It’s Feb. 3, 2019, and the New Orleans Saints are revelling in their 31-14 Super Bowl LIII victory over the Jacksonville Jaguars at Atlanta’s Mercedes Benz Stadium. Saints QB Drew Brees was the game’s MVP, throwing three touchdown passes, two to All-Pro Michael Thomas and one to TE Jimmy Graham, whom the Saints signed in March as a free agent. The defense held the Jags’ high-powered offense to its lowest scoring output of the season as Cameron Jordan and Ziggy Ansah, the former Lion signed as a free agent, sacked QB Blake Bortles six times. CB Malcolm Butler, another free agent pickup whom the Patriots benched in Super Bowl LII, intercepted Bortles twice.
Hey, it could happen! I wrote a few weeks ago that I believed the Saints had lost too many key players to injuries to get to Super Bowl LII, but that they were primed to take it all next year. They almost proved me wrong about this year, but it was clearly the Eagles’ time. Losing your quarterback prompted the so-called experts to flee the bandwagon and consider them underdogs all the way through the playoffs. But QB Nick Foles proved how important the backup quarterback position can be.
Confidence in the Saints’ chances next year isn’t just a figment of one guy’s imagination. On Monday, ESPN backed into the same prediction, although rating the Eagles and Vikings higher. ESPN reasoned that the recently crowned world champions could lose some key players to free agency, and it’s going to be interesting when QB Carson Wentz returns to full health. And all three Vikings quarterbacks could become free agents, which will create an interesting off-season in the far north.
Here’s what ESPN said about our local heroes: “The Saints went 11-5 this past season and had a team that featured the second-most snaps from rookies. Those rookies - which included Alvin Kamara and Marshon Lattimore – could continue to improve and make an impact in 2018. And assuming Drew Brees does return (he’s a pending free-agent) the Saints could be the team to beat in the NFC.” I agree, for those reasons and others I listed a few weeks ago.
Kamara and Lattimore were voted the best offensive and defensive rookies of the year, and joining them were other rookies or second-year men at key positions. The roster is young, averaging only 26.1 years of age, and next year, they will still be six months younger than the Saints’ 2009 Super Bowl champs with another year of experience.
Defensive Coordinator Dennis Allen put together a formidable group from the ashes of what was probably the worst defense in the league a year ago. Linebackers A.J. Klein and rookie Alex Anzalone missed much of the season with injuries but will be back. In addition to Lattimore, the secondary started rookie Marcus Williams, while second-year man Ken Crawley started most of the season and P.J. Williams started five. All should be better and more comfortable next year. In free agency, a priority should be a rush end to complement Cameron Jordan who enjoyed his best season.
Players who could step right in include Lions pass-rusher supreme, Ziggy Ansah, or the Cowboys’ Demarcus Lawrence who had 14.5 sacks. Another free agent who could bolster the defense is CB Malcolm Butler, who almost came to New Orleans a year ago and must be itching to avenge his benching in the Super Bowl.
On offense, Dolphins WR Jarvis Landry, the former LSU Tiger, might want to come home and hook up with Brees, and former Saint TE Jimmy Graham also is a free agent who enjoyed his best years with Brees. In the draft, I would expect personnel guru Jeff Ireland to continue his remarkable job at finding players who can step right in and contribute. So while the NFL is celebrating the Eagles’ victory, the Saints have got to be looking ahead to winning their second Super Bowl, which will be held in the home of their greatest rival, Atlanta’s Mercedes Benz Stadium.
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.