Mere hours separate us from the final preseason action for the New Orleans Saints in 2019, meaning the regular season kickoff is right around the corner. With expectations as high as ever, and a brutal opening quarter to the season ahead, the Saints are going to need to be hyper-focused these next four-plus months to reach their ultimate goal of winning Super Bowl XLIV. The biggest obstacle for the team on their path to the playoffs will be familiar faces: their division rivals.
Every year, it seems as though the NFC South will be an unbelievably competitive and tough division, with a close battle for spots 1-4. Even though the division does pump out fantastic teams (three Super Bowl appearances in the last ten seasons) and tough battles for the winner occasionally, there’s always a clear-cut “worst” team and at least one other mediocre squad. This season, however, it truly looks like it will be an incredibly tough division to win consistently in, let alone become cream of the crop. New Orleans is trying to do just that for the third year in a row.
That is easier said than done regarding the 2019 season. Just like every other season, the Saints will play six crucial division games this season. Splitting the season series with each team, which is more likely than most would like to admit, would give the Saints three losses, their entire total from last season. It’s important to win these games, and it starts with how the Saints stack up on paper against each rival. This piece surrounds each offensive corps, which gets very exciting across the board.
Saints: Drew Brees, Teddy Bridgewater, Taysom Hill
Falcons: Matt Ryan, Matt Schaub, Matt Simms
Panthers: Cam Newton, Kyle Allen, Will Grier
Buccaneers: Jameis Winston, Blaine Gabbert, Ryan Griffin
Not only do our Saints have the best starting quarterback in the division, their second and third QB slots are better than the other three teams as well. Bridgewater is arguably the best backup QB in the entire league, and the versatile player that is Taysom Hill has a stronger arm than just about any other bench-QB in the division not named Schaub or Grier. Matt Ryan is not far behind Brees’ level of eliteness, though. He’s only a few years removed from an MVP campaign and Super Bowl appearance, and has been top-6 in the league in passing yards for the past several consecutive seasons. Atlanta will continue to have an electric offense with Ryan under center, keeping the flame between these team ignited.
Newton is also just a few years removed from an MVP campaign and Super Bow berth, but has not stayed consistent like Ryan has. In fact, Newton has taken a steep dive in terms of performance and production. Since his 3,837-yard, 35-touchdown, 99.4-passer rating 2015 season, Newton has not eclipsed 3,600 passing yards, 25 touchdown passes, or a passer rating of 95 or greater. Newton, much like Winston, has dealt with injuries during his career, and the latter has even missed time due to a suspension. Last season, Winston had to sit out the first three games of the season due to a violation of the NFL’s personal conduct policy stemming from an incident many months prior. After a slow start to the year, which saw him being benched at one point, Winston threw for 1,300 yards and 9 touchdowns on 61% completion percentage. Very impressive finish to the year, and it’s a prove-it season for Winston under new Head Coach Bruce Arians.
Overall, the Saints have a clear advantage at this spot, but the other division starters are far from being slouches. There likely will be many high-scoring shootouts between these teams in 2019 because of these talented quarterbacks.
Saints: Alvin Kamara, Latavius Murray, Dwayne Washington/Devine Ozigbo
Falcons: Devonta Freeman, Ito Smith, Brian Hill
Panthers: Christian McCaffery, Cameron Artis-Payne, Reggie Bonnafon/Jordan Scarlett
Buccaneers: Peyton Barber, Ronald Jones, Andre Ellington
Even though he’s only played one season, many are marking McCaffery as a better back than Kamara, the 2017 NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year. The former Stanford-standout did have an amazing campaign, which saw him finish top-5 in the league in total scrimmage yards. However, Kamara has more experience and a greater sample size. He’s achieved over 1,550 total yards from scrimmage two seasons in a row to start his career. That’s one of the rarest feats in NFL history, so until McCaffery matches or tops that, Kamara should continue to wear the crown in the NFC South. It’s behind both those men where we find the questions for this season. With Mark Ingram in Baltimore now, the Saints will rely on newly-signed veteran Latavius Murray to pick up the slack behind Kamara. He can be more of a prototype backup, which may benefit the Saints offense along with contributions from both Ozigbo and Washington. I expect both to make the team. Carolina is going with Artis-Payne for another season, and he may be a sleeper in fantasy due to his great understanding of the offensive system by now. Their most intriguing third-stringer is Scarlett, the rookie out of Florida.
The Falcons will most likely game-plan for a backfield by committee, especially if Freeman continues to struggle with staying healthy. He missed 11 games last season after sports hernia surgery, and three games the year before. He’s also suffered two unfortunate concussions, forcing Atalanta to rely on their second-string backs often. Lately, it’s been Tevin Coleman, a shifty back who is a diamond in the rough. Coleman is now in San Francisco, so the Falcons turn to Ito Smith and Brian Hill. Smith scores three touchdowns in one game last season, his first in the league, which set a Falcons rookie record. Hill was actually on Atlanta’s practice squad for a month in 2017 before being signed by the Bengals, whom cut him last year right before the Falcons brought him back. Much like Atlanta, Tampa Bay will likely rely on multiple backs to contribute heavily in their run game. And that will benefit their offense a lot, as fourth-year stud Peyton Barber looks to keep surprising us all while averaging ~4 yards per carry. Former USC standout Ronald Jones also looks to prove his worth this upcoming season.
Even though there is talent to go around the entire division, the Saints have another advantage in this department. Kamara is just too great, and Murray is clearly the best backup/compliment-back out of all four teams. With that being said, the Saints number-one rush defense from a year ago will be tested often during all six division matchups.
Saints: Michael Thomas, Ted Ginn, Jr, Tre’Quan Smith, Keith Kirkwood/Emmanuel Butler
Falcons: Julio Jones, Mohamed Sanu, Calvin Ridley, Russell Gage/Justin Hardy
Panthers: DJ Moore, Curtis Samuel, Chris Hogan, Jarius Wright/Aldrick Robinson
Buccaneers: Mike Evans, Chris Godwin, Breshad Perriman, Justin Watson/DaMarkus Lodge
The Saints are going to need to take a backseat in this section, unfortunately. Behind All-Pro and generational talent Michael Thomas, the only consistent part of the WR corps is how often it is carried by Brees. That rang true last season, and probably will ring true again in 2019. Ginn can do some damage, but dealt with being on injured reserve most of last season, and he’s entering the twilight of his career. It’s down to Smith, Kirkwood, and possibly undrafted rookie Emmanuel Butler to make many plays on offense for the Saints. The team can’t continue to rely on Thomas being targeted nearly 200 times every season, and for Kamara to play wide receiver just as much as runningback and expect to make it to the Super Bowl. The Falcons have their corps figured out, starting with another generational talent in Jones. Opposite him is Sanu, a savvy veteran who has survived trade rumors this offseason , and Ridley occupies the slot. Ridley went off last year in Atlanta against the Saints-more specifically PJ Williams-as he caught three touchdowns.
Mike Evans continues to quietly put up insane numbers with the Buccaneers, but they haven’t done enough winning for most people to notice. He’s accumulated at least 70 catches and 1,000 receiving yards every season of his career, including last year’s outing where he hauled in 86 balls for 1,524 yards (17.7 yards per catch). His running mate, Godwin, is a speedy compliment to Evans, and the team recently signed Perriman to help stretch the field as he had a career rebirth last season in Cleveland. For the Panthers, they’re going to have to rely on two very young players to haul in most of the passes from Newton. Moore was a first round pick out of Maryland in 2018, and Samuel was a second rounder out of Ohio State in 2017. Samuel is slated for a breakout season, or, at least, that’s what Panther fans are hoping for, and Moore will need to step up his game as he becomes the bonafide number one receiver on that squad. Carolina also has former-Patriot Chris Hogan now coming out of the slot, but their WR corps is still not as good as Tampa’s or even New Orleans’.
Who knows: maybe this is the year the Saints have a powerhouse corps at wide receiver. Maybe Austin Carr makes the team and makes plays along with Deonte Harris, who could branch out from being a true return specialist. However, on paper right now, the Saints are either second or third in the division when it comes to depth, with a huge gap between them and Atlanta.
Saints: Jared Cook, Josh Hill, Dan Arnold/Alize Mack
Falcons: Austin Hooper, Luke Stocker, Logan Paulsen
Panthers: Greg Olsen, Ian Thomas, Chris Manhertz
Buccaneers: OJ Howard, Cameron Brate, Tanner Hudson
Stop me if you’ve heard this before: the Saints seem to have finally figured out their problem at tight end. It was thought to have been solved when the team signed Coby Fleener a few years ago, and when the duo of Ben Watson and Josh Hill became the two main tight ends last season. Neither plans ended up completely fixing the void left by Jimmy Graham’s trade, and the plan with Fleener fell flat on its face. Now, it seems as though the problem has legitimately been fixed… for this season, at least. After a long game of cat and mouse, the Saints finally signed 10-year veteran Jared Cook to a two-year contract. He is coming off his first Pro Bowl season, where he posted 896 yards and six touchdowns off of 68 receptions in Oakland. He can take this already stellar offense to another level, especially due to his ability to stretch the field as a speedy tight end. The current superior end in the division is of course Greg Olsen. I juries have limited his production the last two seasons, but from 2013-16, Olsen had at least 70 catches every season, and over 1,000 receiving yards in three of them. If he stays healthy, he is Newton’s favorite red zone and over-the-middle target, meaning catches and yards galore for Olsen. Carolina’s safety blanket is 2018 fourth round selection Ian Thomas, who was actually able to catch 36 passes in his rookie season for 333 yards and two touchdowns. The Saints would be fortunate to get that type of season on 2019 from backup Josh Hill, because it’s a toss up as to whether Dan Arnold, Alizé Mack, or even AJ Derby become the consistent contributor at TE3 the Saints need.
Even though Olsen is the better tight end due to his accolades, OJ Howard will likely have the better season. In fact, he could end up having a fantastic year catching the ball during a full season with Winston. The former Alabama superstar is poised to be one of the best fantasy players at his position, but hopes to contribute to actual wins and NFL yardage records instead. The Buccaneers love to run a two tight end sent with Howard and equally-impressive Cameron Brate. That’s dangerous for opposing defenses, as each player has caught five or more touchdowns the last two seasons. Brate actually caught eight in 2016, one season before Howard was drafted. Howard’s potential and their ability to double dip at the position gives Tampa Bay the best right end corps top to bottom. The Falcons will likely approach their tight ends with a committee mindset, as veterans Hooper, Stocker, and Paulsen will all be secondary targets for Ryan. He will be looking for Jones, Freeman, Ridley and Sanu; in the red zone, though, Atlanta’s right ends could shine.
If Cook replicates what he did a season ago, the Saints may end up kings of this corps as well. Either way, he will be competing with Howard and Olsen for best in the South. The implications of Cook performing well turn to a trickle-down effect on the Saints offense, making everything around Cook flow like a well-oiled machine more consistently.
Saints: Erik McCoy, Larry Warford, Andrus Peat, Ryan Ramczyk, Terron Armstead
Falcons: Alex Mack, Chris Lindstrom, James Carpenter, Ty Sambrailo, Jake Matthews, Kaleb McGary
Panthers: Matt Paradis, Trai Turner, Greg Van Roten, Taylor Moton, Daryl Williams
Buccaneers: Ryan Jensen, Alex Cappa, Ali Marpet, Demar Dotson, Donovan Smith
Offensive line is the toughest corps to get right, and the Saints have pretty much done just that. The surprising retirement of center Max Unger threw a major wrench in the makeup of this offense, but Mickey Loomis and co. seem to have put a band-aid on the issue, fixed it for the long term, or have even done both. It started with the signing of Nick Easton in March, and continued with the drafting of Erik McCoy after trading up in the second round. Both hope to carry the torch and protect the front of Brees’ and Kamara’s frontline in battle. The rest of the line has stayed exactly the same from 2018, with Warford, Ramczyk, Armstead, and even Peat all entering or already in their prime years. Fairly far, but not too far, behind the Saints in o-line corps is Carolina, who has gotten better with protecting daredevil Newton.
The team who made the most improvements this offseason is undisputedly Atlanta. Not only did they snag one of the best guard prospects in the 2019 Draft in Lindstrom, they were able to trade back into the first round to snag one of the better tackle prospects in the draft: McGary. Both of these players look to improve a Falcons line that suffered injuries last year, hampering their expectations and getting Ryan sacked 42 times (13th most in the league, most in the NFC South). Just behind the Falcons in that category was Tampa Bay, who got Winston and Ryan Fitzpatrick sacked a combined 41 times in 2018. They did not do much this offseason to get better, but hope that both Marpet and Smith continue to play at a high-level at their respective positions.
You can give another mark to the Saints here, bringing their total corps wins in this article to three. Credit the research done by the draft department in New Orleans’ front office, as they were able to find Armstead, Ramczyk, and trade up for McCoy to establish a dominating offensive line for the Saints.