The New Orleans Saints are officially "on vacation" for the next month, as players, coaches, training staff, and front office personnel get an opportunity to relax and unwind one last time --- before returning home for the start of Training Camp in the final week of July, and the beginning of intense preparations that go along with getting ready for the upcoming 2017 NFL season.
When the organization finally returns to New Orleans from a broad range of destinations stretching from the Caribbean to Cabo and from Vegas to Venice and all points in between, it will be time to get down to business; as the team faces what many consider to be a "make or break" season after 3 straight consecutive losing seasons and failing to make the NFL Playoffs, in that same amount of time.
As you might imagine, that there are a lot of Saints fans as well as observers, analysts, and the wide array of both local and national media that cover the team, all of whom have many questions about where this franchise is exactly is currently and where they are headed; as they try to get back to achieving the goal of winning football games and qualifying for the post-season --- something they haven't accomplished since the 2013 season.
This morning here at the Saints News Network, we're going to take a quick moment and answer what likely are the 5 BIGGEST questions surrounding the team at the moment; as we try to give a "prognosis" on what the prospects for success (or failure) are for the Saints as they quickly approach the start of the 2017 season at Minneapolis against the Vikings on Monday Night Football September 11th.
And we'll begin first with the 5th biggest question, and then work our way down to #1.....
#5. WHO WILL REPLACE TERRON ARMSTEAD AT OFFENSIVE LEFT TACKLE --- AND WILL THEY BE ABLE TO PLAY WELL ENOUGH TO PROTECT DREW BREES' "BLIND SIDE" ?
By now, you're already aware that Armstead suffered a torn labrum during this past Wednesday's Day #2 Mini-Camp practice and will miss anywhere from 4-6 months with the injury. At the earliest, Armstead could possibly return as in mid-October. At the very latest, he could return in mid-December if the team is in contention for the NFL Playoffs.
And if the Saints end up not having a shot at making the Playoffs by that time for a 4th straight season, the team could then decide to basically "write him off" for the entire year.
While losing Armstead is undoubtedly a huge blow, it should be important to know that the Saints aren't exactly new to this sort of situation. It's one of the reasons why they've gone out in recent years and have acquired players with the capability to play MULTIPLE positions.
As of this very moment, it appears that either rookie Ryan Ramczyk or 3rd-year veteran Andrus Peat will fill in at the critically important left tackle spot, and be the one responsible for the protection of QB Drew Brees' "blind side".
New Orleans Advocate beat writer Nick Underhill cautioned the other day that Ramczyk still remains a bit of an unknown, since he has been out of action while recovering from an off-season hip surgery. Ramczyk did not participate in team drills during Mini-Camp --- though he did take part in a walkthrough on Thursday, which is a sign of progress.
Underhill also says that moving Peat -- who people seem to forget was an All American LT back in his college days at Stanford -- could also work if they Saints are forced to use him; although after his solid play at the left guard spot last season, the Saints likely will keep him remaining in that position.
Either way, the Saints will miss Armstead for sure; but the idea or notion that they're going to be completely devastated and somehow be totally unable to succeed on offense without him in the line-up, is wildly inaccurate speculation at best. The Saints will simply plug someone in, and then roll with what they have.
#4. WHAT'S THE WORD WITH NICK FAIRLEY? WILL HIS HEART CONDITION PREVENT HIM FROM BEING ABLE TO PLAY THIS YEAR AND BEYOND, AND IF SO: WHO WILL FILL HIS ROLE?
After this past Thursday's final Mini-Camp practice session, Saints head coach Sean Payton had no new information regarding the current playing status of starting 3-Technique defensive tackle Nick Fairley, who had been excused from all of OTA's and Mini-Camp as he seeks a 3rd medical opinion on whether his heart condition will allow him to continue playing, or force him to retire from the sport at age 29.
“Nothing yet,” coach Sean Payton told reporters this past Tuesday as to whether or not the team has obtained an update. “I am sure we will hear something fairly soon though.”
“We will weigh in on all of those things,” Payton said. “We will meet with him and his agent and kind of weigh in on the three different opinions. Like I said, I anticipate that being sooner than later.”
As with Armstead on the offensive line, the potential loss of Fairley is a huge blow to the team, but yet still not impossible to overcome. The Saints simply aren't going to panic, and will put the "next man up" in that spot. When you have a player like 2nd year star Sheldon Rankins, who can play ANY spot on the defensive line, it actually allows you the luxury of shuffling guys around if need be.
The Saints signed free agent and former Seattle Seahawks DT Tony McDaniel to add depth to the position in anticipation of Fairley's absence, and he too could see plenty of snaps; as well as 2nd year player / 2016 4th Round draft pick David Onyemata and 2nd year UDFA Justin Zimmer.
One thing to remember in all of this: Fairley was diagnosed with an enlarged heart before he was drafted by Detroit, and has played 6 NFL seasons already with the condition without any complications up to this point.
The careful manner in which all parties involved are moving forward with, is in Fairley's best interest and for his physical well-being. If it's determined that Fairley is in no serious danger from going on with his career, then he will do so. And if not, the Saints will just have to adjust accordingly.
#3. IS ADRIAN PETERSON REALLY STILL ABLE TO PLAY AND PERFORM AT A HIGH LEVEL, OR IS HE "WASHED UP" AS MINNESOTA VIKINGS FANS CLAIM THAT HE IS?
The Saints organization and in particular the veteran Saints players themselves have been shamelessly gushing like love-struck teenage girls over the recent addition of Peterson, which is because that even though he's now 32 years old, Peterson appears to be in top physical condition (and might even be in the best physical shape of his life) after he missed most of the past season last year with the Minnesota Vikings, due to a knee injury.
If --- and it should be stressed: "if" --- Peterson is even anywhere close to being the player he was a few years ago (in 2012) when he ran roughshod over the rest of the NFL on his way to over 2,000 rushing yards, then the entire League could potentially be in huge trouble as they try to figure out who to stop first in an offensive backfield that will feature two future 1st-ballot Hall of Famers (Peterson and Brees) in the Saints offensive line-up at the very same time.
Additionally, based on the handful of interviews with the media that Peterson has had recently, it would appear that the 4-time former All-Pro RB is HIGHLY motivated to prove to everyone that his career has been "written off" prematurely, and that he can still play at a very high level in spite of those who say he might be 'past his prime'.
However, until the Saints put on full pads and we see Peterson in action and taking hits, it is probably a good idea for Saints fans not to get themselves worked up in a frenzy over the former 4-time All Pro and 2012 League MVP until he proves to everyone that he isn't "washed up" --- as fans of the Minnesota Vikings have been claiming recently on Social Media.
A rather large segment of Vikings fans have been openly "trolling" every and anything being said or reported on about Peterson, either in comments sections or one forums such as Twitter, as this Tweet from a proud Minnesota native clearly illustrates.
This guy is pretty much washed up as the Saints will find out.
— Brad Bode (@brad_bode) June 16, 2017
Vikings fans could just be experiencing a simple case of "sour grapes" however, since they still angrily claim that they were cheated out of a Super Bowl by the referees in the 2010 NFC Championship Game that they lost to the Saints; which has made them very bitter when it comes to anything Saints-related.
The fact that their team's greatest player EVER signed with the Saints, just makes them even more angrier and bitter. But are they actually right? Is Peterson in fact "washed up" as they say he is?
Chances are, we'll all get our answer on Monday Night, September 11th at Minnesota -- when Peterson and the Saints go head-to-head with the Vikings and their top-rated and hard-hitting defense.
#2. IS THE DEFENSE ACTUALLY GOING BE BETTER THIS YEAR, AND WILL THEY BE IMPROVED ENOUGH TO HELP THE SAINTS FINALLY MAKE IT BACK TO THE NFL PLAYOFFS?
This past week at Mini-Camp, the Saints defense had a near-dominant performance against the high-powered Saints offensive attack, prompting some observers to declare the defensive unit to be markedly improved over last year.
However, that's where a word of caution has to be given, since that it was just last year at this very same time, that the defense was then also assumed to be a unit that was "much improved". But it's also not a stretch to say that the team suffered largely due to an overwhelming amount of injuries, especially in the defensive secondary.
The team lost a whopping EIGHT defensive backs to injury at one point or another last season, which clearly had a detrimental effect upon the unit's lack of overall success in 2016. Being forced to quite literally sign players "right off the street" can negatively impact any NFL team's chances at achieving ultimate success.
The secondary appears to be in much better shape this year, now with all of last year's starters returned from injury and with the notable additions of 1st Round draft pick Marshon Lattimore of Ohio State and the player that some are calling one of the biggest "steals" of the entire 2017 Draft with 2nd Round pick Marcus Williams of the University of Utah.
In a matter of months, the Saints defensive secondary has gone from one of the team's biggest weaknesses, to one of its true strengths. But the defense was clearly deficient in other areas, specifically a pass rush off of the 'outside edge'; and in pass coverage at the linebacker position.
The linebacker corps appears to be significantly improved, with the notable additions of free-agent A.J. Klein and rookie 4th Round pick Alex Anzalone, both of whom possess outstanding coverage skills and perhaps more importantly: speed.
It should be important to note that the defense and particularly the linebacker corps appears to be playing much "faster", and they seem to be able to read and react at a much brisker pace.
Some of that can be attributed to the returning veteran players becoming better acclimated to defensive coordinator Dennis Allen’s defensive scheme, which will now allow them to use their natural instincts without having to "overthink it" too often.
Also, a ton of credit has to be given to new linebackers coach and longtime NFL defensive "guru" Mike Nolan; who deserves acknowledgement for implementing some 'tweaks' to the system in place that's being viewed as fresh ideas to both the staff and to the players themselves. Particularly, how he TALKS to his players in more simpler terms, instead of trying to overwhelm them mentally with a bunch of "X's and O's".
But it's the pass rush that is still appears to be this defense's "achilles heel", and the possible loss of Fairley in the interior of the D-Line won't help in that regard. But what the team has notably been lacking is a legitimate pass rush coming off of the "outside edge" on the opposite side of veteran Cam Jordan.
New free agent Alex Okafor has impressed observers at OTA's and the just-completed Mini-Camp, and there's also the likely return of 3rd year star Hau'oli Kikaha from a knee injury; but until we see him and the rest of the unit in full pads, it's hard to evaluate just how improved the pass rush off the edge actually is or isn't; and just how good (or bad) it potentially will be this year is still up for debate.
If those two areas -- the pass rush and the linebacker corps -- put alongside with what will finally be a healthy defensive secondary, are indeed improved considerably over last year? Then there could be exciting things in store in the future for Saints fans as the team heads forward into the 2017 regular season.
#1. WHAT HAPPENS IF THE SAINTS HAVE A 4th STRAIGHT LOSING SEASON AND MISS THE NFL PLAYOFFS FOR THE 4th YEAR IN A ROW? WILL OWNER TOM BENSON "CLEAN HOUSE"? EVEN WORSE, WOULD DREW BREES LEAVE AND JOIN ANOTHER TEAM IN 2018 FREE AGENCY?
In case you've missed it somehow, there's been a noticeable "do or die season" narrative that is being written about the Saints at the moment, and chances are pretty good that it's not going to go away anytime soon.
Mainly because the 7-9, 7-9, and 7-9 finishes of the past 3 consecutive years won't let them, even if they want it to. In the National Football League, winning games and making the NFL Playoffs every year is the primary goal of every single team --- all 32 of them --- to achieve in a given year. ANYTHING less than that, is unacceptable.
Although it's more than fair to say that the Saints have been the victim of 'bad breaks' in the past few seasons, especially with particular regard to injuries; it's pretty unlikely they're going to be given a "pass" from that reaching that goal, either.
In the Saints "Tom Benson Ownership Era" dating back to May of 1985 when he assumed ownership of the team from original team owner John Mecom Jr., Benson has only had to change general manager / head coaching regimes 4 times (1986, 1997, 2000, and 2006) in the past 32 years; which by NFL standards is pretty damn good.
But, the one question on everyone's mind with regard to this franchise at the moment is: what if the Saints are unable to "get over the hump" in 2017? What if they have a 4th straight losing season and fail to make the Playoffs for a 4th straight year? Would Benson -- who turns 90 next month -- "clean house" ?
It's fairly obvious that The Old Man isn't getting any younger, and has a strong desire to see the team get back to its winning ways of just a few short years ago. The additional question then becomes: what is Benson's "breaking point"? Benson's relationship with both General Manager Mickey Loomis and head coach Sean Payton is thought to be on solid ground, but would a 4th straight losing season change that?
Then, there's even a more unthinkable possibility to consider as a consequence of the Saints not meeting expectations this year: QB Drew Brees.
Now in the final year of his current contract which expires at the end of this season, speculation is if the Saints fail to make the NFL Playoffs for a 4th straight time or don't at least show any significant improvement this upcoming season; then he will seek to explore all of his options at the end of the season --- before deciding to either return to New Orleans, or seek his goal of winning another Super Bowl with a different team other than the Saints.
In the past, Brees has reiterated time and time again that it his desire is to remain in New Orleans and play the remainder of his playing years with the Saints, with the hope of bringing another Super Bowl title to the Crescent City.
But would Drew Brees REALLY ever consider leaving NOLA for an opportunity to win another World Championship somewhere else, and go back on his word and his pledge to remain with the Saints until the day that he retires for good? In the eyes of some, it's a distinct possibility.
However, my source close to the Saints organization tells me that Brees isn't going anywhere. He and his family for the past decade have been (and still are) entrenched within the local community; and all 3 of his young boys are now in elementary school and he honestly has no desire to uproot them to go chasing after another title.
That's not to say that Brees couldn't change his mind, but as of this moment it appears that Brees will sign a new deal next off-season and remain in New Orleans until he hangs up his cleats permanently.
Nevertheless, it's the Saints fans themselves who will ultimately determine the course of this football team after the 2017 season. Fans have the power to dictate that course by buying tickets to games and spending their hard-earned money on Saints-related merchandise and the related businesses affiliated with the team itself like the local food and hotel industries.
In the end: "money talks and bullsh*t walks".
It's that simple.
Make no mistake about it: the Saints have a MANDATE to be a winning team and make the NFL Playoffs this coming season, or at least show the potential that they can be a Playoff team in the years after this one.
If not, then we could see some things happen in 2018 that at one time we never thought we'd ever see happen. And that includes "cleaning house"..............