Ross Jackson

The New Orleans Saints: Building a Contender

Photo Credit: Michael C. Hebert

After three straight 7-9 seasons, several kickers, a few defensive coordinators, far too many media reports about the Payton-Brees era being done in New Orleans, and even more stories about Drew Brees’ so far unapparent decline- the New Orleans Saints had a complete reemergence in 2017. The team finished last season with an 11-5 record and being mere seconds and a fluke away from making it back to the NFC Championship. Regardless of those final seconds, it was one of the most fun seasons we’ve seen in New Orleans for quite some time. Moving into next season, they’ve gone from being one of the NFC South’s worst to a playoff dark horse, to Super Bowl contenders. So how does a team completely transform after practically being pronounced dead by the experts and analysts that anticipated the team would finish dead or near last in the NFC South?

Persistence Builds Resilience

After a disappointing ending to the 2013 season and a loss to the eventual Super Bowl Champion Seattle Seahawks in the playoffs, things seemed to spiral out of control in the Big Easy. The Saints went on to field historically bad defenses two seasons in a row and, despite having top-flight offenses, suffered losses in both shootouts and games in which the defense actually held its own. The Saints didn’t seem to be able to ever put together a complete game, unable to field quality play at all three ends. When the offense was cooking, the defense was stumbling, when the defense was charged up, the offense was depleted. On many other occasions special teams ended up being the difference. Missed field goals, blocked kicks, and a lack of return game often halted the Saints in their tracks or, worse, lead to a game-defining mistake. And even when all those elements were just close enough to get a W, the refs couldn’t tell when a white shoe broke the white out-of-bounds boundary.

It was tough in New Orleans for a bit, but come 2016, things were beginning to look up. We had a new but familiar defensive coordinator in Dennis Allen after the ousting of Rob Ryan. Ryan, who went on to joke in poor taste that Saints fans would blame him for Hurricane Katrina if they could, had actually lead a resurgence of the Saints defense in 2013 before everything fell apart. But Allen and the rest of the Saints coaching staff were looking to spark revolution in the team’s on-field ability and off-field attitude.

Culture Shift

Just a year after trading away Defensive Lineman Akiem Hicks- Brandon Browner, cut. Keenan Lewis, cut. Craig Robertson, signed. Nick Fairley, signed. James Laurinaitis, signed. It was no mystery that the culture was changing in New Orleans. Players that were injury-prone, confrontational, or perhaps just plain didn’t fit the system were cast away in favor of new blood. Veteran players that were looking for fresh starts found their new home and another chance in the Big Easy. Such changes were not limited to just on the defensive side, either.

In 2015 the Saints traded Tight End Jimmy Graham to the Seahawks and young, speedy Wide Receiver Kenny Stills to the Dolphins. Then, prior to the 2017 season they went on to trade away former first-round pick Brandin Cooks. These moves were also a testament to the changing culture in New Orleans. Second-year Ohio St. alum Michael Thomas went on to assume the WR1 responsibilities Cooks was disappointed he was losing. Former Carolina Panther and present fine wine Ted Ginn Jr. joined the team before the 2017 season and assumed the role once served by both Kenny Stills and Brandin Cooks as the deep threat. Jimmy Graham has been missed but not nearly as much as the experts said he would be. While the Saints haven’t yet found a singular, dominant entity to take his place, Benjamin Watson served as a great option in 2015 and the signing of Coby Fleener has been, albeit disappointing, a solid piece of the rotational tight end carousel that’s held up for the past couple of seasons.

2016 may have ended with yet another 7-9 finish and the third-straight season of a bottom defense- 28th, 32nd, and 31st in points allowed from 2014-2016 respectively. But the 2017 season is where all the magic happened. Amidst all of the “Brees is declining, Sean Payton is washed, and Dennis Allen is an assistant, not a coordinator” talk, the Saints pulled off one of the best off-seasons we’ve seen in recent past. The aforementioned Cooks trade and Ginn signing were only a couple. Jairus Byrd was cut. A.J. Klein, Alex Okafor, Larry Warford, and Manti Te’o signed, and many players returned. But perhaps the biggest changes that took place that offseason weren’t between the sidelines at all.

The Saints front office set an example of what would be expected in the 2017 offseason by replacing many of the position coaches. Assistant Head Coach and Linebackers Coach Joe Vitt, Special Teams Coordinator Greg McMahon, Defensive Line Coach Bill Johnson, Linebackers Coach James Willis, and Assistant Special Teams Coach Stan Kwan were out. They were replaced by Linebackers Coach Mike Nolan, Defensive Line Coach Ryan Nielsen, and Special Teams Coordinator Bradford Banta, who was later replaced by Mike Westoff, took charge. The Saints also replaced a couple of team doctors after training camp began after a missed diagnosis on Delvin Breaux’s leg ended up keeping him out for the season. These changes, front and center in January of 2017, helped set the tone for what the Saints would go on to achieve the following season.

Young Blood

Not before that, though came the NFL Draft. The draft in which the Saints put together one of the most successful rookie classes we’ve seen.

Round 1 CB Marshon Lattimore (DROTY) and Ryan Ramczyk (Best Rookie OL per PFF)

Round 2 S Marcus Williams

Round 3 RB Alvin Kamara (OROTY), LB Alex Anzalone, and DE Trey Hendrickson

Round 6 DE Al-Quadin Muhammad

New Orleans went on to field both the offensive and defensive rookies of the year, two running backs that each topped 1,500 all-purpose yards in Mark Ingram and rookie Alvin Kamara, a top-10 scoring defense, a top-5 scoring, passing, and rushing offense, a special teams unit that created top-10 offensive starting position and top-3 defensive starting position, an 11-5 record, and their first playoff appearance since 2013. The young corps also brought something to the team that can’t be found on the stat sheet.

Swag, Swag, Swag

During the season, we saw an emergence of the Saints’ on-field personalities. The birth of the Boonk Gang began around the Saints trip to London against the Dolphins the Saints defense gave themselves the nickname “Boonk Gang” in reference to a popular internet meme. (The team has made it clear though that they don’t condone or encourdage stealing.) Then, the very next game against Detroit after the bye week, the photos began. The defense started posing and snapping photos after every takeaway, of which they had 25 on the season.

All of a sudden, the energy was different. It felt like the Saints were recharging the entire city, because that’s exactly what they were doing. Their swagger, their confidence, and their perseverance permeated through the entire organization. Even Sean Payton and the late, great Mr. Tom Benson got involved. This team went on to hurdle obstacles all season and ignite their region and fans all around the world for 18 thrilling games.

What’s Next?

While the Minneapolis Miracle may overshadow some of the achievements by this 2017 Saints squad, there’s no denying its success. Now, we have 2018 NFL Draft to look ahead to after another stellar offseason. With free agent additions like LB Demario Davis, WR Cameron Meredith, and S Kurt Coleman alongside reunions with Ben Watson, Jermon Bushrod, and Patrick Robinson, atop re-signings of Drew Brees, Brandon Coleman, and Alex Okafor among others, the Saints are in a prime position to go BPA available in the draft. They can continue to build on the momentum that they set forth in 2017.

They enter the draft with positions they can improve upon, but no glaring holes. They’ve also got more picks than improvements. Expect the Saints to find a way to be aggressive in the draft again to get ahold of an edge rusher and pass-catching tight end. They might not be able to replicate last year’s incredible crop of rookies, but if they can hit on two or three major positions this year, we’re looking at the continued rise of one of the most exciting NFL contenders.

So how do they did it? How did they build a contender? With patience, trust, diversity, swag and aggression. They were patient when the rest of the league expected a fire sale. They trusted their core values and leadership, They diversified their approach among coaches and on-field attack.The swag was incalculable and fueled every aspect of their game. Finally, they remain aggressive in the face of adversity both on and off the field.