Saints in better shape than last year, even with recent bad news

This offseason has been quite an emotional roller coaster for the die-hard New Orleans Saints fan.

First, there was one of the biggest transaction days in the Sean Payton era in early January when the Saints fired five assistant coaches, topped by special teams coach Greg McMahon, linebacker coach Joe Vitt and defensive line coach Bill Johnson.

Suddenly, there was hope again in three areas of incredible disappointment that dated back to before this regime’s glory years from 2009-13.

For many fans, though, the excitement turned into confusion when speedy receiver Brandin Cooks was traded to New England on March 10. The immediate acquisition of Ted Ginn lessened the blow for some, but it still felt like a step backward to many.

Then after picking up two potential starters at linebacker and a top-notch back-up quarterback, the Saints really got their fan base’s heart pumping again by rolling the dice on running back Adrian Peterson in April.

If healthy, Peterson gives New Orleans a great 1-2 punch at running back.

About a week later, an exciting draft crop that revamped the secondary, addressed a huge hole on the offensive line and may have given the Saints the NFL’s best backfield really had the Black-and-Gold faithful flying high.

Unfortunately, all the news since the draft has been bad. First, the news broke that center Max Unger may not be ready for the season opener. Then left tackle Terron Armstead suffered an injury that could cost him half the season.

Now defensive tackle Nick Fairley’s heart condition may force him to retire prematurely just months after signing a four-year, $28 million contract extension with New Orleans.

For some, this latest series of gut-punches has sapped all the enthusiasm out of this once-promising season.

So, are there any reasons to believe the Saints are still close to a return to double-digit winning seasons and postseason berths?

Absolutely.

Sure, most aren’t as glass-half-full as I am, but it’s much more than a hope and a prayer.

For starters, most have very much underrated how huge it was to fire McMahon, Johnson and Vitt. At times, it’s almost like the Saints were playing with one hand behind their back in those areas.

Awful special teams plays cost New Orleans three wins last year, but that was nothing new. The Saints were regularly dreadful in McMahon’s 11 years as the special teams coach.

The good news for Baton Rouge native coach Brad Banta as he takes over is the bar to improve upon isn’t very high.

While many didn’t look at third-down back as a major need for the Saints entering the draft, consider how much of a weapon the screen pass was from 2006 through 2013 in Payton’s offense and how small it’s been in recent seasons.

Alvin Kamara joining forces with Ingram and Peterson give the Saints so many more options. Travaris Cadet regressed last season in that third-down role. Last year was the offense’s best unit since 2011 and there’s still every reason to believe it’ll be even better in 2017.

I know, I know, the offensive line.

Certainly there are potential depth issues there, but also remember how awful last year’s offensive line was supposed to be. Instead, Andrus Peat turned out not to be a bust as some feared and Zach Strief had his best season ever in New Orleans.

Time will tell exactly how the staff plans to compensate for Armstead. It’s too early to know if first-rounder Ryan Ramczyk can start right away. Is Peat really ready to return to tackle? Could Strief play left tackle? Does Khalif Barnes have enough left to be an option at left tackle?

Again, there were at least that many questions about last year’s line as well and it worked out better than even we optimists imagined.

Furthermore, don’t forget that Armstead missed more than half the season with injuries in 2016 and Payton has consistently said Unger will be ready for the first game.

What the receiving corps will miss in Cooks should be replaced with Ginn and more. Ginn brings the same world-class speed and is a much better open-field runner than Cooks, who may not have made a single defender miss in three seasons in New Orleans.

As for Fairley, the fear already existed that he wouldn’t be able to duplicate on last year’s productive season, because he’s never had back-to-back good years before. Still, it was understandable why the Saints extended him.

Now former top pick Sheldon Rankins and project David Onyemata, as well as Tyeler Davison, must play bigger roles.

While there are depth issues on both lines, there’s more quality depth at quarterback, wide receiver, running back, linebacker, cornerback, safety and perhaps most importantly on the coaching staff than in recent seasons.

And, hold your breath as long as you can, has Payton finally stumbled across a long-term solution at placekicker? Saints’ fans can only hope.

Sure, the team has some gotten bad news, but it’s still significantly better on paper than a 2016 team that was three special teams disaster plays away from going at least 10-6 a year ago.

© 2017 WWL-TV


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