2020 NFL Preview: Saints are back but a lot depends on Drew Brees, on and off the field

Frank Schwab
·10 min read

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 2020 power rankings. No. 1 will be revealed on August 5.

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

The New Orleans Saints have made history in each of the past three seasons. Not the good kind.

Three years ago, Minnesota Vikings receiver Stefon Diggs scored one of the greatest touchdowns ever, the first in NFL playoff history to win a game as time expired. Two years ago, a horrendous missed call on Los Angeles Rams cornerback Nickell Robey-Coleman caused a rules change that allowed coaches to review pass interference, though that was eliminated after one season. Had that call been made, the Saints would have gone to the Super Bowl.

By comparison, an overtime loss at home in the wild-card round last season wasn’t that bad.

The 2019 Saints were the first 13-3 team ever to not make it to the divisional round. Since the 12-team playoff format was adopted in 1990, only three 13-3 teams didn’t get a bye: the 1999 Titans, 2011 Saints and 2019 Saints. The 1999 Titans and the 2011 Saints won their playoff opener.

The Saints are 37-11 the past three seasons and have two playoff wins and three ridiculous playoff losses to show for it. When Kirk Cousins led the Minnesota Vikings to an overtime win at the Superdome to end the Saints’ season in January, it added another chapter to their tragic story. You won’t find another team that has had such playoff heartache in three straight seasons.

It says something about how good the Saints are that they’re a Super Bowl contender again. Most teams don’t get to have legitimate Super Bowl hopes for four years in a row. Teams come and go all the time. But there’s no reason the Saints won’t be among the NFL’s best teams again, assuming their locker room doesn’t have issues.

The Saints were thrown an unexpected curve in the middle of the offseason when Drew Brees told Yahoo Finance, in regards to players possibly kneeling to bring attention to social issues, “I will never agree with anybody disrespecting the flag of the United States of America or our country.” Teammates openly ripped Brees. The entire sporting world turned on him. Brees went on an apology tour. Some Saints players said they were ready to move forward from it, but we’ll see. Having the quarterback at odds with his teammates isn’t a great recipe for NFL success. Brees might have to earn back the respect of the locker room. It’s impossible to tell if or how those hard feelings will affect the Saints this season.

All of this happens as Brees turns 41 years old. There were no signs of Brees’ play slipping last season. He was as good as ever after he returned from a broken thumb. The NFL’s all-time leader in completions, passing yards and passing touchdowns probably has at least one more great season left. But once a quarterback turns 40, nothing is certain. The end can come fast. And if Brees slips from his current level to middle of the NFL pack, it’s hard to see the Saints winning a title.

If Brees is the same player and there are no lingering feelings among the Saints that affect chemistry, there’s no reason New Orleans can’t win a Super Bowl. They have no real weakness. Players like Michael Thomas, Alvin Kamara, Ryan Ramczyk, Demario Davis, Cameron Jordan and Marshon Lattimore are among the best in the NFL at their position. Sean Payton is one of the NFL’s best coaches.

If the Saints can finally get over the hump and win a Super Bowl, it would erase the memories of past playoff misery (ask the University of Virginia men’s basketball team). A lot depends on Brees, which doesn’t seem like as sure of a bet as usual.

New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees (9) is trying to win another Super Bowl ring. (AP Photo/Butch Dill)
New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees (9) is trying to win another Super Bowl ring. (AP Photo/Butch Dill)

The Saints have been aggressive, trying to get another Super Bowl before Brees moves on (take note, Green Bay Packers). This offseason they went out and signed receiver Emmanuel Sanders and safety Malcolm Jenkins, a couple of productive veterans. Teddy Bridgewater left, but he was expensive and the Saints replaced him cheaply with Jameis Winston. The Saints made just four draft picks but the top three — Michigan OL Cesar Ruiz, Wisconsin LB Zack Baun, Dayton TE Adam Trautman — could all contribute right away. There were some losses, like safety Vonn Bell, cornerback Eli Apple and linebacker A.J. Klein, but the Saints did well to put themselves in position to contend again.

GRADE: B

While the poor history of quarterbacks Drew Brees’ age is well known, there were no signs last season he was slowing down. In 2018 he finished on a bit of a slump, but he didn’t wear down late last season. He was the NFL’s player of the month in December. Brees ranked just behind Ryan Tannehill and Russell Wilson in Pro Football Focus’ passing grades for the season. If there was any sign of age, it’s that Brees didn’t throw deep much. He attempted only 31 deep passes according to PFF, and his 8.2 percent of deep passes was ahead of only Jimmy Garoppolo. Brees was at 11.2 and 11.4 percent the two seasons before that, though perhaps his thumb injury early in the season affected his deep passing. There’s no reason for concern based on how Brees played last season, but we all know the possibility of a steep fall exists.

Michael Thomas is the Saints’ best player, but Alvin Kamara is the one who can take the offense to another level. Kamara played very well his first two seasons and looked like his normal self last season until suffering a high ankle sprain and a knee injury in Week 6. He scored only six touchdowns last season after posting 31 his first two seasons. He said he wasn’t close to 100 percent after the injuries.

Kamara did play better late in the season and we all know he’s a dynamic playmaker. If Kamara and Thomas play to their usual level, it’s an impossible duo to stop.

In the spirit of never giving up on picking the Saints to go to the Super Bowl, I think their +1200 odds at BetMGM to win it all look pretty tempting, as does +550 to win the NFC. So does the even money odds on them winning the NFC South. The Saints have come up short the past three seasons, but the talent on the roster is obvious.

From Yahoo’s Scott Pianowski: “Drew Brees still has a fairly safe floor, but he’s no longer a destination fantasy choice. He’s entering his age-41 season, and his last three fantasy finishes — QB9, QB8, QB21 — are the lowest of his New Orleans tenure. Last year’s grade, of course, was held back by Brees missing five games, but at his age, that might be more in play than usual.

“But also consider the rest of the quarterback depth chart — the Saints love to farm out the occasional package for Taysom Hill, and newcomer Jameis Winston is an interesting backup. No one is saying Brees is likely to get benched or collapse, but perhaps he’ll lose a small piece of the red-zone snaps to Hill. Sean Payton never met a vanity play call he didn’t want to showcase.

“If you can land Brees as a friendly price point, I’ll sign off. But I can’t label him a proactive target.”

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Michael Thomas is the fastest player to 400 receptions in NFL history. His 470 catches through four seasons is an NFL record, and of course in 2019 he set the single-season receptions record with 149 catches. He had 1,725 yards to lead the NFL. He has been remarkably efficient too, turning 332 targets into 274 catches the past two seasons. That’s despite every single opponent knowing he’s getting the ball. A receiver has never won NFL MVP but Thomas certainly had a case last season.

What’s the key to the Saints’ defense?

The Saints thought defensive end Marcus Davenport was the missing piece. They traded a future first-round pick to draft the pass rusher in the first round of the 2018 draft, the kind of move you rarely see for a non-quarterback. So far Davenport hasn’t had a huge impact. He has 10.5 sacks in 23 career games. He was coming on late last season, with three sacks in a two-game stretch, but a foot injury ended his season. Cameron Jordan is a fantastic pass rusher but he can’t do it all by himself. The Saints do a good job getting to the quarterback, but if Davenport could become the type of end who can post double-digit sacks then New Orleans could go from an above-average defense to one of the league’s 10 best.

Many people might not have the warm-and-fuzzies about Drew Brees anymore, but he could still end an all-time great career with his first MVP and another Super Bowl ring. A title would erase the nightmares of the past three postseasons for Saints fans. There’s no reason that can’t happen: It’s possible Brees, Alvin Kamara and Michael Thomas could be the best at their positions in the NFL, operating behind one of the best offensive lines in the game and with a defense that should be in the top half of the league.

The Saints have had one of the best three-year stretches ever for a team that didn’t win a title, and it would feel very empty if they didn’t even get back to a Super Bowl before Drew Brees retires. It would probably take injuries and Brees breaking down for the Saints to miss the playoffs. But maybe there are chemistry issues and the Saints finish behind the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in the NFC South. Anything but a Super Bowl would be a big disappointment. It’s not like their championship window will stay open forever.

When I was putting together draft needs for each team, it struck me that the Saints didn’t have one glaring weakness. Any team could use an upgrade here or there, but this very well could be the most complete roster in the NFL. I feel like picking the Saints is setting yourself up for another letdown, but I’m probably picking New Orleans to win the NFC. This is a core of players that should have made a Super Bowl or two already. Maybe this season they can avoid a crazy playoff loss.

32. Jacksonville Jaguars
31.
Washington Football Team
30.
Cincinnati Bengals
29.
Carolina Panthers
28.
New York Giants
27.
Detroit Lions
26.
New York Jets
25.
Atlanta Falcons
24.
Miami Dolphins
23.
Las Vegas Raiders
22.
Los Angeles Chargers
21.
Houston Texans
20.
Arizona Cardinals
19.
Minnesota Vikings
18.
Chicago Bears
17.
Los Angeles Rams
16.
Cleveland Browns
15.
Pittsburgh Steelers
14.
Denver Broncos
13.
Indianapolis Colts
12.
Philadelphia Eagles
11.
Seattle Seahawks
10.
Green Bay Packers
9.
New England Patriots
8.
Tennessee Titans
7.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers
6.
Dallas Cowboys
5.
Buffalo Bills
4.
San Francisco 49ers
3.
New Orleans Saints
2.
Kansas City Chiefs
1.
Baltimore Ravens