Countdown to the Saints season opener: Expectations remain high
METAIRIE – In the back of both end zones inside the New Orleans Saints indoor practice facility hang two giant computer-generated photos.
Both feature all-star teams from the franchise’s history as the players are coming through the tunnel onto the Superdome turf hypothetically to play a game.
The collection of players on the north end conjures visions of Archie Manning passing to Joe Horn and Eric Martin, Will Smith teaming with the “Dome Patrol” linebacking corps of Rickey Jackson, Sam Mills, Pat Swilling and Vaughan Johnson as well as Morten Andersen kicking field goals.
On the south end appear visions of Drew Brees passing to Danny Abramowicz, Stan Brock, Joel Hilgenberg, Jon Stinchcomb, Jahri Evans and Carl Nicks blocking for Dalton Hilliard as well as Tyrone Hughes returning kickoffs and punts.
Whether the 2022 version of the Saints could compete with either of these fictional teams is conjecture, but this year’s team does feature similar characteristics to those hanging from the walls.
This team is similarly well-rounded with above average offense, defense and special teams.
“I’ll take our best 11 on offense and our best 11 on defense against anybody,” defensive end Cameron Jordan said, “and I’ll take our best 11 on special teams against anybody.”
It’s already clear that when the Saints update the pictures several players from the 2022 season will have to be added – Jordan, Demario Davis, Marshon Lattimore, Alvin Kamara, Mark Ingram II, Ryan Ramczyk, Michael Thomas and Wil Lutz.
If things continue as they have begun they’ll likely have to include David Onyemata, Eric McCoy, Andrus Peat and Taysom Hill.
If veteran newcomers continue the success they have had elsewhere the Saints will have to make room for Tyrann Mathieu, Jarvis Landry and Kentavius Street.
If potential and expectations are matched by performance at some point the Saints will have to make room for Marcus Davenport, Payton Turner, Paulson Adebo, Chris Olave and Trevor Penning. Maybe Cesar Ruiz, Pete Werner and Blake Gillikin too.
The Saints are just one season removed from the retirement of Brees, a future Pro Football Hall of Famer who was the most accomplished player in franchise history, and they’re embarking on their first season since the resignation of Sean Payton, the most successful coach in franchise history and one of the most successful coaches in the NFL since his arrival in New Orleans in 2016.
In the wake of those epic losses, the Saints could have seen 2022 as an opportunity to transition into a new era. They could have traded away veterans for draft choices and moved younger veterans into more prominent roles in hopes of bouncing back in 2023 or 2024.
But the organization assessed what it still had more so than what it had lost and concluded that the team still had what it would take to have a sixth consecutive winning season, perhaps reclaim the NFC South title after its streak of four consecutive titles ended last season and conceivably compete for a Super Bowl berth.
“This isn’t a rebuild,” executive vice president of football Mickey Loomis said on the eve of training camp. “We’ve had high expectations for virtually every season since ’06. We have high expectations for this year. We think we can win now.”
The Saints lost former pro Bowl left tackle Terron Armstead in free agency, but added key pieces at positions of need in two former LSU stars – safety Mathieu and wide receiver Landry – as well as defensive tackle Street.
“They not only brought in good pieces,” Davis said, “but the right pieces.”
They traded up in the draft to grab two No. 1 picks – Olave, a wide receiver from Ohio State, and Penning, a tackle from Northern Iowa who is currently injured but Armstead’s eventual replacement, and welcomes back important players who were sidelined by injury last season, most notably quarterback Jameis Winston, Thomas and Lutz.
The players routinely talk about the value of the “culture” the team has – the mutual respect and commitment among the players and between the locker room of the coaches and administrative offices.
When defensive back C.J. Gardner-Johnson, who was well on his way to earning a spot on a future all-star banner, put his contract negotiations ahead of his team work in training camp, the organization didn’t hesitate to trade him for minor considerations.
The depth of the roster made the loss of a talented starter easy to absorb, and there wasn’t a noticeable peep of discontent from any of Gardner-Johnson’s former teammates.
“There’s a different energy about this team,” tight end Nick Vannett said. “You can feel it.”
Landry, a five-time Pro Bowler, said one of the primary reasons he signed with the Saints was the presence of Winston, who appears to be nearing 100 percent health after suffering a season-ending knee injury in Game 7 last season and being sidelined briefly by a minor foot injury during training camp.
“I knew the leadership was here,” Landry said. “I knew the culture was here. I knew for years that this offense had been high powered. Obviously injuries and COVID and things like that kind of dimmed the light a little bit, but I know the capabilities of this offense.”
Though the offense seems poised for a significant improvement this season with a healthy Winston and Thomas as well as the additions of Landry, Olave and Penning (eventually) to join running back Kamara and tight end Hill, this roster has quickly become more identifiable by its defense in the wake of Brees and Payton departing as well as Dennis Allen being promoted from defensive coordinator to succeed Payton.
“We want to be the catalyst for winning,” Jordan said. “We don’t want to be something where we’re winning in spite of the defense. I think we’ve proven that over at least the last four or five years. We’re going to be the main motor and I think we’ve got a hell of a motor on the offensive side now.”
The completeness of this team, which includes one of the strongest groups of special teams in the NFL, rivals that of the fictional teams depicted in the indoor facility.
“We’ve got championship aspirations and nothing less,” Ingram said.
Everyone will begin to see how realistic those aspirations are when the Saints open the regular season at Atlanta on Sunday.
“When this thing first starts,” Landry said, “all 32 teams have the same goal and think the same thing. Every day we lock in and reset and hopefully when we look up sometime in February there’s a trophy above our head.”
(Next: Part 7: Saints have set the standard in the NFC South)
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Les East is a nationally renowned freelance journalist. The New Orleans area native’s blog on SportsNOLA.com was named “Best Sports Blog” in 2016 by the Press Club of New Orleans. For 2013 he was named top sports columnist in the United States by the Society of Professional Journalists. He has since become a valued contributor for CCS. The Jesuit High…