Where does your franchise stand heading into 2022? Adam Rank sets the table by providing a State of the Franchise look at all 32 teams, zeroing in on the key figures to watch and setting the stakes for the season to come.
Members of the Saints’ organization, Saints fans around the world and those who think that black helmet the team will wear this season is actually kind of dope:
Sean Payton stepped away in January (honestly, once Kevin James plays you in a biopic, there is really nothing left to do anymore), meaning the Saints will have a new head coach for the first time since Payton arrived in 2006. Will it be business as usual? Let’s take a look.
One low from last season: November (and one week in December). After starting the season with a 5-2 record, the Saints lost five straight from Week 9 to Week 13, beginning with a loss to the Falcons(!). New Orleans gamely won four of its last five, but that was not enough to salvage a playoff spot.
Head coach: Dennis Allen. Considering the strong performances his defenses have put up over the past few years, Allen almost had to get the gig as Payton’s successor. He took over the Saints as interim defensive coordinator in 2015, and though New Orleans ranked last in points allowed per game in 2015-16, he quickly tightened things up; from 2017 through 2021, New Orleans ranks sixth in the NFL in points allowed per game (20.9) and first in rushing yards allowed per game (94.1). The Saints have also really gotten after the quarterback, registering nearly three sacks per game since 2017, the third-highest mark in the NFL.
It’s hard to put Allen’s ill-fated tenure as Raiders head coach out of our mind. He had back-to-back 4-12 seasons in 2012 and ’13, then was dumped after an 0-4 start in 2014. But, I mean, you can overcome that, I suppose — I was taunted for years after bombing in my fourth-grade play. And now, well, I’m bombing still, but it’s on NFL Network, and I’m getting paid for it. So I’m not going to dismiss Allen’s chances out of hand just because of poor past results.
Quarterback: Jameis Winston. People will make their jokes about Jameis. His workouts on Twitter are bizarre, to put it mildly. The statistic he is perhaps best known for at this point is becoming the first player to throw 30-plus touchdown passes and 30-plus picks in the same season, which he did in 2019, his final year as the Bucs’ starting QB. (It’s an actual accomplishment to throw 30 interceptions, which tied for the third-most in a single season since the 1970 AFL-NFL merger.) Since Tampa took him first overall in 2015, Winston has been picked off 91 times, allowing him to lead the NFL in that span despite appearing in just 11 games over the past two seasons.
But as the replacement for Drew Brees last season, Winston actually set career highs in touchdown-to-interception ratio (14:3) and passer rating (102.8) before suffering a torn ACL that ended his year in Week 8. This improvement was due in part to the fact that he was throwing less frequently than he had previously in his career, recording 23 attempts per game, down from 35 per game in 2015-19. I know that can sound like a slam. But it’s not, not directly. If you put Winston in a position to succeed and don’t have him throwing the ball around recklessly, you can be successful.
Projected 2022 MVP: Winston. Look, the Saints were 5-2 and averaged 25.1 points in games he started last year. They were 4-6 and averaged 18.8 points when he was gone. It’s safe to say that if New Orleans is going to win in 2022, Winston will be key.
New face to know: Tyrann Mathieu, safety. After losing Marcus Williams to the Ravens and Malcom Jenkins to retirement, the Saints inked the Honey Badger to a three-year deal, bringing the New Orleans native and LSU product home. Mathieu has 13 interceptions since 2019, which ranks fifth in the NFL during that stretch. With the three-time All-Pro joining free-agent signee Marcus Maye — who suffered a season-ending Achilles tear in Week 9 last season but was an otherwise productive safety for the Jets — and underrated pass-rusher Cameron Jordan, the defense shouldn’t be a problem.
2022 breakout star: Marcus Davenport, defensive end. The Saints traded up to select Davenport 14th overall in 2018, and he’s been a solid, even high-quality NFL player since, notching a career-high nine sacks last season. But this is the final year of his rookie contract. And with Jordan set to turn 33, both Davenport and the Saints would surely welcome a breakout into stardom.
Three key dates:
- Week 4 vs. Minnesota Vikings (at Tottenham). The Saints will play in London this season against a team that has famously given them fits in recent playoff clashes. Weirdly, the Saints don’t get the traditional post-London bye week.
- Week 6 vs. Cincinnati Bengals. This kicks off a stretch that includes eight games against teams that made the playoffs in 2021, including a Week 13 matchup against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers on Monday Night Football.
- Week 15 vs. Atlanta Falcons. Two of the Saints’ last four games are against the Falcons and Panthers. These could be huge if they survive Damnation Alley before their Week 14 bye.
Will the Saints be able to …
… give Winston the help he needs? As we mentioned earlier, the Saints were pretty good when Winston was the quarterback. And he’s getting some extra pass-catching assistance in 2022. The team selected Chris Olave, whom I said before the draft would be the perfect Saints receiver, 11th overall. Olave set Ohio State’s school record with 35 career receiving touchdowns, including a Big Ten-leading 13 last season. Veteran Jarvis Landry will also join his former LSU teammate Mathieu this season. Landry had career lows in Cleveland last year, but he was banged up and often the only reliable target when he did play; this year, he should be healthier and will be working alongside Olave and (hopefully) Michael Thomas. Yes, Thomas, the NFL’s leading receiver from 2018 to ’19, has not yet played a game with Winston, thanks to ankle injuries that cost him all of last season and much of 2020. But his career numbers from passers not named Brees (89 catches, 1,081 yards, three TDs, 12.1 yards per catch) are encouraging.
… count on Alvin Kamara? Kamara accounted for 25.8 percent of the Saints’ total scrimmage yards in 2021, which was the sixth-highest share in the NFL and the third-highest among running backs. He’s also one of two players in NFL history with at least 4,000 rushing yards and 3,000 receiving yards in their first five seasons. The other is should-be-Hall of Famer Roger Craig. Kamara is one of the most productive players in the game — when he’s on the field. The question looming this season is whether he will be subject to discipline from the NFL stemming from his arrest and booking for battery in Las Vegas in February, with a hearing in the case set for August. If Kamara misses a substantial amount of time, the answer to the other query in this section becomes a lot fuzzier.
… people shouldn’t overthink: The state of the offensive line without Terron Armstead. Yes, Armstead will be missed after he signed with the Dolphins in free agency. But New Orleans already got a taste of life without the left tackle, who lost nine games in 2021 to knee and elbow issues. The Saints’ O-line still finished with a decent Pro Football Focus rank of 18th. With Ryan Ramczyk (right tackle), Cesar Ruiz (right guard), Erik McCoy (center) and Andrus Peat (left guard) returning, they are good at the rest of the spots up front. And as for the blind side, they selected Trevor Penning 19th overall in the 2022 NFL Draft. Penning received a PFF grade of 99.9 in run-blocking last year at Northern Iowa, which was the highest grade of any player in FBS and FCS with at least 200 snaps.
… people shouldn’t overlook: Replacing Sean Payton. It might seem a bit odd to suggest anyone will overlook the absence of one of the most successful head coaches of this era. But with the team basically keeping the staff intact, it could be tempting to assume the Saints, who have won at least nine games in each of the past five seasons while compiling a better record (58-23) in that span than any team but the Chiefs, will continue with business as usual. The thing is, transitions like this aren’t as easy as just turning over the keys. I think back to Payton’s suspension in 2012 for his involvement in a bounty scandal. In 2011, the Saints went 13-3, then 7-9 without him in ’12, then improved to 11-5 in ’13 when he returned. I do love that the Saints did what they could, personnel-wise, to help Allen. I just hope their moves bear fruit.
For 2022 to be a success, the Saints MUST:
- Make the playoffs. I don’t see any other way around this. As I pointed out above, the Saints have been great over the last five years, and a significant drop-off in 2022 is going to be a big warning sign of organizational trouble ahead. Going all-in is great, but it also raises expectations. The schedule is tough, with eight games against 2021 playoff teams. But this team is built to win. It’s just a matter of following through.