Numbers suggest more Saints will ascend than descend
It’s natural during the New Orleans Saints training camp to focus on the new players.
The unrestricted free agents, the draft choices and even undrafted free agents are the players to logically gravitate toward as potential sources of team improvement.
And the 2022 Saints training camp features intriguing newcomers in all three groups. The organization was strategic in signing unrestricted free agents such as safeties Tyrann Mathieu and Marcus Maye as well as wide receiver Jarvis Landry and defensive tackle Kentavius Street – at positions of need.
Positions of need were also targets as the Saints were aggressive in the draft, making multiple trades to come away two first-round picks – wide receiver Chris Olave and tackle Trevor Penning.
And even undrafted free agents such as running back Abram Smith of Baylor and tight end Lucas Krull of Pittsburgh seem worthy of attention.
But focusing too much on the newcomers can detract from a comprehensive evaluation of the roster. It invites an assumption that everyone else’s value is static – that players who are returning from the previous season or seasons are going to be essentially the players they have been.
And the value of NFL players is rarely static. The oldest ones eventually become less valuable and generally speaking the younger ones tend to become more valuable as long as they are still young.
When teams have more key players that are descending than key players that are ascending, they usually get worse. And when teams have more key players that are ascending than key players that are descending, they tend to get better.
In that regard – balancing the potentially descending and the potentially ascending – the 2022 Saints seem to be in good shape. Very good shape.
Among players that are being counted on to fill important roles, the Saints have less than a handful of players that might be at an age where their productivity begins to diminish.
The key word there is “might.”
On the other hand, among players that are being counted on to fill important roles, the Saints have more than a dozen whose age and relative lack of experience suggest that they might be evolving, that it’s reasonable to think they might be more productive in 2022 than they have been previously.
The key word again is “might.”
But that’s a very good bottom line on the older and the younger.
Let’s start with the older key players that are returning:
Defensive end Cameron Jordan recently turned 33 and it’s worth noting that his sack total dropped from a career-high 15.5 in 2019 to 7.5, tied for second-fewest outside of his rookie season, in 2020. And he had just for sacks through eight games last season.
But it’s also worth noting that Jordan had abdominal surgery after the 2019 season, which could have impacted his 2020 performance, and he had 8.5 sacks in the final four games last season, finishing with 12.5, which tied for second-most in his career.
In other words, even though Jordan is bound to start showing his advancing age in the not-too-distant future, the last four games in which he played he was as effective as he has ever been.
Next up is Mark Ingram II, who will turn 33 late this season and therefore already is living on borrowed time for a running back. But Ingram’s performance last season belied his age and showed he was still capable of handling his limited role as a backup to Alvin Kamara.
If the Saints make the playoffs this season linebacker Demario Davis will be 34 years old when they play their first game. (His birthday is January 11.)
Davis’ inclusion in this group is strictly calendar driven because he has led the team in tackles in each of his four seasons as a Saint and he has yet to show a hint of slipping from his perennial Pro Bowl level of play.
Another 30-something holdover of note is Taysom Hill, who will be 32 when the season begins. But Hill arrived late to the NFL after performing his missionary service at BYU and he has endured relatively little wear and tear compared to his contemporaries.
Now for the younger players.
The 2017 season was a turning point for the Saints. They shook off a string of three consecutive 7-9 finishes to start a string of four consecutive NFC South championships, which ended last season when they still had a winning record (9-8).
The key to that turnaround was the 2017 draft, which yielded cornerback Marshon Lattimore, tackle Ryan Ramczyk and Kamara – three stars that are entering their sixth seasons and presumably the prime of their careers.
Since then the Saints have added a bunch of players who are approaching their prime, many of whom figure to still be in the ascending phase of their young careers.
These include fifth-year players in defensive end Marcus Davenport and wide receiver Tre’Quan Smith; fourth-year players in safety C.J. Gardner-Johnson, center Erik McCoy, defensive tackle Shy Tuttle, defensive end Carl Granderson and return specialist/wide receiver Deonte Harty; third-year players in center Cesar Ruiz, wide receiver Marquez Callaway, tight ends Adam Trautman and Juwan Johnson, linebacker Zack Baun, and defensive tackle Malcolm Roach; and second-year players in defensive end Payton Turner, linebacker Pete Werner and cornerback Paulson Adebo.
It’s true that some of these players are draft choices that have yet to reach the potential the Saints saw when they picked them. Some might not even make the roster this summer if they don’t improve appreciably.
And there’s no guarantee that the older Saints won’t start to slip this season, just as there’s no guarantee that the younger ones will break out.
But it seems very likely that the newcomers have joined a team that is poised to experience net growth from within.
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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…