season because of use of a banned substance. The looming suspension has many wondering how the Saints will manage to replace Ingram's production, at least at the start of the year, along with the question of how quickly the former 1st round draft pick can get into game shape. In addition, there were reports that Ingram was unhappy sharing a backfield role with last year's Offensive Rookie of the Year, Alvin Kamara.
Some reports that New Orleans was actively shopping Ingram for a trade were unfounded, but he is in a contract year and will be a free agent at the end of the 2018 season. So far it's business as usual in camp for Ingram, traditionally one of the team's hardest workers. Saints fans can likely expect a hard running Ingram upon his return, given his highly competitive nature. He and Kamara seem to have a harmonious relationship, and coach Sean Payton was masterful a season ago at keeping both of his talented backs heavily involved in the offense.
While New Orleans must find a way to replace Ingram's production during the first four games, the question of how quickly the veteran back returns to his normal effectiveness also remains.
Craig Robertson, linebacker
Robertson has been the Saints most versatile and most consistently effective linebacker since joining the team as a free agent in 2016. One year after leading New Orleans in tackles, Robertson finished second on the team in the same category a year ago. He also added 2 sacks, 2 interceptions, 2 fumble recoveries, and a fumble forced while being credited with 6 passes defensed.
The Saints have attempted to revamp their linebacking unit with high draft picks (Stephone Anthony, Hau'oli Kikaha, Alex Anzalone), free agency (James Laurinaitis, A.J. Klein, Manti Te'o), and trade acquisitions (Dannell Ellerbe) over the past few years, but only Robertson has remained the constant. A fast and aggressive defender, he can play either inside or outside positions, be an effective blitzer, plays the run well, and is athletic in pass coverage.
The offseason addition of Demario Davis in free agency, along with the return of Anzalone, Klein, and Nate Stupar from injury, may give the Saints their deepest and most athletic linebacking corps in decades. Expect Robertson to be in the thick of the competition among the linebackers for snaps
Cameron Meredith, wide receiver
Not long ago, Meredith looked like one of the top up and coming wideouts in the league. In 2016 with the Chicago Bears, his second season, his 66 receptions for 888 yards and four touchdowns led the squad. Unfortunately for Meredith, he suffered a devastating knee injury in last year's preseason that forced him to miss the entire 2017 season. This past offseason, New Orleans signed the 25-yr. old Meredith, a restricted free agent, to a two year contract for a reported 9.6 million dollars that the Bears declined to match.
A physical receiver with good size and sharp route running ability, he is expected to add another playmaking element to coach Sean Payton's dynamic offense. During the team's OTA and mini-camp workouts, Payton had commented that Meredith was 'ahead of schedule' in his rehab, but he has been on the field little during training camp and sat out the Saints preseason opener.
Just a precaution, perhaps, as they bring the wide receiver back slowly from such a serious knee injury. But a unit that struggled at times last season to consistently produce other than Michael Thomas will need Meredith's skillset to go along with the still explosive Ted Ginn Jr. and promising 3rd round pick Tre'quan Smith.
Vonn Bell, safety
Bell enters his third NFL season with increased expectations in the Saints defensive backfield. A 2nd round draft pick in 2016, the safety from Ohio State has appeared in all 34 of his team's games, starting 26, including playoffs. He finished second on the team in tackles his rookie year, and led the Saints in stops last season. He has been extremely effective on blitz packages, finishing second on the team with 4.5 sacks in 2017, and was far more consistent in pass coverage last year after some struggles as a rookie.
What Bell has failed to do thus far is be the ballhawking presence that he was in college, having yet to record an interception in the NFL. He is often around the ball, and has forced four fumbles in his career, but must step up to be more of a playmaker in the passing game. With the departure of Kenny Vaccaro in free agency, Bell will also get more opportunities close to the line of scrimmage. Despite high tackle totals, he still sometimes takes poor angles to the ball carrier.
The emergence of second year safety Marcus Williams, and the free agent signing of veteran Kurt Coleman will combine to soften the loss of the inconsistent Vaccaro, but Bell will also be looked to for to take on far more responsibilities in the New Orleans secondary.
Drew Brees, Quarterback
Despite continuing to be one of the NFL's most productive quarterbacks, the future first ballot Hall of Famer has had to prove doubters wrong every season of his prolific 17-yr. career. The most recent question/concern has been: 'When will we see a sharp decline in Brees' play?' That question may be a valid concern. Recent examples of signal callers that had a massive and sudden decline in play are Peyton Manning, who showed a noticeable decline in his play at age 38, and Brett Favre, who was no longer close to an effective passer at 41, his final season. Brees, who will turn 40 on January 15, has had no noticeable dropoff in his level of play, earning the 11th Pro Bowl bid of his illustrious career last season.
History has shown us that when the end does come, it often does so suddenly and with ugly results. Statistically, his 536 pass attempts last year were his fewest since 2009, and the second fewest of his twelve years with the Saints. Brees' 4,334 passing yards and 23 touchdown passes were both the lowest output of his New Orleans career. The lower output was more a result of the team around Brees, rather than a dropoff in his performance.
The Saints have surrounded their veteran quarterback with a ton of young talent, including the best running attack that he's worked with during his time in New Orleans. Brees still completed an NFL-record 72% of his passes, and threw just eight interceptions. His 385 passing yards during a heart-stopping 11-pt. fourth quarter comeback victory over Washington last season, and combined 670 yards and five touchdowns in the playoffs certainly proved that Drew Brees is still an elite quarterback, not that there was any doubt.
Brees needs just 1,495 passing yards and 78 completions to become the NFL's all-time leader in both prestigious categories, but the great number 9 has a more important goal in mind this year. Despite the fact that New Orleans has one of the league's most talented rosters, the Saints will undoubtedly need Drew Brees to continue playing at a Hall of Fame level to navigate through a difficult schedule in a talent-laden NFC to have a chance at another championship.
Which New Orleans veteran player has the biggest question to answer this season?
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