As we continue previewing the offseason of the 2018 opponents of the New Orleans Saints, I thought now might be an interesting time to take a second and look at what the preview piece showing the same conversation points for the Saints:
Notable free agent additions:
TE Jared Cook, OL Nick Easton, RB Latavius Murray, PR Marcus Sherels, DT Malcom Brown, DE Mario Edwards Jr.
Aside from Cook and Sherels, many of the free agents listed above were signed to replace players who would no longer be with the team in 2019. Latavius Murray replaced Mark Ingram, who signed with the Baltimore Ravens. Nick Easton signed immediately after the news that Pro Bowl center Max Unger would be retiring. Mario Edwards Jr. is going to take some of the snaps left behind from Alex Okafor who found a payday with the Kansas City Chiefs. And Malcom Brown is expected to fill out the middle of the defensive line while Sheldon Rankins recovers from a ruptured Achilles.
With Cook, the Saints finally have a play-making tight end that they haven’t truly had since Jimmy Graham was traded to the Seattle Seahawks. In the first year without Graham, the Saints’ Ben Watson stepped up in a big way as a pass-catching tight end, but since then the Saints have rolled out an underwhelming group of Coby Fleener, Josh Hill, and Michael Hoomanawanui. In 2018, opposing defenses were able to focus almost solely on Michael Thomas and Alvin Kamara. In 2019, the addition of Jared Cook will be huge for the already-explosive Saints offense.
Marcus Sherels is an incredibly underrated signing by the Saints. While the Saints were above-average to excellent in almost every facet of the game last year, the Saints ranked 30th out of 32 in the NFL in average punt return yards. In 2018, Marcus Sherels himself averaged 12 yards per punt return, which would have been good for 2nd in the NFL by team. With the Saints defense forcing more and more punts since the days of recent past, Sherels will help the offense with hidden yardage to give the Saints shorter fields.
Over / under:
10.5 wins -- I’ll take the over, but not by much. My prediction is 11 wins. I see five losses for the Saints this year, which would still be good enough to win the NFC South, but I’ll take it a step further and predict the losses:
Week 1 against the Houston Texans - the Saints are notoriously terrible in opening weeks in the NFL. As great a year as the Saints had last year, do you remember what Fitzmagic did to the Saints last year in Week 1? On top of that, the Saints have a pretty big Week 2 matchup with the Los Angeles Rams the team could be focusing on.
Week 3 on the road versus the Seattle Seahawks - the Seahawks are a good team, and the 12th Man is no joke. This isn’t as much about the “Saints stink on the road” narrative as it is about playing a talented team, on the road, without the luxury of any home practices. With back-to-back west coast games in Weeks 2 & 3, the Saints have opted to practice on the west coast instead of coming home.
Week 7 at the Chicago Bears - The Saints aren’t bad on the road necessarily, but Drew Brees is not the biggest fan of playing in the cold. It’s been a while since Brees played college football at Purdue in Indiana. Since then, Brees played in the San Diego weather with the Chargers and in the Dome in New Orleans. A week 7 matchup in Chicago at the end of October, against a good defense? Yuck.
Week 10 on the road against the Atlanta Falcons - division rivalry games are always tough, especially with the Atlanta Falcons. After the Saints beat the Falcons at home on Thanksgiving last year, I think the Falcons will get their revenge and do the same this year.
Week 17 on the road against the Carolina Panthers - it’s a division rivalry game on the road like Week 10 against the Falcons, but it’s in the cold against a tough defense like the Week 7 game against the Bears. Not a good combination.
Rookie I’m most excited about:
4th Round Safety Chauncey Gardner-Johnson out of the University of Florida. He looks to be everything the Saints thought they were drafting when they selected Kenny Vaccaro out of Texas in the 1st round of the 2013 NFL Draft.
CGJ has shown physicality in the box, as he can line up as a traditional box safety or a slot cornerback. He’s also shown solid ball-hawking abilities as a floating center fielder.
Chauncey Gardner-Johnson! pic.twitter.com/ux7bJKb1AT— WeAreDBnation (@WeAreDBNation1) December 29, 2018
Best position battle heading into camp:
#2 and #3 wide receiver.
Let’s assume for a second that Ted Ginn Jr. is the #2 wide receiver on the team behind Michael Thomas (and considering Ginn is 34 years old and coming off a year where he missed 11 games due to injury, this is far from a guarantee). Still, that leaves a big question mark for the Saints at their #3 wide receiving options. Cameron Meredith is probably the most talented of the group, but he hasn’t shown he’s fully healthy after recovering from devastating knee injuries. Tre’Quan Smith is the player the Saints have invested the most in aside from Meredith, using a 3rd round pick in 2018 for him, but he hasn’t shown consistent ability to get open in the NFL. There’s also 2018 UDFA Keith Kirkwood and 2019 UDFAs Lil’Jordan Humphrey and Emmanuel Butler and recent signee Rishard Matthews, who hasn’t been productive in the NFL since 2017 (but more on him later).
One of that group will need to step up in a big way, but at this point, it’s anyone’s guess which player is the cream that rises to the top.
Biggest storyline heading into camp:
How will the Saints roster respond after back-to-back heartbreaking finishes to the season? It’s no secret the Saints have had another disappointing end to a would-be Super Bowl run after the infamous no-call PI against the Rams in the NFC Championship Game last year. The Saints, and a vast majority of the NFL, advocating for revisions to the replay system, but how will the Saints roster respond come game time? Will they be too focused on the past and “what could have been?” Or will they use it as motivation and fuel to the fire to keep their eyes set on the prize in 2019? Gone is the veteran locker room presence of Mark Ingram and Ben Watson, so it will be up to players like Drew Brees and Cam Jordan to keep the team focused.
Another little nuance to this story is not really one for the team, but for the media, specifically the naysayers of the new revised replay rules regarding pass interference: There are plenty of talking heads out there who absolutely hate the new replay rule for pass interference, and you can bet, they are just itching for the opportunity this rule comes back to bite the Saints in a meaningful game where the no-call on the field helped the Saints but after replay, a flag is thrown and the Saints ultimately lose the game.
Under-the-radar storyline heading into camp:
How will the defensive line, especially Marcus Davenport, perform in 2019? Alex Okafor is a Chief. Sheldon Rankins will miss the year with an Achilles. David Onyemata will miss the first game due to suspension. Big things are expected of 2018 first round pick Marcus Davenport, but if Davenport experiences the slightest of growing pains in 2019, the Saints defensive line will likely move from a strength in 2018 to a liability in 2019.
Notable injuries heading into training camp:
Sheldon Rankins is not likely to see the field at all due to his Achilles injury until December, (but there’s no guarantee he’s 100% healthy at all this season even if it suits up), and there’s still no word yet on when(/if) we can expect to see Cameron Meredith suit up for the team.
Obscure player on the 90-man roster that will be a preseason star (and likely later cut):
Let’s go with Rishard Matthews. When Matthews tried out for the Saints this offseason, beat writers were drooling over how Matthews looked on the field with Drew Brees. That’s great and all, but again: Matthews’s last productive year came in 2017 with the Tennessee Titans. In 2018, split time between the New York Jets, Tennessee Titans, and his couch, playing in only 8 games, catching two balls on three targets for a total of 24 yards. The Saints will give Matthews every opportunity to recreate his former success, so he’ll likely see time with the starters in the preseason and additional time on the field after the starters are pulled, but there are just too many potential options at the position for the Saints to opt for the 30 year old who was effectively out of football last year.
So what do you think, Who Dat Nation? Do you agree with my assessment? Would you have given different answers? Let me know in the comments. Send me presents.