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Saints struggling to keep up in crowded NFC South

The Panthers and Buccaneers see clear windows, while the Saints appear to be content coasting for the time being

NFL: New Orleans Saints at Carolina Panthers Jim Dedmon-USA TODAY Sports

The NFC South was invariably going to be messy this year. The New Orleans Saints, who have won the division the past four years, are entering a new post-Drew Brees era. With Jameis Winston at the helm, they’ve had ups and downs, with a rocky 2-2 start that hasn’t featured a ton of offense.

The Tampa Bay Buccaneers, meanwhile, are the defending Super Bowl champions and are among the favorites to win it again this year. Tom Brady and the Bucs are off to a 3-1 start this year, suffering a loss to the Rams. Right alongside them are the Carolina Panthers, who are also 3-1, although a light schedule has contributed to that start.

While the Saints are right in the thick of things in theory, the other two competitors in the South are taking a far more aggressive approach than New Orleans appears to be willing to employ. While the Saints have seen the holes in their roster and decided to address them in-house, the Panthers and Buccaneers have aggressively tried to fix theirs, even if in some cases it’s been Billy Mays slapping a Flex Seal on a leaky tank.

For the Panthers, Jaycee Horn’s injury threw their cornerback plans into turmoil. Donte Jackson is an excellent cornerback in his own right, but they responded to Horn’s injury by making two highly aggressive trades: One with the Jaguars for CJ Henderson and one with the Patriots for Stephon Gilmore. The Buccaneers, meanwhile, went out and signed the embattled Richard Sherman, a move that ended up being a bit of foreshadowing with the recent move of Carlton Davis to IR.

The Buccaneers are, of course, working beyond the NFC South. They have Super Bowl aspirations. But for the Panthers, these moves indicate a smell of blood in the water from the Saints and Buccaneers — Not to mention a bit of buy-in into their own early-season hype.

The question now for the Saints is: How do they keep up? The Jekyll & Hyde act throughout the early season is not sustainable, and it’s difficult to get a read on who the Saints truly are. Are they the dominant defensive team who held the Green Bay Packers to just three points? Are they susceptible to collapses a la vs. the Giants? Or are they just a flawed team that shows different sized gaps from week to week?

If the Saints were going to make an aggressive move to show they’re serious about keeping pace in the South, they would make some kind of move for a wide receiver. Michael Thomas is slated to return from the physically unable to perform (PUP) list after the Saints’ Week 6 bye, while Tre’Quan Smith can return from IR in that same time period. However, the Saints have played a tepid offensive game to this point in the season, effectively neutering parts of Jameis Winston’s game.

While his intended air yards are a perfectly respectable 8.7 per attempt, his yardage is among the lowest in the league among regular starters at 613. He’s doing what the Saints have asked him to do well, but he needs the tools to do more. Alvin Kamara, meanwhile, is being force-fed the ball — A specific concern heading into the season among many Saints analysts.

For the Saints right now, stagnation is the enemy. The NFC goes beyond the South. While competing for their own division, the Saints are also contending against an NFC West that is four deep, an NFC North that has two underperforming teams who could be on the upswing, and an NFC East that features an on-the-rise Washington Football Team. Playing for the Wild Card is a dangerous game this season, but the NFC South might be the NFL’s third deepest division outside of both Wests.

In no way is this implying that the Saints are punting on the season, but they are making their lives more difficult. The back-and-forth from win to loss is a hard balance to maintain, and with other teams finding consistency, the Saints need to right the ship sooner than later.

The best way to do so is by either being more aggressive in addressing holes in the roster, or being more aggressive in playcalling. The only thing that’s for certain is that the Saints have to make a change if they’re going to keep up with the Buccaneers and Panthers in the race for the NFC South.