This article is part of our Team Previews series.
A slow start doomed the 2016 Saints to a third straight 7-9 season, as an elite offense was undermined by the 31st-ranked scoring defense. New Orleans invested heavily on the latter this offseason, but will it be enough to capitalize on Drew Brees' closing championship window?
THREE THINGS TO KNOW
CAN'T GUARD MIKE
Selected by the Saints in the second round of the 2016 draft, Michael Thomas quickly became one of quarterback Drew Brees' most trusted targets. In addition to hauling in the second-most catches (92) by a rookie receiver in NFL history, Thomas also scored nine touchdowns, six of which came in the final eight games. Clearly comfortable with Thomas as the No. 1 option in the passing attack, management dealt Brandin Cooks, the Saints' leading wideout the last two years, to the Patriots this offseason. With Cooks no longer in the fold, the paint-by-numbers analysis will read that Thomas should see a boost in production as a result of increased usage. There's certainly reason to expect Thomas, whose role grew in the second half of last season, to continue his upward trajectory. At 6-3, 212 pounds, the sophomore is a big, sure-handed receiver and a dangerous red-zone threat. Yet, Thomas almost certainly will face additional defensive attention as the Saints' top weapon through the air. Plus, Brees is well known for evenly distributing the football, even when previously paired with Pro Bowl caliber receivers such as Cooks and Marques Colston. With Brees-favorite Willie Snead and the recently acquired Ted Ginn around to garner targets, Thomas will have to prove quickly that he can produce in an alpha dog role to justify his soaring stock.
THREE'S A CROWD
The 2009 Super Bowl champion Saints are best known for an offense highlighted by an explosive passing attack. That team, however, also featured a ground game that finished sixth in the league in rushing, led by Mike Bell, Pierre Thomas and Reggie Bush. Similarly, the 2011 squad also ranked sixth in the category, with Thomas, Mark Ingram and Darren Sproles largely splitting touches. While Saints fans likely look back on those trios fondly, the committees were a nightmare for fantasy owners, with no running back scoring more than six touchdowns or topping 800 yards rushing in either season. New Orleans may see a return of the three-headed monster in 2017. Ingram didn't miss a game during a 1,000-yard season last fall, but the Saints still signed long-time Viking Adrian Peterson and tabbed Alvin Kamara in the third round of the NFL Draft this offseason. Ingram and Peterson likely will serve as the more traditional, between-the-tackles running backs, while Kamara should play the "joker" back role, catching passes out of backfield and occasionally lining up as a slot receiver. Nonetheless, the breakdown of reps may be determined on a game-by-game basis, subject to the whims of coach Sean Payton, making it difficult to predict which player will be worthy of a weekly start and limiting the value of all three backs in the process.
FLEENER SEEKING REDEMPTION
Few players were bigger busts in 2016 than Coby Fleener. After signing a five-year, $36 million deal with New Orleans last offseason, he was expected to thrive in the Saints' tight end-friendly offense. Yet despite possessing a rare blend of speed and size, Fleener was never able to put it together in his first term in the Big Easy. The reasons were numerous. He admitted to having some difficulty grasping the Saints' complicated playbook in the preseason. In addition, fellow tight end Josh Hill routinely siphoned snaps from Fleener. While Fleener was the preferred receiving option, Hill, before breaking his fibula in Week 13, earned a fairly even split of the playing time due to his versatility and blocking skills. In the end, the inconsistent outings that characterized Fleener's four years in Indianapolis followed him to New Orleans, ultimately hamstringing those who invested heavily in him. Fortunately for Fleener, the departure of Brandin Cooks whittles down the options available to Drew Brees, who targeted the tight end 18 times in the red zone last year, good for second on the Saints to Michael Thomas. A healthy Hill could always impact Fleener's usage elsewhere on the field, but as long as Brees looks his way near the end zone, Fleener is a decent bet to surpass his four touchdowns from last season.
PIVOTAL PLAYER: Drew Brees
Brees once again led the league with 5,208 passing yards last season, and his 37 passing touchdowns ranked third. Given his remarkable consistency, the future Hall of Famer will be almost universally drafted as a top-three fantasy quarterback, but at 38 years old, it's reasonable to wonder when his production might slip.
RISING: Michael Thomas
New Orleans would not have traded Brandin Cooks if it didn't have the utmost confidence in Thomas. The Ohio State product posted impressive numbers as a rookie and will now enter 2017 as the Saints' clear No. 1 receiver.
FALLING: Mark Ingram
Finally healthy for a full season, Ingram posted career highs in rushing yards (1,043) and total TDs (10) in 2016. However, he'll be hard-pressed to repeat those numbers with Adrian Peterson and Alvin Kamara in the fold.
SLEEPER: Willie Snead
Thomas will get the hype, but Snead will be a far more affordable commodity come draft day. Drew Brees trusts him, and the consistent slot receiver could see his output increase with Cooks in New England.
KEY JOB BATTLE – EARLY-DOWN RUNNING BACK
It's widely expected that the Saints will feature a three-headed monster at running back, with Mark Ingram and Adrian Peterson handling the majority of the carries and rookie Alvin Kamara serving as the primary receiving option out of the backfield. How coach Sean Payton intends to split the workload between Ingram and Peterson, however, is anyone's guess. With Ingram having a career year in 2016 and Peterson coming off his second knee surgery in three seasons, it seems probable that Ingram will see most of the early-down work. Yet, attempting to predict Payton's rotations has long proven to be a fool's errand. Peterson is a future Hall of Famer, and his performance in offseason practices has drawn rave reviews thus far. Meanwhile, Ingram has hardly been the picture of health throughout his career – 2016 marked only the second time in six years that Ingram did not miss a game – and Payton has shown a willingness to bench his starting back for mistakes, as evidenced by last year's midseason pivot to involve veteran Tim Hightower heavily in the running back game plan.
Alvin Kamara – RB (Rd. 3, No. 67 – Tennessee)
Expected to play a complementary pass-catching role.
Manti Te'o – LB (from Chargers)
Tore Achilles last September but started 34 of 38 career appearances.
Brandin Cooks – WR (to Patriots)
Speedster dealt, perhaps due to comments about uneven workload.
Tim Hightower – RB (to 49ers)
Rejuvenated in New Orleans after injuries nearly derailed his career.
Jairus Byrd – S (FA)
Quietly had 82 tackles in 2016, despite losing starting job in Week 3.
THE INJURY FRONT
Adrian Peterson, RB – The former Viking played only three games for Minnesota in 2016 due to a torn meniscus, but the 32-year old has been a full participant in offseason practices in New Orleans.
Hau'oli Kikaha, DE – Kikaha was expected to start at defensive end last season, but the 2015 second-round draft pick tore his ACL during OTAs over a year ago. He hopes to be fully recovered in time for training camp.