4 Bold (and 4 Slightly Less Bold) 2014 Predictions for the New Orleans Saints
As the 2014 season inches closer, speculation has begun about what kind of year the New Orleans Saints will have.
New Orleans advanced to the divisional round of the playoffs last season before losing to the eventual Super Bowl champion Seattle Seahawks. It’s been a very busy offseason for general manager Mickey Loomis and the Saints, as they’ve made a number of changes that should improve their squad.
The front office kicked off the offseason with a bang by handing several long-time contributors their walking papers. Some of these veterans were popular with fans, but it wasn’t feasible to keep them in black and gold—largely for salary cap reasons.
The Saints then utilized free agency and the draft to re-stock their cupboard with a host of talented players. Next year’s squad will certainly have a different look, but New Orleans should be a substantially improved team on both sides of the ball.
Following are four bold predictions for the Saints’ 2014 campaign, along with four slightly less bold prognostications. It's unlikely that they'll all play out exactly as scripted here, but each one of these predictions are well within the realm of possibility for the upcoming season.
BOLD: Cameron Jordan Will Have over 15 Sacks
Quarterback Drew Brees and tight end Jimmy Graham have clearly established themselves as bona fide NFL stars, but defensive end Cameron Jordan is right on the cusp of joining them as a household name.
In his third pro season last year, he terrorized opposing quarterbacks to the tune of 12.5 sacks. He benefited significantly from the arrival of defensive coordinator Rob Ryan in New Orleans, as Ryan moved Jordan from the left side of the Saints defensive front to the right.
The former first-round pick flourished in Ryan’s 3-4 alignment, and he’ll likely keep on improving. As long as outside linebacker Junior Galette continues to blossom, Jordan should enjoy another big year in 2014.
LESS BOLD: New Orleans Will Complete Another Season Sweep of the Atlanta Falcons
Admittedly, the Saints sweeping their divisional rivals from Atlanta isn’t the boldest of predictions. New Orleans swept the Falcons just last year, and they've accomplished the feat in five of the seven seasons of the Sean Payton era.
Taking both games from the Falcons is no sure bet, however, given that Atlanta has the potential to be a perennial contender. The Falcons have a solid quarterback in Matt Ryan, one of the game’s best wide receiver tandems in Julio Jones and Roddy White and a capable, albeit aging, running back in Steven Jackson.
Despite a poor record against the Saints in recent years, Atlanta usually plays New Orleans tough, and this year should be no different. Like the Saints, the Falcons have made some substantial improvements to their club this offseason. They bolstered their offensive and defensive lines through the draft with the selections of Jake Matthews and Ra'Shede Hageman and acquired punt returner extraordinaire Devin Hester via free agency.
Despite frequent losses to New Orleans, the Falcons have won the NFC South in two of the past four seasons. They’ll present another strong challenge to Drew Brees and company this year, but thanks to a significantly improved roster, the Saints should once again score a knockout victory in this heated rivalry.
BOLD: The Saints Will Field One of the NFL's Top 3 Defenses
Just two years ago, New Orleans fielded the worst defense in league history from a statistical standpoint. Opposing offenses torched the Saints through the air and pounded them on the ground—forcing the offense to score at a breakneck pace just to have a chance at victory.
Rob Ryan’s 2013 arrival abruptly ended the Saints’ defensive woes, as he orchestrated a monumental turnaround in New Orleans. The Saints finished ranked fourth in the league in total defense last year, and they’ve made numerous changes that should result in even further improvement this season.
Chief among the new arrivals is free safety Jairus Byrd. The former Buffalo Bill signed a lucrative free-agent deal with New Orleans, and his arrival all but ensures the Saints of having one of the better secondaries in the league. Joining him in the defensive backfield will be hard-hitting strong safety Kenny Vaccaro and lockdown corner Keenan Lewis.
With the aforementioned Cameron Jordan and Junior Galette powering a formidable front seven, the Saints could boast one of the NFL's very best defenses this fall.
LESS BOLD: New Orleans Will Win the NFC South
A short time ago, defeating the Falcons went hand-in-hand with winning the NFC South. But with the emergence of the Carolina Panthers in 2013, the challenge of winning the division has become more difficult.
Last season, New Orleans blew out the Cam Newton-led Panthers at home in the Superdome, but suffered a heartbreaking defeat in the closing seconds at Carolina in Week 16 that ultimately cost them the division title.
But Newton lost a number of key targets this offseason, and although the Panthers’ defense is stout, the Carolina roster doesn’t appear to be as stacked as the Saints’.
That leaves the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Sure, Lovie Smith’s club has made improvements since last December, but the Bucs don’t have all the necessary pieces to challenge for divisional supremacy just yet.
BOLD: Jairus Byrd Will Lead the NFL in Interceptions
Rob Ryan’s defense is aggressive and unpredictable, and it depends on an effective pass rush for success. New Orleans has just that with the likes of Jordan, Galette and linebacker Victor Butler—who missed all of last season with a knee injury.
When quarterbacks are pressured into making quick decisions, top-level defensive backs tend to feast on the resulting ill-timed throws.
Byrd is without question top-level, and he was New Orleans’ biggest offseason acquisition this year. He picked off 22 passes in his five seasons in Buffalo, and his superb coverage skills are tailor-made for success in Ryan’s blitz-heavy scheme.
He’s one of the few safeties in the league who can provide full sideline-to-sideline coverage on the back end, and his ball skills make for the perfect complement to what should be a strong New Orleans pass rush in 2014.
LESS BOLD: Mark Ingram Will Lead the Saints in Rushing
Former Heisman Trophy winner and 2011 first-round draft pick Mark Ingram's career in New Orleans has been underwhelming.
His first two years in a Saints uniform were lackluster—to say the least—but his third season in 2013 may very well have been a turning point in his career. After missing five games last year with a foot injury, Ingram returned to action with a renewed intensity, and he ran the ball with authority for most of the second half of the season—including an 18-carry, 97-yard, one-touchdown performance against the Philadelphia Eagles in the Saints' 26-24 Wild Card Round win.
He finished the year averaging close to five yards per carry, and although he’ll split carries with Pierre Thomas and Khiry Robinson, Ingram appears ready to seize the role of featured back in the Saints offense.
BOLD: New Orleans Will Earn a First-Round Bye for the Playoffs
This prediction is definitely on the bold side, but it's not out of line to think the Saints could emerge with one of the NFC’s top two records in 2014. They were, after all, in the mix for the top seed last year until late in the season.
The New Orleans front office did an admirable job of addressing the team’s shortcomings this offseason. For instance, the Saints acquired a much-needed offensive playmaker in explosive wide receiver Brandin Cooks, who was the team’s first-round selection in the 2014 draft. They also added other pieces through free agency: namely Byrd, fullback Erik Lorig and cornerback Champ Bailey.
In addition, New Orleans re-signed some key cogs from last year’s squad, most notably offensive tackle Zach Strief and safety Rafael Bush.
It certainly won’t be easy to wrestle the NFC’s top seed away from the defending champion Seahawks, but if they can avoid the injury bug, the Saints are one of the few teams with the talent to do it.
LESS BOLD: Kenny Stills Will Haul in over 60 Receptions
Kenny Stills was the Saints’ fifth-round selection in the 2013 draft, and he made a substantial impact as a rookie.
The Oklahoma product snagged 32 receptions last season for 641 yards and five touchdowns. His average of 20.0 yards per receptions ranked No. 1 in the NFL, and it suggests he has what it takes to become one of the league’s feared deep threats.
Although not tall, he possesses adequate height for the position at 6’0”. He runs solid routes, and he frequently displays an uncanny ability to leap up and come down with the ball in heavy traffic.
Stills should play a larger role in the New Orleans offense this coming season, especially with Lance Moore now in Pittsburgh. He now has a full NFL season under his belt, and his chemistry with Brees should be significantly improved.