Assessing the Saints heading into mini-camp
In the midst of a relatively quiet time in local sports, a primary focus will fall upon the New Orleans Saints this week as they conclude their offseason with a mini-camp covering three days Tuesday-Thursday.
While the hard evaluations of players will not come into true focus until training camp and the preseason, it is easy to like what we see of the 2018 New Orleans Saints, at this stage.
The Saints should be an improved football team over last year’s South division championship team. Sean Payton is still an elite coach and he is reinvigorated with an outstanding young nucleus of players. How far will that take them?
The NFC is loaded.
The Eagles are the defending Super Bowl champions and have two proven quarterbacks. The Vikings have perhaps the best defense in the league and will be better offensively with the addition of Kirk Cousins and the return of Dalvin Cook. The Rams are really good on defense and have a good young quarterback in Jared Goff. Seattle has Russell Wilson and a winning tradition.
The Falcons are still a good team, very good offensively and they added another weapon for Matt Ryan in Calvin Ridley. Carolina is still good and if Cam Newton plays close to his 2015 MVP level, the Panthers will contend. Green Bay has been the most aggressive team in free agency, making huge additions and with the return of a healthy Aaron Rodgers, the Packers are dangerous.
Dallas has Ezekiel Elliott back on a full-time basis and a very good offensive line, which will help Dak Prescott. Perhaps there is addition by subtraction with the departure of Dez Bryant. Detroit cannot be ignored with Matt Stafford at the helm. San Francisco is much improved and has a talented quarterback to build with in Jimmy Garoppolo. Washington has weapons and it will be interesting to see how they are with Alex Smith at the helm.
New Orleans was second in the league in scoring and in total yardage offensively in 2017. The Saints exhibited tremendous balance, ranking fifth in the league in both rushing and passing yards per game.
With the additions of Cameron Meredith, Tre’Quan Smith and Ben Watson, there are more weapons in the passing game for Drew Brees to help mitigate the loss of Mark Ingram for the first four games of the season.
Alvin Kamara will no doubt get a few more touches, though it will likely not be significantly more. He is most effective when fresh and the quest to keep him healthy, particularly without Ingram, will be a diligent one. Trey Edmunds and Jonathan Williams and Daniel Lasco will compete to compliment Kamara, along with rookie Boston Scott. Ted Ginn, Jr. is still capable of being a vertical threat while Michael Thomas has joined the elite receivers in the league, entering his third season.
Up front, the Saints can hopefully count on Terron Armstead to be healthy and put in a full year. That, in itself, will improve the offensive line with Andrus Peat having a chance to settle in at left guard, where he is best suited.
Then, there is Brees.
Despite more of a focus on the running game and a shorter, more controlled passing game, Brees set an NFL record by completing 72 percent of his passes. He has a new contract, one which is team-friendly as he tries to lead his team to one more Super Bowl championship before his illustrious career comes to an end. Based on his level of play a year ago, that day does not appear to be imminent.
The question remains as to who the backup quarterback will be.
Is Taysom Hill that guy? Perhaps the preseason will tell us what we need to know about an intriguing athlete who excelled on special teams a year ago. Is Tom Savage capable of handling the position, given his experience of having started nine games in his three years of experience on the field.
Defensively, New Orleans ranked 17th overall, including 15th against the pass and 16th against the run. The defense improved dramatically as the season progressed but there is still room for improvement, though the team fared well in the most important defensive statistic, ranking 10th in points allowed.
Cameron Jordan had his best year, becoming one of the very best all-around defensive ends and defensive linemen in the league, equally good against the run or pass. The addition of A.J. Klein helped before he was injured while Mani Te’o did a solid job and Alex Anzalone showed promise before he was injured. Sheldon Rankins was healthy and improved, as did David Onyemata and Tyeler Davison.
The biggest improvement was in the secondary, where Marshon Lattimore emerged as an elite cover corner and Marcus Williams showed great promise as a rookie as well. Vonn Bell is an improving player as well.
Dennis Allen will have many more tools in his shed to work with in 2018.
Up front, there is the raw talent and huge investment in Marcus Davenport. At linebacker, Demario Davis. In the secondary, safety Kurt Coleman replaces Kenny Vaccaro while Patrick Robinson is an upgrade as the likely slot corner.
The Saints tied for ninth in the league in turnover margin at plus seven, a solid number and a vast improvement over the previous three 7-9 seasons.
In the kicking game, the Saints were a solid 13th in average kickoff returns at 24.6 yards per return and were good in punt returns, ranking seventh in the league with an average of 10.4 yards per return.
Tommylee Lewis showed flashes of being that guy a year ago. He averaged 23.6 yards per kickoff return and 8.2 yards on punt returns. It is his ticket to a roster spot in 2018, if he sticks.
Of course, Kamara stole the show by returning a kickoff 106 yards for a touchdown.
Thomas Morstead remains an excellent punter, having averaged 47 yards per punt to rank eighth in the league while Wil Lutz became a more consistent kicker, connecting on 86.1 percent of his field goal attempts. Most impressive was his 13-of-16 conversion rate from 40-49 yards and 5-of-6 from 50 yards or more. His 94 percent extra point conversion rate (47-of-50) is fine. He was seventh in the league in scoring with 140 points.
The 2018 draft cannot possibly come close to replicating the incredible draft of 2017 for New Orleans. Davenport must start immediately and excel, though that is most difficult for a defensive lineman in the league. Smith will be counted on to emerge as the third or fourth receiver on the outside.
Scott has a shot to stick if he can prove he can fill a Darren Sproles role in the offense and return kicks. Will Clapp has the versatility to compete for a roster spot as a reserve center and guard. Rick Leonard is huge but relatively new to his position at offensive tackle and could be a development player.
Defensive back Natrell Jamerson was a high school teammate of Saints corner P.J. Williams in high school and Todd McShay called him “a steal” for the Saints. Cornerback Cameron Moore has a shot as well, thanks to his special teams ability.
While the new additions will go a long way toward determining if the Saints can advance further in the stacked NFC playoffs, perhaps the biggest item to watch was one that Sean Payton pointed out last week.
Can the brilliant first-year class of a year ago continue to impress, improve and avoid the dreaded sophomore jinx?
It is hard to imagine Kamara and Lattimore being better but it is possible. The Saints will need similar productivity from both in 2018, perhaps more from Kamara in the absence of Ingram. Ryan Ramczyk was thrust into a very difficult position a year ago and handled it brilliantly. He appears to be a fixture for perhaps a decade up front.
Williams is an outstanding young man with character who should overcome the Minnesota miracle. He can play. Anzalone can run and strike but can he stay healthy? Trey Hendrickson is a pure effort player, the kind of player Allen can count on as a rotation guy. Al-Quadin Muhammad is a player with raw ability whose development will be keenly observed.
Of course, we will revise the outlook once training camp is underway and the preseason unveils itself.
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Born and raised in the New Orleans area, CCSE Owner and CEO Ken Trahan has been a sports media fixture in the community for nearly four decades. Ken started NewOrleans.com/Sports with Bill Hammack and Don Jones in 2008. In 2011, the site became SportsNOLA.com. On August 1, 2017, Ken helped launch CrescentCitySports.com. Having accumulated national awards/recognition (National Football Foundation, College…