2022 NFL Preview: Saints' offseason wasn't nearly as bad as it could have been
Drew Brees is one of the greatest quarterbacks in NFL history. He might be a little underrated historically.
Sean Payton might be underrated, too. He has a resume that could land him in the Pro Football Hall of Fame someday.
When Payton and Brees came to the New Orleans Saints, the franchise was a joke. Those two were the key components in turning New Orleans into a champion. For 15 years together, the Saints fielded a fun, efficient offense. When the defense was also good, the Saints were Super Bowl contenders. Some incredibly bad playoff luck kept them to just one Super Bowl berth, but it was a great run.
That era is over. Brees retired after the 2020 season. Payton joined him after 2021, though it seems like him stepping away from coaching is temporary.
“Retirement, I don’t think is the right word today,” Payton said when he stepped down, according to WWL in New Orleans. “I don’t know what’s next and it kind of feels good.”
Nevertheless, the greatest run in Saints history is over. Perhaps it won't take a long time to start a new run.
It seemed like the Saints might be in for a rough 2022 season. They entered the offseason almost $75 million over the salary cap. Dennis Allen, 8-28 as an NFL head coach, was hired to replace Payton. The Saints were in the Deshaun Watson conversation for a bit but settled on a return for Jameis Winston, who is coming off ACL surgery. Running back Alvin Kamara seems set for a long suspension after he was arrested on battery charges following the Pro Bowl in Las Vegas. It seemed like this might be the offseason New Orleans blew everything up, and looked forward to building back up in 2023.
That didn't happen. The Saints lost key free agents like left tackle Terron Armstead and safety Marcus Williams in their cap chaos, but they also cleared $110 million in cap space and managed to have a decent offseason. (How does a team clear nine figures in cap space? Cap nerds can read the breakdown from ESPN's Mike Triplett, but the short answer is by pushing big cap hits to future years.)
This won't be the Saints team you're used to. We saw a preview of that last season. They're going to play slow, make sure Winston doesn't take many chances and lean heavily on defense. And their defense is good enough to play that way. Not many teams can say they shut out Tom Brady, like the Saints did last December. And the Saints were pretty good last season, even with plenty going wrong. They went 9-8 and if not for a loss to the Miami Dolphins in which they lost multiple quarterbacks due to COVID-19 before the game, they might have been a playoff team. They were going to be in the playoffs had the San Francisco 49ers not come back and beat the Los Angeles Rams in overtime of Week 18.
For a few years, the Saints squandered Brees' prime with bad defenses. He'd throw for 5,000 yards and New Orleans would miss the playoffs. That script has been flipped. This Saints team might win 17-14 games with their quarterback throwing it 22 times. Those who have enjoyed watching the Saints since the mid-2000s won't recognize them.
Allen will lead it all. Pinning him with a 8-28 record as a head coach isn't fair because that came with a fully dysfunctional Oakland Raiders franchise. Allen has revived his career since then. He did well as the Saints defensive coordinator. It's not easy to replace someone like Payton, but it should be a fairly seamless transition. It was a solid hire.
This is a brand new era for the Saints. It started last season when Brees was gone. It continued with Payton stepping away. Saints football will look different than we're used to. That doesn't have to be a bad thing.
I assumed the Saints would have an offseason similar to what the Falcons went through, tearing it all down for a year to get the salary cap in order. That's not how the Saints operate, however. They got out the credit card and pushed a ton of big cap hits to the future. That meant their offseason was fairly normal, in terms of roster building. Losing left tackle Terron Armstead and safety Marcus Williams hurts. But the Saints signed former LSU stars in safety Tyrann Mathieu and receiver Jarvis Landry, added safety Marcus Maye and retained Jameis Winston. We can argue if pushing cap hits to the future is prudent, but in terms of constructing the 2022 Saints roster it worked. The draft was another example of the Saints not being afraid to overspend for what they want. They moved up to draft Ohio State receiver Chris Olave with the 11th overall pick, and the final cost for him was staggering.
The New Orleans Saints essentially traded picks No. 98, No. 101, No. 120, a 2023 first-rounder and a 2024 second-rounder for Chris Olave.
Mickey Loomis is a mad man.
— Austin Gayle (@austingayle_) May 2, 2022
That shouldn't surprise anyone by now. The Saints are impulsive and that's not changing. The Saints also got offensive tackle Trevor Penning with their other first-round pick, and he should replace Armstead. The offseason could have been much worse.
Jameis Winston became a safe game manager last season. Didn't see that coming, did you? Not counting his final game last season in which he tore his ACL, he was averaging 25.2 passes per game. He averaged 35.4 with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. He also threw 88 interceptions in 72 games with the Bucs, and just three interceptions in seven games for the Saints. Maybe Winston opens it up more this season with Michael Thomas back and the offense adding Chris Olave and Jarvis Landry, but it seems the Saints like the new, conservative Winston. It was working. The Saints went 4-2 in games Winston started and finished. Winston's recovery from a torn ACL is worth watching through August, but assuming he's healthy he can be an effective quarterback for a defense-first team. And he won't need to worry about Taysom Hill, who will be at tight end this season.
The Saints' win total at BetMGM is 8.5. When the offseason started, I'd have taken the under without a second thought. But New Orleans juggled their salary cap mess and came out looking OK. I'd even say that their +135 odds to make the playoffs aren't bad at all. They're practically locked into finishing second in the NFC South — you probably won't regret betting the Bucs and Saints to finish 1-2 in the division at even money odds — and the NFC wild-card race will be a lot weaker than the AFC's race this season.
From Yahoo's Scott Pianowski: "It’s a common refrain in fantasy — focus on the price more than the player. Well, I don’t understand the current Alvin Kamara price at all. And I have some player concerns as well.
"Kamara wasn’t bad in 2021, but his efficiency hit a new low. His yards per carry dipped by 1.3 yards, and he lost 36 catches from the previous season. No one expected him to repeat the 21-touchdown explosion of 2020, but he dropped to nine scores as well.
"It’s a reminder that running-back windows rarely stay open as long as we expect; perhaps Kamara has some attrition in his game after spending five years in the league. (Remember, it wasn’t that long ago when young backs like David Johnson and Le’Veon Bell ruled fantasy football. Heard anything from them lately?)
"Kamara seemed to miss Drew Brees, and now he’s without Sean Payton, too. And the current Saints probably have the weakest offensive line since Kamara joined the team in 2017.
"And perhaps we’re burying the lede — Kamara could be facing a league suspension, perhaps up to six games, for his role in an alleged assault at February’s Pro Bowl. Maybe you can understand why most draft rooms consider Kamara in the Top 20-25 range; I will ignore him at that ADP."
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In 2019, receiver Michael Thomas set an NFL record with 149 receptions. He led the NFL with 1,725 yards and scored nine touchdowns. It was one of the greatest receiver seasons in NFL history. In two seasons since then Thomas has 40 receptions, 438 yards and no touchdowns. Injuries and endless controversies have dominated the conversation surrounding Thomas since then. He missed all of last season. It might not be over either; Thomas didn't participate in minicamp, though Dennis Allen said he expects Thomas to be ready for training camp. After the past two seasons, it's fair to be skeptical. If Thomas plays and is anywhere near his 2019 form, that's a huge boost for the Saints. It has just been so long since we've seen Thomas play that it's hard to project what he'll be if and when he returns.
Can the Saints have the NFL's best defense?
The Saints ranked in the NFL's top 10 in just about every meaningful defensive stat last season, including third in Football Outsiders' DVOA. There's no reason to believe the Saints will take a big step back. They lost safety Marcus Williams, but that spot should be fine with the additions of Tyrann Mathieu and Marcus Maye. New Orleans has established standouts on defense like defensive linemen Cameron Jordan, Marcus Davenport and David Onyemata, cornerback Marshon Lattimore and linebacker Demario Davis. Cornerback Paulson Adebo and linebacker Pete Werner are set up for big second seasons. Defensive end Payton Turner, a 2021 first-round pick who had a rough rookie season, could also emerge. If the Saints don't finish with a top-five defense it would be a surprise, and the top spot is within the range of potential outcomes.
If you have the best defense in the NFL, you can go a long way. The Saints have the talent to be the best defense in the league, or at least the NFC. The offense might not be that bad either if Alvin Kamara doesn't get a long suspension for a battery charge and Michael Thomas actually plays. Tampa Bay is the clear favorite in the division but the Saints could easily slide into a wild-card spot. That wouldn't be too bad for their first season after Sean Payton.
It's hard to see the defense falling too far, but the offense might be bad. Sean Payton, an outstanding play-caller, is gone. Jameis Winston is coming off a torn ACL and his career history is spotty. Michael Thomas hasn't been a reliable player for two seasons. Alvin Kamara could get suspended, and that would put a lot of the offensive load on 32-year-old Mark Ingram. And there are plenty of studies that show defensive excellence is far less predictable from year to year than offensive production, so maybe we can't depend on New Orleans' defense being elite. The fact that Cameron Jordan and Demario Davis, two blue-chip defenders, will both be 33 years old this season is a concern as well. The Saints defense could take a step back and the offense might be in the bottom 10 of the league if a few things go awry. That could lead to a sub-.500 record and all the short-term gambles in regards to the salary cap won't seem worthwhile.
When Sean Payton stepped down, I wondered if the Saints could end up being one of the worst teams in the NFL. The Saints lost a great quarterback, then a great coach, and were about $75 million over the cap. Nobody would have been surprised if they punted the 2022 season to get things in order. Instead, the Saints went about their business like they have for a decade or more and pushed forward, spending on credit and worrying about the bills later. Maybe they will have to tear down at some point, but it's not now. I have a few questions about the Saints but think they'll be a playoff contender, and a few breaks (Michael Thomas being great again being the biggest one) could boost them into the postseason.
32. Houston Texans
31. Atlanta Falcons
30. New York Giants
29. Jacksonville Jaguars
28. Chicago Bears
27. New York Jets
26. Seattle Seahawks
25. Detroit Lions
24. Carolina Panthers
23. Washington Commanders
22. Pittsburgh Steelers
21. Minnesota Vikings
20. Miami Dolphins