The New Orleans Saints were a competitive team and used every possible weapon to maximize the window with head coach Sean Payton and quarterback Drew Brees. Now they are gone, but general manager Mickey Loomis decided it was too early to rebuild.
For 2022, the Saints have kept the core of their coaching staff and made aggressive roster moves, which included trading away future first and second-round picks in order to get another first this year.
Now, the Saints are a team full of questions and with one of the highest range of outcomes in the NFL. If the plan goes right, they may be a real contender in a weakened NFC. If it doesn't, the Saints might be forced to rebuild without full capital. That's why the Saints have so many questions to answer.
1) Will Dennis Allen be a good head coach this time?
Allen has been one of the brightest defensive minds in the NFL, but the roles of head coaches and defensive coordinators are pretty different. Allen's first experience as a HC was a disaster - eight wins and 28 losses between 2012 and 2014 with the Oakland Raiders. Now, it's time for Dennis Allen to prove that his unsuccessful tenure was more product of the environment than of his ability to coach and lead.
2) Is Pete Carmichael enough to keep the offense on the rails?
Sean Payton had tremendous value as a leader, but especially as an offensive mind. He kept his offense at the top of the league for most of his tenure and was decisive to turn Drew Brees' career around after a rough stint with the San Diego Chargers. Pete Carmichael has been the offensive coordinator since 2009, so he certainly knows the system as well as anyone.
However, it's yet to be seen if he can adapt to the primary role and keep a good level throughout the season. In 2012, during Sean Payton's suspension, Carmichael assumed a similar role to what he'll do now. The Saints offense finished that season ninth in DVOA, a pretty good rank, but 18th in weighted DVOA, which means the offense was not as good by the end of the season as it was at the beginning. Besides that, the main difference now in comparison to ten years ago is that Drew Brees is retired, and Carmichael will need to make it work with Jameis Winston.
3) Will Winston keep his efficiency from last season?
Talking about Winston, he is one of the biggest storylines of the Saints' season. Last year, his first as the Saints starter, Winston was his most efficient version, topping his previous career-highs in TD:INT ratio and passer rating. On the other hand, he had his second-to-last lowest numbers in completion percentage and average in yards per pass. So, Winston has to answer if he can keep his efficiency without Sean Payton and if he needs to keep a low volume of throws per game (and short ones) to avoid mistakes.
4) How good is the offensive line?
The O-line has been a strength for the Saints, but now left tackle is a significant question mark. Terron Armstead signed with the Miami Dolphins in free agency, so the Saints traded future capital to draft Trevor Penning in the first round. But Penning is raw and got injured, so he won't play the first months of the season. James Hurst will be the starter. Andrus Peat and Cezar Ruiz aren't high-level starting guards either, so the unit might be a concern as the season goes on. But if Penning comes back and is good right away, and if the system protects them, it's realistic to expect a good level of play.
5) Will Michael Thomas be the same?
After being dominant for the first four seasons of his career, Thomas has played only seven regular season games since 2020, with no touchdowns. He didn't play any game in 2021. Therefore, it's fair to wonder how MT will be after so much time. If he's near 100%, the Saints might have one of the top receiving trios in the league with Chris Olave and Jarvis Landry rounding it out. If MT is not fully himself, Olave will be forced to be the WR1, Landry will have a larger role, and the offense may suffer a cascade effect.
6) Will an aging defense keep playing at a high level?
Cam Jordan is 33, Demario Davis is 33, Tyrann Mathieu is 30, Bradley Roby is 30. Except for Marshon Lattimore, most of the main Saints defensive players are old for NFL parameters. And while they have performed well over the last couple of seasons, a decline wouldn't be a total shock. If they keep the same level, Dennis Allen is capable of scheming the best defense in the league.
7) How much will the Saints miss Sean Payton?
Payton is, without a doubt, the Saints' best coach in history. Even if the rest of the coaching staff has been kept, it's hard to understate how important he's been to this franchise. Payton is a great offensive mind, but also a man who put his leadership style and personality marks over the entire team. His recent success justified the reported interest from the Miami Dolphins to pair Payton with Tom Brady, and frequent rumors about a potential opportunity with the Dallas Cowboys. Even if Dennis Allen and Pete Carmichael have a chance to be good in their new roles, how much the Saints will miss Sean Payton is a big question mark for the season - and beyond.