NFC South preview wraps up with a look at the New Orleans Saints.
The Saints rebounded once they added Sean Payton back into the fold full-time after his suspension the previous year. New Orleans finished at 11-5 for the season, not quite enough to win the division, but it was sufficient for their fourth playoff berth in five years.
Offensively they are a marvel as always. No surprise there, considering no Sean Payton coached Saints team has finished worse than 12th in points per game. Last year they were 10th in that category. While the passing attack led by Drew Brees was as prolific as ever (2nd in yards and points in the passing game in the league), the running game left something to be desired. The Saints were 25th and 23rd, respectively, in rushing yards and touchdowns in the 2013-14 season. In order to get back to their winning ways they will need balance; keep in mind, during the 2009-2010 Super Bowl run the team was top 10 in every major passing AND rushing statistic.
There is some promise in the backfield, as Mark Ingram finally got the reps he needed to really get going. Ingram finished last season with a 4.9 yard per carry average, a full yard higher than he’s ever put up previously in his career. While he will once again share carries with Pierre Thomas, his strong performance will certainly lead to more attempts than he claimed last year.
Of course, running the football has as much to do with who is receiving the ball, as who is blocking for the ball-carrier. The offensive line was terribly inconsistent, and allowed Brees to get sacked a career-high 37 times last year. The line began to improve toward the end of the season, in large part due to rookie Terron Armstead’s maturation at the Left Tackle position. By the end of the season, he and Ben Grubbs began to solidify the offense’s weakest unit–leading to Grubbs second Pro Bowl selection. The other guard, Jahri Evans also received a Pro Bowl selection, though he missed the last four games of the season. If the team can stay healthy and continue to gel after a year of turnover, perhaps the line will protect its powerful backfield weapons more effectively.
Rob Ryan is truly a magician. A year after the Saints gave up the most yards in the history of the NFL, Ryan went full-on mad scientist and changed the system and culture of the Saints. Last year, New Orleans was fourth in points per game– a year after being ranked 31st. That’s insane. Going from an all-time terrible defense to arguably the best in the NFC South is nothing short of magic. There is really no reason that Ryan doesn’t have a head coaching job after the near miracle he performed in the Bayou last year.
Despite their high-level performance, the Saints spent four of their first five draft picks on defense. An understandable tactic given their recent draft history with selecting impact defensive players—Kenny Vaccaro and Cameron Jordan were taken in the 2013 and 2011 drafts, respectively. Giving Ryan more toys to play with seems to make the most sense given how unwavering the offense has been. With such a powerful unit, the defense need only be mediocre for the team to continue its success—another top 5 year and the team will validate my prediction.
This is the best team in the NFC South. A stout defense will be buoyed by Vaccaro’s return from injury and the signing of Jairus Byrd to secure the secondary. Moreover, another year of Ryan can’t hurt a team.
While Darren Sproles will be missed in the passing game, Brandin Cooks will be a dynamic slot receiver to keep Brees’ armory full. Plus, Sproles absence will mean less of a log jam at the running back position, allowing Ingram and Thomas (both backs who thrive on multiple carries) a chance to see the ball more. The Saints will win the division and have a serious shot to add another Super Bowl win to their growing history.