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NFL offseason power rankings: No. 24 New Orleans Saints are stuck in boring mediocrity

NFL offseason power rankings: No. 24 New Orleans Saints are stuck in boring mediocrity

Chris Olave (12) and his relationship with quarterback Derek Carr will be a key factor for the New Orleans Saints this season. (Mallory Bielecki/Yahoo Sports)

You might have forgotten that the New Orleans Saints finished last season with a winning record. They were 9-8.

It would have been more fitting if they found a way to finish 8-8-1 because since the end of the Sean Payton/Drew Brees era the Saints have settled into boring mediocrity with no end in sight.

They're 25-26 the past three seasons. They have a quarterback in Derek Carr who is 33 years old and has a $150 million contract, but Saints fans never seemed to embrace him during his first underwhelming season in New Orleans. They have a head coach in Dennis Allen who seems likely to be on the hot seat at the end of each season, only to survive to the chagrin of the fans. The Saints' top two highest-paid players for most of the offseason, in terms of salary-cap hits, were running back Alvin Kamara and tight end Taysom Hill before Hill restructured in late spring. Kamara's best days seem behind him and he plays a devalued position, and Hill will be 34 and is the pet project of a former head coach who hasn't been on the Saints' sideline since the end of the 2021 season. Hill's restructure in mid-June cleared up salary-cap space and pushed a larger cap hit to the future. That's what the Saints do.

The Saints are an astonishing $99.6 million over the projected cap in 2025 according to Spotrac, which is what happens when you constantly restructure deals. And they're $99.6 million over the 2025 cap without much hope at being a Super Bowl contender. Maybe those type of cap shenanigans made sense when they were trying to squeeze one more Super Bowl out of an all-time great QB in Brees, but with Carr and this cast it's just a master class in long-term roster mismanagement.

The Saints won't be bad this season. They're perfectly in the middle of the road without much reason to believe they can be much better. Check out their DVOA ranks from last season: 15th overall, 17th on offense, 15th on defense, 14th on special teams. They won one game against a 2023 playoff team, late in the season against the 9-8 Tampa Bay Buccaneers, but didn't lose to any team that had 10 or more losses. They beat the teams they were expected to beat and didn't get a win against anyone above them in class. Then, this offseason, the Saints didn't add or lose anyone of note in free agency, and their draft class got a consensus grade that ranked them 15th. They're the definition of average. Their main selling point this season is they play in the NFC South, the worst division in the NFL, and therefore a record around .500 could get them into the playoffs if things break right. That's not getting the fan base excited.

It didn't used to be this way. Even when the Saints weren't great in the Payton era, Brees was generally throwing for 5,000 yards and they were one of the most entertaining teams in the NFL. Now they're a team that looks like they've been sitting at a fork in the road, unsure of which path to take and wasting time while the car idles.

The way for the Saints to become something more than average is likely through Carr. He wasn't awful last season. In true Saints fashion, he finished 19th of 38 qualified quarterbacks in Pro Football Focus' grades, right in the middle. Average generally won't cut it for a $150 million quarterback in a new city. Perhaps the change in offensive coordinators from Pete Carmichael, who had been the Saints' coordinator since 2009, to Klint Kubiak will give new life to the offense. That better happen because the Saints have started the restructuring game with Carr's contract. They saved $23 million on the cap in a restructure with Carr to solve a big cap problem. That pushed money into the future and might make it tougher to cut Carr if he doesn't play well this season.

Something needs to happen. It has seemed for a while like the Saints need to tear things down but can't bring themselves to do it. The hope that it will all suddenly click and they'll take a big step is belied by the fact that the Saints had the oldest roster in the NFL last season (via ESPN's Bill Barnwell). What the Saints have been the past couple seasons is probably what they'll be again this season. They're unlikely to be good enough to be a contender and probably won't be bad enough to be forced into a big change. They're stuck.

Free agency was light because the Saints had to scramble just to get under the cap. They were more than $80 million over the cap at times this offseason. Signing defensive end Chase Young was a fine one-year, $13 million gamble, but then it was reported in March that he needed neck surgery. That makes the move more dubious, though he's expected to be ready by Week 1. The only other addition who got a deal worth at least $3 million per season was linebacker Willie Gay. Like Young, Gay got a one-year deal. The good news was the Saints didn't lose much in free agency. The draft was fine — led by offensive tackle Taliese Fuaga in the first round and a trade up for cornerback Kool-Aid McKinstry in the second round (it wouldn't be an NFL Draft without the Saints giving up draft picks to trade up) — but those were their only two picks in the top 149. The Fuaga pick was necessary because the Saints might have whiffed on tackle Trevor Penning in the first round of the 2022 draft and stalwart Ryan Ramczyk's future is murky due to a knee injury. The Saints probably needed a great offseason but it's hard to see how they get enough impact from the additions to make a big difference.

Grade: D+

Derek Carr's stats were fine in his first New Orleans season. He had 3,878 yards, 25 touchdowns, eight interceptions and a 97.7 passer rating. But Saints fans never warmed up to him, whether it was his reliance on peppering Alvin Kamara with checkdowns or some emotional outbursts, or the fact that he wasn't Drew Brees. Carr was competent and perhaps the addition of offensive coordinator Klint Kubiak and quarterbacks coach Andrew Janocko will push him forward. Kubiak spent last season as the San Francisco 49ers' passing game specialist, and everyone seems to want a piece of the Kyle Shanahan tree.

"It was something that you watch from afar, you're like, 'Man, that'd be so fun to be a part of,'" Carr said, via the team's site. "I think just how we fit into what we're going to be asked to do, I'm just excited about that. I'm sitting there watching the film getting excited, because like I said before, it's going to look different for our fans that have seen it a certain way for a long time. But I think it's good."

The Saints' win total at BetMGM is 7.5, a little short of average. The Saints don't have a single player who appears in the top 25 of the odds for MVP, Offensive Player of the Year, Defensive Player of the Year or Offensive Rookie of the Year. Kool-Aid McKinstry is 10th in the Defensive Rookie of the Year odds at 25-to-1. There's not much excitement to bet on the Saints, either.

From Yahoo's Scott Pianowski: "Alvin Kamara is a polarizing fantasy pick entering 2024. Colleague Andy Behrens recently published some pro-Kamara takes, and I always respect Andy's opinion. But I'm concerned that Kamara is more about volume accumulation than splashy plays these days, and that has me fading the veteran entering his age-29 season.

"Kamara was a reliable fantasy producer after his suspension in 2023, finishing fifth in half-point PPR scoring per game. That rank was propped up by his regular use in the passing game — he had 75 grabs, second-most in the league. The reception count is great, but those plays weren't that successful — Kamara's 6.2 yards per catch represents a career low, and a 2.4-yard drop from the previous year.

"The warning signs are more prominent with Kamara, the runner. Kamara managed just 3.9 yards per carry last year and didn't have a single rush over 20 yards (an astonishing lack of explosiveness; heck, Baltimore reserve Keaton Mitchell had seven such runs on just 47 carries). Mix everything together and Kamara checked in at 5.4 yards per touch, the third straight year he's fallen in that category. It's a far cry from the 8.3 YPT he logged back in his rookie season.

"The Saints don't go out of their way to steer Kamara easy touchdowns; he's scored a modest 10 times over his last 28 games. Perhaps Taysom Hill will vulture some goal-line work, and second-year back Kendre Miller is also interesting after a washout first season (mostly ruined by injury; he did pop in Week 18). Given Kamara's age and declining efficiency, I can't view him as a destination fantasy pick this summer."

For many years, Cameron Jordan was a rock for the Saints' defense. He was named to the all-decade team of the 2010s, made the Pro Bowl eight times including each season from 2017-2022 and put together a Hall of Fame argument that includes 117.5 career sacks. That's why Jordan's very quiet 2023 season was a big drag on the Saints' defense. He had just two sacks in 17 games. There's no guarantee Jordan rebounds at age 35. Arguably the Saints' most important defenders on each level are Jordan, linebacker Demario Davis and safety Tyrann Mathieu, and they will be 35, 35 and 32 years old, respectively, this season. Marshon Lattimore is still a good cornerback at a prime age of 28, but there were plenty of questions about his future with the team over the offseason. On top of all of the Saints' other concerning issues, they have an aging defense. That usually isn't a great thing in the NFL.

Like the Saints as a whole, Chris Olave wasn't bad last season but it's safe to say the team and Olave were hoping for more. Olave's season had two unfortunate moments that are probably remembered most: Derek Carr shouting at him after a miscommunication on a deep incompletion against the Jaguars, and Olave being arrested for reckless operation of a motor vehicle. Olave's numbers ended up OK, with 87 catches for 1,123 yards, but it wasn't much better than the year before when he was a rookie and the Saints had Andy Dalton at quarterback. The combination of Carr and Olave entering his second season was supposed to lead to a big improvement, and that never happened. It seemed Carr and Olave never developed chemistry, and Carr yelling at the young receiver on "Thursday Night Football" reinforced that narrative. In a new offense, the Carr-Olave connection is hugely important for the Saints.

While the Saints have some intriguing young receivers in Rashid Shaheed and A.T. Perry, Olave is the one with the talent to be a true difference maker. He seems to know that.

"Just going into this offseason knowing that [the Saints] believe in me as the Receiver 1, I'm excited to get to work," Olave told NFL Network this offseason. "But I'm just trying to take that next step forward and try to go from a good player to an elite player. So just trying to be consistent every day and put in the work to be able to be one of the top receivers in the game."

The Saints have an obvious path to the playoffs, and it's the NFC South. In each of the past two seasons, the NFC South champ had the worst record of all eight NFL division winners. Maybe the Buccaneers or Falcons can reach double-digit wins, which hasn't happened in the NFC South since 2021, but it's also possible it's the worst division in the NFL again. There's nothing wrong with winning a division, even a bad one. The Saints tied for first place last season but lost the tiebreaker to Tampa Bay, so it's not like they're far off. If Derek Carr takes to the new offensive scheme with some good young receivers to throw to, maybe there's some improvement coming. Perhaps a big season from Carr with a new coordinator would give the Saints renewed hope that they'll get a good return on investment with his $150 million deal.

For many teams, a horrible season with plenty of losses and a top-five draft pick in the subsequent draft is a disaster. For the Saints, it might not be the worst outcome. What might be even worse than going 3-14 is another eight- or nine-win season that ends up just short of the playoffs. That might cause the Saints to retain Dennis Allen again and restart their well-worn dance of restructuring every contract so they can find enough space to get just under the salary cap and avoid a roster reset. Being in the middle of the NFL year after year isn't a lot of fun.

The Saints had some momentum late last season. They won four of their final five games and while three of the wins came against the lowly Panthers, Giants and Falcons, it was still a good way to end the season. Maybe that's why the Saints decided to practically run it back. The Saints could remain at their current level, but it's hard to figure out how it gets much better. New Orleans could be in the race to win the NFC South, but that seems to depend more on how good the Falcons or Buccaneers are. We pretty much know what the Saints will be this season. They should hover around .500. Whether that will be good enough to run it back again in 2025 remains to be seen.

32. Carolina Panthers

31. New England Patriots

30. Denver Broncos

29. Washington Commanders

28. New York Giants

27. Tennessee Titans

26. Las Vegas Raiders

25. Arizona Cardinals

24. New Orleans Saints

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