2018 NFL Preview: After the most crushing loss possible, the Saints try again

Yahoo Sports

Yahoo Sports is previewing all 32 teams as we get ready for the NFL season, counting down the teams one per weekday in reverse order of our initial 2018 power rankings. No. 1 will be revealed on Aug. 1, the day before the Hall of Fame Game kicks off the preseason.

(Yahoo Sports by Amber Matsumoto)
(Yahoo Sports by Amber Matsumoto)

The story of the 2017 New Orleans Saints could be written like this: A historic draft class brought the team back to a spot among the NFL’s elite, and even though the season ended in a playoff loss at a tough Minnesota Vikings team, the future looked great.

If you didn’t watch that playoff game at Minnesota, that would all make sense.

Every miracle win in sports history has to have a loser. How many times have you seen the Minneapolis Miracle this offseason? Every time I see it, I still expect the Saints to tackle Stefon Diggs. As we all know, Diggs got loose and produced one of the most improbable touchdowns of all time. It was unfathomable how New Orleans blew the end of that game.

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What really hurts is the Saints were good enough to win the Super Bowl. Thanks to a tremendous boost from a fantastic rookie class – including safety Marcus Williams, who will go down in history as the player who whiffed on the Diggs tackle – the Saints were one of the most improved teams in football.

The offense suddenly didn’t need Drew Brees to do everything. Mark Ingram and offensive rookie of the year Alvin Kamara set records running the ball. Brees didn’t have amazing volume, but he still had his Hall-of-Fame efficiency. The defense had a complete transformation. A lot of that was because defensive rookie of the year Marshon Lattimore became a No. 1 cornerback from his first day on the job. With one tackle on Diggs, maybe the Saints beat the Eagles and Patriots and grab another Super Bowl. Alas.

In a strange way, the Saints had a draft they didn’t necessarily want last season, and it ended up causing them to go into win-now mode this offseason. It’s pretty well established the Saints wanted quarterback Patrick Mahomes and linebacker Reuben Foster with their first two picks. The Saints got Lattimore and offensive tackle Ryan Ramczyk when the Chiefs and 49ers traded up and ahead of New Orleans to grab Mahomes and Foster. Mahomes might be awesome and Foster is a fine player when he’s not getting into trouble, but the Saints lucked out with their two picks. They nailed their selections of Kamara and Williams too.

The Saints still need a quarterback of the future. Maybe undrafted Taysom Hill is as good as the Saints hope (if you watched even three minutes of a Saints game last season you heard he plays special teams), but a year after having Mahomes stolen from them, New Orleans didn’t draft a quarterback. Instead, when they traded a future first-round pick to move up in the draft, it was for pass rusher Marcus Davenport. The message was clear: They’re not worried about life after Brees, they’re worried about getting another ring with Brees.

Had the 2017 rookie class not played so well, and New Orleans had posted a fourth straight 7-9 season, perhaps the Saints would have played it differently. Maybe the trade up would have been for quarterback Lamar Jackson. Maybe there’s a chance the Saints wouldn’t have given Brees a two-year, $50 million deal this offseason.

However, once you get that close and lose in that type of way, you don’t think about what might happen a few years down the road. The Saints want another shot at a Super Bowl title before Brees, perhaps the most influential player in any NFL franchise’s history, calls it quits. If it doesn’t happen, they’ll always wonder what might have been had someone just tackled Diggs.

Running back Alvin Kamara is one of the Saints’ offensive stars. (AP)
Running back Alvin Kamara is one of the Saints’ offensive stars. (AP)

In the big picture, I hated the Saints’ draft trade for Marcus Davenport. If you’re going to give up future first-round picks, it better be for a quarterback or a surefire star. But in the present, Davenport clearly helps. He and Cameron Jordan form a fine pass-rushing duo. I trust any receiver going to play with Sean Payton and Drew Brees, so I have high hopes for third-round pick Tre’Quan Smith. I really liked the additions of linebacker Demario Davis and cornerback Patrick Robinson, who did great work out of the slot with the Eagles last season. Safety Kurt Coleman and tight end Ben Watson are smart veteran additions. I’m going to grade their offseason just on what it does for 2018, and ignore that it’ll sting next year when the Saints don’t have a first-round pick. A good Saints team got a lot better since the end of last season.

GRADE: A

In last season’s preview, I thought the Saints were doing the right thing by taking the load off of Drew Brees’ shoulders. As counterintuitive as it seems, less of Brees was better. The Saints have done a great job building an offense around him. They have two fine running backs. Michael Thomas is a legitimate No. 1 receiver, and Ted Ginn is a good role player. The offensive line has turned into a strength. And Brees is still remarkable, just with less pressure on him.

News that Mark Ingram was suspended for four games was shocking for a few moments, until everyone realized it meant more playing time for Alvin Kamara.

Ingram was effective last season, but Kamara was incredible. Kamara led the NFL with 6.1 yards per carry. Despite averaging just 7.5 carries per game he had 1,554 yards from scrimmage and 13 touchdowns, thanks to his heavy volume in the passing game. Like everyone else, I’m excited to see what Kamara can do with more touches.

Yet, it throws off the Saints’ formula. Ingram was very good too. He had 1,124 rushing yards and averaged 4.9 yards per carry. Just because Kamara was efficient, he’s not guaranteed to keep up that rate with more touches. Also, the Saints did a tremendous job moving Kamara around and making sure he wasn’t facing extra defenders in the box. Maybe that’s not as easy in Ingram’s absence. The Saints’ schedule isn’t too bad for the first month: vs. Buccaneers (without Jameis Winston), vs. Browns, at Falcons, at Giants. A 3-1 start without Ingram seems possible, and then Ingram can come back with fresh legs. But it was a delicate balance in the Saints’ backfield last season, and we’ll see how it looks when he returns.

There’s no shortage of stories about Sean Payton loving Taysom Hill. And we’ve seen undrafted quarterbacks become great NFL players. Hill had a thin resume at BYU and wasn’t drafted, but the Saints are at least publicly floating it out there that he could be Drew Brees’ successor. I’m skeptical. Hill will also be 28 years old before opening day; he was old for a rookie because of an LDS church mission. He has thrown no regular-season passes and just 20 preseason passes with the Packers last year. When the Packers cut Hill, hoping to get him on the practice squad later, the Saints put in a waiver claim. Hill played well in the preseason, throwing it well and making nice plays as a runner too. Payton knows what he’s doing and maybe he’s right about Hill and the Saints don’t need to worry about life after Brees. But it’s a big leap of faith.

The Saints’ defensive turnaround was more than just one player. But a lot of the credit goes to Marshon Lattimore. In a division with Cam Newton, Matt Ryan and Jameis Winston, the Saints’ pass defense had been a major weakness. That changed last season. Lattimore made a Pro Bowl, was named defensive rookie of the year, and was fantastic all season. The Saints’ passer rating allowed went from 98.1 in 2016, the fourth-worst mark in the league, to 79, which ranked as the seventh-best. One elite cornerback makes a big difference. In a phenomenal Saints draft class, Lattimore was a grand-slam pick.

From Yahoo’s Dalton Del Don: “Ben Watson is a 37-year-old without huge upside, but he’s an undervalued target at a position that will leave many scrambling week to week. With Coby Fleener released, Watson is the clear No. 1 tight end on a passing offense that led the NFL in YPA last season (while setting an NFL record in completion percentage) and due for some positive TD regression through the air in 2018 (Mark Ingram being suspended for the first month only helps that). The last time Watson teamed with Drew Brees was 2015, when the tight end produced 74 catches for 825 yards and six touchdowns. While his age suggests the end is near, he graded positively in “game speed” last year. Watson is the best tight end to target later in drafts if you miss out on the big three at the position.”

[Booms/Busts: Fantasy outlook on the Saints.]

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Total yards can be misleading, on either side of the ball. I prefer to look at yards per play because that’s a more accurate assessment of how effective a team is. The best team in the NFL in yards per rushing attempt last season was the Saints. The team with the most yards per passing attempt? The Saints. That’s an impressive sweep. The Saints had arguably the NFL’s best offense last season, and there’s no reason to believe they’ll be any worse this year.

ARE WE GOING TO TALK ABOUT DREW BREES BEING ON THE VERGE OF BREAKING A MAJOR NFL RECORD?

It was just three years ago when Peyton Manning broke the NFL’s all-time passing yardage record, so maybe it’s tough to get excited for someone else to break Manning’s record. But it’s surprising that Brees will break Manning’s record early this season, and to this point it has rarely been mentioned.

Manning retired with 71,940 yards. Brees has 70,445. Needing 1,496 yards to pass Manning, it seems like he’ll do it in the Saints’ fifth game (home vs. Washington) or sixth game (at Baltimore). Of course, Tom Brady has 66,159 yards and since he’ll play forever, he will probably pass Brees and everyone else at some point.

I’ve always thought Brees is underrated historically because he checks every box to be a top-five all-time quarterback and is rarely ranked that high. Perhaps when he breaks one of the NFL’s greatest records, more people will move him up the list.

When the playoffs started last season, the Saints were my pick to win the NFC. There are some teams ahead of them on this countdown, but the Saints still have championship potential. I worry about some sophomore regression from their great 2017 rookie class, and it’s hard to ignore that Drew Brees is 39 years old. There’s concern about how last season ended too; that was as crushing as a loss can get. But I don’t think there’s a lot of separation between the Saints and any of the four teams left on this preview countdown. A Super Bowl is well within their range of outcomes.

The Saints weren’t a mirage. But it was a huge jump after a trio of 7-9 seasons, and maybe there’s a step back coming, especially on defense. I have enjoyed watching Drew Brees so much over the years that maybe I have a blind spot for some slippage in his play, and the end is coming sooner than we think. The biggest issue, as stated in other previews, could be the NFC South. The Saints could be really good and still finish in third place.

When I put together this countdown, I spent the most time on the order of the top five teams. My list of true Super Bowl contenders started at No. 10 with the Falcons, but Nos. 1-5 are on a separate tier. I can make an argument for the Saints being No. 1. They have a top coach, great offense, an improved defense and had a fantastic offseason. I’m not sure everyone realizes how good the Saints were last season. I think the Saints win the NFC South, and while I have three NFC teams ahead of them on the countdown (seriously, the NFC is ridiculous this season), by the end of August I might change my mind and pick the Saints to win it all. They’re that good.

32. Cleveland Browns
31. Indianapolis Colts
30. New York Jets
29. Arizona Cardinals
28. Buffalo Bills
27. Cincinnati Bengals
26. Chicago Bears
25. New York Giants
24. Miami Dolphins
23. Washington Redskins
22. Tampa Bay Buccaneers
21. Houston Texans
20. Seattle Seahawks
19. Oakland Raiders
18. Denver Broncos
17. San Francisco 49ers
16. Detroit Lions
15. Tennessee Titans
14. Baltimore Ravens
13. Carolina Panthers
12. Dallas Cowboys
11. Kansas City Chiefs
10. Atlanta Falcons
9. Los Angeles Chargers
8. Green Bay Packers
7. Pittsburgh Steelers
6. Jacksonville Jaguars

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Frank Schwab is a writer for Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at shutdown.corner@yahoo.com or follow him on Twitter!

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