As long as New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees stays healthy, the team will be a Super Bowl contender.
It's been like that four times in the last five years and 2014 should be no different. Brees will once again lead one of the NFL's most potent pass attacks and has thrown for more than 5,000 yards each of the past three seasons.
Brees and the Saints finished 11-5 last season and made it to the Divisional Round of the postseason, where they lost to the eventual Super Bowl champion Seattle Seahawks. All five of the Saints' losses came on the road, but they exorcised their demons as the visitor by defeating Philadelphia in the opening round of the playoffs.
Besides the precise passing of Brees, the return of head coach Sean Payton was a huge factor in getting the Saints back on track as one of the NFL's elite. Payton, of course, was suspended the entire 2012 season for his alleged role in "Bountygate" and watched his team finish 7-9 from afar.
Payton was back at it with the Xs and Os last season and helped guide the Saints to the playoffs for the fourth time since 2009, when they won the Super Bowl. The Saints went 8-0 in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome for the second time in three seasons and ranked fourth in the NFL both on offense (399.4 ypg.) and defense (305.7 ypg.). Five players were elected to the Pro Bowl, including talented tight end Jimmy Graham, who signed a new deal in July.
Graham's new deal came with some controversy, however. There was a dispute over whether Graham should have been designated as a tight end or a wide receiver. The NFL Players Association had filed a grievance on behalf of Graham in May, arguing that he deserved to be designated as a wide receiver because he spent more time out wide and in the slot than as a traditional tight end at the line of the scrimmage.
Under the franchise tag for the tight end position, Graham would make $7.053 million in 2014, compared to $12.3 million for receivers. Either way, Graham is getting paid big bucks and deservedly so.
The Saints won't have pint-size all-purpose back Darren Sproles, who joined forces with the Eagles this offseason. They hope draft pick Brandin Cooks can replace what Sproles brought to the table in both running the football and catching passes out of the backfield.
New Orleans will look a bit different across the offensive line and lost a few key contributors on defense such as defensive end Will Smith and safeties Malcolm Jenkins and Roman Harper. The Saints did add safety Jairus Byrd and veteran cornerback Champ Bailey to help shore up the defense.
Will 2014 bring 10 or more wins for the fifth time in the last six years? It's possible, but the Saints have to deal with an improving NFC South, which was won by the upstart Carolina Panthers last season. Atlanta had four wins in 2013, but is back at full strength and ready to challenge the rest of the division. Tampa Bay has a new coach and that could spell doom.
2013 RECORD: 11-5 (2nd, NFC South)
LAST PLAYOFF APPEARANCE: 2013 (lost to Seattle Divisional Round)
HEAD COACH (RECORD): Sean Payton (73-39, ninth season)
OFFENSIVE COORDINATOR: Pete Carmichael (sixth season with Saints)
DEFENSIVE COORDINATOR: Rob Ryan (second season with Saints)
KEY ADDITIONS: WR Brandin Cooks (first round, Oregon State), S Jairus Byrd (from Bills), CB Champ Bailey (from Broncos), FB Erik Lorig (from Buccaneers), C Jonathan Goodwin (from 49ers)
KEY DEPARTURES: RB Darren Sproles (to Eagles), FB Jed Collins (to Lions), WR Lance Moore (to Steelers), C Brian De La Puente (to Bears), DE Will Smith (free agent), CB Jabari Greer (free agent), S Malcolm Jenkins (to Eagles), S Roman Harper (to Panthers)
QB: Brees (5,162 yards, 39 TD, 12 INT) has missed only one game in the past nine years and is what makes the Saints' offense move. The former Purdue standout has thrown 30 or more touchdown passes in the last six seasons and had a 68.6 completion percentage in 2013.
Brees, who inked a five-year, $100 million contract a few years ago, has completed more than 400 pass attempts the last four seasons and is one of the top five quarterbacks in the game. An MVP candidate practically every year the past three years, Brees has started 142 of the last 143 regular-season games for the Saints. In order for the Saints to get back to the Super Bowl, both the team and Brees have to play better on the road.
Luke McCown and Ryan Griffin will back up Brees.
RB: With Sproles in Philadelphia, Brees will have to find a new dump-off man. And that could come from a trio of running backs: Pierre Thomas (549 yards, 2 TD), Mark Ingram (386 yards, TD), Khiry Robinson (224 yards, TD).
Thomas led the Saints in rushing last season and appeared in all 16 games. He is an excellent pass catcher and hauled in a career-high 77 passes for 513 yards and three TDs in 2013.
Ingram only suited up for 11 games, while Robinson played in 10. New Orleans ran for 185 yards in the playoff win over the Eagles and Ingram racked up 97 of those and a score on 18 carries. Robinson posted 45 yards on eight carries. New Orleans had 108 yards the following week against Seattle with Robinson leading the way with 57 yards and a touchdown on 13 touches. Robinson should have an extended role this season.
Erik Lorig will take over at fullback after being signed away from the Buccaneers. Lorig was signed to replace Jed Collins, who was never offered a contract by the team. Fullback Greg Jones signed with the team earlier this month.
WR: The Saints took a gamble when they traded up for Cooks in the draft and hope he turns out to be the playmaker he was at Oregon State. Cooks was the 2013 Biletnikoff winner as the nation's top receiver after catching 128 passes for 1,730 yards with 16 touchdowns as a junior. He should fit in nicely with New Orleans' heavy pass attack.
Marques Colston (943 yards, 5 TD) failed to reach the 1,000-yard mark last season after doing so the previous four years. He is a major threat for the Saints and often flies under the radar with Graham catching most of the passes. Kenny Stills (641 yards, 5 TD) and Robert Meachem (324 yards 2 TD) are serviceable second-tier receivers. Lance Moore is now with Pittsburgh.
TE: Graham (1,215 yards, 16 TD) has 270 receptions over the past three seasons and his 16 TD grabs last season were a career best. Now that Graham is in the fold with a new contract, the Saints can get on with their Super Bowl dreams and he's one of the pieces who can get them there. Graham has an advantage over most defenses with his unique size at 6-7, 265 pounds. Imagine Los Angeles Clippers power forward Blake Griffin in pads. That's what Graham brings to the table. A former hoops star himself, Graham is also a decent blocker when he's not inflicting pain on defenses down field or in the flats.
Payton was asked about Graham's maturity during the contract situation.
"The process I thought was handled outstandingly considering the challenges with it. I thought he (Graham) was fantastic. One of the best phone calls of the summer was he and I having a chance to visit the day of and just touch base and kind of get moving toward this training camp. We have seen a guy come in here young and all of a sudden in a short period of time accomplish a lot of great things and still has a lot of things I'm sure he wants to be able to accomplish moving forward."
Benjamin Watson (226 yards, 2 TD) played his first season with the Saints last season and the veteran appeared in 15 games. He doesn't have the flash that Graham brings to the table, but gets the job done.
OL: New Orleans has two outstanding guards in Ben Grubbs and Jahri Evans, but Brees was sacked a career-high 37 times. Brees, though, still had enough time to pass for more than 5,000 yards and 30 TDs.
It's unknown at the moment who will start at center with Brian De La Puente gone, so it could either be Tim Lelito or Jonathan Goodwin.
Left tackle Charles Brown is no longer with the club and Terron Armstead will most likely take over. Zach Strief will man the right tackle position and has served as an offensive team captain the past two campaigns. Strief inked a new deal in the offseason.
DL: The Saints' defense improved tremendously under first-year coordinator Rob Ryan, whose unit finished fourth in the NFL in total defense. The difference of 134.4 net yards per game from 2012 was the biggest by a club since the 1970 AFL-NFL merger. In opponent points per game, after surrendering 28.4 in 2012, the Saints gave up only 19.0 in 2013 as they improved in the league rankings from 31st to fourth.
The Saints were banged up a bit on defense, but defensive end Cameron Jordan (47 tackles, 12.5) played all 16 games and led the defense in sacks. Jordan tied for sixth with two defensive fumble recoveries and was selected to his first Pro Bowl.
Akiem Hicks (56 tackles, 4.5 sacks) starts opposite of Jordan in the base 3-4 scheme and has a bright future ahead.
Broderick Bunkley (13 tackles) played in only 12 games last season, but his stout frame serves as a run-stopping commodity up front. The Saints having success along the front line is very important against a division which has talented runners in Cam Newton, Doug Martin and Steven Jackson.
LB: Outside linebacker Junior Galette (40 tackles, 12 sacks) was second on the team in sacks and showed tremendous promise last season. He played in all 16 games and joined Jordan as the first Saints' tandem to record double-digit sacks since 2004.
Linebacker Victor Butler will try to work his way into the mix and missed last season with an ACL tear. Outside linebacker Parys Haralson (30 tackles, 3.5 sacks) is good in space and has solid coverage skills, a must in today's NFL.
At inside linebacker, Curtis Lofton and David Hawthorne will resume their starting roles. Lofton (125 tackles, 2 sacks) led the defense in stops and Hawthorne (91 tackles, 3 sacks) was right behind. Both, however, do not serve as formidable pass rushers.
Keyunta Dawson, Kyle Knox, Ramon Humber and Khairi Fortt will battle for playing time. Fortt and Ronald Powell were drafted in May.
DB: The Saints ranked in the top-10 in many defensive categories, including sacks (fourth), pass defense (second), scoring defense (fourth), third down conversion percentage (ninth), touchdown passes surrendered (sixth), yards after the catch (second) and big passing plays allowed (fifth).
They hope their newest piece in the secondary, safety Jairus Byrd (48 tackles, 4 INT), can shore up the pass defense even more. Byrd is a five-year vet who had spent his entire career with the Buffalo Bills and underwent back surgery in May. New Orleans invested a lot of money in Byrd, who replaces the departed Malcolm Jenkins and has grabbed 12 INTs the past three seasons.
"I just want to be an impact player. That's what I strive to be, and takeaways are part of that," Byrd said. "Whatever being an impact player encompasses, then that's what I want to be and that's what I pride myself in being."
Strong safety Kenny Vaccaro (79 tackles, sack, INT) was third on the team in picks and enjoyed a strong rookie campaign in 2013.
The Saints also brought in veteran cornerback Champ Bailey (14 tackles), who appeared in just five games for Denver last season. Bailey broke into the league back in 1999 and will most likely play behind Patrick Robinson. Robinson (knee) was injured last season and played in two games. Cornerback Keenan Lewis (47 tackles, 4 INT) led the Saints with a career-high four INTs and is an excellent cover man. Cornerback Stanley Jean-Baptiste and safety Vinny Sunseri were drafted in May.
SPECIAL TEAMS: With Sproles gone in Philadelphia, Travaris Cadet is expected to take over return duties. Cadet had nine kickoff returns for an average of 26.6 yards per game last season.
Payton talked about his plan for return duties before camp.
"I don't know if they will be the same player. I think there is a better chance there will be two different players (handling each duty). We have to see. That punt return job, there were will a handful of guys competing for that and the same way for the kick return job. I think you find a unique athlete that can do both because generally often times there are a little different skill set involved."
Shayne Graham will handle kicking full-time now that Garrett Hartley is gone. He made both of his attempts in two games played.
Thomas Morstead averaged 46.9 yards on 61 punts and landed 25 boots inside the 20-yard line. Greg McMahon is in his seventh season as special teams coordinator for the Saints.
Over the last seven seasons under McMahon, the Saints have recovered 14 fumbles on special teams, scored 10 touchdowns, including six on punt returns, and blocked two punts, four field goals and two extra points. Since 2008, New Orleans has been ranked in the top 10 in kickoff return average three times.
COACHING: Offensive coordinator Pete Carmichael has to love his job running the Saints' offense, especially their pass attack. He is in his sixth season at the helm and his track record speaks for itself, as the Saints offense finished fourth in net yards per game (399.4) and finished second in passing offense (307.4 ypg.), third in third down conversion percentage (43.9%), fourth in first downs (359) and second in yards after the catch (2,576).
Brees made his seventh Pro Bowl as a Saint and finished near the top of the NFL in virtually every passing category, completing 446-of-650 (68.6 percent) passes for 5,162 yards with 39 touchdowns, 12 interceptions and a 104.5 passer rating. It also helps to have Graham and Colston, and a handful of talented running backs. He makes Payton's job a lot easier, but Payton is a football genius. Payton has a 79-43 overall record (.648), including a 6-4 postseason mark (.600) after the franchise had won only one playoff game prior to his arrival.
Ryan, meanwhile, matches up with Carmichael on defense with a loaded staff.
THE SKINNY: There's no reason why the Saints can't win the NFC South and make it all the way back to the Super Bowl. The offense is loaded. The defense will improve even more under Ryan in his second year at the controls. And, oh yeah, the Saints have a guy named Brees.
New Orleans will probably win every game at the Superdome and must start playing better on the road, where they have three dome teams to play as the visitor (Atlanta, Dallas, Detroit). Three of the first four games are on the road for the Saints, so they'll try to exorcise those demons rather quickly in September. If the Saints can find a way to bring the playoffs to the Superdome, guess who's going back to the Super Bowl?