2019 New Orleans Saints
2019 New Orleans Saints

This article is part of our Team Previews series.

New Orleans Saints

THE SKINNY

The Saints experienced heartbreak the past two postseasons, losing in excruciating fashion down the stretch both times. Rebounding again will be a challenge, but New Orleans retains most of its nucleus and remains a contender in the NFC as long as Drew Brees is around.

THREE THINGS TO KNOW

BREAKING IN A NEW BACKFIELD MATE
Mark Ingram's stellar eight-year run in New Orleans ended in March, when he struck a deal with the Ravens early in free agency. The Saints quickly acted to replace him, inking Latavius Murray to a contract that contained more guaranteed money ($7.2 million) than Ingram received from Baltimore ($6.5 million). That commitment suggests Murray will be a key part of the offense, though he may not be tasked with handling quite as varied a role as Ingram, an underrated receiver who averaged more than three receptions per game the past four seasons. While he won't be a complete nonentity in the passing game, Murray's main utility will come in his ability to grind out yards on first and second down and convert in short-yardage scenarios, limiting the strain on lead back Alvin Kamara. Murray's responsibilities and number of touches may not differ greatly from those he handled in two years with the Vikings, but the improved team context elevates his profile. He'll join an offense that finished third in red-zone scoring attempts per game (4.2), and should benefit from better blocking while running behind a line that ranked as the NFL's eighth-best unit in 2018, per Pro Football Focus. The Saints once again look equipped to support two fantasy-viable backs, even if Murray's skill set doesn't perfectly overlap with Ingram's.

A TOP-HEAVY RECEIVING CORPS
Michael Thomas lacks the pizzazz of the NFL's other top wideouts, but his efficiency is a marvel unto itself. He corralled an incredible 125 of 147 targets in 2018, with his 85 percent catch rate at least 11 points better than any player who was targeted 95 times. At 26 years old, Thomas is in his prime, but any outside receiver – even peak Jerry Rice – would struggle to maintain such an unprecedented clip. If New Orleans' passing attack is to remain similarly productive while accounting for some inevitable decline in Thomas' efficiency, it will hinge on the output of the supporting cast. Thomas and passing-down maestro Alvin Kamara collected more than half of the team's catches and receiving yards last season; no other Saint managed more than 35 receptions or 427 yards. The addition of seam-stretching tight end Jared Cook should bring more balance to the passing attack, but the onus will fall on the club's holdovers to pick up the slack. Tre'Quan Smith, who turned in two 100-yard outings as a third-round rookie, has the best chance to see his performance spike. However, he'll need to prove more adept as an intermediate receiver for that to materialize. Ted Ginn and Cameron Meredith are more seasoned options with campaigns of 700-plus yards on their resumes, but staying healthy has been an issue for both.

WHICH DEFENSE WILL SHOW UP?
When the Saints ended a three-year playoff drought in 2017, much of the credit went to the defense, which made a one-season jump from 31st to 10th in points allowed. After losing only one key starter (safety Kenny Vaccaro) last offseason, there was little reason to expect a major downturn, but the unit looked hapless as ever Week 1, when the Ryan Fitzpatrick-led Bucs put up 48 points and 529 yards. While the group tightened up thereafter and rallied to finish 14th in scoring defense, the Saints still surrendered the fourth-most passing yards in the NFL. They did find some stability at the back end after acquiring Eli Apple in late October, with the 2016 first-round pick quickly unseating Ken Crawley at the starting spot opposite top cornerback Marshon Lattimore. After Apple's arrival, the defense allowed just four passers to exceed 300 yards over the final 12 games (including playoffs). With Lattimore and Apple in place and slot specialist Patrick Robinson returning from an ankle injury, the Saints eschewed any major additions to the secondary for the second year in a row. As has been the case throughout the Drew Brees era, the team's identity remains rooted on offense, but New Orleans' contending window could close quickly if the front office's assessment of its defensive backfield proves faulty.

PIVOTAL PLAYER: Alvin Kamara
Helped by Mark Ingram's four-game ban to begin 2018, Kamara took his production up another level from his dazzling rookie campaign. The Saints replaced Ingram with a different chain mover in Latavius Murray, but it's not a one-for-one exchange. A heartier workload thus may be on tap for Kamara, who could raise his ceiling again in Year 3.

BAROMETER

RISING: Tre'Quan Smith
Smith didn't consistently pop as a rookie, but the Saints believe he'll be a vertical threat in Year 2. As a testament to their faith, the team didn't address its wide receiver corps through the draft or free agency.

FALLING: Cameron Meredith
The Saints took a gamble that Meredith would rebound from a torn ACL that sidelined him in 2017, but the wideout dressed just six times. Forced to accept a pay cut this offseason, he now looks to be on the roster bubble.

SLEEPER: Dan Arnold
A converted tight end, the 6-5, 220-pound Arnold showed some playmaking upside last season, nabbing 12 passes for 150 yards on only 139 offensive snaps. He could see his role expand in a narrow passing tree.

KEY JOB BATTLE – NO. 3 PASS CATCHER
The top two receiving options in New Orleans are firmly entrenched: Michael Thomas (125 receptions in 2018) and Alvin Kamara (81), two of the NFL's premier young talents, will serve as Drew Brees' primary weapons in the passing game. Behind those two elite weapons, things become unclear, with question marks surrounding veteran Ted Ginn, second-year receiver Tre'Quan Smith and newly-acquired TE Jared Cook. The 34-year-old Ginn was coming off an injury in 2018 and played only three games, but boasts at least 600 receiving yards in each of the previous three seasons. Smith impressed as a rookie with 15.3 YPC and five scores but was targeted just 44 times and may need another year to develop. Cook probably offers the most upside in the short term, having set career highs across the board in Oakland last year and racking up the fourth-highest yards at his position. Whoever of the three ultimately emerges as Brees' go-to third look will benefit from enormous opportunity to capitalize on. While it's true that the veteran QB has seen a decline in his passing attempts during each of the last two seasons, he also led the NFL in completion percentage (74.4 percent) in 2018 and has thrown at least 30 touchdowns in 10 of the last 11 seasons. In a high-powered passing attack with an undeniably track record of efficiency, fantasy owners who are able to identify and target the Saints' No. 3 pass catcher stand to receive tremendous value in the later rounds of drafts.

KEY ACQUISITIONS:

LATAVIUS MURRAY – RB (from Vikings)
Set to fill the early-down role vacated by Mark Ingram.

JARED COOK – TE (from Raiders)
Perhaps the big-play TE the team has lacked sans Jimmy Graham.

NICK EASTON – C (from Vikings)
Tabbed as the initial successor at center for the retired Max Unger.

ERIK McCOY – C (Rd. 2, No. 48 – Texas A&M)
Competing with Easton for the center job and a depth role at guard.

KEY DEPARTURES:
MARK INGRAM – RB (to Ravens)
Leaves big shoes to fill, with a career mark of 4.5 yards per carry.

BEN WATSON – TE (to Patriots)
Pending a suspension, the likely Rob Gronkowski replacement.

ALEX OKAFOR – DE (to Chiefs)
Became expendable with 2018 first-rounder Marcus Davenport on hand.

MAX UNGER – C (retired)
The three-time Pro Bowler surprisingly walked away after 10 seasons.

THE INJURY FRONT
Cameron Meredith, WR – After being sidelined for all of 2017 with a torn ACL and MCL, shades of Meredith's breakout 2016 performance inspired the Saints to sign him to a two-year deal last year. Things didn't quite work out, as Meredith played only six games before undergoing season-ending knee surgery. Nor did the 26-year-old make a strong impression when active, failing to carve out a starting role and ending the year with only nine catches for 114 yards and a touchdown. Now three years removed from meaningful production, Meredith appears to be competing for a reserve role, at best.

Marcus Davenport, DE – Davenport is coming off offseason foot surgery and was limited to individual drills during OTAs. He missed three weeks of his rookie season due to a toe injury but appears on track to participate in training camp unhindered. Davenport impressed as a rookie despite only playing a part time role, averaging 32 defensive snaps per game, and appears primed to transition to a starting job in his sophomore campaign.  

Sheldon Rankins, DT – Rankins' breakout 2018 campaign (40 tackles and eight sacks in 16 regular-season starts) ended on a sour note when the 24-year old defensive suffered a torn Achilles in the divisional round of the playoffs. The Saints didn't hesitate to exercise Rankins' fifth-year option, speaking to the team's confidence in his future, but what's likely to be a lengthy rehab process may wipe out most, if not all, of the upcoming season. Rankins is all but a lock to open the season on the PUP list, and it could be until 2020 until he returns to full form.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Adam Wolf
Wolf was the 2018 winner of the FSWA's Player Notes Writer of the Year award. He previously headed the site's NHL and NBA coverage and now works primarily as an NFL and MLB contributor. Adam began writing for RotoWire in 2012 as a student at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
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