Welcome to the “Who Dat” Nation where everything in the world is right with both quarterback Drew Brees and head coach Sean Payton back on the sidelines together. After 2012 where Payton was suspended for a year because of his involvement in “Bounty Gate” – which I believe had a direct effect on the team’s seasonal record and missing the playoffs, the 2013 season was more of the team picking up right where it left off before the leader of the franchise took his leave of absence.
The return of Payton proved that he and Brees are a component, that there may not be another coach/quarterback tandem in the league that are as in sync as these two are and it shows on a weekly basis. Every time Brees is under center, there is a solid bet the Saints will score. While his arm is what drives the Saints bus, the running game could use a tune up or new transmission. And on defense, second-year defensive coordinator Rob Ryan turned into a cult hero of sorts for his redesign of a unit that could not stop a paper airplane in 2012 but showed marked improvement in 2013.
How this team works without veterans like Will Smith, Jonathan Vilma and Roman Harper and Jabari Greer will be a true test of what Ryan can do with this defense.
As the 2014 season is just on the horizon, the Saints have to again be considered a leading contender to be back in the Super Bowl. They have a few hurdles to overcome, but they appear to still be a strong team offensively and a growing team on the defensive side of the ball. And if 2013 was exciting with both Brees and Payton reunited (and it feels so good), 2014 might be an even better campaign. Here is the Good, the Bad and the Ugly heading into 2014.
THE GOOD: DREW BREES
Say no more. Is there anything Drew Brees cannot do? After throwing for over 5,000 yards again in 2013, you had to start to wonder where Brees should be ranked amongst the all-time greats. I know the league is different from the days of Marino and Elway, but five seasons with over 5,000 is nothing to overlook and the Saints offense moves as the arm of Brees remains strong.
That serves as a great thing for the “WHO DAT” Nation and a bad thing for opposing defenses. The best thing about Brees is that he make all of this work – no matter who is in the lineup with him. He also make it look like his $9.75 million base salary this season is a bargain when you look at other quarterbacks in this league like Tony Romo, Jay Cutler and Matt Ryan. Wide receivers and running backs have come and gone since joining the Saints in 2006. In that time span, he has led all NFL quarterbacks in touchdowns, passing yards and 300-yard games.
This season, Brees will have his reliable favorite, Marques Colston to throw to as well as youngsters like Nick Toon, Robert Meachem, Kenny Stills and rookie Brandin Cooks at his disposal.
THE BAD: AN UNHAPPY JIMMY GRAHAM
According to Yard Barker, Jimmy Graham is sitting out of Saints OTAs, has grievance hearing on June 17th-18th. With the July 15th deadline for the Saints and Graham to reach a long-term contract agreement looming, the hearing exactly one month before should hopefully resolve the issue the two sides are having.
The tight end has been such a huge part of the Saints offense in recent years, the idea of not having the best tight end in the game on the field may sound insane, but for now, that is what is facing the Saints and the passing game. The issue in question for both the Saints and Graham and his agent is simple – is he a tight end or is he a receiver? While it can be argued he played both positions in 2014, Graham wants to be paid for his services as he is used.
The Saints tagged Graham as a tight end, so that would pay him $7.035 million on a one-year deal. The NFLPA is arguing that he should be tagged as a wide receiver, which would net him $12.312 million. Graham’s main argument stems from the fact that he lined up in the slot or split wide on 67 percent of his snaps last season, while the Saints will argue that tight ends routinely line up all over the formation in today’s NFL. This issue could get hotter as the off season continues. The Saints do not need Graham to hold out is he does not have his demands met.
THE UGLY: THE RUNNING GAME
Could this be the season where we see more consistency from the Saints and the running game? While it looks like the Saints want Drew Bees to throw on every play, the team needs a stronger, more effective running attack to balance the offense.
Last season, Pierre Thomas was the team’s leading rusher – with a whopping 549 yards (3.7-yard average) and two touchdowns. He also caught 77 passes for 513 yards and three TDs. Thomas – who has been with the team since 2007 – is not fighting for a roster spot, hoping to continue with the team. Mark Ingram figures to get more carries and take the lead at the position – something this team has hoped for since making him their first round pick in 2010.
But Ingram is in a contract year and faces uncertainty with the franchise. Is it possible Ingram gets traded before the end of training camp? Does he finally show what he can do on the carpet in the Superdome? Can Thomas resurrect his career this off season? There is no more Darren Sproles as part of this running attack and the other two running backs on the roster are second-year pro Khiry Robinson and third-year man Travaris Cadet, both former rookie free agents who made the roster out of training camp.
Something has to give.