If one believes the off-season and post-draft bluster, the New Orleans Saints should win the NFC South for a third consecutive season.
In a cakewalk.
Not if, but by how many games, comprendez?
I don’t necessarily disagree, though the Atlanta Falcons could pose a threat if they can keep their core group of star players healthy.
The Black and Gold won the NFC South by six games last season, the widest margin of victory of any NFL division. That will be hard to duplicate, maybe downright impossible, but the Saints clearly have the best and deepest roster in the NFC South, maybe in the entire NFL, and should make a strong bid to win Super Bowl LIV.
I say that with five key players in mind. In no particular order:
Center Erik McCoy: Based on what Saints officials paid to get him on the second day of the draft, most notably a second-round pick in 2020 as part of a trade with Miami, this talented 21-year-old from Texas A&M better hit the road running when he reports. He’s being viewed as the heir apparent to replace recent retiree Max Unger in the middle of the offensive line. Not only are the eyes of Texas upon him, but Who Dat Nation and media will be scrutinizing his every move, too.
Tight end Jared Cook: Free agent signee Coby Fleener wasn’t able to fill the shoes of play-making tight end Jimmy Graham. And, the Saints are still paying for that sin. Fleener still counts $3.2 million in dead money against this season’s salary cap. Cook has the resume, both as a red zone threat and downfield target.
Running back Latavius Murray: Mark Ingram has gone to Baltimore, thus ending his celebrated time-share role with running back Alvin Kamara, a.k.a. Boom & Zoom. Enter Murray, a younger, faster and cheaper version of Ingram minus the pass-catching prowess. Ideally, Kamara needs to no more than 18-22 touches a game in order to keep him fresh and diminish his chances for injury, meaning Murray has to be productive when his number is called.
Defensive end Marcus Davenport: There is a reason why Saints officials moved up 13 spots in the first round to take Davenport at No. 14 in the 2018 draft. We just haven’t seen it yet. He showed glimpses with 4 1/2 sacks, 13 QB hits and one forced fumble in 15 games during his rookie season. But, a turf toe injury sustained in October that required post-season surgery derailed his progress. With the departure of DE Alex Okafor to Kansas City, Davenport needs to step up and provide a steady edge presence opposite four-time Pro Bowl DE Cameron Jordan.
Left tackle Terron Armstead: When healthy, there are few better left tackles in the NFL as his 2018 Pro Bowl selection would suggest. The operative word is healthy. He has yet to play a full season since entering the league as a highly acclaimed third-round pick in 2013. His absence usually triggers a domino affect along the O-line and places strain at other positions. Simply, a healthy Armstead would be a tremendous boon and give the offense a better chance to excel.
There are other players who need to step up their games, most notably CB Eli Apple, rookie DB Chauncey Gardner-Johnson, WR Tre’Quan Smith, WR Cameron Meredith and DTs Malcom Brown and Mario Edwards.
But McCoy, Cook, Murray, Davenport and Armstead are integral to the Saints success in 2019.