The New Orleans Saints are only 3 and a half weeks away from the start of their 2018 Training Camp, but before we take a quick preview of what some of the things will be for fans to keep an eye on once the daily practices and the upcoming 2018 NFL Pre-Season arrive; let’s first take a brief look back at the past few several months of the Saints 2018 off-season, along with a few thoughts on what to expect from this year’s team…..
LOOKING BACK AT THE 2018 OFF-SEASON:
Coming off of an (11-5) season in which they won the NFC South Division Championship and missed making it to the NFC Championship Game on a freak play (rookie Marcus Williams‘ missed tackle attempt on Vikings WR Stefon Diggs) with only 10 seconds remaining, New Orleans headed into the off-season (and NFL Free Agency and the 2018 Draft) with only a few remaining “holes” to fill on their much-improved young roster of a year ago.
The Saints chose to focus mostly on completing the upgrade to their defense; and they obviously felt one of those remaining holes was the need for a more speedier and athletic linebacker to put in the middle of their defense; and they filled that need early in Free Agency with former New York Jets middle linebacker (and Brandon, Mississippi native) Demario Davis.
Another need was depth at cornerback, which they were able to get by signing Philadelphia Eagles CB Patrick Robinson — who played a key role at slot CB during Philly’s championship run and who also ironically was the original 1st Round draft pick in the 2010 NFL Draft (#32 overall) out of Florida State for the Saints but left after the 2014 season — to a 4-year, $20 million contract with $8 million fully guaranteed including a $5 million signing bonus.
And long-time 15-year veteran tight end Ben Watson was also brought back after spending the past 2 years in Baltimore with the Ravens; and essentially had his old starting role from the 2015 season a few years ago handed right back to him following the release of veteran Coby Fleener; who was released with a “failed physical” designation over medical concerns that involved his ongoing concussion issues.
But arguably however, the team’s biggest “hole” for some time has been a pass rusher at defensive end on the other side of the defensive line opposite of All-Pro Cam Jordan; and the Saints waited until the opening night of the 2018 NFL Draft to address that when they traded away their top pick in next year’s 2019 NFL Draft to the Green Bay Packers, in exchange for the opportunity to move up 13 spots in Round 1 from #27 overall to #14 overall and select raw-but-very-talented University of Texas-San Antonio defensive end / edge pass rusher Marcus Davenport.
Because the Saints essentially took the risk that Davenport will be talented enough to develop quickly and make an immediate impact, they received mixed draft grades from most analysts that cover the team, many of whom had praised the Saints organization just months earlier for their sensational draft class of the previous year in 2017.
Besides Davenport, the Saints addressed depth concerns on their roster with most of their remaining picks; by adding Central Florida WR (and “deep threat”) Tre’Quan Smith (3rd Round), Florida State O-Lineman Rick Leonard (4th Round), defensive backs NatrellJamerson of Wisconsin and Kamrin Moore of Boston College (Rounds 5 and 6), and Louisiana Tech RB / kick returner (and Zachary, La. native) Boston Scott (Round 7).
WHAT TO WATCH FOR AT TRAINING CAMP:
While all eyes will most likely be focused on Davenport, who flashed some talent and looked very good in limited practice snaps at the team’s Mini-Camp a few weeks ago; the expected battle that’s set to take place at the QB position behind starter Drew Brees has become the talk of the off-season; as the team tries to determine if 3rd string QB Taysom Hill is a legitimate starting-caliber player at the position.
The Saints (as most fans know by now) claimed Hill off of waivers from the Packers after he was released by them at the end of last Pre-Season; and they believe that the former BYU star has the potential if properly developed, to become a solid if not spectacular starting-caliber QB if given the opportunity. That will be determined in the weeks and months ahead, and the Pre-Season games in August should give Saints head coach Sean Payton and his offensive coaching staff a better idea of just where they stand in that regard.
The team will also be scrutinizing the competition at the RB position, as they look for a “replacement” for starting RB Mark Ingram; who will be suspended for the first 4 games of the 2018 regular season, for violating the League’s substance abuse policy for performance-enhancing drugs (PED’s).
The Saints will give fellow starter and last year’s rookie sensation Alvin Kamara an increase in snaps to fill the void that will be left with Ingram’s absence; but also will be looking at 3 young veterans — RB’s Terrence West, Trey Edmonds, and Jonathan Williams — to see which of them can help Kamara to “shoulder the load”.
Other position “battles” for Saints fans to watch for will be at tight end (and whether or not talented but still-developing undrafted rookie Deon Yelder from Western Kentucky University can live up to his off-season hype), wide receiver (and if 4th year veteran WR Brandon Coleman can play well enough to remain on the Final 53-man roster), and at the safety position, to determine which of the several players at the position are worthy of starting roles in the team’s defensive pass coverage packages.
SOME FINAL THOUGHTS ABOUT WHAT TO EXPECT FROM THE 2018 VERSION OF THE NEW ORLEANS SAINTS:
After wondering aimlessly in the wasteland associated with three straight consecutive (7-9) losing seasons from 2014 through 2016, last year in 2017 the Saints bounced back strongly and returned to its previous place among the League’s “upper tier” with an (11-5) mark, and have successfully managed to re-build their roster around Brees with a wave of young talent acquired mostly through the last few NFL Drafts, and especially last year’s remarkable Class of 2017.
Brees presumably can play at least for another 2-3 seasons at the worst, and the expectation is that he will continue to play and attempt to win another Super Bowl before finally choosing to retire, with this current collection of young talent that the organization has been able to put in place around him. Now it’s simply just a matter of winning more games, and especially the ones in the NFL Playoffs that ultimately determine a team’s chances of winning a World Championship.
The Saints are VERY CLOSE to winning another title with this current team configured the way that it is, and now it’s simply a matter of health (and remaining as injury-free as humanly possible) and on-field execution (like the fundamental act of a defensive back properly wrapping up and making a tackle on a wide receiver after a catch) that can put them over the top.
The National Football Conference is top-heavy and loaded with several good teams — the defending World Champion Philadelphia Eagles, the Los Angeles Rams, the Minnesota Vikings, and the Saints’ hated arch-rivals the Atlanta Falcons among them — all of whom are capable of going to (and winning) the Super Bowl. And with this upcoming 2018 season’s Big Game set to take place in Atlanta next February (Super Bowl LIII in Atlanta’s Mercedes-Benz Stadium on February 3rd), there couldn’t be a more perfect scenario than for the Saints to bring home a World Title by winning it in their arch-rival’s home stadium.
If this year’s Saints team can go out and do the “little things right” in the upcoming season (and hopefully the post-season) that they were unable to do when it mattered most last year, then the 2018 version of the New Orleans Saints could be one that we end up talking about as one of the franchise’s very best of all-time.
We’ll all see in the weeks and months that still lie ahead, if they’re up to that task…….