Wondering if and how your NFL team can make the playoffs in the coming season? Adam Rank and Marc Sessler have you covered in this ongoing series, as they provide five reasons why each of the league's 32 teams will make an appearance in the 2018 postseason. Today, Sessler examines the New Orleans Saints.
1) Drew Brees is still Drew Brees
The magical handiwork of Drew Brees almost flew under the radar last season. The team's record-setting backfield took the focus off a quarterback still operating at pristine levels. Brees calmly led the league in completion percentage and topped the NFL with 72 strikes of 20-plus yards -- Tom Brady was second with 62. We could go on and on about the statistical black magic authored by Brees, but it's barely news, because he's been doing this for ages. Tucked into the most balanced Saints attack in years, Brees is a master at maximizing the talent around him and keeping defenses flustered with his ability to spread the ball to and fro.
I see no regression come September, not with Michael Thomas leading a receiving group that includes Ted Ginn, the intriguing Brandon Coleman and a super-quick Tommylee Lewis. Free-agent addition Cameron Meredith is a candidate to emerge as the team's No. 3 pass catcher once fully healed from the ACL injury that wiped out his 2017 campaign. The Saints can attack teams with a diverse cast of targets, as one of this era's greatest passers directs the show.
2) The marvelous ground game
We talked about the passing game while barely mentioning the combination of Alvin Kamara and Mark Ingram, who finished second and third last season in catches for the Saints, respectively. A head-turning Offensive Rookie of the Year, Kamara instantly broke out, convincing the Saints to part ways with future Hall of Famer Adrian Peterson last October. Kamara led all backs in receiving yards (826) and trailed only Le'Veon Bell in catches (81). Again, the numbers are dazzling -- 14 total touchdowns! -- but Kamara is more than a slippery pass catcher out of the backfield. He glowed on tape as a powerful runner who can blast between the tackles or zap past defenders on the edge -- helping him lead the league with 6.1 yards per rush.
Ingram is coming off a 1,000-yard campaign that saw him pair beautifully with Kamara and light up defenses with his hard-churning gallops. Ingram remains one of the NFL's toughest runners. He'll miss the first four games due to a PED ban, but there's a silver lining there: fresh legs for the heart of the campaign. It's fair to wonder if this could be Ingram's final year in New Orleans, but the club refused to sign a proven veteran to fill his four-week void.
After Ingram and Kamara became the first same-team backfield duo to each accumulate 1,500-plus scrimmage yards in a single year, teams will try to copy what the Panthers did in the playoffs by stacking the box and shutting down the ground game, holding Kamara and Ingram to 63 combined yards from scrimmage. Here's where we remind you that Brees countered by lashing Carolina for 376 yards and a pair of touchdowns. Pick your poison, NFC South.
3) The defense: No longer a joke
After years of dragging the team down, New Orleans' defense turned the corner last season to finish 10th in points allowed. Along the way, the Saints pitched a Week 4 shutout against Miami and held teams to less than 20 points in eight separate affairs. While Kamara transformed the offense, first-round cornerback and Defensive Rookie of the Year Marshon Lattimore served as an equal rainmaker on defense.
The Saints used this offseason to add youth and veteran depth. First-round pass rusher Marcus Davenport joins a line that saw fellow first-rounder Sheldon Rankins bounce back during his second NFL season. Re-signing Alex Okafor is a big-time help, while a cast of new faces -- linebacker Demario Davis, safety Kurt Coleman and cornerback Patrick Robinson, who actually spent his first five NFL seasons in NOLA -- should all see meaningful snaps.
This defense is no longer a raging soft spot for teams to scatter on a weekly basis.
4) Sean Payton's flexibility
The shine was off after Payton authored three straight 7-9 campaigns, but it was never about the longtime Saints coach losing his feel for the game. Payton remains one of football's most fascinating play callers. His handiwork in unleashing Kamara and Ingram proved, once again, his innate ability to fry opposing defenses. Having Brees at the helm doesn't hurt, but Payton deserves plenty of credit for his quarterback's success.
Only a handful of coaches consistently make a difference on game day -- and Payton is one of those guys.
5) Where did the Saints regress?
They showed no interest in re-signing safety Kenny Vaccaro. Meanwhile, newly added tight end Benjamin Watson is an improvement over the jettisoned Coby Fleener. You could argue the team should have pushed to ink Ndamukong Suh or Muhammad Wilkerson, but taking a conservative approach to the open market is no tragedy.
While lesser teams massively churn the roster to catch up, the Saints roll into training camp poised to add a new chapter to what was accomplished last season. The division is a beast, but the stacked Saints boast one of the game's better coaches, a future Hall of Fame quarterback -- and the kind of juicy roster that feels primed for a trip to the NFC title game.