The New Orleans Saints are a team in transition. Drew Brees is gone, and he leaves uncertainty in his wake.
But even as they deal with the salary cap ramifications of years of restructures, the Saints aren’t asking for pity, and why should they? With a Super Bowl-winning head coach and plenty of talent still around on both sides of the ball, New Orleans is nobody’s underdog.
That’s the outside perspective, at least. To get a look at things from the Saints’ perspective, we turned to Chris Conner of Canal Street Chronicles for his take on the state of the team.
Acme Packing Company: What do you think the New Orleans Saints offense is going to look like this year now that Drew Brees is out of the picture?
Chris Conner: This is a great question, Sean Payton has always been great at using players towards their strengths. So while there are certain concepts that will stay the same, I anticipate several more vertical options with Jameis Winston at quarterback. You’ll see more rollouts, comeback routes, anything that can play towards Winston’s mobility and arm talent. Alvin Kamara and Michael Thomas upon his return will remain electric, and the offensive line could be the best in football, if they can get consistent help from others, the offensive should be just fine.
Sean Payton always puts his offensive guys in the best situations towards succeeding, this will be just the latest challenge.
APC: I don’t know if I’d say I’m a fan of Jameis Winston, but he’s one of those players that’s kind of hard not to watch. Even if it’s weird and wild, he seems to produce a high rate of plays you just never really see anywhere else. What’s your assessment of Winston? How do you feel about him as the starting quarterback of the Saints?
CC: When Winston was a Tampa Bay Buccaneer, he’d scare me and comfort me at the same time. You knew both teams would have the chance of making plays on the football, you just didn’t always know which Jameis you’d get. But when you look back at those teams, you have to remember how bad they were. I mean you don’t get the number one pick to even take Winston by being a good football team. His last year you saw some young talent, especially on the defensive side that you knew were going to be a problem, the Bucs just had the chance to sign the greatest quarterback of all time and moved on. This isn’t saying Winston isn’t without fault as temptation and questionable decisions have followed him both on and off the field, but consistency with coaches, players, and overall development matters. Some fans think the Bucs won a Super Bowl with the team Winston had, and that just wasn’t the case. Young players stepped up, Hall of Famers were signed, and they addressed the offensive line.
The Saints bring Winston the most reliable environment he’s seen at the NFL level, the best combination of talent, consistency, and good coaching. That’s what I focus on, because he will turn the football over, everybody does, and QBs on bad teams have a tendency to do it more. People forget Drew Brees was a turnover machine at one point in New Orleans on mediocre Saints teams. I see Winston walking into a great roster on both sides of the ball, the best offensive line he’s seen, all combined with elite weapons and a year on the sidelines to sit back and reflect towards getting better. We can’t underestimate what it means to a guy like Jameis who truthfully breathes football as an intellect, having the chance to learn next to Sean Payton and Drew Brees.
I had my worries about Winston, but when you truly consider every aspect, we may be overrating his flaws a bit. Did he take risky chances in Tampa because he wanted to? Or had to? He won’t “have to” in New Orleans, and that should work towards a really good season for Jameis in my opinion. The talent speaks for itself, we don’t have to spend a minute going through it.
APC: The Saints defense seems to have been hit unusually hard by their cap troubles this offseason, among other things. They played the Packers pretty tough last year, but what should we expect on that side of the ball in 2021?
CC: If the Packers were healthy on the offensive line I’d probably have more concerns. Missing David Onyemata on an already thin defensive tackle position definitely brings some worry knowing how balanced Green Bay can be. The Saints have been one of the best teams against the run for some time now, so that will be something to keep an eye on early. While the interior is an area for concern, New Orleans is deep at defensive end, which we’ll talk about later, and that could help them in some sets where they run NASCAR looks in sub-packages. The linebacker group is healthy and could be the deepest it’s been in the Payton-coached era, led by two-time All-Pro Demario Davis. There are no questions about their safety group, so you’re left with cornerback as their biggest hole going into Week 1.
A recent trade for Bradley Roby is a massive upgrade but he’s suspended Week 1, so it puts the spotlight on losing Janoris Jenkins as the number two corner. Whether it’s Ken Crawley, or rookie Paulson Adebo starting on the outside, Sean Payton was as honest as ever about their need to upgrade at corner to support Marshon Lattimore prior to the Roby trade. I’d expect them to put a strong emphasis on getting front four pressure while also sending some blitzes in hopes of keeping pressure off of whoever suits up alongside Lattimore on Sunday. You know it won’t take long for Rodgers and Green Bay to test that side of the field.
APC: The Saints traded up for Marcus Davenport in 2018, giving the Packers a 2019 first-round pick in the process. What’s your read on Davenport heading into his fourth year? Was it worth the price?
CC: If you asked me today, I’d probably say no. The health and overall impact hasn’t been there enough when it matters to support what they gave up. But you can’t blame them when looking at Davenport. He’s as athletic as they come at that size, he’s strong, and possesses one of the best bull rushes in football, but they need him to be available and consistently disruptive at the end of the day. Even without the second pick attached, it’s what you want out of any first-round draft pick with Davenport’s upside.
So my read is that he could break out at any moment, but when will it happen? When you turn on the film he has many games where he’s simply bullying his opponent, can he turn that into more pressures this season? With a defensive end group that could go four to five men deep, he’ll have the chance to remain fresh, and once Onyemata comes back from suspension, the front four could be terrifying for most offenses. It’s all up to Davenport at this point, and the opportunities will be plentiful. He had a great camp and flashed multiple times during the preseason. Now is the time for him to put everything together, I’m hopeful that he will.
APC: Who’s the most dangerous player who we might not know about as outside observers?
CC: Marquez Callaway is probably the best selection here. Undrafted out of Tennessee, Saints coaches raved about him as a receiver and returner coming into last season and he rewarded them with a couple of nice games when called upon. For the second consecutive season the Saints will be without star-wideout Michael Thomas for a handful of games, which puts pressure on a lot of names that aren’t necessarily household names. But Callaway stands out as another guy raved about during training camp, and was an absolute preseason star for both quarterbacks in Winston and Taysom Hill. He’s the clear number one option in Thomas’ absence and doesn’t appear to be afraid of that tag. While Sean Payton was open about his concern towards other areas on the Saints roster, he made it clear that wide receiver wasn’t one of them even with Thomas sidelined.
Marquez Callaway seems to be a big reason why.
APC: Who’s going to win on Sunday?
CC: The homer in me wants to predict an upset. But I can’t do that with everything considered, the game being in Jacksonville, and Green Bay bringing back another great roster led by Aaron Rodgers. I do believe the Saints will have their chances however, and genuinely wouldn’t be surprised by a New Orleans victory, so I do think the game will be close.
My prediction as we stand today is a Packers victory, 28-24.