Food for thought while waiting for Saints training camp

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New Orleans Saints Jameis Winston (2) and Andy Dalton (5)
New Orleans Saints QBs Jameis Winston (2) and Andy Dalton (5) at the New Orleans Saints Training Facility (Photo: Stephen Lew).

METAIRIE – The New Orleans Saints wrapped up their mandatory three-day mini-camp Thursday.

It was the climax to their off-season preparation for the 2022 NFL season.

Now everyone gets a six-week break.

The coaches and players will reconvene in late July for training camp and begin preseason preparations in earnest.

In the break between prime-time free agency/the draft/the offseason program and the start of training camp, here are five topics to ponder:

1. A healthy Wil Lutz

This is a big deal.

The Saints had a lot of significant injuries last season. A lot of important players missed a lot of time. More than is the NFL norm.

The return of those key players – and better luck overall with injuries – would be a big boost to the team’s playoff chances in 2022.

Naturally the rehabs that are drawing the most attention are those of quarterback Jameis Winston, wide receiver Michael Thomas, tackle Ryan Ramczyk, defensive ends Marcus Davenport and Payton Turner as well as utility player Taysom Hill.

But one of the most significant losses – and perhaps not fully appreciated – was that of kicker Wil Lutz, who underwent core muscle surgery during training camp, then had a second procedure during the season and never kicked.

He was missed.

“One of the issues that we had last year was that we didn’t kick it through the uprights as many times as we needed to,” head coach Dennis Allen said. “That’s something that we’ve got to focus on. We’ve got to be better in that area this year.”

New Orleans ranked 11th in the NFC and 20th in the NFL in field-goal percentage (.833) last season and four replacements for Lutz – Brett Maher, Aldrick Rosas, Cody Parkey and Brian Johnson – missed seven of 38 PATs. That’s the same number of missed PATs that Lutz has in 260 career attempts.

He has made 86.6 percent (142 of 164) of his career field-goal attempts.

Lutz announced on Instagram earlier this week that he has been fully cleared and he participated in mini-camp practice.

“No words can explain how hard these 11 months have been mentally and physically,” Lutz wrote, “but it’s added a whole new perspective and motivation to get back to the top.”

Rosas missed a 58-yard field-goal attempt in the second quarter of a 27-21 overtime loss to the Giants and Johnson missed two PATs, which complicated matters in what became a 23-21 loss to the Titans.

It’s safe to assume that the drop-off in dependability from Lutz to the quartet of replacements affected former head coach Sean Payton’s decision-making on third-down play calls, decisions on whether to go for fourth downs and even whether to try two-point conversions.

“I’m finally back,” Lutz told reporters this week. “I feel really good. We’ve been working with the operation the last few weeks, kind of a ramp-up period. I’m really confident with where I’m at, how I’m hitting the ball.”

It’s not a stretch to say that a healthy Lutz might have led to a healthier won-lost record last season.

This season, Allen and offensive coordinator Pete Carmichael can make decisions secure in the dependability of their kicker.

2. A night-and-day difference in the passing game

It’s difficult to imagine any position group in the NFL that has a realistic chance to improve more dramatically than the Saints passing game does.

First of all they’re starting from the bottom after finishing last in the NFL in passing offense last season (187 yards per game) so their room for improvement is the greatest.

Next they figure to have a healthy Michael Thomas, who the last time he was healthy set an NFL record with 149 catches, adding 1,725 yards and nine touchdowns in earning All-Pro honors in 2019.

Then they added five-time Pro Bowl receiver Jarvis Landry in free agency and drafted Chris Olave, perhaps the most dynamic player in a group of wide receivers that was one of the strongest areas of the draft.

On top of that, young receivers such as Marquez Callaway, Deonte Harty and Tre’Quan Smith – who were rushed into competing to be the No. 1 receiver in Thomas’ absence – are now competing realistically to be no higher than No. 4 on the depth chart.

The tight end position should be more stable with Adam Trautman healthier, Hill playing significantly more snaps, Nick Vannett entering his second season in the offense and newcomer J.P. Holtz adding more competition.

On top of that Winston is expected to be healthy after being lost for the season during the seventh game last season.

The passing game was a liability for most of last season. This season it could be one of the more productive ones in the NFL.

3. Is there room for another running back?

The short answer is yes.

The complete answer is a little more complicated.

Executive Vice President of Football Operations Mickey Loomis said after the draft that the Saints would like to add another running back, though they didn’t have to have one.

After all, they do have Alvin Kamara and Mark Ingram II.

The Saints didn’t draft a running back, but they were aggressive in signing an undrafted back of note in Abram Smith of Baylor. He’s a nice prospect to add to the mix, but his arrival couldn’t be considered the final piece to the puzzle.

So the Saints visited with former LSU and Kansas City Chiefs running back Darrel Williams, but he signed with Arizona.

And speaking of the Cardinals, David Johnson, who had an All-Pro season with them in 2016, participated in Saints mini-camp on a tryout basis.

Johnson is not nearly the player he once was, but perhaps he can fill that final spot on the roster. Perhaps not.

The Saints don’t know if Kamara is going to miss significant time this season. He could face disciplinary action from the NFL for his arrest in an altercation at a Las Vegas hotel in February.

Kamara has a court date August 1. Depending on the resolution of his case – and how long it takes – Kamara could miss several games, no games or see the determination of his fate pushed into the next off-season.

The Saints might not need another veteran running back, but adding one would provide some insurance against Kamara’s potential absence.

4. The coaching change

It’s the biggest unknown facing the 2022 Saints – even bigger than the uncertainty surrounding Kamara.

How much will the Saints miss Sean Payton?

There’s no question that his absence is significant. But Allen’s promotion provided continuity within a program that has had the second-best record in the NFL during the last five years.

“It’s not like we’re starting from square one,” defensive end Cameron Jordan said after practice Thursday. “A level of consistency is nice. It’s something you can rely on. It’s a guy we already knew in the building. It’s refreshing to know that you have a guy that you already trust.

“I trust him to know that what he does is always for the better of the defense. Then with him being the head coach now it’s always going to be for the better of the team. If he says, jump, there’s a reason he’s saying jump – and you jump high.”

The retention of most of Payton’s staff – most notably co-defensive coordinators Ryan Nielsen (defensive line) and Kris Richard (secondary) as well as offensive coordinator Pete Carmichael and special teams coordinator Darren Rizzi – and the addition of former Payton assistant and former Syracuse University, Buffalo Bills and Jacksonville Jaguars head coach Doug Marrone as offensive line coach are significant.

The fact that Allen has been an NFL head coach before, even though his record in a dismal situation in Oakland was 8-28, and that he has had seven seasons at Payton’s side to reflect on and prepare for his second head-coaching opportunity also are significant.

Allen has been through a free agency period, a draft and now an off-season program. So far it seems as though he has a healthy perspective on balancing the retention of what worked under Payton with trying to establish his own program.

The Saints were very successful under Payton and Allen has wisely noted that change for sake of change or just to distance himself from Payton would be foolish.

The first meaningful evaluation of Allen as Saints head coach won’t arrive until the 2022 season is over.

But the preliminary evidence suggests that promoting Allen was the right play call by the Saints’ brass.

1. The best thing to happen during the off-season

Was it promoting Allen?

The drafting of Olave and Trevor Penning in the first round?

The signings of Landry and fellow former LSU star Tyrann Mathieu?

The re-signing of Watson?

The successful rehabs of Winston, Thomas, Lutz and other key players?

That’s all encouraging stuff for the Saints, but the belief here is that the best thing to happen to the Saints this off-season was something that was totally out of their control.

It was Deshaun Watson’s decision to join the Cleveland Browns instead of coming to New Orleans.

It was Watson’s choice as to where he would end up because he had to waive a no-trade clause in his contract in order to enable a trade to happen.

The Saints were all in, as were the Falcons and Panthers, but Watson – a very talented young quarterback for sure – chose the Browns.

Cleveland gave up three No. 1 draft choices and three other picks, then signed Watson to a fully guaranteed five-year, $230 million contract.

Since the trade, the number of civil lawsuits brought against Watson by women accusing him of sexual misconduct has grown from 22 to 26.

Given the bounty of draft choices and cash that acquiring Watson would have cost, plus the distraction of the lawsuits, the likelihood of a lengthy suspension as well as the obvious character concerns, the best thing for the Saints was not being able to complete the trade for Watson.

Had Watson chosen the Saints, we’d be pondering far less promising topics while awaiting the start of training camp.

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Les East

CCS/106.1 FM/Daily Iberian

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…

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