The Saints are in an interesting position.
There might not be a team in the NFL as good as the thing they do than the Saints are at throwing the football.
The combination of Sean Payton and Drew Brees continue to be one of the best coach-quarterback pairings, and now that the contract unpleasantness with tight end* Jimmy Graham is over, their offensive weapons are in place, mostly intact from last year.
But where does that get them?
When the top teams in the NFC are playing power football, can the Saints push beyond big fantasy stats with finesse?
They benefit by being different from the teams that topped the conference last year (the Panthers likewise want to play physically), but this year will be a test to see if that difference is meaningful.
Brees is still at the top of his game, but that might not be enough any more.
Did we mention Drew Brees was good at throwing the ball?
He threw for 5,162 yards and 39 touchdowns and just 12 interceptions last year.
And with Graham paid, they still have an impressive array of targets.
Marques Colston is still producing at a high level, and even with a change in the backfield (more on that in a moment), they’re going to be able to move the ball.
Payton is tremendous at the chess match of offense, and incorporating some new guys into the scheme will allow them to develop that capability.
Adding first-round speedster Brandin Cooks should more than make up for the departure of Lance Moore, especially with Kenny Stills developing into a more dependable target.
Last year, the Saints’ defense might have been better than their offense, or perhaps it was just by contrast to the year before.
Rob Ryan transformed a group that set a league record for yards allowed in 2012, and it’s not as if they had a gigantic personnel upgrade.
Ryan was patching together parts, and injuries didn’t help.
But Junior Galette emerged as a legitimate outside linebacker option, and defensive end Cameron Jordan had a breakout year with 12.5 sacks.
The offseason’s big acquisition, safety Jairus Byrd, ought to be able to make a big impact, paired alongside Kenny Vaccaro. That enthusiasm was dampened a bit when Byrd needed back surgery, knocking him out of most of the offseason work.
The only problem is, the Saints still might not have sufficient personnel on that side of the ball, so regression is a real possibility.
They finally pared away some of the old parts on defense (cutting Jonathan Vilma, Will Smith, Roman Harper and Jabari Greer), which might have been necessary.
But other than bringing in last-legs cornerback Champ Bailey, there wasn’t the kind of influx of talent they might have needed.
They improved last year based largely on energy and emotion, and we’ll see how long that lasts in the face of a talent discrepancy.
The Saints traded a complementary running back, which ordinarily wouldn’t be a headline move.
But that back was Darren Sproles, who was such an integral part of their offense, catching 71 passes last year.
Replacing him will be a huge challenge, and they’re going to be relying on a deep group of backs.
Pierre Thomas and Mark Ingram will likely get most of the carries, but Khiry Robinson and Travaris Cadet will need to make a big step to pick up the slack from Sproles’ departure.
Cooks might be the biggest beneficiary of the change, as they want to take advantage of his 4.3 speed. While it’s not a like-for-like replacement, he does have the same kind of game-changing ability as Sproles.
The Saints offensive line was a work in progress last year, but rookie Terron Armstead settled into a spot where they’re comfortable with him at left tackle. They were also able to hang onto right tackle Zach Strief and guards Ben Grubbs and Jahri Evans return.
That leaves a hole in the middle, after Brian de la Puente left in free agency for Chicago.
Tim Lelito will get the first crack, but they brought veteran Jonathan Goodwin back for cover, giving them a reasonable competition.
It would also help if a young cornerback would step up opposite Keenan Lewis. They brought in Bailey, but all parties are probably best served if he’s able to limit his snaps a bit. Second-rounder Stanley Jean-Baptiste gives them some new size at the position, which will enable them to match up better with the big wideouts in their division.
They’re going to be pretty good.
If the defense continues at last year’s pace, they can be very good.
But the Saints have problems local and national.
They play in perhaps the league’s deepest division, with the Falcons healthy and re-tooled and the Buccaneers on the upswing with Lovie Smith along with the defensively stout Panthers.
Then comes the matter of whether they can stand toe-to-toe with the Seahawks and 49ers to make a push for another title.
That makes the regular season of extreme importance. They’re a different team in their own building, so getting home field advantage might mean more to them than any team in the NFC.
If they can get it, the Saints could easily be a Super Bowl team.