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Barry Hirstius

Saints Will Win MORE in 2017 – And Here’s Why

For the New Orleans Saints and the rest of the National Football League, the difference between winning and losing games can made up with the slightest of "tweaks" or adjustments.

And in the last 3 months of the 2017 NFL Off-Season, it could be argued that perhaps no one team has improved their fortunes more than New Orleans has.

Improved so much in fact, that in 2017, they could win more games in the regular season than they have in the past several years.

By far and away, the Saints were one of the most proactive teams in their approach towards 2017 NFL Free Agency this year.

They addressed team needs at several key positions including middle linebacker (A.J. Klein), offensive guard (Larry Warford), kick returner (Ted Ginn, Jr.), edge pass rusher (Alex Okafor) and defensive tackle (re-signing last year's starter Nick Fairley to a new 4-year contract).

Then of course, there was the signing of former 4-time All Pro RB and future Hall of Fame RB Adrian Peterson; who if at age 32 is still capable of playing at a high level, could prove to be THE #1 signing of 2017 NFL Free Agency; preventing teams from "stacking the box" against another future NFL Hall of Famer in Saints QB Drew Brees.

Photo courtesy of USA TODAY Sports

Not to be forgotten: a bit of "wheeling and dealing" that saw the team trade away former star wide receiver Brandin Cooks to New England in exchange for the Patriots' top pick (#32 overall) in the Draft, which the Saints eventually used on highly-rated University of Wisconsin offensive tackle Ryan Ramczyk.

While it's a source of some very heated debate still among Saints fans as to whether or not Ramczyk was "worth" giving up Cooks for, an argument can be made that the Saints at least are "set" for the future at all of the O-Line positions, once 12-year veteran right tackle Zach Strief retires --- possible as soon as after this season.

And then last but certainly not least, it would appear that the Saints had another successful NFL Draft a few weeks ago, thanks again to the guidance of Director of College Scouting Jeff Ireland.

Ireland's influence has never been more apparent; and although the early results have been somewhat mixed thus far after his 3rd Draft since 2015 ("hits": Micheal Thomas, Sheldon Rankins; "misses": Stephone Anthony, Garrett Grayson; "up in the air": Andrus Peat, Hau'oli Kikaha, Von Bell), he seems to have been a calming effect over the entire process.

Last month in Philadelphia during the 2017 NFL Draft, the Saints addressed several important team 'needs' --- which is always the main goal of any Draft.

The Saints in no particular order were able to get #1 rated "lockdown" corner of the entire Draft (Marshon Lattimore), a likely starter at right tackle for the next decade or so (Ramczyk), a "ball-hawk" and hard-hitting free safety for their secondary (Marcus Williams), a speedy "scatback" to fill the old Darren Sproles role that's been missing from the offense (Alvin Kamara), an underrated inside linebacker that when he's able to stay healthy, has star potential at the NFL level (Alex Anzalone) and an underrated but outstanding defensive end coming off of the outside edge (Trey Hendrickson).

Even their final pick (6th Round selection and University of Miami defensive end Al-Quadin Muhammad) could prove to be intriguing, although he seems to be more of a "project" player at this point.

But when you combine the efforts by the team's front office in the last 3 months, in both Free Agency and the NFL Draft; it's not far-fetched whatsoever to say that in 2017, the New Orleans Saints should win MORE games than they have in the past 3 seasons.

Why do I believe that?

It's quite simple actually.

The Saints in the past 3 seasons have been notably lacking in 3 areas, and all three appear to have been addressed directly in the past 3 months.

First: the Saints have added both a "scatback" RB and a "closer" RB to supplement their running game, similarly to the way they did from (2009-2011), the offense's most prolific period of the Sean Payton-Drew Brees Era.

In that era, you had either Reggie Bush or Darren Sproles as the team's "scatback", while the RB to "close out"games was either Mike Bell or Chris Ivory.

This year, the pick-ups of  veteran All-Pro RB Adrian Peterson and Alvin Kamara should help in those close, nail-biter type of games like the N.Y. Giants, Tampa Bay, and the unforgettable loss to Denver last season.

Both Peterson and Kamara should make opposing defenses FEAR them --- something that the departed Tim Hightower and Travaris Cadet (God bless'em) DO NOT.

Second: the Saints "should" (I won't make any guarantees) be noticeably better on special teams.

The rule change in the kicking game, along with the return of 2nd year kicker Wil Lutz (whom I admittedly was very hard on after the Saints signed him, but he shut me and the rest of his doubters up by eventually having a solid year) should help in that regard.

And although the signing of Ted Ginn Jr. might not be a true "replacement" for the loss of Brandin Cooks in the trade to New England, what Ginn does provide is a LEGITIMATE THREAT in the kick return game.

3rd (but more importantly than ANY one thing that the Saints have done this off-season):

The Saints could "potentially" have one of the very best secondaries in the NFL now, with the addition of "ball hawk" and hard-hitting free safety Marcus Williams for the Saints' 3-safety scheme (in place of the departed and controversial Jairus Byrd), along with 'lockdown' rookie CB Marshon Lattimore.

Even if Williams and Lattimore don't make as much of an "immediate impact" as is hoped, what they do provide over anything else is such much-needed DEPTH and talent to the secondary.

When you factor in returning starting outside boundary CB's Delvin Breaux and P.J. Williams from season-ending injuries last year at those positions, you suddenly have a secondary that from the starters down to the 3rd string guys, is as deep as its EVER been.

Photo courtesy of Michael C. Hebert

Even if the play of the linebacker corps --- which also looks to be improved despite not having a true "star" player -- turns out to be a weak link again as it has been for the past few years, if the play at cornerback is even slightly better it was last year, then this Saints defense could be very much improved.

Even if the Saints D-Line is about the same and doesn't show any considerable improvement with the pass rush coming off the outside edge, you still will have a returning Nick Fairley and rising young star Sheldon Rankins in the interior of the D-Line, to get adequate pressure on the opposing QB.

Always remember: when a QB doesn't have to face a defense that isn't capable of keeping up with his WR's, it negates any type of pass rush that you can generate because he can easily "pick apart" your secondary WITHOUT RESISTANCE.

If the Saints defensive secondary can FORCE QB's to "hold on" to the ball even just a second or two longer, it will make the pass rush that much more effective.

An improved defensive secondary should now be able to give the Saints Front 7 the time that they didn't have (thanks to all of the injuries that piled up) to get to the QB last year, despite the fact that New Orleans was ranked 3rd overall in the entire League in QB hits (106).

In other words, the Saints were able to generate pressure on the QB and even give him a "lick" --- but not before that same QB already had the time needed to find an open receiver against a depleted Saints secondary --- which was providing pass coverage with a "hodge podge" of veteran castoffs and undrafted rookies.

That should change this year, and enough to make the Saints defense which has been ranked near the bottom of the NFL, improve at least enough to be considered "middle of the pack".

Photo courtesy of The Times-Picayune

Is that expecting too much in just one off-season?

Perhaps, but let's also remember that in the NFL, almost anything --- literally ANYTHING -- can happen from one year to the next.

Even the Saints themselves back in 2009, went from one of the worst defenses in the NFL (2008) to a Top 5 defense the following season.

That doesn't guarantee it will happen in 2017; but if the Saints can create a few more turnovers, and prevent teams from scoring often enough that it will keep the Saints offense from having to put up 40 points every week to win "shootouts", then the Saints could potentially see a huge improvement in the win column.

How much of an improvement though, is the question.

And since it's only the end of the month of May and we haven't even had the opportunity to see the team perform yet in Training Camp or the Pre-Season, I'll hold off for now from making any "early" predictions until the first week of September --- as I do every year.

But what I can tell Saints fans is that if nothing else, this Saints team (at least "on paper") has improved enough that I believe they can (and will) WIN MORE games in 2017, than they have in the past few seasons.

The only problem that is in a ultra-competitive NFC South division, will it even get them any closer to a return to the NFL Playoffs and hopefully a Super Bowl?

We're all going to find out, in the upcoming months that lie ahead..........

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Saints News Network Editor / Featured Columnist Barry Hirstius is a 51-year old semi-retired journalist, former New Orleans-area sports editor, and columnist previously with several sites that exclusively cover the New Orleans Saints football team. Additionally, he is a recurring guest on a variety of local Sports Talk Radio programs. Barry is also a New Orleans native who grew up as a fan of the team while attending games as a young boy at the old Tulane Stadium in the early 1970’s, originally following and now covering the team for a span of over 40 plus years. And perhaps most importantly of all: he is the Grandfather of two beautiful young girls, Jasmine and Serenity.....

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