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Saints are talented, but can they hope the same formula produces different results?

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NFL: NFC Championship Game-Los Angeles Rams at New Orleans Saints Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports

Analysts and writers who feel the need to make predictions with total conviction — that their opinions are in fact not opinions but infallible peeks into the future — are not football experts at all, but carnival barkers. Over a century of evidence in American sports alone tells us that as of yet nobody can predict what will happen in the next season or even the next game with any level of consistency that would make a reasonable person look twice. So there are no predictions in these previews of opponents of the 2019 Seattle Seahawks — only my thoughts and within those thoughts, an opinion of what I believe they will most likely look like in the coming year and straightforward updates on changes to the roster and coaching staff. But any team could be turning over 30% of their entire roster or 100% of their coaches and in some cases, a complete changeover in ownership and/or how they plan to run their franchise. That makes things even more volatile when looking ahead, especially with over three months to go until Week 1, but it’s worth a look ahead anyhow. These are my thoughts, some of which will be wrong, but if I didn’t believe my experience in evaluating football things was at least a little bit valuable, I wouldn’t be writing these. Hopefully that experience gives you a clearer picture of what to expect, while also expecting that these pictures could be erased at any moment.

Previous previews:

Bengals

Steelers

Ravens

Browns

The 2019 New Orleans Saints

Is the team that wins the Super Bowl the “best team” each year? I don’t even think Giants fans would argue that’s always true. It’s probably rarely true. The NFL’s playoff system of single elimination easily casts aside great teams each and every postseason and the 2018 Saints are quite an example of a championship-caliber team that could have been listed as one of the best ever would they not have received the worst call ever.

New Orleans ranked first in DVOA in 2017 and fourth in 2018, which makes them, the LA Rams (second in both seasons), and of course the New England Patriots as the top candidates for best teams over a two-year period. Based on personnel changes, or lack thereof, it would seem a fair bet then to presume that when the Saints come to Seattle in Week 3 they’ll again be in talks as eventual NFC champions — but given that Drew Brees is nine years removed from his last trip to the Super Bowl, is staying the same a good thing?

Certainly what Brees has accomplished on offense over his career would fall under the heading of “good.”

Despite throwing for less than 4,000 yards for the first time since 2005, Brees led the league with a career-high 115.7 passer rating on 32 touchdowns, five interceptions, 74.4% completions, and 8.2 yards per attempt. Now 40, I think Brees does have to be categorized among elite quarterbacks who could fall off at any moment. Despite Tom Brady’s unprecedented post-40 success — which I do think signals that QBs are now able to play deeper into their 30s and even early 40s in special cases based on rule changes and medical advancements— I won’t throw away all previous logic that shows NFL players often can just play one day and then can’t the next. It happened to Peyton Manning when he was late in his age-38 season. It happened to Brett Favre at 41. And even Brady showed some potential decline last last year despite winning the Super Bowl anyway because of course.

The investment in 26-year-old Teddy Bridgewater to keep him from leaving, which included a $6 million bonus (Bridgewater is only signed for one year but the team will have a $4 million dead cap hit in 2020 and $2 million in 2021), suggests not only that they like him for the future — they could see that transition happening sooner than the rest of us do.

That being said, I might as well assume that Brees is going to be great because Brees might be the best quarterback of all-time and he was awesome in 2018; though on the down low, Brees did throw a pick in six of his final seven games, including playoffs. Perhaps just some regression from throwing 25 touchdowns and only one pick through the first 10 games though. And Brees is likely to have an upper-echelon support system around him anyhow.

Even after losing Max Unger to retirement the offensive line could compete to beat any pass rushers in the NFL in any situation. Terron Armstead, Ryan Ramczyk, Andrus Peat, and Larry Warford are all in the conversations right now as the best at their position — only Ramczyk didn’t make the Pro Bowl last season but there might not be a better right tackle in the league and he’s only 25. Center is the only position in flux but they signed Nick Easton to a four-year, $24 million contract after the former starter in Minnesota missed all of 2018 with a neck injury. They also traded up and drafted center Erik McCoy in the second round, signaling that they see a future on the line for both Easton and McCoy, with perhaps Easton sliding to guard if Peat leaves in 2020.

Either way, you can see how the depth is also pretty good here.

The running back group lost Mark Ingram after eight years but still has Alvin Kamara, who has officially been named as my “Favorite Non-Seahawks Player” of 2019. On top of just seeming like a good dude, Kamara seems partially responsible for a shift in how NFL offenses are planning to operate now and moving forward; Kamara has caught 81 passes in each of his first two seasons, gaining 1,535 yards in the air and 1,611 on the ground in his career thus far with 31 touchdowns. The back he’s most likely to be paired with now is Latavius Murray, the former Vikings and Raiders player whose been just fine up until now but figures to get a boost in New Orleans.

If not Murray, Dwayne Washington, Matt Dayes, and Buck Allen will want to get some carries too. Washington had 5.7 YPC with the Saints last season but on only 27 carries.

With one superstar and a host of super.... guys? I mean, they’re not bad guys, but I don’t think you could consider any one of them a star, the receivers unit is not much different than the running backs. Michael Thomas is in the convo for best receiver in the NFL, catching 125 of 147 (an unheard of 85% catch rate for a number one receiver) targets for 1,405 yards and nine touchdowns. But the wideout in second place was Tre’Quan Smith at 427. Then Ted Ginn at 209.

In fact, the group may look virtually identical in 2019: Thomas, Smith, and Ginn all return, as well as Cameron Meredith (114 yards in six games) and Austin Carr (97 yards in 14). Maybe a healthy Meredith will see an uptick in production, maybe undrafted free agents Lil’Jordan Humphrey or Keith Kirkwood (2018) will emerge. Or former Seahawk Cyril Grayson, now on New Orleans’ roster. But more than likely this offense still runs from Brees to Thomas and Kamara while spreading it around evenly to the others, maximizing efficiency over volume.

At tight end, free agent signee Jared Cook was a Pro Bowler for the first time in 2018, gaining 896 yards with the Raiders. He may take on Ben Watson’s 46 targets and 400 yards plus a little more, while Josh Hill contributes his annual 150 yards. Finally there’s the unpredictable and now oft-cited as a model for what every team must need (though they don’t and won’t look for one often) in Taysom Hill. He had 37 carries, seven targets, seven pass attempts, 14 kickoff returns, and one punt return in 2018. Who knows how much he’ll be used in 2019, but you can be sure to hear about it just about any time he is.

Overall, 2018’s offense has to be considered one of the best ever on paper as they had a combined 25 career Pro Bowls (12 to Brees but the young guys have already racked up quite a few on their own) and three former All-Pros, including Thomas in 2018. The only positions that didn’t have a Pro Bowl player were tight end — though Ben Watson brought a lot of experience to the position and is a good player — WR2 and right tackle, where Ramczyk seems destined for plenty of accolades in the future.

However, New Orleans struggled a bit offensively in December and January, leading to a playoff exit. Much more important perhaps will be if the defense can remain above average for another year under Dennis Allen.

Now in his 10th season under Sean Payton that started in 2006 — including a short stop in Denver then three years as the head coach in Oakland — Allen had the Saints eighth in defense by DVOA in 2017 and 11th in 2018. But much of that was predicated on the number three rushing defense which is not usually as important as pass defense, which ranked 22nd. We know one play that went wrong in their playoff loss to the Rams, but what about when they led 20-17 in the fourth quarter and Jared Goff completed a 39-yard pass to Gerald Everett and a 33-yard pass to Josh Reynolds two plays later, setting up LA to tie the game with five minutes left? Or Goff’s final drive, down three and under two to play, he quickly picked up the 45 yards he needed for the field goal that setup overtime.

A pass defense that ranked fifth a year prior with many of the same names, New Orleans were kind of quietly quite flat in a secondary featuring Marshon Lattimore, P.J. Williams, Marcus Williams, Vonn Bell, and eventually Eli Apple through trade. The defense featured just one Pro Bowl player — Cam Jordan — and like the offense most of the names will be the same in 2019.

Jordan, Lattimore, and Sheldon Rankins stand out as the stars on defense, with 2018 first rounder Marcus Davenport hoping to join them. Davenport struggled with injuries and inconsistencies as a rookie, neither of which are too uncommon. New Orleans traded their 2019 first rounder to move up for him though so clearly they feel their investment is going to pay off in a significant way at some point, but it’s difficult to assess if that’s going to come in the next six months. Davenport was healthy and a full participant by the end of OTAs, which was encouraging for Saints fans.

They signed former first rounder Malcom Brown to join Jordan, Rankins, and Davenport on the defensive line. Trey Hendrickson, David Onyemata, Sylvester Williams, and Mario Edwards are a few notable backups.

Alex Anzelone, A.J. Klein, and Demario Davis are the linebackers, just as they were a year ago. The Saints had just four draft picks — the same number that Seattle started out with before ending the draft with 11 selections — and so there’s just not a lot of incoming new talent to compete for spots. Maybe that’s fine, New Orleans was an elite team the last two years with the players they have, but it does make the preview seem a little anticlimactic.

What do the 2019 Saints look like? The 2018 Saints! While this defense wasn’t good against the pass last year, they were the year before with many of the same players. Which version are they getting now? Perhaps it’ll be something in the middle.

But I’d say overall the pieces on defense are a little underwhelming. We don’t know yet if Lattimore peaked as a rookie or if he’s going to bounce back and up and take his place as a top-five corner. They traded for Apple but didn’t pick up his fifth-year option, so they weren’t overly impressed by him. The safeties feel capable but not great. The health of corner Patrick Robinson could be a factor but he’s now 32 come September. Lose either of their stars on the defensive line, Jordan or Rankins, and how much does that drop their overall efforts to pressure the quarterback?

There are a few players on defense who could become great or greater next season, including Davenport, Lattimore, or maybe fourth round safety Chauncey Gardner-Johnson could surprise, but it may take a little luck for the pass defense to crack the top-10. Luckily for New Orleans, the pass offense should still be outstanding.

A healthy Brees, o-line, Kamara, and Thomas is sometimes enough to be the highest-scoring offense in the league, and should put the Saints in the 11-5 range again with a usual two-game swing from 9-7 in a worst case to 13-3 in the best. That’s about as good of a projection as I can give to any team but given the age of Brees and the lack of surefire talent on defense, I do have some pause about confirming New Orleans as a playoff team entirely.

By Week 3 when these two teams meet, it should be a time advantage for the Saints — in the sense that they’re more likely to be at full strength at this point — and a homefield advantage for Seattle. Overall, this could very well be the best team, and best offense, that the Seahawks face all year long. “Lucky” for the Hawks, they might not have much of a pass rush on the defensive line anyway so that could neutralize the Saints’ advantage at offensive line. It could become a bit of an offensive showdown actually with Russell Wilson trying to do his best to out-gun Brees, much like he did with Deshaun Watson 1.5 seasons ago.

That day is still a few months away but as the Saints are today, they look a lot like the Saints of yesterday. That doesn’t seem like it could be a bad thing, but given Payton’s lack of postseason wins in the last decade, is it a championship thing?