2019 NFL preview: Saints were robbed of a Super Bowl trip. Can they get over it?

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 2019 power rankings. No. 1 will be revealed on Wednesday, the day before the Hall of Fame Game kicks off the preseason.

(Yahoo Sports graphics by Paul Rosales)
(Yahoo Sports graphics by Paul Rosales)


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Maybe you’ve heard that a big call went against the New Orleans Saints last season.

They’re not going to let you forget. Heck, the NFL changed the rules over it. Even if you’re sick of hearing New Orleans complain, the folks there have a point. The egregious non-call of a blatant pass interference by Rams cornerback Nickell Robey-Coleman in the NFC championship game cost the Saints a trip to the Super Bowl. It will go down as perhaps the worst officiating mistake in NFL history. Rams fans, don’t bother sending screenshots of other calls that were missed. If an obvious call was made as it should have been, New Orleans wins the NFC championship. Period. The Saints were robbed.

At least New Orleans has experience in bouncing back from a soul-crushing playoff loss. Between Stefon Diggs’ Minneapolis Miracle and the Robey-Coleman non-call, the 2017 and 2018 Saints were dealt two of the 10 (five?) worst playoff losses ever. It’s not easy to forget and move on. And nobody in New Orleans has forgotten this latest loss.

“We’ve got a young, resilient locker room,” Saints coach Sean Payton told NBC Sports’ Chris Simms earlier this month. “Two years ago, man, the tough loss in Minnesota. Diggs makes a great play ... This past year was different. This past year was, I would say, a lot more difficult.”

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It’s not just the mental aspect of moving on from a loss like that, though that can’t be easy when it’s brought up all the time. The Saints could have clear minds, and it might not matter. Many things have to go right for a team to reach a conference championship game. This isn’t college football, where we see the same handful of teams in the playoffs because they can recruit the best talent every year. The NFL isn’t set up for a team to have an infinite championship window, though the Patriots are the obvious outlier. And already, we saw one worrisome question for the 2019 Saints.

Drew Brees was the MVP favorite at the end of November. His numbers were similar to Patrick Mahomes and it seemed likely that voters would want to get the all-time great his first MVP. By the end of the season, it wasn’t even a debate. Brees wasn’t the same quarterback in the final month and Mahomes was the easy MVP pick.

First 11 games: 3,135 yards, 76.4 completion percentage, 29 TD, 2 INT, 127.3 passer rating

Final four games: 857 yards, 69.2 completion percentage, 3 TD, 3 INT, 84.7 passer rating

It would be easy to write that off as a short slump. And Brees rebounded in the playoffs. He’s unquestionably one of the greatest quarterbacks in NFL history and deserves the benefit of the doubt. But ... he’s 40 years old.

Just because Tom Brady is doing things no 40-year-old quarterback has ever done doesn’t mean it’ll become the norm. Not counting Brady, only two 40-year-old quarterbacks have started more than nine games in a season and posted a passer rating above 76: Brett Favre (107.2 in 2009) and Warren Moon (83.7 in 1997). Brees doesn’t seem in danger of posting a passer rating under 80. But given how his play slipped last December and his age, it’s a fair question to ask: Does Brees have a vintage, MVP-type season left in his career?

It’s not just the questions about Brees and his age. The NFL changes fast. Defensive tackle Sheldon Rankins, a key player for the Saints, is coming off a torn Achilles and that’s a tough injury to rebound from. He’ll likely miss all of training camp. Receiver Michael Thomas isn’t happy with his contract. Center Max Unger retired. Running back Mark Ingram is gone. Unexpected things happen during the course of a season. The Saints still look like an elite team, but it doesn’t take much to change the chemistry in a highly competitive league.

There’s no guarantee the Saints will ever reach the conference championship round again in the Brees era. And if they don’t, we’ll never hear the end of that non-call.

Sean Payton of the New Orleans Saints reacts after the infamous non-call during last season's NFC championship game. (Getty Images)
Sean Payton of the New Orleans Saints reacts after the infamous non-call during last season's NFC championship game. (Getty Images)

Don’t underestimate the retirement of center Max Unger. He was a three-time Pro Bowler, and the Saints have always put a priority on the interior of their line due to Drew Brees’ height. The Saints signed Nick Easton from the Vikings to replace Unger, though he’ll compete with second-round pick Erik McCoy for the job. The other big additions in free agency were tight end Jared Cook, defensive tackle Malcom Brown and running back Latavius Murray. Murray replaces Mark Ingram, who signed with the Ravens. Underrated end Alex Okafor also left, to Kansas City. The draft was light because the Saints traded a 2019 first-round pick to move up to take defensive end Marcus Davenport. Davenport dealt with injuries as a rookie, didn’t start a game and had just 4.5 sacks. McCoy was the Saints’ only pick in the first three rounds.

GRADE: C

While there are a few more questions about Drew Brees than we’re used to, he has a lot of talent around him. Michael Thomas is one of the NFL’s best receivers, and we’ll assume his contract dispute gets worked out. Thomas led the NFL with 125 catches last season and he could approach or pass that number this season. Alvin Kamara is an electrifying back with. 31 touchdowns in two NFL seasons. He has 81 catches in each of his two NFL seasons. And the addition of tight end Jared Cook, who seems to be improving with age, gives the Saints a dimension they haven’t had at the position since Jimmy Graham was traded. The offensive line, while it takes a hit with Max Unger’s retirement, is still one of the best in the NFL. The Saints might need another wide receiver to step up and take pressure off of Thomas, but perhaps Tre’Quan Smith and Keith Kirkwood can take big steps after intriguing rookie seasons. If Brees’ play slips he should still have a soft landing due to the infrastructure around him.

The Saints defense has improved tremendously since the years in which Drew Brees had to throw for 5,000 yards just to drag New Orleans to 7-9. But the secondary took a step back last season. New Orleans allowed a 100.3 passer rating, which was 27th in the NFL, and ranked 29th in yards allowed per pass play. The Saints allowed 8.1 yards per pass. Along with the Saints, only the Buccaneers, Raiders and Dolphins — three of the NFL’s worst teams — allowed more than 8 yards per pass. A big reason for the slide was the sophomore slump of cornerback Marshon Lattimore. The 2017 NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year finished strong after a slow start, but the overall stats weren’t pretty. According to Football Outsiders Almanac, Lattimore allowed 10.7 yards per target, third most among qualifying cornerbacks. Lattimore gave up 684 yards in coverage according to FOA, fifth most in the league, and his 35 first downs/touchdowns allowed was tied for ninth. Former Giants first-round pick Eli Apple has had an up-and-down career, and the Saints are relying on Apple to be solid and Lattimore to play like he did as a rookie.

When asked about the possibility of Drew Brees’ decline, Sean Payton said, “I didn’t see that. I didn’t see that at all.”

“I think that, realistically as we grade the film and look at the player, there hasn’t been a moment where we thought, ‘Man, back in the day we used to complete those,’” Payton said on “The Rich Eisen Show,” via Saints Wire. “I don’t think we’ve seen that. And that’s a good thing.”

It wouldn’t be a surprise if Brees looks as good as ever this season. He’s one of the best players in NFL history, for three months last season he looked like the MVP of the league and he had a 300-yard game in a playoff win over the Eagles. And while Tom Brady is an outlier, at least he has shown that turning 40 isn’t the end of the road for a quarterback. It’s just worth keeping an eye on Brees through his age-40 season. Nobody stays on top forever and the history of 40-year-old quarterbacks is scary.

A lot is riding on defensive tackle Sheldon Rankins’ return from an Achilles injury suffered in the divisional round. The Saints said Rankins is unlikely to be back before the end of training camp, but have been optimistic about his rehab. There’s no specific timetable for his return.

"If I had a game I could give you, I’d give you that game," coach Sean Payton said, according to NOLA.com. "Hopefully it’s earlier than later. But meanwhile, you’re counting on everyone else to step up, including the inside players.”

Rankins, a former first-round pick, had eight sacks last season and was playing at a high level. If Rankins comes back and is 100 percent, the Saints’ line of Malcom Brown, Cameron Jordan and Marcus Davenport (who also could have been the answer in this category) could be very good. It’s a big question heading into the season.

From Yahoo’s Scott Pianowski: “Jared Cook and Drew Brees are both going about a round or two cheaper in NFFC Drafts compared to the early Yahoo returns. In both cases, I think the NFFC owners have it right.

“Cook was coming off TE31, TE35, and TE15 seasons before last year’s stunning TE5 finish. He’s stepping into Year 11, his age-32 season. He’s obviously changing teams. I don’t view Cook as anything close to a sure thing, and he’s the type of player I’m leery to purchase after a career year.

“Brees was a top six fantasy quarterback for his first 11 years in New Orleans, a remarkable run. The last two years, he’s dipped to QB9 and QB8. There’s nothing wrong with those final placements, but you’re generally not swinging for the fences when you sign up for someone’s age-40 season.

“Brees ended last year on a tepid note, and the New Orleans wideouts are fairly pedestrian after Michael Thomas. Brees is a long-time favorite of mine and it’s criminal that he hasn’t won an MVP (he was robbed in 2009), but our game is about numbers, not names. Given how many choices we have at quarterback these days, you want to love the guy you sign up for. Into 2019, from a stat-grabbing standpoint, I'm not in love with Brees. Here’s a case where I’d rather be a year early than a year late.”

[Yahoo fantasy preview: New Orleans Saints]

Alvin Kamara and Michael Thomas combined for 206 catches last season. Thomas led the NFL with 125 and Kamara had 81. Third on the Saints was Ben Watson, all the way down at 35 receptions, and he’s gone. Tre’Quan Smith was next with 28, and no other returning Saints player had more than 17 catches. Jared Cook’s arrival alleviates some concerns about the Saints’ depth in the passing game. And if you’re going to rely on two guys as heavily as the Saints did last season, Thomas and Kamara are great options. Still, it’s a bit concerning to think about what happens if one of them gets hurt. Thomas’ holdout probably won’t last too long, but that’s an issue too. It’s not like teams can stop Thomas or Kamara, but the Saints probably would be happy if other reliable targets emerged, just in case.

WILL TAYSOM HILL’S ROLE EXPAND?

On one hand, it seems strange to take Drew Brees off the field to run a gadget play with Hill at quarterback. Hill played 182 snaps on offense last season, and while those came at different positions, many times it was taking a snap as the quarterback. It doesn’t seem Sean Payton will be cutting that back.

“The uniqueness with Taysom is strictly that he is a quarterback and what he’s doing on special teams and the different body type than a receiver/quarterback,” Payton said, according to the team’s transcript. “He’s more of a tight end ‘F’ [which moves around the formation] and he’s really good at it. The lesson is always there’s good football players and it’s creating the right vision for them. Sometimes we spend too much time on what they can’t do and not enough time on what they can do and I think that’s a lesson for all of us.”

The Saints view Hill as a weapon who can line up in multiple spots and make plays. He’ll be a big part of their plan this season.

While there should be age-related concern about Drew Brees, it’s tough to bet against him. Maybe too much is being made of a normal slump in December last season. Brees could bounce right back and win his first MVP (it’s a shame he doesn’t have one). Assuming normal health and a rebound from the secondary, we’ve already seen the Saints are capable of making a Super Bowl. They just got it snatched from them last season on a bad non-call. There’s a reason the Saints are this high in my rankings: They’re a really talented and well-coached team with a championship upside.

We all know that when Drew Brees hits the wall, it’ll get messy for the Saints. Everyone seems to think Sean Payton is going to be the coach of the Cowboys at some point, whether that’s just offseason fodder or not. The Saints have justifiably pushed their chips in to get one more Super Bowl with Brees. They had a real shot each of the past two seasons, only to get punched in the gut both times. It seems unlikely now, but a mediocre season — a hangover from how they lost the Rams game is possible — with Brees looking all of his 40 years and Payton then jumping to Dallas isn’t entirely out of the realm of possibility. And then the franchise will enter what could be a long rebuild.

The Saints are one of those teams that deserve to be very high in these rankings, yet I can see how things could go wrong. For everyone except New England, the NFL is a temporary league. You can be very good and are still at the whims of bad injury luck and some bad bounces in close games of a relatively short season. Then add in the high-wire act of having a 40-year-old quarterback. Long before it was cool, I said in these previews that Drew Brees is one of the five best quarterbacks in NFL history. He’s amazing. Yet, the history of 40-year-old quarterbacks is impossible to ignore. I’ll still pick the Saints to win the NFC South and be a contender for the Super Bowl, but I’m less confident about it than I was a year ago.

32. Arizona Cardinals

31. Miami Dolphins

30. Oakland Raiders

29. New York Giants

28. Cincinnati Bengals

27. Tampa Bay Buccaneers

26. Washington Redskins

25. Detroit Lions

24. Buffalo Bills

23. New York Jets

22. Denver Broncos

21. San Francisco 49ers

20. Jacksonville Jaguars

19. Atlanta Falcons

18. Tennessee Titans

17. Carolina Panthers

16. Minnesota Vikings

15. Seattle Seahawks

14. Baltimore Ravens

13. Pittsburgh Steelers

12. Houston Texans

11. Dallas Cowboys

10. Cleveland Browns

9. Green Bay Packers

8. Philadelphia Eagles

7. Chicago Bears

6. Los Angeles Chargers

5. Indianapolis Colts

4. Kansas City Chiefs

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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! Follow @YahooSchwab

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