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Exit Interview: New Orleans Saints

One of the best seasons in franchise history ended in heartbreak, but the Saints are poised to be back in this position next year

Drew Brees Getty Images/Ringer illustration

It’s that time of year when some NFL teams have started looking toward next season. As each club is eliminated, The Ringer will examine what went right, what went wrong, and where the franchise could go from here. Next up is the New Orleans Saints, who went 13-3 but were eliminated in the NFC championship game after a controversial pass interference non-call.


What Went Right

The Saints went 13-3, tied with the Rams for the best record in football, finished second in overall DVOA, had the largest point differential in the NFL, and earned the no. 1 seed in the NFC. They finished no. 4 in offensive DVOA, were one of two teams along with Kansas City to score on more than half of their possessions, and were in the top five of just about every offensive category of substance:

Saints Offense

Statistic Saints' NFL Rank
Statistic Saints' NFL Rank
Points per game 3
Points per drive 2
Touchdowns (from scrimmage) 2
Touchdowns per drive 2
Passing touchdowns 7
Rushing touchdowns 1
Yards per game 8
Yards per drive 2
First downs 5
Drive success rate (first downs per series) 2
Average starting field position 1
Punts per drive 3
Three-and-outs per drive 2
Adjusted line yards (run blocking) 2
Percentage of runs "stuffed" 1

Receiver Michael Thomas was named first-team All-Pro and accrued a league-leading 125 catches on just 147 targets, giving him the best catch rate (85.0 percent) for a non-running back with at least 50 targets since at least 1992, as far back as the data goes. Running back Alvin Kamara finished seventh in the league in yards from scrimmage and his 18 touchdowns were second only to Todd Gurley. Defensive end Cameron Jordan had 12 sacks this year, and the defense had 49 sacks.

Both left and right tackles Terron Armstead and Ryan Ramczyk were named second-team All-Pro by the Associated Press, and the team’s offensive line was the second-best in run blocking and the third-best in pass protection, according to Football Outsiders. Drew Brees was sacked just 17 times in 15 games, the lowest mark for any quarterback in the league who started at least 10 games. Brees had one of the finest seasons of his career, leading the league with a career-high 115.7 passer rating, finishing 0.1 points from tying Patrick Mahomes II for the league lead in QBR, and shattered his own NFL record for completion percentage by completing 74.4 percent of his passes. (A caveat to his completion percentage mark is that not all passes are created equal: Brees’s passes traveled 7.15 yards on average, the 29th furthest downfield of 33 qualified passers.) His passing yardage wasn’t as gaudy as it was in some of the years when New Orleans had a less-balanced offense, but 2018 was one of Brees’s best years as a pro—and one of New Orleans’s best seasons as a franchise.

What Went Wrong

None of that good stuff mattered. A year after the Saints allowed the Minneapolis Miracle to let the Vikings reach the NFC championship game, the Saints made it to the conference championship game only to lose 26-23 to the Rams in the Superdome on one of the worst missed penalties in NFL history. Almost nothing went wrong for the Saints this season—except when the season was on the line. The Saints’ failure to convert two red zone trips into touchdowns early, the refs’ blown call late in the fourth quarter, and their inability to capitalize on getting the ball first in overtime ended their season on the doorstep of the Super Bowl.

“We’ll probably never get over it,” head coach Sean Payton told reporters after the game.

Free Agents

New Orleans is miserable after Sunday’s NFC championship heartbreak, but misery loves company, and most of this squad will be back next year. From a fan and a fantasy football perspective, the biggest free agent is running back Mark Ingram. He was New Orleans’s first-round pick in 2011 and is the second-leading rusher in franchise history behind Deuce McAllister, but with the emergence of Alvin Kamara, it might be tough for the Saints to justify shelling out for the 29-year-old running back.

Beyond Ingram, the Saints won’t lose many big-time contributors on offense. Quarterback Teddy Bridgewater is set to be a free agent and figures to have some suitors, but quarterback Taysom Hill seems poised for a larger role with the Saints anyway. New Orleans may lose backup linemen Josh LeRibeus to free agency and Jermon Bushrod to retirement, but the team’s entire starting offensive line is set to return, as are its other skill players except for Ben Watson, who is 38; receivers Josh Huff and Tommylee Lewis, the latter of whom you had probably never heard of until the pass interference non-call Sunday; and Dez Bryant, whose tenure as a Saint lasted for two practices. On defense and special teams, the biggest free agents are linebacker Manti Te’o, cornerbacks P.J. Williams and Ken Crawley, and kicker Will Lutz. Williams and Lutz are likely the highest priorities to retain of that group.

The core of this team is all under contract through next year, and the team doesn’t need to worry about too many extensions soon either. Running back Alvin Kamara, pass rusher Cam Jordan, and defensive tackle Sheldon Rankins are all signed through 2020. Both starting offensive tackles, Terron Armstead and Ryan Ramczyk, plus cornerback Marshon Lattimore are signed through 2021. Drew Brees is a free agent in 2020, but he can keep re-signing with the Saints as long as he wants. New Orleans is projected to have only about $15 million of cap room next year, but the team doesn’t have many holes to plug, so it may get ahead on a contract extension for Michael Thomas, who will be a free agent in 2020.

Draft

The Saints sent their 2019 first-round draft pick to the Packers to move up and draft defensive end Marcus Davenport last year at no. 14 overall, traded their third-round pick to the Jets for Teddy Bridgewater (whom the Jets signed to a one-year, $5 million deal in March), and sent their fourth-round pick to the Giants for cornerback Eli Apple during the season. That leaves New Orleans with just its second-rounder on the first two days of the draft. The Apple trade was worth it, while the Bridgewater deal remains a massive head-scratcher considering how well New Orleans has scouted recently—10 of the Saints’ last 12 first-round draft picks are current NFL starters, seven of whom still play for New Orleans. The team may regret not having a first-rounder in a talented draft class this year.