METAIRIE, La. If the New Orleans Saints are going to make a run to Super Bowl XLIX in Glendale, Ariz., their talented roster, which looks, on paper, to be among the best in the NFL, will have to prove that on the field. Part of that, though, is staying healthy. The Saints dealt with a number of injuries during training camp, but now seem all healed up at just the right time. If they can sustain their health, the Saints are talented enough to be considered one of the legitimate Super Bowl contenders.
Here's a look at a few key players at each position.
I could bloviate about Drew Brees and remind everyone just how good he is. However, you all know this already. The Saints will go as far as he carries them. Here's a stat you may be unaware of, though: he's holds outright or is tied for 66 NFL records.
Mark Ingram finally looks to be the running back the Saints hoped they'd get when they traded up to acquire him in 2011. He averaged 7.1 yards per carry in the preseason, rushing 22 times for 156 yards and a touchdown. He appears, however, to have finally have earned the trust of Payton and Brees as it relates to the passing game, making him now an every-down threat. Last season, the Saints running back by committee system was hampered by predictability as Ingram, Pierre Thomas, Khiry Robinson and Darren Sporles each had defined roles defenses easily identified. With Sproles having been traded to Philadelphia, and the further development of Ingram and Robinson into more complete backs, the Saints running game should now be an asset and help provide a more balanced offensive attack.
Can two players make a world of difference? The answer: absolutely. The development of tackle Terron Armstead and the return of center Jonathan Goodwin now makes this a formidable unit. Brees was sacked 37 times in 2013. That's 11 more than any other season since joining the Saints for the 2007 season. It took a while for the Saints lineman to fully grasp their zone-blocking principles, but now that they do I expect them to be improved in every facet of the game.
WIDE RECEIVERS/TIGHT ENDS
The NFL doesn't consider Jimmy Graham a wide receiver, but that didn't stop me from grouping them together. Graham, who is still the offense's most potent weapon, is out to prove he was deserving of his record four-year, $40 million deal. He's been fantastic during the preseason. The addition of wide receiver Brandon Cooks, who's my pick to win the NFL's Rookie of the Year, should help shift coverage away from Graham and provide more opportunities for all the Saints pass catchers big and small. Cooks had nine receptions for 101 yards and a touchdown in the preseason, a meager glimpse of his potential within the Saints passing game.
Last season was a breakout year for Cam Jordan, who had 12.5 sacks and was selected to his first Pro Bowl. This year, it's Akiem Hicks' turn. The behemoth 6-foot-5, 324-pound fleet-footed lineman, who can play either guard or tackle, will surely occupy his fair share of double teams, providing the Saints other pass rushers an easier route to the quarterback. The only concern is whether this unit can effectively stop the run.
With Junior Galette on the outside and Curtis Lofton quarterbacking the defense from the middle, this unit is in good shape. Galette is a star who is fueled by his desire to be considered the best linebacker in the game. He was disappointed that his 12 sacks last season weren't enough to earn him a spot in the Pro Bowl. As a guy who was undrafted out of college, Galette always feels like he has something to prove. This unit has quality depth with a good mix of experience. Of the nine linebackers on the 53-man roster, three (Khairy Fortt, Ronald Powell, Kasim Edebali) are rookies and another (Kyle Knox) has less than a year's worth of experience. Still, the three other veterans who comprise the unit (Ramon Humber, Parys Haralson, David Hawthorne) have a combined 22 years of experience.
As this unit's only unproven commodity, cornerback Patrick Robinson is going to be tested early and often because opposite him stands Keenan Lewis, a player who's motivated and somewhat perturbed by the fact that he's not mentioned in the same breath as Seattle's Richard Sherman or Arizona's Patrick Peterson. The addition of safety Jairus Byrd to the league's No. 2-ranked pass defense, plus the further development of Kenny Vaccaro adds up to a secondary that's more than capable of dealing with today's high-octane passing attacks. If Robinson can holdup, the Saints should have one of the most formidable secondaries in football.