Following an offseason of trades and free-agent signings, the New Orleans Saints are looking ahead to the coming season, and speculation is beginning to pick up regarding what the team’s ceiling, and floor, is for the 2014 season.
Since the 2006 arrival of coach Sean Payton and quarterback Drew Brees in New Orleans, the Saints have been one of the NFL’s most successful teams. In each of the past four seasons that Payton has coached the club, New Orleans has made the playoffs. The Saints failed to make the cut when he was suspended from his duties in 2012, yet they still clawed their way to a respectable 7-9 season.
Fortunately for New Orleans, Payton will be roaming the Superdome sidelines for the eighth season in 2014. His squad, which reached the divisional round of the playoffs last season, will be looking to advance even further this year, as numerous personnel changes have been executed this offseason.
For a ceiling, the sky is the limit for this year’s Saints, and they have the potential to raise the Lombardi Trophy as Super Bowl Champions. Yes, they can be that good. On paper, New Orleans has a collection of talent that compares favorably with the Super Bowl-winning 2009 squad, thanks in large to general manager Mickey Loomis’ strong commitment to improving his club’s roster.
Former starters Jonathan Vilma, Jabari Greer, Malcolm Jenkins, Jed Collins, Brian de la Puente, Will Smith, Darren Sproles and Lance Moore are no longer with the team. The Saints have replaced these pricey veterans with a host of young talent, while keeping some key ingredients of their past success still intact.
With newcomers such as safety Jairus Byrd and cornerback Stanley Jean-Baptiste now on board and promising young ends Cameron Jordan and Akiem Hicks returning, the Saints have plenty to be excited about on the defensive side of the ball. The group should be better than last year’s unit, which finished the season ranked fourth in the NFL.
Byrd, a heavily pursued free-agent acquisition, joins an already capable defensive backfield, and his presence in the deep secondary should allow fellow safety Kenny Vaccaro to creep up and wreak havoc in run support much more often.
On the other side of the ball, the addition of wide receiver Brandin Cooks adds a fearsome big-play threat to an already dangerous offense. With other proven weapons at Brees’ disposal, such as tight end Jimmy Graham, running back Pierre Thomas and wideouts Marques Colston and Kenny Stills, the Pro Bowl signal-caller will have no shortage of options in the passing game.
The Saints’ ground game should also be formidable in 2014. Joining Thomas in the backfield are two powerful, downhill runners in Khiry Robinson and Mark Ingram. No matter which back is taking the handoff, he should benefit greatly from the lead-blocking of free-agent fullback acquisition Erik Lorig.
On the offensive line, the Saints return four of the five starters they ended last season with. The play of left tackle Terron Armstead will be key to the line’s success, as the second-year pro will face challenging assignments on a weekly basis protecting Brees’ blind side.
If the defense continues its steady improvement under second-year coordinator Rob Ryan, and the offense plays up to its potential, the 2014 season could be a special year for the Saints.
Of course, things don’t always play out as expected in the wild and wacky game of football. The number of past NFL teams that have entered the season stacked with talent, yet couldn’t bring things together on the field, is too high to count.
Could the same fate await these Saints in 2014? Certainly.
The line between losing and winning in the NFL is undeniably thin, and New Orleans, like any other team, could conceivably experience the bottom falling out on its season.
There are a number of factors that could cause such a collapse, and chief among them is a rash of injuries. Sure, the Saints have depth at some of their key positions, and an injury to a starter could serve as a window for a younger player to step in and make his mark. But if injuries start to mount, things could head south quickly for Payton’s squad.
Another key factor to consider is the team’s mental focus. How will they respond after a tough loss? This rests largely on the head coach, and Payton typically does a masterful job of keeping his team mentally sharp over the course of a 16-game season.
While the chances of the Saints imploding from within are slim, no team is immune to the injury bug. If certain key starters go down, such as Brees or Byrd, an 8-8 season is very possible, especially in the ever-improving NFC South.
If the club stays relatively healthy, however, a divisional title and a deep playoff run, possibly ending with a Super Bowl berth, are well within the realm of possibility for the 2014 New Orleans Saints.