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Saints have right ingredients to replicate 2017 recipe | Football

Optimist view: Most of the main contributors from last year’s breakthrough 11-5 season in which the Saints won the NFC South are back. That includes Offensive and Defensive Rookies of the Year Alvin Kamara and Marshon Lattimore, respectively, along with All-Pro DE Cameron Jordan and the prolific pairing of Drew Brees and Michael Thomas.

New Orleans also returns its starting O-line, which surrendered the second-fewest sacks and paved the way for the second-highest average per carry in the NFL, entirely intact. Of course, with Brees and Payton, a high-powered offense is pretty much a foregone conclusion, but one of the few areas the NFL’s second-rated attack endured uncharacteristic struggles (on third down, where it finished 19th) received attention with the signings of chain-moving TE Ben Watson and big-bodied slot WR Cam Meredith.

It’s easy to forget that Lattimore and Marcus Williams, who were the catalysts on a ‘D’ that tallied 20 interceptions, are only entering Year 2 and should be even better, particularly with experienced vets in Kurt Coleman and Patrick Robinson joining them on the back end. With reinforcements including Demario Davis, whose task is improving a run ‘D’ that ranked 28th in average carry allowed, and first-round pass rusher Marcus Davenport offering Jordan another edge complement, there’s reasons to think Dennis Allen’s upstart ‘D’ can keep ascending.

Kamara’s electrifying efficiency (7.7 yards per touch; one TD every 15.5 chances) will be tested by Mark Ingram’s four-game PED ban to begin the season. So too will Payton’s renewed commitment to the ground game that helped Brees lead the NFL in YPA (8.1) and set a single-season completion percentage record. To wit: Kamara never reached 20 touches in a game and surpassed 15 only four times; will the offense be as dynamic early on without one-half of arguably the league’s top rushing tandem?

Brees has shown few signs of slowing down, but the depth behind him, where Chase Daniel’s departure leaves Tom Savage as the only quarterback with a regular-season attempt to his name, and in front of him, where valuable utility lineman Senio Kelemete was replaced with aging Jermon Bushrod, is depleted.

A defense ranked 30th in scoring over the previous three seasons finished 10th last year and was one of the NFL’s most improved units. But it faltered late in the season partially because of injuries, surrendering an average of 28.6 points over the final three games including playoffs, compared to 19.7 in Weeks 1-15. And potential depth concerns remain, especially up front if Davenport requires seasoning and anything happens to improving former first-round DT Sheldon Rankins, never mind the consistently dominant Jordan.

On schedule: They’ll face two division foes (vs. Tampa in Week 1, at Atlanta in Week 3) and two vastly improved last-place teams (vs. Cleveland, at Giants) without Ingram. Then, after the Week 6 open date, their toughest scheduling trifecta awaits — at Baltimore, at Minnesota (primetime) and vs. the Rams. Those NFC powerhouses dealt the Saints half of their six defeats (playoffs included) last season and added serious talent in the offseason.

The Saints play host to the Steelers in Week 16, sandwiched by meetings with the Panthers, against whom New Orleans went 3-0 last season. Perhaps Carolina takes a slight step back, but Tampa Bay could improve in what might be the NFL’s best division, and out-of-division tests in Dallas and vs. Philly also loom in November.

Indeed, the NFL’s third-toughest scheduled based on 2017 win percentage offers few reprieves.

Hall of Fame quarterback: Check. Play-caller capable of weathering a few key losses on offense: Check. Talented young nucleus on ‘D’ to avoid a stark regression: Check.

The schedule is brutal, and Ingram’s suspension and a minor thumb injury for Davenport this offseason might feel like bad omens, but the Saints broke through because they became a complementary football team with blue-chip playmakers abound, and that doesn’t appear to have changed.


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