The best years of Saints football were overseen by recently retired head coach Sean Payton. They were driven by quarterback Drew Brees, who called it a career two years ago. New Orleans has elevated their defensive coordinator, Dennis Allen, to replace Payton as head coach. Jameis Winston, who missed ten games last season due to a knee injury, returns as the Saints’ starting quarterback. Can New Orleans contend in Allen’s first year with Winston at quarterback? Let’s take a closer look at the Saints:
Opening Win Total: 7.5
Current Win Total: 8.5
Schedule Difficulty: Medium
For each team preview that I’ve written to this point I’ve supplied the same broad figures for each teams’ offense and defense. I’ve been doing this to create a baseline for what a team did well and where it struggled from a production standpoint the previous season. From there, we discuss where they’ve improved their roster and where they haven’t. The Saints had four different quarterbacks start games last year, so in this instance I’m throwing last year out for New Orleans’ offense.
Per Sports Info Solutions, the 2021 Saints offense was:
- 32nd in net passing yards.
- 15th in rushing yards.
- 28th in points per game.
Jameis Winston breached 5,000 yards passing in 2019 when he was in Tampa Bay with Bruce Arians. Winston also threw 30 interceptions that season. That campaign largely sums up Winston’s professional career to this point: inconsistent former first overall pick that’s capable of massive production and game-breaking mistakes. That said, Winston was having one of his more efficient years before his season-ending knee injury. Given the severity of Winston’s injury, it’s worth noting that Andy Dalton is among the best backup quarterbacks in football.
I’d argue that no position group improved more this offseason than the Saints wide receivers. After missing a season-and-a-half with an ankle injury, Michael Thomas could be a factor again for New Orleans if he can beat his current hamstring issue. The signing of Jarvis Landry gives the Saints a reliable veteran option that’s returning home. Throw in the addition of No. 11 overall pick Chris Olave (whom New Orleans traded up for), and the Saints have a brand new trio at wide receiver. Their depth is great too, as two of last year’s starters – Marquez Callaway and Tre’Quan Smith – remain with the team.
Adam Trautman is still young, but he’s shown very little to get excited about as a pass catcher. Swiss-army-knife Taysom Hill is now listed as a tight end. Whatever his role ends up being in the offense, he’s among the more unique and versatile players in the sport. That said, he has been most impactful as a situational player.
It appears that Alvin Kamara’s off-field legal matter may not be handled until next football season. Kamara has been among the most productive backs in the league for years and he’s a tremendous asset in the passing game. Veteran Mark Ingram looks to be the primary reserve behind Kamara at 32 years of age.
The Saints offensive line has been one of their strengths for years. Center Erik McCoy and right tackle Ryan Ramczyk are both elite talents at their position. No. 19 overall pick Trevor Penning will require foot surgery and will be out indefinitely. That means New Orleans will go from Miami-bound star LT Terron Armstead to reserve tackle James Hurst this season.
The Saints are serviceable at guard with LG Andrus Peat and RG Cesar Ruiz. In the case of Ruiz, he was the No. 24 overall pick in 2020 and has at least shown flashes of being a potential difference maker. Instead of the top-five type of unit that this has been for years, we should be viewing them more as a fringe top-ten offensive line currently.
Sean Payton is one of the best offensive play-callers of this century. There is no replacing someone like Payton. That said, Pete Carmichael Jr. has been with the Saints since Payton took over in 2006 and he’s been their offensive coordinator since 2009. From a continuity standpoint, if you’re going to lose a strategist of Payton’s caliber, you could do much worse than keeping his right-hand man in house.
Per Sports Info Solutions, the 2021 Saints defense was:
- 4th in rushing yards allowed.
- 17th in passing yards allowed.
- 8th in sacks, 14th in hurries, 6th in knockdowns, and 21st in pressures.
- 4th in points allowed per game.
The Saints front led by EDGE Cameron Jordan is the foundation of this defense. Jordan is entering his 12th season with 107 career sacks under his belt. He’s one of the greatest Saints in history, and he’s still playing at a very high level. The Saints have two other former first-round edge rushers in Marcus Davenport and Payton Turner. Defensive tackle David Onyemata was suspended for the first six games last season. He was good last year, but he was a difference maker in 2020. Overall, this is a fringe top-ten front four.
Demario Davis is now 33 years old, but he’s still a top-ten off-ball linebacker in the league. Last year’s No. 60 overall pick, Pete Werner, will see the most time at linebacker aside from Davis. The Saints collective front gives them one of the best run defenses in the league.
Marshon Lattimore is a top-ten caliber cornerback that headlines this secondary. He’s joined by a brand-new pair of safeties in Marcus Maye and former LSU star Tyrann Mathieu. From a pure talent perspective Maye and Mathieu form one of the better safety duos in football. Mathieu in particular has been a high-caliber safety both in Arizona and most recently in Kansas City. Second-year cornerback Paulson Adebo saw a lot of playing time in his rookie season and could already be a reliable starter. The Saints recent trade of Chauncey Gardner-Johnson is surprising. His departure removes another talented, versatile player from this secondary.
The Saints first six games alternate a soft opponent with a tougher one: at Falcons, vs. Buccaneers, at Panthers, vs. Vikings (London), vs. Seahawks, vs. Bengals. A 3-3 record through this stretch is a reasonable expectation. New Orleans will not have their bye after their Week 4 trip to London. Instead, they will get their bye all the way in Week 14.
The Saints have a very difficult schedule stretch starting in Week 6 vs. the Bengals into their Week 14 bye. That schedule run is: at Cardinals (TNF), vs. Raiders, vs. Ravens (MNF), at Steelers, vs. Rams, at 49ers, at Buccaneers (MNF). The Saints face six 2021 playoff teams during this stretch plus the Lamar Jackson Ravens. There is a realistic path to the Saints losing most of these matchups during this stretch. If they can get through this part of their schedule with a 3-4 or better record, they will be in the NFC Wild Card race.
After their bye, the Saints last four games look a lot like their first six: vs. Falcons, at Browns, at Eagles, vs. Panthers. Deshaun Watson will be the quarterback for Cleveland in this contest. That makes the Browns an entirely different opponent than they’ll be earlier in the year. Unless New Orleans exceeds expectations earlier in the season, they’re going to have to go 3-1 here to vie for a playoff spot.
The Saints schedule is a perfect example of why I don’t rely on strength of schedule figures given with one number. When you run through this schedule, does this look like one of the ten easiest in the league? Two games against the Panthers and Falcons along with a matchup vs. Seattle are the only contests where the Saints are playing a team that isn’t greater than or equal to them.
New Orleans faces five opponents with a double-digit win total. If Deshaun Watson was the Browns quarterback for the whole season, they’d have six. The Ravens and Eagles are a half-game away from being two more. The Saints face nine teams whose win total is greater than theirs. They also get the Cardinals and Steelers on the road, with the Raiders at home. That makes twelve very losable games against playoff-caliber teams for New Orleans.
Joe Thomas explains how he thinks the Saints can be a threat this year. The bull case for New Orleans is built around their tremendous home field advantage and their high-quality, non-quarterback roster. The Saints defense, skill group, and offensive lines are all at least near the top-ten. If Drew Brees and Sean Payton were still here, this is a Super Bowl caliber roster. But they aren’t; Jameis Winston and Dennis Allen are in those positions.
When win totals opened in March there were several lines that I expected to move by at least half a game. The Saints were the only team of that group that I got the direction wrong on. The combination of Allen and Carmichael brings as much coaching continuity as you can achieve in a situation like this. But Sean Payton is the best coach in franchise history and a potential Hall of Famer. That’s a big change in an important area.
I’m definitely against consensus on New Orleans’ strength of schedule. Their uncommon opponents in Minnesota, Las Vegas, and Philadelphia are all tough outs. That midseason stretch the Saints have is absolutely brutal. I don’t think the Saints are going to sweep the Bucs again, either.
At the end of the day, the Saints have a very good roster and there is a very clear path to this offense getting better. But ultimately, do I want to bet on Jameis Winston without Sean Payton? I’ll definitely do some of that in fantasy given the strength of the Saints roster, but not on their consistent, long-term success. Like Rich Gannon said, Sean Payton chose not to move forward with Winston. I’m going to make the same decision, give me the under on the Saints at 8.5 games.