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New faces in New Orleans could propel the Saints to an NFC South title

With training camps throughout the league underway, I’m doing some preview articles on individual teams. Here’s a look at the New Orleans Saints.

My favorite thing about the New Orleans Saints, other than their helmets, is that they often have a marching band at their games. It’s a small one, but a marching band nonetheless. All football teams at all levels of competition should have a marching band, There’s just something about the atmosphere a band in a football stadium creates that causes the hair on my arms to stand up. It’s as American as apple pie and high cholesterol.

That’s not the only cool thing happening in New Orleans right now. This year, the Saints should have a pretty good football team, too.

That would be refreshing after a frustrating 2022. New Orleans was terribly inconsistent as they struggled to get their offense and defense playing well together. The offense averaged 25 points over their first seven contests, which would have ranked seventh-best in the league over a full 17 games. The problem was the defense surrendered 28.5 points per game over that span. Those defensive struggles were the primary culprit for a 2-5 start.

Then, in week eight, the script flipped. The Saints were awful on offense, averaging just 15.5 points over their final 10 games. But the defense played lights out, yielding 14.5 points per game during that stretch. The team’s 7-10 overall mark wasn’t so much a tale of two halves as a tale of two units. They just couldn’t put good offense and good defense together on a consistent basis.

The culprits for that inconsistency were many. Injuries played a big part in the decline of the offense. Wide receiver Michael Thomas saw his season end just three games into the campaign, while Jarvis Landry missed eight games and was limited in several others. The Saints also made a switch at quarterback, replacing Jameis Winston with Andy Dalton in week four. All of that upheaval hampered the passing game, which finished with 200 or fewer yards in seven contests. The line was affected by injuries as well, which limited the rushing attack. Alvin Kamara finished with an average of 4.0 yards per carry, the second lowest total of his career. New Orleans struggled to generate explosive plays in the run game, too, with just seven runs of 20 yards or more. That ranked 25th in the league.

On defense, the Saints sustained a host of injuries at the free safety position and got minimal output from promising young end Marcus Davenport. Davenport seemed on the brink of stardom in 2021, recording nine sacks in just 11 games played. But last year, that total fell to half a sack, while his quarterback hits dipped from 16 to eight. Davenport left for Minnesota in free agency, and New Orleans replaced him by drafting Notre Dame’s Isaiah Foskey in Round 2. Foskey and Round 1 pick, defensive tackle Brian Bresee of Clemson, should bolster a run defense that uncharacteristically finished in the bottom third of the league.

It was the first time since Hurricane Katrina in 2005 that New Orleans lost at least 10 games, and the front office took notice. They did not relieve first-year head coach Dennis Allen of his job, nor did they sack offensive coordinator Pete Carmichael. But after losing co-defensive coordinator Ryan Nielsen to the Atlanta Falcons, they decided to part ways with his cohort, Kris Richard. Joe Woods, formerly of the Browns, was hired as Richard’s replacement.

Given the way last season ended, eyebrows were raised over the decision to retain Carmichael. Carmichael, in his 14th season as the OC in New Orleans, was panned by many as having grown stale. The critics were especially bothered by his unimaginative use of Taysom Hill, the Swiss Army knife who had played a huge role in former head coach Sean Payton’s offense. The Saints also finished 21st in the league in red zone touchdown efficiency. Had they been better in that area, they may have won some of the close games in which they came up short. Despite the injuries to Thomas and Landry, and the unsettled quarterback situation, promising receivers Chris Olave and Rashid Shaheed were healthy, as were Kamara, Hill and tight end Jawon Johnson. In short, more was expected of the offense.

Instead, it was other side of the ball where the changes occurred. Once Nielsen departed, Allen seemed uncomfortable with the idea of giving Richard unilateral authority. Allen cited “philosophical differences” as the reason behind his decision, claiming that he and Richard “had a little bit of difference in maybe how we view doing things.” That’s a death knell for a coordinator following a losing season. So, despite the fact the Saints finished ninth in scoring defense and fifth in total yards allowed, Richard got the axe.

In his place, New Orleans hired Woods. Woods has based out of both 4-3 and 3-4 fronts in his 30-year NFL career, which includes coordinator stints in Cleveland and Denver. His mentors are Wade Phillips and Robert Saleh, which means he is likely to employ a scheme that is both diverse and aggressive. Last season, Woods blitzed on 23% of Cleveland’s defensive snaps. That was about average in a year where blitzing was down league wide. Still, it was more aggressive than what transpired in New Orleans, where the Saints brought pressure just 16.8% of the time. With the diverse Tyrann Mathieu at strong safety, a good cover corner in Marcus Lattimore and one of the better linebacking corps in the league, Woods will probably have the Saints on the attack.

On offense, the big off-season moves were for quarterback Derek Carr, who is perceived as an upgrade over Winston and Dalton, and running back Jamaal Williams, whom New Orleans smartly lured away from the Lions. Williams rushed for 1,066 yards and scored a whopping 17 touchdowns last season. He will provide New Orleans an explosive young back to pair with Kamara. Or, in the event Kamara is suspended by the league for a felony battery charge he received during the 2022 Pro Bowl in Las Vegas, will stand as a legitimate replacement. Kamara pled no contest to a lesser misdemeanor in that case but could still face discipline from the league. By signing Williams, and also drafting Kendre Miller of TCU, the Saints will be solid at running back with or without Kamara.

So, what should we expect from New Orleans this season? As with all the teams in the NFC South, it’s hard to tell. Last year, Tampa Bay won the division at 8-9 while New Orleans, Atlanta and Carolina all went 7-10. The margin that separates each team remains razor thin. Carr will likely be the best quarterback in the division, and that could be a difference-maker. That’s not saying a lot, however, considering his competition is Baker Mayfield, Desmond Ridder and rookie Bryce Young. Statistically, he was no better last season than the Winston/Dalton duo. Those two combined to complete 65% of their passes, with 22 touchdowns, 14 interceptions and 3,729 yards. In Las Vegas, Carr went 24/14/3,522, with the second-lowest completion percentage of his career (60.8). The hope in New Orleans is that a fresh start and a deep supporting cast will turn him back into the player who, between 2018 and 2021, never completed less than 67% of his passes, threw for 4,000+ yards each season and had a combined 90 touchdowns against 41 interceptions.

Many pundits are picking the Saints to win the South. Then again, others are picking the Panthers. And I kind-of, sort-of think the Falcons will surprise everyone and take the crown. A case could be made for anyone. In New Orleans, that case hinges upon the new faces in town — Carr, Williams, Woods, maybe even Bresee and Foskey. If the new arrivals can excel, the band in New Orleans will have a lot of marching to do.

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