This article is part of our Team Previews series.
The Saints finished 11-5 last year, winning the NFC South before losing in heartbreaking fashion in the divisional round. With a still-potent offense, New Orleans will need to repeat its surprisingly competent defensive performance to capitalize on Drew Brees' closing championship window.
THREE THINGS TO KNOW
BREES VERSUS FATHER TIME
For more than a decade, Drew Brees has been one of the most dependable fantasy commodities in the game. In fact, the future Hall of Famer remarkably finished among the top-six quarterbacks in standard scoring every season between 2006 and 2016. Last year, however, Brees managed a paltry 23 passing touchdowns – fewer than the likes of Jared Goff, Alex Smith and Andy Dalton. Brees' 4,334 yards through the air also marked the first time he didn't surpass 4,600 since 2009. Many may point to his age (39) as a reason for the statistical decline, but his stat line included positives like eight interceptions (tied for second-fewest among signal-callers with 500-plus attempts) and a career-high 72 completion percentage. Rather, a shift in offensive philosophy was the biggest culprit behind the subpar output, by his standards. With the Saints punishing teams on the ground with Mark Ingram and Alvin Kamara, Brees wasn't required to air it out as frequently as he'd done in the past. Making matters worse, the Saints posted a league-leading 23 rushing touchdowns. There's little reason to think coach Sean Payton will stop leaning on the backfield due to the potency of the Ingram-Kamara combo, but if the pass-to-run ratio tilts back toward Brees, he could resurface as one of the premier fantasy quarterbacks in the league.
CAN INGRAM AND KAMARA REPEAT LAST YEAR'S EXPLOITS?
In 2017, Mark Ingram and Alvin Kamara became the first backfield mates in NFL history to both surpass 1,500 scrimmage yards in the same season. On top of that feat, the pair scored at least 12 touchdowns apiece and made the Pro Bowl. For Ingram, the outburst didn't come as a surprise because it immediately followed his first year with 1,000 yards rushing. Healthy for a second season in a row, he continued to build on this success, setting career highs in most categories. Meanwhile, with Ingram and Adrian Peterson atop the depth chart entering the season, few foresaw Kamara's astonishing ascendance. Once Peterson was shipped out of town after a Week 5 bye, Kamara proved his worth as a 2017 third-round pick. Expected to serve primarily as a pass catcher, Kamara was a better between-the-tackles runner than even the Saints could have anticipated, racking up 728 rushing yards to go with 826 receiving yards. Still, it may be difficult for Ingram and Kamara to replicate their unprecedented level of production. First and foremost, Ingram received a four-game ban for a violation of the league's PED policy. The preceding will give Kamara a chance to handle a likely workhorse role for the first four contests, but upon Ingram's return it's difficult to believe coach Sean Payton will deviate from something resembling an even split of touches.
IS DAVIS THE DEFENSE'S MISSING LINK?
After finishing in the bottom five in points allowed each of the previous three years, the Saints defense made huge strides in 2017. With All-Pro pass rusher Cameron Jordan terrorizing opposing quarterbacks and rookies Marshon Lattimore and Marcus Williams raising up a much-maligned secondary, New Orleans gave up only 20.4 points per game last season. Despite the monumental improvement, the Saints' run defense left something to be desired, as the unit surrendered 111.7 yards per game (16th in the NFL) at a clip of 4.4 yards per carry (28th). Enter Demario Davis. The six-year linebacker was brought in this offseason on the back of a 135-tackle, five-sack campaign with the Jets in which he was on the field for all but two of the team's defensive snaps. With no absences in his career, Davis' history of durability undoubtedly is a trait the Saints coveted, especially after just two linebackers garnered more than half of the defensive snaps last year, led by Craig Robertson's share of 74.3 percent. Because the Saints signed Davis to a contract with at least $16 million in guarantees, the hope is that he can be the every-down middle linebacker the team has lacked since Curtis Lofton moved on following the 2014 season. If he upholds his end of the bargain, Davis should be a tackle machine, and perhaps more, in IDP formats.
PIVOTAL PLAYER: Alvin Kamara
Despite sharing a backfield with Mark Ingram, Kamara posted 13 TDs and more than 1,500 yards from scrimmage as a rookie in 2017. A repeat performance may be difficult if he shares the load once Mark Ingram returns from suspension, but Kamara's versatile skill set should give him a safe floor in the Saints' powerful offense.
RISING: Michael Thomas
After a historic rookie campaign in 2016, Thomas was equally impressive in his second season. Already a target monster, it wouldn't be surprising to see the big receiver have double-digit TDs for the first time in his career.
FALLING: Drew Brees
An emphasis on the running game is partially to blame, but Brees threw only 23 touchdowns, his fewest in a Saints uniform. It's fair to wonder if the dependable quarterback is finally slowing down as he enters his 18th year.
SLEEPER: Cameron Meredith
Boasting elite size and speed, Meredith excelled two years ago before suffering a season- ending knee injury last August. When healthy, the former Bear could thrive alongside Thomas and Ted Ginn.
KEY JOB BATTLE – WIDE RECEIVER SLOTTING
Outside of No. 1 receiver Michael Thomas, the rest of the depth chart remains up for grabs. Ted Ginn should be considered the favorite to start at outside receiver opposite Thomas after a 53-787-4 debut campaign with the Saints in 2017. However, the 33-year-old Ginn likely will face stiff competition from free-agent addition Cameron Meredith and 2018 third-round Tre'Quan Smith. Although the former is recovering from torn knee ligaments, Meredith has been cleared to practice and boasts a receiving line (66 catches for 888 yards in 2016) better than any in Ginn's 11-year career. As for the rookie, Smith excelled at Central Florida, including an average of 19.8 yards per catch to go with 13 touchdowns during his third and final collegiate season. Beyond Ginn, Meredith and Smith, Brandon Coleman was brought back on a one-year deal but is opening training camp on the PUP list due to an unknown injury. However the pecking order breaks down, Thomas remains the one "definite" within this receiving corps.
Cameron Meredith – WR (from Bears)
Potential No. 2 receiver, but health is a question after torn ACL.
Demario Davis – LB (from Jets)
Averaged 6.8 tackles per game over the last five seasons.
Marcus Davenport – DE (Rd. 1, No. 14 – Texas-San Antonio)
Traded a king's ransom to draft the raw but gifted pass rusher.
Willie Snead – WR (to Ravens)
Targeted 16 times in 2017 after seeing 205 passes the prior two years.
Coby Fleener – TE (FA)
Cut after hugely disappointing two-year stint in New Orleans.
Kenny Vaccaro – S (FA)
Often inconsistent, but the versatile playmaker will be missed.
THE INJURY FRONT
Cameron Meredith, WR – Meredith led the Bears in both receptions (66) and receiving yards (888) in 2016 but sat out all of last season after tearing both the ACL and MCL in his left knee during the preseason. Signed by the Saints this offseason, he was limited to individual drills at OTAs and minicamp and hasn't experienced any setbacks in his recovery. With his presence expected at the start of training camp, the athletic, 6-3 receiver could compete for a starting spot opposite top wideout Michael Thomas.
Josh Hill, TE – Despite playing a career-high 588 offensive snaps, Hill managed just 16 catches for 125 yards and one touchdown in 2017. In February, the tight end had surgery to straighten out his left ring finger, which was bent at an almost 90-degree angle for much of last season. The procedure was evidently a success, as Hill took part in June minicamp. The bigger issue for Hill, however, is the offseason signing of Ben Watson, who, after spending two years in Baltimore, returns to New Orleans. In his last season with Drew Brees, Watson set career highs in touchdowns (six), receiving yards (825) and catches (74), and his presence likely relegates Hill to backup status and a fantasy afterthought.
Cameron Jordan, DE – In his seventh pro season, Jordan had 14 sacks (tied for fourth in the NFL) and 62 total tackles, which was the seventh-most among defensive linemen. The former Cal product also had 12 passes defensed, an interception, two fumble recoveries and a touchdown. The star defensive end was rewarded by being selected to his third career Pro Bowl and named a first-team All-Pro for the first time. Following the breakout, Jordan underwent minor surgery to remove a bone spur in his left foot in February, and while he didn't participate in OTAs, he was medically cleared in advance of training camp. As a result, he's poised to be one of the first linemen off the board in IDP leagues this season.