With the Jets getting set for a clash in the Bayou with the Saints, I asked Chris Dunnells of Canal Street Chronicles 5 questions on New Orleans’ resident division leaders heading into Sunday’s game.
1. The Saints had been struggling the past few seasons. What has been the primary reason for their return to prominence this year?
The most obvious answer here would be the improved play of the defense. After having consistently historically-bad defenses the past few seasons, practically the entire Saints defense was re-vamped heading into this season. Aside from DE Cameron Jordan and SS Kenny Vaccaro, the rest of the starters on defense were not starters for the team in 2016. The Saints signed DE Alex Okafor to rush the passer opposite Cam Jordan, and after he went down, rookies Trey Hendrickson and now Al-Quadin Muhammad have been asked to fill in. The Saints have had full seasons of second-year DTs Sheldon Rankins and David Onyemata. The entire Linebacking corps was replaced with free agents Manti Te'o and A.J. Klein to go with rookie Alex Anzalone before he went down to injury. Marshon Lattimore was drafted in the first round this year to play with a healthy Ken Crawley (who missed 2016 with injury) and fellow rookie Marcus Williams is back as the center fielder FS.
2. How has Drew Brees progressed into his late 30s, and how much longer can we expect him in New Orleans?
With improved play from the defense and a running game that has been absolutely incredible, less has been asked of QB Drew Brees. Brees has shown he still has the ability to get the job done when he needs to (as shown by the final two drives plus overtime from the game against the Washington Redskins), but he's also shown that his age might be influencing his production (look no further than the final pass against the Atlanta Falcons). At this point, I'd be shocked to see him play for another team in 2018, even though his contract is up in New Orleans. How much longer he's in New Orleans is likely based on how many more years he has in the tank to be productive. I'd venture to say he's got two solid years left, but don't be surprised if the Saints draft a QB early in the 2018 NFL Draft.
3. Tell us about the Saints running game. How much of it is sheer electric playmaking from Alvin Kamara and Mark Ingram, and how much of it is strong work from the offensive line?
I'd say it's an 75/25 split between the play-making of Alvin Kamara and Mark Ingram and the push from the offensive line. Most of the Saints offensive line in 2017 was together in 2016, save for rookie Ryan Ramczyk in place of Pro Bowler Zach Strief. With the 2016 offensive line, Mark Ingram was the first RB since Deuce McAllister to rush for over 1,000 yards for the Saints. Ingram's ability in the screen game is often over-looked, and his ability to get yards on the push after initial contact is uncanny. Kamara, on the other hand, is the type of play-maker you just want to get the ball in his hands because special things can happen. Like Ingram's ability in the passing game, Kamara is often over-looked as a between-the-tacklers runner.
4. The Saints' rookie class looks like it has done an incredible job. Who have the biggest surprises of the class been, and why have they as a group been able to have so much immediate success? Was the class well received by the fanbase initially?
The answer almost has to be Alvin Kamara, doesn't it? The Saints traded up to draft him in the 3rd Round, and no one expected him to be this productive this early. He splits time with Mark Ingram (and initially also had to deal with Adrian Peterson in front of him on the depth chart) and still is in the running for Offensive Rookie of the Year. A close second answer would be OL Ryan Ramczyk, who the Saints selected with the last pick in the 1st Round. Yes, he was a first round talent, so it's hard to say he's really a surprise to be productive, but no one expected him to be forced into a starting role (at multiple spots across the line) this early and to hold his own all season. A lot of fans were disappointed with the Ramczyk pick because an offensive lineman in the first round is hardly the "sexy" choice fans were hoping for - especially with word the Saints were trying to get LB Rueben Foster before the 49ers traded up for him. Still, most fans were excited with Lattimore and the class a whole, but it's definitely looked upon more fondly with the benefit of hindsight.
5. Who is one unheralded member of the Saints that is a key contributor deserving of more attention?
Let's roll with the aforementioned Ramczyk. I'm not sure how much stock you put into Pro Football Focus grades, but Ramczyk has graded out as one of the best offensive lineman (not just rookies) in the NFL recently. It's practically impossible for a non-skills player to win Offensive Rookie of the Year (and that's a rant for another day), but if it possible, Ramczyk would have to be on the shortlist to win.
The Jets are currently 16 point underdogs to the Saints. Will they cover?
This poll is closed