Chris answered questions about the offense, defense, the fans’ reaction to having an active front office, and Drew Brees’s future with the Saints.
I hope you enjoy his informative answers to this week’s five questions. You can read my answers to his questions on Canal Street Chronicles.
1. The Saints defense went from an NFL-worst 28.4 PPG in 2016 to a stingy 18.3 PPG so far this year. What have been a few factors you can point at to make sense of this severe one-year defensive turn around?
Literally, the entire Saints defense has been changed from 2016. Of the defensive players for the Saints who played in all 16 games for the team last year, only DE Cam Jordan and S Kenny Vaccaro remain.
Strong and healthy up front
On the defensive line, they have a full, healthy year of 2016 1st Round Pick Sheldon Rankins in the middle along with Tyeler Davison, who has earned a starting job. Opposite Jordan, they have free agent signee Alex Okafor, who has played exceptionally for the team this year. They will also occasionally use Hau'oli Kikaha as a pass-rushing specialist, and he missed all of 2016 due to injury.
The entire linebacking corps was revamped, with free agents AJ Klein and Manti Te'o joining 2017 3rd Round Pick Alex Anzalone before he was lost to season-ending injury. Along with Vaccaro, they are also playing 2017 2nd Round Pick Marcus Williams, who has made significant strides as the season has progressed.
With them in the secondary, Ken Crawley took over in Week 3 for De'Vante Harris, and he's been an exceptional #2 Corner. The Saints top cornerback right now is obviously 2017 1st Round Pick Marshon Lattimore.
I'm not sure how much stock you put into Pro Football Focus grades, but he's been grading out consistently as the best cornerback in the NFL thus far — not just among rookies, but ALL Cornerbacks. In fact, there was an interesting stat last week that showed an opposing QB's rating is actually higher if he simply throws the ball in the dirt rather than target Lattimore.
Specifically, the emergence of Lattimore along with the better-than-expected play of Crawley has allowed Saints Defensive Coordinator Dennis Allen to feel more comfortable playing in man coverage, which in turn has allowed a schematic change to more exotic blitz calls on obvious passing downs that we haven't seen since the days of Gregg Williams.
2. Has the Ingram/Kamara tandem fundamentally changed the offense?
Last year, Mark Ingram became the first Saints Running Back to rush for over 1,000 yards since Deuce McAllister. In each year of his professional career, Ingram has become more and more adept as a pass-catcher.
Likewise, rookie RB Alvin Kamara is known primarily as a pass-catching back for the Saints in the same mold as Darren Sproles, but he's actually a very talented between-the-tackles runner.
This combination has allowed the Saints to have either (or both) Backs in the huddle and the opposing defense cannot be sure if the play call is a run or a pass.
Compare that to Adrian Peterson who is only truly effective running out of the "I" formation. When Peterson was in the huddle for the Saints, opposing defenses were able to stack the box and bet on run.
Now that both Ingram and Kamara are playing so well, it has kept opposing defenses guessing. This, along with incredible play from the offensive line, has allowed the Saints to not rely on the arm of Drew Brees as heavily.
In years past, you would see an unsuccessful run on first down, another unsuccessful run on second down, and an incomplete pass on 3rd and 8. With the threat of a run game able to get chunks of yardage at a time, the team is converting on 2nd downs or setting up third and manageable almost every drive.
3. The Saints aren’t afraid to trade established stars like Jimmy Graham, Brandon Cooks, and – less significantly -- Adrian Peterson. How well has this been received by the media/fans?
Winning does a lot for a fanbase's morale.
At the time, (aside from the Peterson deal) each trade was met with varying degrees of hostility. Now, though, it's hard to imagine the team without their only Center, Pro Bowler Max Unger, the anchor of the offensive line, who was acquired in the Seattle trade for Jimmy Graham.
Sticking with the offensive line, it's hard to imagine what the Saints would have done without 2017 1st Round Pick Ryan Ramczyk, who has played every game for the Saints thus far, shifting around to multiple positions. Ramczyk was the player the Saints drafted in the pick received from New England for Brandin Cooks.
The other pick from the Cooks trade turned into DE Trey Hendrickson in the third round, and even Hendrickson has added two sacks and a forced fumble to the team.
Then you can look at other moves that weren't made.
The Saints were reportedly on the phone with LB Reuben Foster to draft the Alabama Linebacker with the Ramczyk pick before he was scooped up by San Francisco.
The Saints were courting Malcolm Butler to potentially trade the 11th overall pick back to New England in a piggyback trade to the Cooks move, but instead chose to draft Lattimore. If the Saints had Malcolm Butler (who has disappointed this year) and Reuben Foster on this year's team right now instead of Ramczyk and Lattimore, Saints fans' perception of the Cooks trade might be a little different. But because the team is doing well in hindsight, both moves are looked at without much regret.
Peterson is a different story - fans were just as happy then to get rid of him as they are now that he's gone.
4. Tell us about one or more players on the New Orleans team that we probably haven’t heard of, or don’t know much about, that have you excited.
You might have figured it out by now in reading these answers, but the Saints had a solid draft class in 2017.
Lattimore, Ramczyk, Williams, Kamara, and Anzalone (pre-injury) are all starters.
Hendrickson and 6th Round Pick DE Al-Quadin Muhammed are both rotational pieces that could figure into the Saints long term plan.
There aren't many players on the Saints that are exciting that are lesser known with Brees, Ingram, and Michael Thomas leading the way on offense and massive names in the media.
So if forced to pick someone who might be more under-the-radar, I'll go with CB Ken Crawley, an undrafted rookie from 2016. Last year, after signing as an UDFA, he made 5 starts for the team before landing on IR in December.
This year, it's Marshon Lattimore whose name is constantly getting discussed. But the Vikings and Patriots games in Weeks 1 & 2 showed that opposing QBs can just target the other CB in the Saints formation (the aforementioned De'Vante Harris, for instance). It has really been Crawley's presence that has helped limit the receiving options for opposing QBs.
5. Coming into the 2017 season, the Saints had three straight 7-9 seasons, an anchor of a defense and a franchise quarterback nearing 40 who would have a 20 million dollar cap hit in 2018 whether he was on the team or not. It seemed like a distinct possibility that the Saints might choose to reset their franchise with a new, young quarterback, take their lumps, gain some high draft picks and build a more complete team. Then 2017 happened and the Saints look like a real contender making it seem near impossible to let Brees leave town now. How long is Drew Brees going to be the quarterback of the Saints and how will all that play out with the money he wants versus the money the team can spend?
I would honestly be shocked if Drew Brees plays for another team in his NFL career.
How many more years he has left is another issue all together. For Saints fans, they can take solace in watching Tom Brady. Brady is over a year older than Drew Brees, so for each year Brady is able to be a productive NFL QB gives Saints hope for the following year.
That being said, if the Saints were smart, they would still look to draft a QB (Baker Mayfield, anyone?) early in the 2018 NFL Draft to prepare for the future and life without Drew.
His salary demands are another tricky topic.
When Matthew Stafford signed a contract to make him the highest paid QB in the NFL, a lot of Saints fans almost had a heart attack just imagining the kind of money Drew would demand.
But I want to caution fans of the Jaguars or Cardinals who think they might be in the running to throw money at Drew in 2018: when word first hit that Josh Norman (heard of him?) was going to be leaving the Panthers, Drew approached the team and said that he would be willing to immediately restructure his contract if it meant the team could give Norman enough money to come to New Orleans. Obviously that didn't end up happening, but I think it proves an interesting point: If the Saints are able to show Drew that this team is built to make a run next year, I wouldn't be surprised to see Drew take a deal at or below market value to allow the team to address other needs on the team.
I appreciate Chris taking the time to educate us about his team.
As always, we hope for an injury-free game (maybe we haven’t been hoping hard enough this season), and a Redskins victory (we need it more than they do).
How many Saints will be voted to the Pro Bowl this year?
This poll is closed
5 or more