The Arizona Cardinals have their second game of the preseason game tonight against the New Orleans Saints and we have a chance to preview it with the Saints SB Nation site Canal Street Chronicles. Chris Dunnells was nice enough to take some time out of his day to answer some questions before the game.
1. The Saints took big strides in 2017 on defense, what do you expect for an encore in 2018?
The Saints defense should be even better in 2018. The 2017 defense came out of nowhere almost entirely on the back of the incredible secondary led by Defensive Rookie of the Year CB Marshon Lattimore and fellow rookie standout S Marcus Williams. The group of linebackers for the Saints largely underwhelmed last year due to injuries and poor performance, and the defensive line struggled to generate consistent pressure outside of Pro Bowl DE Cam Jordan. Those two areas have largely been addressed. The Saints signed former NY Jets LB Demario Davis early in the offseason, and are expecting a healthy AJ Klein and (another 2017 rookie) Alex Anzalone both back from injury and ready to go for Week 1. This will allow role players like Craig Robertson and Manti Te’o who were forced into duty last year to go back to being reserve players and fill out a deep linebacking corps.
The Saints traded the world to move up and draft pass rusher Marcus Davenport in the first round of the 2018 NFL Draft, but they also re-signed Alex Okafor, who was on his way to a career year before tearing his Achilles in 2017. This allows Sheldon Rankins to shift back to his natural role on the inside of the defensive line and Hau’oli Kikaha to only see the field on obvious passing downs.
If the pass rush is able to get after opposing QBs and the linebackers can hold up both in coverage and against the run, watch out for the Saints defense in 2018.
2. How much of Drew Brees and co will we see this week?
Drew actually didn’t see any of the Saints first preseason game against the Jacksonville Jaguars, so I’d expect him to get in a series or two this go-round. The rest of the Saints key starters are likely to go a significant portion of the first quarter, if not further. Expect to see a heavy dose of Mark Ingram early in the game, as his suspension for the season’s first four games makes any time against live competition that much more important. But with players like Michael Thomas, Alvin Kamara, and Cam Jordan - the Saints know what they have there. Get them in, get them their reps, and get them out.
3. With no Marcus Davenport this week, what can we expect from the Saints rookies?
There are two other Saints rookies to pay attention to, and both are on the other side of the ball: WR Tre’Quan Smith out of UCF and RB Boston Scott out of LA Tech. Which brings up your next question...
4. What are the closest position battles on the roster?
The battle for the 4th WR and the 2nd/3rd RB are going to be fun.
The Saints have Michael Thomas firmly entrenched as the teams #1 WR for 2018 and beyond. Ted Ginn Jr had himself an incredible year in New Orleans last year, and is likely to start the season as the team’s #2 wideout. Cameron Meredith could overtake Ginn by early in the season if his knees are fully healthy, but for Week 1, is likely the third WR on the depth chart. But the 4th WR is still completely up in the air.
After stealing Alvin Kamara in the third round of the 2017 NFL Draft, the Saints might have found a similar third round gem in the 2018 NFL Draft. Tre’Quan Smith has all of the measurables you’d like to see in an NFL wide receiver, and has been making all of the plays in training camp. You would think it would be his job to lose at this point, but the Saints signed veteran WRs Michael Floyd (ever heard of him?) and Brandon Tate to compete for time. Then there’s UDFA Keith Kirkwood who’s been getting rave reviews all preseason and WR Austin Carr, who the Saints claimed off the Patriots last season. Between the five of those players, only a couple will make the roster.
Then I mentioned Ingram’s suspension. Well during that time, Sean Payton has already said that he doesn’t plan on putting all of those touches on the shoulders of Alvin Kamara. Instead, look for some combination of veterans Jonathan Williams, Shane Vereen, Trey Edmunds, and Boston Scott to fill that role. That player will then likely slide into the depth chart behind Ingram once he returns, but will still get plenty of work in a Sean Payton offense. Boston Scott, with his 4.4 speed and ability to help in the return game, is one of the leading candidates to take that job and run with it (pun kind of intended).
5. I picked the Saints to win the Super Bowl last year (so that’s my fault) but outside of health, what is the key to that happening this year?
This sounds corny, but the Saints need to win the games they are supposed to win. The Saints have an absolutely brutal five-week span in the 2018 regular season that sees them play the Super Bowl Champion Philadelphia Eagles, NFC West Champion Los Angeles Rams, NFC North Champion Minnesota Vikings, and NFC Wild Card team and divisional foe Atlanta Falcons. That is on top of a second game with the Falcons, two against 2017 Wild Card Carolina Panthers, and one against the NFC North Champion Pittsburgh Steelers. The Saints also have a Week 14 matchup against a young and talented Tampa Bay team, a Week 7 game against the Baltimore Ravens - the only team that Drew Brees has never beaten, and a Thursday Night Football matchup against the Dallas Cowboys in Jerry’s World.
The entire NFC is loaded this year, and if the Saints want to make a run, early games against a Jameis Winston-less Tampa Bay Buccaneers and the Tyrod Taylor-led Cleveland Browns are going to be absolutely critical.