Saints embrace lofty expectations in 2018
NEW ORLEANS (AP) — New Orleans Saints players can't miss the large banner affixed to an exterior wall at team headquarters.
On coach Sean Payton's instructions, it was placed near the entrance to the locker room from outdoor practice fields, and reads: "Prove them right."
That says all anyone needs to know about the expectations surrounding the Saints, who rode a youth movement to within one play of last season's NFC title game.
"The guys at the top — we've got to prove them right," explained cornerback Marshon Lattimore, the 2017 Defensive Rookie of the Year.
Defensively, Lattimore said, the Saints expect to climb into the top five after ranking 17th last season and no better than 27th the three seasons before that.
"We can't just say it. We've got to work at it," Lattimore said. "If we do that, we're going to be good."
Goals are also lofty on offense, a unit that has consistently ranked among the NFL's best ever since quarterback Drew Brees and Payton, who designs the offense, joined forces in 2006.
Last season, the Saints ranked second offensively and were more balanced that usual, thanks to the Pro Bowl running back tandem of Offensive Rookie of the Year Alvin Kamara and veteran Mark Ingram.
"We haven't lost veteran guys. We've gone and acquired some more veteran leadership and some guys that are great in the locker room," Brees said. "We've got this young talent that is continuing to develop, and I think you're always looking forward to seeing that jump from Year 1 to Year 2 with certain guys, and Year 2 to Year 3 for other guys."
Last season, it took an unlikely 61-yard touchdown pass as time expired — the Minneapolis Miracle — to lifted the Vikings past the Saints in the NFC divisional playoffs.
Now New Orleans enters 2018 determined to take care of unfinished business.
Some things to watch with the Saints:
STEADY BREES: If the Saints make it as far as the NFC title game, their star quarterback will have just turned 40. But quarterbacks like Brees and New England's Tom Brady are trying to redefine QB longevity in this era of evolving training methods and NFL rules designed to protect quarterbacks. In 2017, Brees had his least prolific season as a Saint with 4,334 yards passing, but that appeared to be by design. Not only did New Orleans have a resurgent running game, but Brees was more accurate than ever, setting an NFL record with his 72 percent completion rate. In addition to Pro Bowl receiver Michael Thomas and veteran Ted Ginn Jr., Brees has two new intriguing targets: Chicago's 2016 receiving leader, Cameron Meredith, and rookie Tre'Quan Smith.
This season, Brees likely will eclipse Peyton Manning's NFL record 71,940 career yards passing. Brees also enters the season tied for third all-time in TD passes with Brady at 488, 20 behind Brett Favre and 51 behind Manning.
YOUNG STARS: In 2017, the Saints became the first team in half a century to field offensive and defensive rookies of the year in the same season. Could Kamara and Lattimore possibly have better seasons in store? Kamara was New Orleans' second-leading rusher with 728 yards and eight TDs, as well as the club's second-leading receiver with 81 catches for 826 yards and five TDs. He also had a 106-yard kickoff return for a score, giving him a team-leading 14 total TDs.
Lattimore was a big reason the Saints went from last in the NFL in yards passing allowed in 2016 to 15th in 2017. He covered opponents' top receivers and finished with five interceptions to go with 18 passes defended, a forced fumble and fumble recovery.
INGRAM'S ABSENCE: Ingram says his goal remains to surpass 1,000 yards rushing this season, even though he'll only have 12 games to do it. He won't be a factor in New Orleans' first four games because of his suspension for use of a banned substance. Payton designs game plans to suit the strengths of available players, so Ingram's absence won't necessarily force the Saints to use another player in Ingram's role. But any time a team losses a player who rushed for 1,124 yards and 12 TDs, it's bound to present challenges. Kamara could wind up with more work. Other running backs getting looks in the preseason were sixth-rounder Boston Scott, third-year pro Jonathan Williams and veteran Shane Vereen.
EDGE PRESSURE: Payton said at the start of the offseason that his priorities included improving the pass rush. That was not a knock on Cameron Jordan , a first-time All-Pro with 13 sacks, 17 tackles for loss, 28 QB hits, 11 passes defended, two forced fumbles and an interception for a touchdown. But Jordan could use help. New Orleans used its top draft choice — 14th overall — on Marcus Davenport, an end out of UTSA. His progress has been slowed by a groin pull in training camp. Beyond that, New Orleans hopes Alex Okafor returns effectively from his torn Achilles tendon and that Trey Hendrickson, the last of three third-round draft choices in 2017, shows considerable progress.
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