Saints have the parts to build a more dynamic offense
(Crescent City Sports is counting down to the Saints season opener against Tennessee on Sunday in the Caesars Superdome with a week-long series of feature stories. Here’s Part 3: The Saints offense.)
METAIRIE – The New Orleans Saints have a lot of offensive players that are on the radar of Fantasy Football owners.
Derek Carr is a four-time Pro Bowl quarterback committed to rejuvenating his career with a more complete team than he had for much of his nine-year tenure with the Raiders.
He has plenty of weapons around him with which he can direct one of the more potent offenses in the NFL.
Alvin Kamara has been one of the most productive dual-threat running backs in the NFL for the last six seasons and even though he’ll be suspended for the first three games of this season, he figures to again rank among the most productive backs by the end of the season.
Jamaal Williams, the reigning NFL rushing touchdown champion, figures to be the primary ball carrier while Kamara is sidelined and remain a busy ball carrier even after Kamara’s return.
When Michael Thomas was last healthy for an entire season he was not only the most productive wide receiver in the NFL, he was the Offensive Player of the Year. It’s true that multiple injuries have limited him to a total of 10 games in the three subsequent seasons, but he’s fully healthy entering this season.
Chris Olave was a 1,000-yard receiver as a rookie last season and his performance in training camp suggests he’s capable of blossoming into a Pro Bowl-caliber receiver.
Rashid Shaheed missed much of the preseason because of a muscle strain, but he’s at least approaching full health entering the season and he showed as a rookie last season that he has the speed to be a home run hitter and important complement to Thomas’ and Olave’s steadiness.
Juwan Johnson is one of the more productive young tight ends in the NFL, as is former Jesuit High School and LSU star Foster Moreau, who followed Carr from Las Vegas to New Orleans as a free agent. Jimmy Graham is reviving his standout career after a one-year hiatus, with the franchise where he had his most productive seasons.
And Taysom Hill is still Taysom Hill, a confounding challenge for opposing defenses as a passer, rusher and pass receiver.
The myriad weapons – and a few other prospects – give the Saints an opportunity to be one of the most improved offenses in the NFL after they ranked just 19th in total offense and 22nd in scoring offense last season.
“I think we have more weapons offensively and we’ll try to put them in the best position to utilize them,” head coach Dennis Allen said after practice Monday. “I like what I’ve seen all throughout training camp and in the preseason so I think we’re in a good spot.”
But all of that skill won’t go very far unless the Saints have a top-flight offensive line to create opportunities for the ball-handlers and coordinator Pete Carmichael is able to mold a whole that is greater than the sum of the parts.
The Saints have the makings of a very good line, but enough uncertainty to make a below-average performance by the unit this season as possible as an above-average one.
One of the players most influential to whether the Saints come closer to reaching their ceiling or getting stuck near their floor is left tackle Trevor Penning.
The Saints used a 2022 No. 1 draft choice (No. 19 overall) on the massive and skilled player from Northern Iowa because they believed he was capable of being a Pro Bowl-caliber player for a long time.
Penning suffered a toe injury last training camp that sidelined him for most of his rookie season. He played in the final six games, but suffered a foot injury in his lone start in the finale, which limited his off-season work.
Allen said throughout the preseason that Penning is getting better, but experiences ups and downs consistent with his limited experience.
Two dependable veterans – incumbent Andrus Peat and James Hurst, who filled in for Penning last season – have battled for the starting left guard position.
Erik McCoy is one of the better centers in the NFL as he enters his fifth season, right guard Cesar Ruiz is developing though at a slower pace than the organization projected when it selected him in the first round of the 2020 draft, and Ryan Ramczyk has been one of the better right tackles in the NFL throughout his first six seasons.
Each of the projected starters last season missed at least one game due to injury and the quintet miss a combined 25 games.
“It’s a difficult thing to kind of plug in a new guy here or there,” Ramczyk said. “It’s very important that we’re all on the same page and we can all work together and be confident in the guy next to us no matter who it is.”
The arrival of Carr, who succeeds Andy Dalton and Jameis Winston, is the primary reason for optimism about the passing game, and the return of Thomas and the anticipated development of Olave and Shaheed are secondary reasons.
A greater commitment to getting Kamara and Hill involved as receivers has also been a point of emphasis.
Kamara averaged 52 pass receptions the last two seasons after averaging 81 in his first four seasons while Drew Brees was the quarterback.
“My expectation is that we’re going to be able to utilize him in the passing game much like Drew was able to utilize him in the passing game,” Allen said. “We’ve got guys that can do a variety of things and I think that will benefit Alvin in terms of not having to have the same workload that he’s had to have specifically as a runner.”
The presence of Williams and third-round draft choice Kendre Miller from TCU should lighten the rushing load on Kamara when he returns in week four.
“We’ve probably been at our best offensively when we’ve been able to have a running back by committee approach,” Allen said
Olave added seven pounds of muscle during the off-season and in training camp seemed to have made improvement in catching contested passes.
“There’s a lot more tight coverage in our league than there is in college so you’re going to have to be able to make some contested catches,” Allen said. “I think (Olave) has worked really hard at trying to improve in that area of this game.”
Wide receivers coach Kodi Burns said the advancement that Olave and Shaheed have made will allow them to play multiple positions after both were limited to one spot as rookies.
“You have more value when you go from one position to another,” Burns said. “When you play one position you have a limited role or a limited amount of plays. When they’re able to move around and create match-ups, that’s really what you want.”
Burns said that the speed of Olave and Shaheed also expands the ability of the passing game.
“Any time you have speed you’ve got to utilize it,” Burns said. “We do have real speed now and we’re able to use the entire (width) of the field. Whenever you do have speed like that you can put (defenders) in some disadvantaged positions.
“Whenever you have (Olave and Shaeed) on the field on the field at the same time and you throw (Thomas) in that mix who are you going to double?”
And choosing to double any of the receivers could leave a defense vulnerable to Kamara, or Williams or Miller or Hill, or Johnson, Moreau or Graham.
“The possibilities are endless,” Kamara said. “It’s scary.”
We’ll see how it all comes together beginning Sunday.
“We’ve got a lot of weapons on offense,” Olave said Monday. “We’re ready to put it on display.
(Next: Dennis Allen.)
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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…