by Jim W. Miller
There was little question and little doubt the last time the Saints made it to the Super Bowl. Our local heroes went through the 2009 season like a buzz saw, winning their first 13 games and clinching the NFC top seed before the partridge flew into the pear tree. Oh, they had close wins at St. Louis, Washington and Atlanta, and, yes, they lost the last three meaningless games in a strategic move to rest the starters for the playoffs. But there was little doubt the Saints could and would win the Super Bowl.
Flash forward to the current season, and the conviction outside of Who Dat Nation is not nearly as firm. The Saints could yet run the table and win their second Lombardi Trophy, but right now they are committing too many penalties, too many turnovers and third downs have been an adventure. Those little deficiencies suggest trouble if they advance far enough to play the Eagles or the Rams. That does not mean all is lost. It merely means owner Tom Benson might have to stay vertical at least one more year to see his team match its greatest triumph.In fact, if anybody is going to Las Vegas soon, place a $20 on the nose for me that the Saints will win the Super Bowl after the 2018 season.
My optimism includes the assumption that GM Mickey Loomis will re-sign QB Drew Brees for the remainder of his career. The team’s most important player is a physical phenomenon, much like his elder peer Tom Brady. Neither Brees nor the Pats’ QB, who is 17 months older, show any signs of slowing down. Brees is the lynchpin of an offense that features a solid offensive line and enough weapons to put 30 points up on any given day. But if Brees is in the barn, here are the others reasons I think next year will be the year:
Youth is well served. Many of the problems we are seeing now stem from young players making stupid plays and mistakes. But those are significantly reduced with experience. Consider that the 2009 Saints had veterans at nearly every key position and, as a team, averaged 27.7 years of age. The 2017 Saints have rookies or second-year men at key positions and average only 26.1 years of age. In 2018, the team will have another year of experience.
Defensive improvement. Defensive Coordinator Dennis Allen has put together a formidable group from the ashes of what was probably the worst defense in the league. The linebacker renovation started with free agent A.J. Klein and Mante Te’o and received an unexpected jolt from rookie Alex Anzalone before his injury. The secondary starts two rookies in Marshon Lattimore and Marcus Williams, while second-year man Ken Crawley has started 11 games and third-year man P.J. Williams has started five. That doesn’t even include Delvin Breaux the starter who has been cursed with injuries. All should be better and more comfortable next year.
Free Agency – A priority next year should be a rush end to complement Cameron Jordan who is enjoying his best season. Second-year lineman Sheldon Rankins will only get better, and pass rusher Alex Okafor has declared his intentions to re-sign with the team, and the Saints will try and accommodate him.The upcoming free agent most likely to get more money elsewhere is SS Kenny Vaccaro and possibly utility offensive lineman Senio Kelemete. Either or both could be replaced.
2018 Draft – The Saints traded their No. 2 pick in the 2018 draft to draft some guy named Alvin Kamara in the 2017 third round and have been enjoying it a year early. Personnel guru Jeff Ireland has done a remarkable job with the past two drafts, and the draft of 2017 is one of the best in team history for immediate contributors. The 2016 class was almost as good with WR Michael Thomas, Rankins, Bell and free agents DB Ken Crawley, DB De’Vante Harris and WR Tommylee Lewis. All these young players should be even better next year. If the Saints do not get sufficient value in free agency, I would expect them to target a defensive lineman in the first round.
But what if a quarterback whom Coach Sean Payton loves drops into the lower 20’s where the Saints are likely to pick? It would not surprise me if Baker Mayfield fell down the board since most mock drafts see the Heisman Trophy winner as only the fifth-best quarterback in the 2018 class. The main reason? He’s short, plus he’s from Texas. Although the latter isn’t a reason, the combination of height and homeworked well the last time Payton signed a short quarterback from Texas. Two years of studying under Brees might allow Baker or another talent to take over eventually.
My new book, "Integrated: the Lincoln Institute, Basketball and a Vanished Tradition" is now available from the University Press of Kentucky or at Amazon.com.