Why the Rebuilt Saints Can Dethrone the Buccaneers in 2022

Gary Davenport@@IDPSharksNFL AnalystMay 16, 2022

New Orleans Saints quarterback Jameis Winston (2) passes in the first half of an NFL football game against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in New Orleans, Sunday, Oct. 31, 2021. (AP Photo/Butch Dill)
Butch Dill/Associated Press

The New Orleans Saints and Tampa Bay Buccaneers have taken very different paths in the 2022 offseason.

The Saints have overhauled a roster that produced just nine wins a year ago, failing to make the postseason for the first time since a three-year dry spell from 2014 to 2016. The Buccaneers, on the other hand, spent the offseason keeping the proverbial band together, setting up the defending NFC South champions to make one more run at a Super Bowl with Tom Brady under center.

Both teams enjoyed considerable success at their chosen paths. The Buccaneers look a lot like the team that followed up a win in Super Bowl LV with a 13-win 2021 and NFC South title. Tampa is viewed by just about everyone as the favorites in the division—including the oddsmakers at DraftKings.

But after adding impact players on both sides of the ball, the Saints have roared up behind the Buccaneers—so much so that there's a legitimate chance that if Tommy Terrific and the Brady Boys aren't careful, Tampa is going to find itself angling for a wild-card spot and hitting the road for the postseason.

The latest big move the Saints made came earlier this week—per ESPN's Mike Triplett, the team agreed to terms on a contract with veteran wide receiver Jarvis Landry. The 29-year-old Landry, who played collegiately at LSU, struggled with injuries a year ago in Cleveland, but Landry is a five-time Pro Bowler who has topped 1,000 receiving yards three separate times and topped 100 receptions twice.

It's just the most recent move the Saints have made to revamp a wideout corps that was a major weakness for the team in 2021.

New Orleans spent one of two first-round picks on Ohio State wide receiver Chris Olave, who Bleacher Report ranked as a top-10 prospect overall this year and the second-ranked wideout. The 6'0", 187-pound Olave, who caught 65 passes for 936 yards and 13 scores in 2021, told Triplett he's looking forward to learning from Landry and Michael Thomas, who the Saints hope will return to his record-setting 2019 form after a pair of injury-marred seasons.

Butch Dill/Associated Press

"I can't wait to learn from them, those two legends," Olave said. "I just started playing receiver my junior year of high school. Coming here and having Mike Thomas, Jarvis Landry help me, I have a lot of room for development, I can't wait to max that out. I've watched a lot of film on Jarvis, just his short movement quickness. I watched a lot of film on him in college, trying to take some stuff out of his game. And Mike is one of the best receivers in the game, so of course I watch him. But to see them in person, see how they work in person, I feel like it's going to help me a lot."

The Saints attempted to make a major change at quarterback, as well—New Orleans was one of the finalists for the services of Deshaun Watson before he eventually chose the Cleveland Browns. After missing out on Watson, the Saints turned their attention back to Jameis Winston, who started seven games for the team in 2021 before tearing his ACL.

As Triplett reported, Winston admitted that watching the Saints throw everything including the kitchen sink at landing Watson led to some "tough conversations" between player and team. But after signing a two-year, $28 million deal to return to the Big Easy, Winston said he knows that these Saints are his team in 2022.

"Now, it's just the action," Winston said. "It's just going out there, it's me getting healthy, and it's us going out there and winning games. And making everybody happy. Because that's what it's about. That's how they keep their jobs on the business side. That's how DA stays the head coach. And that's how I stay the quarterback."

Frankly, it may well wind up that failing in their pursuit of Watson was the best thing that could have happened to the Saints. Had the team succeeded, the picks used to draft Olave and a successor to Terron Armstead at left tackle in Trevor Penning would probably be Houston's. There wouldn't have been the cap space to bring in Landry. Or to overhaul the safety position after the losses of Marcus Williams and Malcolm Jenkins with the additions of veteran Marcus Maye and three-time first-team All-Pro Tyrann Mathieu.

Ted S. Warren/Associated Press

Mind you, Winston is himself a former No. 1 overall pick in his own right who has topped 5,000 passing yards in a season and eclipsed 30 touchdown passes. The biggest knock on Winston over his career has been his penchant for turning the ball over, but last year at least that wasn't the case—he tossed 14 touchdown passes over those seven starts against just three picks.

Provided that his rehab continues to progress well (Winston has said he intends to be full-go for training camp), there's no reason to think that given the improved passing-game weaponry at his disposal Winston can't have success. Considerable success, even.

All told, general manager Mickey Loomis has done another outstanding job of filling holes and improving the roster. Armstead or no, the Saints should have a stout offensive line—especially if Penning can bring the mean streak he had in college to the pros. The receivers are exponentially better than a season ago. The Saints were seventh in the league last year in total defense and added depth in the secondary on Day 2 of the 2022 draft with Tennessee's Alontae Taylor.

It's a roster without any weak spots that stand out.

Of course, the same thing can be said about the Buccaneers. There's a reason why no team in the NFC has better Super Bowl odds than Tampa, and it's not just because the team is led by the greatest quarterback to ever lace them up.

The Buccaneers had the NFC's No. 1 run defense last year and the league's second-best offense in terms of both yards and points per game. Once Brady decided to come back for one more year, quite a few of his teammates followed suit. The Buccaneers are loaded.

However, there's a difference between loaded and invincible.

The Buccaneers offset the loss of both starting guards from a year ago with a trade for Shaq Mason and the addition of second-rounder Luke Goedeke, but whether it's Goedeke or Aaron Stinnie starting the interior of the offensive line is a question mark. It's a similar story on the defensive line, where rookie Logan Hall is being counted on the step into the void left by Ndamukong Suh (who remains a free agent). Tampa's pass defense wasn't great last season, finishing the year 21st in the league.

It's not as if the Saints haven't shown they can give Brady's Buccaneers all they can handle. Since Brady took the reins in Tampa, the Bucs and Saints have squared off five times. The Buccaneers ended New Orleans' season in the divisional round of the 2020 playoffs, but the Saints were victorious in all four regular-season meetings.

There are questions that still need to be answered in New Orleans.

Star running back Alvin Kamara could be facing a suspension after an offseason arrest on a felony charge for battery resulting in substantial bodily harm. For the first time since the Bountygate season of 2012 (and just the second time since 2006), the Saints will open the season without Sean Payton as head coach. Dennis Allen has experience in that regard, but he also struggled in his stint as head coach of the Raiders, winning just eight of 36 games.

This time around, though, Loomis has set both Allen and Winston up to succeed. The quarterback has ample passing-game weaponry and a solid offensive line protecting him. The defensive-minded head coach has a top-10 unit on that side of the ball that can play both the run and the pass.

These Saints are every bit as balanced and talented as the squad that won 12 games and the NFC South two years ago. So while many may have all but given the division to Brady and the Bucs, they are doing so prematurely.

The Saints may well go marching into the playoffs once again in 2022.