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Barry Hirstius

5 Reasons to Be Excited By the Saints in 2017

The 2017 off-season for the New Orleans Saints has been a very productive one, so much so that it has the team's fans eagerly awaiting the upcoming NFL season with great anticipation --- to see how the recent moves made by team management will translate to the team's ultimate success (or possible failure) out on the field of play.

One thing has become evident with the moves that the team has made; as the Saints franchise completes its final round of OTA's this week and conducts Mini-Camp next week, before they take a 1-month break for a vacation until returning to NOLA for Training Camp at the end of next month: they are "in it to win it".

The Saints front office brass is under a lot of pressure to produce tangible results (in other words, WINNING MORE GAMES) this upcoming season, or else some major --- and I do mean MAJOR --- changes could be made after the 2017 season, if this Saints team is unable to show any significant improvement from the 3 straight 7-9 losing seasons that they have produced in the 2014, 2015, and 2016 seasons.

Photo courtesy of USA TODAY Sports

The Saints haven't been to the NFL Playoffs now since the 2013 season, and only a trip there at the end of 2017 will save the jobs of more than a few familiar faces in team management, and prevent even the most iconic of players (yes, I'm talking about Drew Brees) from flirting with the idea of seeking a Super Bowl opportunity with another team --- just as his famous counterpart Peyton Manning did a few years ago (and Brett Favre just missed out on doing a few years before that).

Nevertheless, there is still plenty of optimism coming from the Saints organization and from the fan-base, about the team's chances in 2017; in spite of playing within a much-improved NFC South division that includes the defending NFC Champions of last year: the hated but very dangerous Atlanta Falcons.

As a matter of fact, there is soooooo much optimism that this morning, we're giving you 5 Reasons to be EXCITED about the New Orleans Saints in the 2017 season.

And we're starting first, with this one.....

 

REASON #5. LINEBACKERS, LINEBACKERS, AND MORE LINEBACKERS

Photo courtesy of Michael C. Hebert

The Saints linebacker corps -- which outside of the nice performance by veterans Craig Robertson and Dannell Ellerbe last year has been less than stellar in the past few seasons -- got an extensive upgrade this off-season from team management. Their motto perhaps in this particular instance was: "the more, the merrier".

The Saints already had last year's returning veterans in Roberston, Ellerbe, Nate Stupar, and former #1 pick Stephone Anthony still remaining on the roster.

But the Saints additionally have went out and very aggressively have given the LB corps a serious "makeover" this off-season; following the additions of A.J. Klein and Manti Te'o through free agency and the signing of former CFL Defensive Player of the Year Adam Bighill (from the Canadian Football League) to a reserve/future contract.

New Orleans also used last month's draft to select University of Florida linebacker Alex Anzalone in the third round, and then signed former BYU star Sae Tautu as an undrafted free agent.

Many of these players have something in common, which is that they all have versatility to play MULTIPLE positions.

Robertson, who led the linebacker corps in 2016 with a team-high 115 tackles (71 solo), can play the "Sam" / strong side position, the "Will" / weak side and the "Mike" / middle middle linebacker, the spot that he lined up at the end of the past season.

Photo courtesy of Micheal C. Hebert

Klein can also play all 3 positions, while all of the other veterans can play at least 2 out of the 3 positions.

Photo courtesy of Michael C. Hebert

And not to be outdone: the rookie Anzalone, like Robertson and Klein, can play ALL 3 positions and impressed coaches last month at Saints Rookie Mini-Camp.

What it all means is that from among these players listed, should emerge a starting line-up at the LB position that has been as good as it has been in the past several years.

And with the addition of new linebackers coach Mike Nolan, the linebacker corps will be getting the guidance that it certainly was lacking in the past few years under previous position coach Joe Vitt, who has now joined his son-in-law (Dolphins head coach Adam Gase) in Miami.

Now, will they remind anybody of the legendary Saints "Dome Patrol" linebackers of the late 1980's and early 1990's? Nah, probably not. But they "should" be BETTER than in recent years past, without question.

If that proves to be the case, then the Saints defense in 2017 as a whole should see some improvement --- at a key position that's been lacking for quite some time.

 

REASON #4:  DREW BREES IS STILL DREW BREES

Photo courtesy of Michael C. Hebert

The hair is definitely getting a little bit thinner up top, but the signs of any "slowing down" cannot be found anywhere in the person of one Andrew Christopher "Drew" Brees --- who turns 39 next January but still has the energy of one of his three elementary school-age kids at home (probably because he doesn't have a choice).

When describing what Brees has done for the last 11 years since arriving in New Orleans from the San Diego Chargers via Free Agency in the 2006 off-season, their are a few adjectives that can be used such as "great", "superb", and "phenomenal", to name only a few.

But somehow, using the term "G.O.A.T." just seems so much more appropriate. That's an acronym for "the greatest of all time", for those of you older folks who still weren't up to speed on what it actually meant all of this time (the young folks are always quick to come up with catchy stuff like that).

Now about to enter into his 11th season as the Saints starting QB, Brees' accomplishments read like an encyclopedia of accomplishments.

Here's just a few of the most impressive:

  • Super Bowl XLIV MVP (won title)
  • Five 5,000 yard seasons.
  • Eleven straight 4,000 yard seasons and nine straight seasons with over 30 passing touchdowns, both NFL records
  • First QB in league history to throw 40 touchdowns in back-to-back seasons
  • Broke Johnny Unitas’ record for most consecutive games with a touchdown pass (54 consecutive games)
  • Fastest quarterback to reach 40,000, 50,000, and 60,000 career yards passing
  • NFL’s all-time leader in completion percentage (66.64%)
  • 128 wins overall (101 regular season and 6 Playoff wins with New Orleans)
  • 452 touchdown passes
  • 63,894 career passing yards (15 NFL seasons)
  • Currently ranks 3rd in career passing yards, pass completions, pass attempts, and touchdown passes behind Brett Favre and Peyton Manning

And considering the phenomenal amount of effort that Brees puts into staying at the very peak of physical conditioning, there's no reason to think that he couldn't actually play well into his early 40's (42? 43, even?) if he wants to.

But Brees' motivation for playing still even up to this point, is simple: he wants to win another Super Bowl before he retires.

Photo courtesy of USA TODAY Sports

It's the team's primary goal to accommodate him, which is exactly why this upcoming 2017 season is so critical.

Brees is in the final year of his final contract with the team, and they have to show enough potential and promise this year (in other words, at least make the Playoffs) in order to convince Brees to stick around for "one last run" in what will likely be the final contract of his future first-ballot Hall of Fame career.

Otherwise, even though Brees has said repeatedly that he wants to finish his career in NOLA, you can bet that a handful of teams will put a "full-court press" on convincing him to seek a Super Bowl opportunity elsewhere, in 2018 and beyond.

 

REASON #3:  THE DEFENSIVE SECONDARY IS HEALTHY --- AND HAS ADDED TWO MORE POTENTIAL YOUNG "SUPERSTARS"

Marcus Williams - Ballhawk

Photo courtesy of Michael C. Hebert

Perhaps more importantly than ANY one thing that the Saints have done this off-season, is to supplement the overall depth of their defensive secondary --- which without much doubt was likely the team's glaring #1 "weakness", heading into the 2017 calendar year.

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.

As the old saying goes: "health makes wealth".

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 and rising young star Sheldon Rankins in the interior of the D-Line, to get adequate pressure on the opposing QB.

The uncertain health status of Nick Fairley unfortunately has the potential to hinder the D-Line's ultimate success in the upcoming year ahead, which is yet another reason why having made the improvements in the secondary could prove to be so critical.

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.

That's why when you consider the fact that New Orleans was ranked 3rd overall in the entire League in QB hits (106). an improved Saints secondary should give the Front 7 an advantage that they haven't had in a while.

Photo courtesy of zimbio.com

In other words, even though the Saints D-Line was able to generate pressure on a QB and hit him as he was throwing the football, that very same QB always seemed to still have the time that he 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".

And as we all know: a "middle of the pack" Saints defense, teamed with a Top 5 offense, equals the NFL Playoffs.

 

REASON #2:  THE 3-HEADED RUNNING BACK ATTACK

Photo courtesy of Michael C. Hebert

It's probably seemed like a long time to Saints fans that the team has had a running game that actually "struck fear" into the hearts of NFL defenses. In fact, you have to go back a few years to the 2009 through 2011 seasons, to even find the numbers that support that very notion.

The Saints front office has been aware of that fact for some time, but their recent attempt of teaming starting RB Mark Ingram with free-agents C.J. Spiller (now in Kansas City) and then Tim Hightower (now with the 49ers) didn't quite pan out the way that they hoped it would.

Which is why this past off-season they took a very more focused approach on upgrading the running game, to take the weight of the load off of Ingram's shoulders, to give them the depth and balance that they've lacked now for the past several years.

The Saints have added both a "scatback" RB and a "closer" RB to supplement their running game for this upcoming season, similarly to the way they did back during that 2009-2011 time frame --- 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.

Photo courtesy of Michael C. Hebert

Peterson appears to be rejuvenated at age 32, and with what amounts to a year and a half off from the sport of Pro Football without any major contact, seems poised to make "one last run" in his great career with New Orleans.

The Saints themselves are excited about how Peterson will gave the Saints a dimension that it hasn't had in quite some time, where teams can no longer "stack the box" against Brees or else face the chance of themselves being burned by Brees in the passing game.

How Payton decides to use Peterson this coming season is unknown just yet, but one can only assume that he will see at least 15-20 carries per contest -- especially on 3rd and short and goal line attempts -- and provide a complementary role to starter Mark Ingram.

But the bottom line is that IF Peterson is still anywhere close to being the player that he was with Minnesota before the injuries slowed him down (Peterson says he's fully recovered and looks to be in some of the best physical shape of his entire life, and very noticeably appears eager to prove those who doubt his ability to still be able to play at a high level, totally wrong), then the Saints and their fans could be in for one hell of a treat.

Photo courtesy of Matthew Hinton, New Orleans Advocate

Actually however, depending on how you choose to look at it, the bigger addition might just be the rookie Kamara.

What the Saints have lacked in recent seasons is another dimension to their running game in Sean Payton’s offensive scheme: the “scatback” type of player capable of catching passes out of the backfield like former Saints RB’s Reggie Bush and Darren Sproles were able to do during the Saints offense's most overall successful seasons.

Additonally, because Kamara is a player who can actually  'shoulder the load' purely as a runner when he is called upon, it gives the Saints a potential "3-headed monster" at RB in their offensive attack.

If the Saints decide to utilize Ingram, Peterson, and Kamara in that same fashion as they did from 2009 to 2011, with a future Hall-of-Fame QB still running the rest of the show?

Then it means that the NFL could be in a whole lot of trouble --- just like they were during the team's best years of the Payton-Brees Era not all that long ago.

 

#1. THE RETURN OF THE RIVERBOAT GAMBLER

Photo courtesy of David Grunfeld, New Orleans Times-Picayune

Once upon a time, there was an NFL head coach who wasn't afraid to "roll the dice".

Very much in the same fashion as those legendary "riverboat gamblers" of the 1800's a few centuries ago, or even the "card sharks" that you'll find in the modern era at the casinos in Las Vegas, this NFL head coach wasn't afraid to take chances that no one else would even DREAM about taking.

Going for it on 4th down and 5, with the ball at his own 45-yard line and his team trailing by 1 point.

A "double reverse" while backed up near his own goal line.

And who could ever forget: the onside kick to open up the 2nd half of Super Bowl XLIV, against the Indianapolis Colts.

That coach of course was a man by the name of Sean Payton, the head coach of the New Orleans Saints who now finds himself tasked with the mission of turning the team's fortunes around; after three consecutive 7-9 losing seasons (2014, 2015, and 2016) and having missed making the NFL Playoffs in each of those years.

Payton's current contract to coach the team runs though the year 2020, but let's not even mince words at this point: if the Saints finish with a losing season for a 4th straight year in 2017, his time as the team's head coach could be over.

That's not a guarantee or "written in stone" at this point, but given owner Tom Benson's advancing age (he turns 90 next month) and previously noted low tolerance for any extended period of prolonged failure, Payton could find himself very quickly on the "hot seat" and possibly even the unemployment line, if the Saints don't win more games than they lose in the upcoming season.

Which is exactly why that in 2017, we should expect to see the return of that "riverboat gambler" version of Payton that we saw from 2006 to 2011 and not the more somewhat reserved head coach we've seen since the Bountygate scandal of 2012 seems to have "neutered" him since that time.

Photo courtesy of Michael DeMocker, New Orleans Times-Picayune

That's not to say that Payton has become totally conservative by any means, and the fact that the Saints were ranked 2nd overall in the entire NFL last year (13 conversions out of 15 4th Down attempts, a percentage of 86.7 %) is evidence of that.

But it does appear that he's been less willing to take chances in the past few seasons, as the younger version of himself did nearly a decade ago.

The bottom line simply is that Sean Payton and the Saints are under a tremendous amount of pressure to produce winning results out on the field of play in 2017, and not only just "on paper".

That means that we could definitely see Payton very willingly "roll the dice" more often in 2017 --- especially if he truly wants to be the team's head coach in 2018 and beyond.................

Saints News Network Editor / Featured Columnist and Lead Analyst Barry Hirstius is a 50-year old semi-retired journalist and former New Orleans area sports editor and columnist previously with several sites that exclusively cover the New Orleans Saints NFL football team. Additionally, he is a frequent guest on a variety of Sports Talk Radio programs that cover the Saints. Barry is also a New Orleans native that dating all the way back to his childhood in the early 1970's, attended games at the old Tulane Stadium and grew up as a long-time Saints fan; 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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