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The Saints’ Future Is Brighter Than It’s Ever Been

(but, yes, let’s go ahead and get our catharsis out now)

Measured against expectations, the 2017-18 New Orleans Saints’ season was a smashing success. The team, which had finished 7-9 three years in a row and four of the last five, with a Vegas win total set at 8.0 this year, picked by many to finish third or fourth in the NFC South, not only went 11-5 and won the division, but did so in nearly dominant fashion, finishing the regular season as Football Outsiders’ #1 ranked team by DVOA.

A team which had severely struggled in the draft for eight or nine years and seemed to have squandered Drew Brees’ prime had, for the second year in a row, not only found a productive draft class, but indeed, produced a contender for one of the all-time great draft classes. The team found four rookies who played so well, they were not only full-time starters but were also all named to Pro Football Focus’ top 10 rookies of 2017 list and to the Pro Football Writers of America’s 2017 all-rookie team.

They have the prohibitive favorite for defensive rookie of the year and one of the two favorites for offensive rookie of the year. (The PFWA awards reflect that: Marshon Lattimore was defensive rookie of the year, and Alvin Kamara shared offensive rookie of the year with Kareem Hunt.) Beyond those two, the Saints found an offensive tackle who not only played every single snap of the season and did so while having to play both positions, and did so at an above-average level; and a free safety whose speed and ball-hawking skills combined with said favorite for Defensive Rookie of the Year to comprise the rookie tandem with the most interceptions in nearly a decade.

The star players took another step forward. The team found a bunch of diamonds in the rough, particularly on defense. And they did all this– going 11-5, finishing #1 in DVOA– despite sending 21 players to Injured Reserve, including ten starters.

All that said: Damn, does it ever hurt. So we’re just going to get it out now. I’m not mad at Marcus Williams, but by God, I was catatonic after that play.

It wasn’t just the one play, either: It’s everything about this season. It’s how Carson Wentz going down opened up the NFC. It’s how there was no truly dominant team this year; the Saints may well have been the best on a neutral field. It’s how many different points during the game the Saints could’ve completed that comeback so it never comes to that final play. It’s how the Saints were in a position to come back in the first place, in no small part because of Williams’ own outstanding interception on a panicked Case Keenum ball, depicted in the header photo. It’s how the Saints were in a position to come back despite the disastrous first half– not aided by refereeing which assigned New Orleans 92 penalty yards, almost all of them on big penalties and/or in critical situations, to only 15 for the Vikings. It’s how close we came to winning in a year where we’d be in the NFC Championship Game as a favorite, and a year with no clear best team. (We wouldn’t necessarily be a favorite in the Super Bowl, but then, we were a significant underdog against the Colts, and we won that game.)

But it hurts. It hurts to feel like we were so close to the win. To feel like, with so many breaks we did get this year, despite the ones we didn’t, like it was really our year.

I can only hope, as I wrote previously, that who can say whether this is a good or bad thing?

Michael Thomas, beating Terence Newman on a slant, about to catch the inevitable touchdown.

Perhaps this is what the young players need to build some mental toughness. Perhaps this is the kind of experience that leads a team and its players to unite even harder and rededicate themselves to being the best they can be, to never having to go through that again. And maybe that wins us a few more championships down the line.

Because that’s the thing about this team: Drew Brees aside, it’s a very young team. Very few of its players are older veterans on the decline. In particular, those two rookies in the secondary, Marshon Lattimore and Marcus Williams, are among the youngest players in the league. Williams, in fact, is the second-youngest player in the entire league (behind Pittsburgh wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster), born in September of 1996. Lattimore was born in July 1996. They both played their entire rookie years at the age of 21, rare enough to begin with, but they also played them like two of the better players in the league at their positions already– and in Lattimore’s case, like one of the very best players in the league at his position, period, when he was on the field. And again, they’re only 21. They’re only going to get better.

Ryan Ramczyk, another rookie at a difficult position, is already playing like one of the better tackles in the league. He’s only going to get better.

Alvin Kamara. I don’t need to tell you what he’s done; you’ve seen it with your own eyes. He’s only going to get better.

The other rookies: Trey Hendrickson, a player whose nuance of the game isn’t there yet but who had the raw talent to rack up sacks at Florida Atlantic. I have no doubt they’re going to have more time to coach him up, more time to teach him those nuances, more time to put that real talent, the talent that got it done in college even when his form and technique may not have, to its maximum use. He’s only going to get better.

Alex Anzalone is going to come back from the shoulder injury. He’s already given us some of the athleticism we need in coverage at linebacker, one of the team’s weaknesses recently, one which we even saw a few times on Sunday in covering screen passes and the like. He’s only going to get better.

The other young players are stepping forward. David Onyemata is becoming one of the better interior penetrators in the league. He’s only going to get better. Tyeler Davison is an effective run-stuffer. He’s only going to get better. Sheldon Rankins is another year removed from his broken leg, and he’s getting the hang of it again, coming back around, developing as an inside penetrator who may still live up to the Aaron Donald-lite status we hoped for when we drafted him. He’s only going to get better.

Michael Thomas is already one of the best wide receivers in the league. If he’s not in the conversation with the best of the best, he’s knocking on the door. He’s only going to get better.

Very few players are going to be in decline. As long as Drew Brees keeps throwing well– he’s a free agent, but he’s already indicated he wants to come back and doesn’t want to play anywhere else– this team will contend. I wouldn’t want to bet on more than three years at Brees’ age, and we are going to need to look for the answer to the question of life beyond Brees eventually, but if he can give us three years, or even two, or even one, this team will be a championship contender as long as he does. The future is very bright for this team, because of all the young talent surrounding Brees, and that talent is only going to get better.

The team probably won’t continue to run as unlucky as it did with injuries this year. (Although, dear God, let’s get Marshon Lattimore on yoga or something. I don’t want to see any more hamstring pulls; I don’t want to see any more avoidable injuries.)

The heartbreak of Sunday’s loss is real, but the team is in such good position to succeed long-term. Even in that game, Michael Thomas produced a dominant game, even against an excellent Vikings pass defense with two All-Pros in its secondary. That’s how good he is.

Ted Ginn’s speed frequently got him open, and even though his two biggest plays were negated because Brees underthrew him on the first and an illegal shift negated a touchdown on the second, that speed still gives the team a needed element it would lack otherwise. (He’s 32, so he’s not going to keep getting better like the young players will, although the last three years of Ginn’s career have been by far his best stretch.) This offense has finally found the weapons that make it capable of attacking at every level: Mark Ingram on the inside, Alvin Kamara on the outside, Michael Thomas over the middle (and everywhere), with Ginn as the burner to run deep routes, take sweeps, set up big plays, and draw coverage downfield.

The offensive line is really good. If Andrus Peat comes back healthy, it’s got five good starters. The line played great as a unit this year; it’s astonishing none of its players made a Pro Bowl. Ryan Ramczyk is going to make a Pro Bowl, sooner rather than later. Terron Armstead has long deserved to make a Pro Bowl, though injuries have made it tough for him to get a full season in and get recognition from the voters. But he will.

This is a talented team. It’s only going to get better.

Sheldon Rankins brings down Case Keenum on a key third-down sack, which pushed the Vikings out of field goal range.

My prescriptions for the defense:

Get one more pass rusher behind Cam Jordan. The line has some pretty good contributors, young players who stand to improve, but a second top-flight pass rusher would really elevate the whole defense. If the team can get pressure rushing just four, they can be scary. Trey Hendrickson might grow into that player someday, but he’s not there yet. If the opportunity is there to acquire someone of a higher pedigree, either on the interior or exterior, I say we take it.

Get a star every-down linebacker. A.J. Klein and Alex Anzalone were improvements over what we had at linebacker, but neither of them is the kind of true stud that would transform the middle of the defense. Georgia’s Roquan Smith is a draft prospect who has the potential to do this, but it’s very likely he’s off the board by the time the Saints select.

Get a cornerback to help with depth, or possibly a hybrid cornerback/safety type. If Delvin Breaux were to come back healthy, that would be a huge boost for this unit, but at this point it seems like we can’t count on him to stay healthy. I’m not sure if the team plans to re-sign Kenny Vaccaro, either. Vonn Bell has been terrific starting in his absence, but again, having more depth will allow the team to weather injuries better and to vary their packages on defense to match up better. (Vaccaro is quite good as a box safety, in the hybrid role where he plays a sort-of linebacker position sometimes, but he may be too expensive to afford and/or the role itself may not be valuable enough to pay him what he’s looking for.)

Marcus Williams will be okay, I think. He’s young. He has a lot of time to learn from this play, to steel his resolve, to become better and better.

And he’s in the right place to do it: New Orleans, a city that welcomes sinners and saints alike. A city that makes room for the oddballs, the misfits, the screwups, the outcasts, from any and all walks of life.

This isn’t a city where he’s going to get booed every time he steps on the field. This isn’t Boston, where Bill Buckner received death threats and had to be released half a season after his infamous World Series error. This isn’t Chicago, where Steve Bartman had to receive police protection at his home in the aftermath of his interference with a foul ball. New Orleans is a city where if Marcus Williams sticks around for us, we’ll love him all the more for it.  New Orleans is a city that holds its heroes close and its almost-heroes even closer, because they need it the most.

I’m not worried about Marcus Williams. New Orleans is one of the best places in the world to go when you need to find forgiveness. It’s a place where the people accept you for who you are. And who Marcus Williams is is a really damn good football player who is only going to get better.

Saints superfan Lynda Woolard (right), who led the effort to pressure the NFL to forfeit its tax-exemption status, waits for the team to return home from the Vikings game.

Good news: The success of The Bayou Brief is going to allow this series of columns to continue through the offseason. We’ll be filling you in on weekly Saints news and updates, writing about projections for 2018 at various positions, and profiling the team’s draft needs (informed by the research at Zone Reads, the NFL Draft website I founded in 2013). Keep checking this space for your weekly Saints brief.

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