2017 NFL Preview: Could less of Drew Brees mean more for Saints?

Shutdown Corner is previewing all 32 teams as we get ready for the NFL season, counting down the teams one per weekday in reverse order of our initial 2017 power rankings. No. 1 will be revealed on Aug. 2, the day before the Hall of Fame Game kicks off the preseason.

There are worse plans than relying on Drew Brees to do everything year after year.

My respect for Brees has been well noted – in short, he checks every box as an obvious top-10 all-time quarterback and he’s probably top five – and he’s not slowing down. He has won five of the last six passing titles, and when he didn’t win he had 5,162 yards and was beaten out by Peyton Manning’s insane MVP season. Brees has five 5,000-yard seasons. Every other quarterback in the 97-year history of the NFL has four combined. He’s criminally underrated by some and at least moderately underrated by most.

However, maybe it would be OK if Brees didn’t lead the league in passing this season. That hasn’t been working lately.

In the NFL, if you have a great coach and quarterback, you should be a contender every year. Coach and quarterback are the top two priorities for every NFL team, and third is so far down the list it’s not worth mentioning. Brees is the epitome of a great quarterback. I believe Sean Payton is at least a very good head coach. Yet, the Saints have gone 7-9 four of the past five seasons. There’s a disconnect somewhere.

The defense is clearly a problem, and has been for a while. The last four 7-9 seasons the Saints have finished 31st, 28th, 32nd and 31st in total defense. The outlier in the last five years was a totally random fourth-place defensive finish, which paleontologists will study generations from now and not be able to explain.

Maybe the defense gets better just because it can’t get worse. Despite Payton’s desire to land quarterback Patrick Mahomes in the draft, the Chiefs moved up to take him instead and the Saints picked cornerback Marshon Lattimore, a steal at No. 11. Last year’s first-round pick, defensive tackle Sheldon Rankins, was a steal too. A leg injury limited him to nine games last season, but he played well and could become a star soon. The Saints’ effort to build a defense has to start somewhere.

Perhaps a shift on offense could help the defense. The signing of Adrian Peterson and the drafting of Alvin Kamara were curious – most offseason moves for the compulsive Saints can be classified as “curious,” but if there was any plan involved it might signify something. The Saints already had Mark Ingram, a fine back. Peterson, an all-time great back who was the NFL’s rushing leader in 2015, didn’t sign with the Saints to sit on the sidelines watching Ingram. And even though the Saints already had those two, they sent a 2018 second-round pick to move up to take Kamara early in the third round. That’s a steep price to pay, and it tells you how much New Orleans liked Kamara. The Saints have uncontrollable urges when it comes to offseason player additions so maybe there’s no larger plan, but if those moves were based on any logic, it would seem like the Saints are telling us they’d like more run-pass balance this season. Trading receiver Brandin Cooks to the Patriots fits that too. So does the first-round pick of offensive tackle Ryan Ramczyk from the University of Wisconsin, which thinks “spread offense” is running outside the tackles instead of inside them.

The last three seasons, the Saints have been remarkably consistent with their NFL ranks in passing attempts (second in the league all three seasons) and rushing attempts (19th, 20th, 19th). Maybe with a closer split, there will be less pressure on Brees and the defense won’t be exposed as much. The Saints haven’t had a huge issue with time of possession (their pass-happy offense is exceptionally efficient and stays on the field just fine), but the same old thing isn’t resulting in playoff appearances.

Time will soon run out on the Brees-Payton era. It’s hard to say they’ve wasted it, considering they brought a Super Bowl to New Orleans, but it seems like we should have seen them in the playoffs more often. It’s hard to wrap one’s head around the notion that the Saints relying less on their all-time great quarterback could end up producing better results. But maybe we’ll get a chance to find out this season.

Drew Brees and Sean Payton will try to get the Saints back to the playoffs for the first time since 2013. (AP)

Quick, would you trade Brandin Cooks for Ryan Ramczyk? Likely not, but the Saints practically did that, trading Cooks to the Patriots for a first-round pick that became Ramczyk, the Wisconsin offensive tackle. There are salary-cap issues involved but it still seems like a net loss, especially for this season. The Saints’ spending brought in guard Larry Warford from Detroit, linebacker A.J. Klein and receiver Ted Ginn from Carolina and Adrian Peterson. The Saints didn’t lose much in free agency. The draft was good. Marshon Lattimore fell to the Saints at No. 11. Ramczyk was considered by some the best tackle in the draft, second-round pick Marcus Williams could help right away at safety, Alvin Kamara is a really talented back and if Alex Anzalone can stay healthy, he might be a third-round steal at linebacker. It’s hard to overlook the loss of Cooks in the grade, however good the rest of the ledger looks. And you have to put defensive tackle Nick Fairley, who was placed on the reserve/non-football injury list and is done for the season, among the offseason comings and goings too. Grade: C.

No matter what shape the offense takes, it’s going to be good (as long as the line is solid, and we’ll get to that in a moment). Not many teams go three-deep at running back like the Saints. New Orleans could actually afford to lose Brandin Cooks because they hit a home run on Michael Thomas in the second round of last year’s draft. Drew Brees has a deep group of targets to work with. The offense will rack up yards and points. That’s never the problem in New Orleans.

No team suffered a trio of injuries before training camp like the Saints. Defensive tackle Nick Fairley’s heart condition came out of the blue – not long after Fairley signed a four-year, $28 million deal – and he’s done for the season. Pro Bowl center Max Unger suffered a foot injury in May and might miss the start of the season. Left tackle Terron Armstead, one of the best in the game, suffered a torn shoulder labrum in June and will be out until at least mid-October and perhaps as long as mid-December. Those are three top linemen and the Saints can’t exactly replace them easily.

Here’s my annual chance to double-down on my respect for Drew Brees. Did you know Brees will almost assuredly set the record for most career passing yards in NFL history next season? He is 5,829 yards behind Peyton Manning’s mark of 71.940, which puts him on pace to do that sometime in the first half of the 2018 season. He seems like a lock to join Manning and Brett Favre in the 70,000-yard club this season. He needs 3,889 yards. Tom Brady, with 61,582 yards, is a distant fourth. Brees also is 74 passing touchdowns behind Manning’s career mark of 539. That’s not out of reach either (though Brady trails Brees by only nine in that category and will get plenty himself this season).

Center Max Unger was a great addition for the Saints. He came to the Saints along with a first-round pick in the Jimmy Graham trade. Unger has probably been more valuable than Graham since then. That’s why Unger’s health is of prime concern. The latest report from NOLA.com says Unger plans to play Week 1 after his foot surgery, but until he’s back there will be worry. There should also be worry that he’ll be at less than full strength all season. Because Brees isn’t a tall quarterback, the Saints have always put a premium on the interior of their offensive line. Unger is the biggest part of that. That’s why Unger will be watched closely.

From Yahoo Sports’ Liz Loza: “From Michael Thomas’ ascent to Adrian Peterson’s arrival, there’s plenty of fantasy goodness going on in the Gulf Coast. Flying just under the radar, however, is Willie Snead’s hidden value. A gutty slot receiver who averaged over 12 fantasy points per game in PPR formats last year, Snead figures to see an increased role with Brandin Cooks now in New England. With over 100 targets up for grabs, and on an offense that’s averaged more than 400 passing yards per game for three years straight, Snead could easily catch 80 balls in 2017. He’s a WR2 for fantasy purposes and a bargain in the seventh round of drafts.”

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Michael Thomas played in 15 games as a rookie and didn’t have fewer than 40 yards in any of them. Thomas was remarkably consistent as a rookie and had some big games too: He finished the season with a 10-catch, 156-yard game against the Falcons in Week 17. Thomas finished with 1,137 yards and nine touchdowns, a great haul for a rookie. With Brandin Cooks in New England, some of his 117 targets could shift to Thomas. With Drew Brees throwing him the ball and another year in the offense, Thomas could have a monster second season.

HOW WILL THE SAINTS SPLIT TOUCHES BETWEEN MARK INGRAM AND ADRIAN PETERSON?

Ingram is no slouch, and he usually commands a good amount of touches. He has averaged about 200 carries the past three seasons with 125 total catches. He had 1,000 yards rushing last season. However, it’s really, really hard to believe Peterson signed up with the Saints to watch Ingram hog all the snaps. If Peterson is near his 2015 NFL rushing champion form – the Saints seemed impressed with how he looked this offseason – it’s hard to see how the Saints will find enough touches for both. The Saints have welcomed competition for Ingram before, so they’re not scared about hurting his feelings. But how could the Saints shove Ingram to the side for Peterson, who was unsigned for almost two months in free agency? Perhaps this will just be a 50-50 split, and both backs will benefit from being fresh.

This is a good bet to be a top-three offense this season. If Adrian Peterson is still the Peterson we’re used to seeing, the Saints will have a very good rushing attack and we all know the passing game is great. If your offense is that good, you have a chance to make the playoffs. I can’t say I trust the defense to be even middle of the road, but maybe a slight improvement will be enough to win the NFC South.

One thing that hasn’t been mentioned yet is that Drew Brees is 38 years old. It’s incredibly rare for a quarterback to remain effective at age 40 and beyond, so the decline is probably coming soon. And once that happens, the Saints won’t have a soft landing. Imagine a Saints team with a suddenly ineffective Brees and an inept defense. Yikes.

It’s hard to say the Saints will be bad, because they never have been bad with Sean Payton and Drew Brees. It’s also hard to see them making the playoffs, because the defense won’t be good enough and the NFC South is really tough. The Saints will be entertaining to watch as usual, but I don’t think they’ll be much better. Maybe Adrian Peterson has another special season left (I’m definitely not ruling it out) and that reshapes the Saints’ approach for the better, but I still don’t figure on New Orleans getting back to the postseason. If the Saints aren’t playing in January, it’ll be interesting to see if Payton and Brees are both back for 2018.

32. New York Jets
31. Cleveland Browns
30. San Francisco 49ers
29. Chicago Bears
28. Los Angeles Rams
27. Jacksonville Jaguars
26. Detroit Lions
25. Houston Texans
24. Buffalo Bills
23. Indianapolis Colts
22. Baltimore Ravens
21. Los Angeles Chargers
20. Minnesota Vikings

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Frank Schwab is the editor of Shutdown Corner on Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at shutdown.corner@yahoo.com or follow him on Twitter!