|The Saints had a lot to celebrate last year|
In 2017, the New Orleans Saints went 11-5 and captured the NFC South title. They beat the Carolina Panthers 31-26 in the wild card round before falling to the Minnesota Vikings in a heartbreaking last second loss, 29-24. Despite the disappointing end to the season, the 2017 was the Saints first trip to the playoffs since the 2013 season. After 2013, the Saints slipped into a period of sustained mediocrity, posting a 7-9 record for three straight seasons.
Since the NFL season begins this weekend, it’s time for a Saints season preview. Instead of breaking down the Saints offense, defense, and special teams individually, we’ll do things a little differently this year. Rather than make a straight-up prediction that will likely be wrong, we’ll look at three reasons why the Saints could be better than their 11-5 record and 3 reasons why they could be worse.
|Sean Payton in mid-season scowl form|
Three Numbers that Suggest the Saints Might Improve
62.3: Football Outsiders tracks a statistic called adjusted-games lost. It is a measure of many games a team lost due to injury from their starters. Last year, the Saints lost 62.3 games on defense due to injury. That number was the second highest in the league. Research has shown that injury luck tends to even out over time. So when a team loses a lot of players to injury one year, they’re likely to regress towards the league average. Considering the Saints posted a -7.9% DVOA, good for 8thin the league, there seems to be even more opportunity for the Saints defense to improve or at least not give back some of their defensive gains.
24.9: Football Outsiders has another statistic that measures the average age of players on each team. Instead of simply averaging the ages of all the players on the roster, FO calculates a team’s age based on the number of snaps played by each player. In 2017, the Saints defense snap-weighted age was 24.9, second youngest in the league. While there isn’t a direct correlation between youth and effectiveness, you'd rather be young and effective than old and effective. Additionally, the youth of the Saints defense suggests that there's further room for improvement. Last year’s big contributors, Sheldon Rankins, Marcus Lattimore, and Marcus Williams, are still young, but now have another season of NFL play under their belts.
6: Head coach Sean Payton and quarterback Drew Brees arrived in New Orleans in 2006. In the twelve seasons since, the Saints have averaged 6thin Football Outsiders offensive DVOA. In the intervening years, a whole host of players have come and gone—Jimmy Graham, Marques Colston, Jahri Evans, Duece McAllister, Pierre Thomas, and others. Yet Brees and Payton have continued to hum along. The lowest they ever ranked in offensive DVOA was 12thin 2007. Since 2011, the Saints have never ranked worse than 9th. In other words, as long as Payton and Brees are together, the Saints don't have much to worry about on offense.
|You know who this is.|
Three Numbers that Suggest the Saints Might Decline
23: In 2016, the Saints ranked 31st in defensive DVOA. In 2017, they ranked 8th. The study of such large improvements in the history of the NFL suggests that the Saints will give some of this massive gain back. Baseball sabermetrician Bill James called this the “plexiglass principle.” In mathematics, it’s called regression to the mean. In order for the Saints to have made such a massive defensive improvement, a lot of things had to go their way. Last season, they had a superstar season from defensive end Cameron Jordan. They hit on a number of defensive draft picks in 2016 and 2017 including cornerback Marshon Lattimore, safety Marcus Williams, safety Vonn Bell, and defensive tackle Sheldon Rankins. There’s simply no guarantee that all of these players will be healthy or continue to be effective in 2018. More likely, something will happen to one or more of them that will hurt the Saints efforts to repeat their defensive performance.
6.1: Alvin Kamara was an offensive sensation in his first season in New Orleans. He had an astonishing 13 touchdowns and 1554 yards from scrimmage in only 201 touches. He averaged an insane 6.1 yards per carry. Cam Newton was second in the NFL with 5.4 yards per carry and running back Dion Lewis was third with 5.0 yards. As Bill Barnwell has pointed out, eight running backs have averaged more than six yards per carry in a given season. They never did it again in their careers. In the next season, none even made it to five yards per carry. In other words, even though Mark Ingram is suspended for the first four games, Kamara won’t be this efficient again. And that could hold the Saints offense back.
23: Drew Brees only threw 23 TD passes in 2017. While the Saints also had 23 rushing touchdowns, Brees had the fewest TD passes since 2003 when he played for the Chargers. His 4,334 passing yards were his fewest since 2005, his last season in San Diego. While Brees remained incredibly effective, especially for a 38 year old passer, any sign of slippage is concerning. NFL history tells us that there’s no long slow decline phase for quarterbacks this late in their careers. Rather when the end comes, it comes quickly. Maybe Brees will throw for another 5,000 yard season with 30 TDs again. Or maybe Brees is closer to the end than anyone would like to admit.