The New York Jets take on the New Orleans Saints in East Rutherford on Saturday night in the Jets third pre-season game of 2019. Previewing this matchup, Christopher Dunnells of Canal Street Chronicles was kind enough to answer a few questions for me regarding the 2019 Saints. If you’re interested in my answers to Christopher’s questions regarding the Jets, those should be published shortly and you can head on over to Canal Street Chronicles to check them out.
1. The Saints got robbed in the NFC Championship game last year and should have been in the Super Bowl. It was such a bad non-call the NFL changed the rulebook to allow pass interference to be challenged. What do you think that devastating defeat means for the Saints in 2019-20?
For starters, we’re obviously not dealing with an identical roster from last year. Ben Watson is now a Patriot, Mark Ingram is a Raven, and Alex Okafor is a Chief. On the flip side, Jared Cook has come in from the Raiders, Latavius Murray from the Vikings, and Mario Edwards Jr. from the Giants. The influx and change of the roster means we’re dealing with a handful of players who weren’t a part of the no-call last year all together. Hopefully, for players like that, it’s a complete non-issue.
For the players that were on the team last year, I’d like to think that the rule change provided some vindication for the team and some closure moving forward. Think of it as finally meeting up with that ex after a messy breakup to finally say your piece and both of you apologize and move on. The breakup was bloody and harsh things were said on both sides, but hopefully the rule change is a subtle way for the Saints players to know the league agrees that the call was blown.
We won’t know until Week 1 (or later), but I can only hope for the Saints that the missed call in last year’s NFC Championship Game is a talking point for the media, but nothing more.
2. Saints quarterback Drew Brees will turn 41 years old by the end of the 2019-20 season. Are you seeing any signs of age related decline, and how much longer do you think Brees can continue to play at an elite level?
I say this to every non-Saints fan who asks the same question: each year Tom Brady avoids the inevitable cliff, it gives me hope Drew can survive another year. Everyone knows the immediate cliff Peyton Manning seemed to fall from in his final year in Denver, and at the time, Peyton was traveling in fairly uncharted waters as far as age is concerned. In hindsight, it’s likely Peyton’s drop-off was largely a result of his fairly recent neck injury. Brady is now set to play in his age 42 season, and doesn’t show signs of slowing just yet. Because Brady and Brees are uber athletes that keep their bodies in spectacular shape both through their workout regimens and their diets, I see no reason to think Brees won’t have a productive age 41 season.
Much ado was made about Drew’s apparent decline over the second half of the season, but a deeper look into the numbers and game film shows that the drop in his production was due to a series of injuries to his offensive line and wide receiver. The Saints had no one behind Michael Thomas last year (Ted Ginn Jr was on IR, Cam Meredith was on IR, etc.). And if or when Drew’s physical game starts to fade, he’s still one of the smartest football minds in the game with the ability to quickly read a defense and move opposing defenders with his eyes and feet. With a healthy offensive line, a smart offensive play-caller who develops quick-developing plays for an aging QB, and better weapons around him, I think Drew still puts up elite numbers in 2019.
3. The Saints lost half of their dynamic duo at running back when Mark Ingram left in free agency. How will the Saints make up for the loss of Ingram? Will Latavius Murray slide right into the Ingram role? Is Alvin Kamara able to take on a bigger workload without breaking down?
Whew. Three questions in one on this one. That’s a lot to answer, so I’ll try to hit everything quickly. Ingram’s presence will be missed, but I think the Saints run game shouldn’t experience too large a drop this season. Murray will generally slot into the Ingram roll, but I would also expect Kamara to be asked to run between the tackles a little more as well. The Saints have a very deep playbook and a smart, offensive-minded coach who makes it a point to utilize all of his players. Look for the Saints to lean primarily on Kamara as a runner in 2019, but Murray will gain significant touches (I’d guess around 900 or so total yards), with FB Zach Line and Swiss Army Knife Taysom Hill also getting opportunities to carry the ball.
4. The Saints traded two first round picks last year to move up and take edge rusher Marcus Davenport. Davenport was a bit raw coming out of college and he had a decent but unspectacular rookie campaign. What do you expect from Davenport in 2019-20? Is he ready to become the pass rushing stud the Saints thought they were trading up for?
It’s a cop out of an answer, but: time will tell if he’s ready to take the step forward. Davenport was slowly eased into the Saints defense last year, but with Alex Okafor gone, Davenport will be the starting defensive end opposite Cam Jordan. I expect Davenport’s sack total to increase from last year, but I imagine he’ll struggle out of the gate, especially considering the Saints are weak on the defensive line interior while Sheldon Rankins recovers from a torn Achilles. With Rankins gone, opposing defenses can focus on just stopping Cam and Davenport, and it might make it a little harder for Davenport to get his hands on the QB. Even still, I expect Davenport to put up a solid, if unspectacular, sophomore year. It will really be his 2020 season where we’ll expect that super leap forward - Saints fans need to be patient. Davenport was always going to be a bit of a project.
5. What Saints players, if any, are Saints fans familiar with that others should be but probably aren’t? Who will surprise Jets fans with how good they are this Saturday?
The answer here has to be Taysom Hill, doesn’t it? Taysom, the quarterback, running back, wide receiver, tight end, kick returner, gunner, holder, lead blocker, special teamer, hair stylist, mechanic, and tire salesman... OK, I might have gotten a bit carried away there at the end, but really, Taysom is special. I’ll try to use a reference Jets’ fans would be familiar with: think about what the NFL world wanted Tim Tebow to be and how everyone wished a coach could utilize his skill set, and that’s Taysom Hill in the Sean Payton offense.
He’s developing as a pocket passer and is slowly starting to make better decisions on when to tuck and run and when to chuck the ball down the field, but during the regular season, he’s primarily a gadget player. He lines up as a wide receiver - will he run a route to catch a pass, catch a screen and run, catch a screen and then chuck a pass, run an end around, or just be a decoy? If he’s lined up as a quarterback, it’s a wildcat offense - he has sub-4.4 speed and is elusive and shifty as all get out (think of Ben Roethlisberger’s ability to shake defenders with Michael Vick’s speed) so he can keep the ball, he can hand off to a running back in the back field, but he can also throw the ball if you sell out for a run. His speed and size makes him valuable on special teams, both as a kick returner and as a gunner to make a tackle on the opposing returner. Because he plays special teams so frequently, it’s not surprising to see him as the lead blocker for a punt or the holder for a field goal, but his skills make trick plays a constant fear. Believe it or not, he’s also one of the best blockers on the team, so if he lines up at tight end against the line, there’s also a solid chance he’s just there to block for the running back. He can throw, run, catch, block... you name it. Against the Jets, he’ll be there primarily to play QB against third-stringers, but don’t be surprised to see #7 constantly tuck the ball and run for positive yards again and again.