There have been highly anticipated New Orleans Saints seasons in the past. This one, arguably, tops the list.
New Orleans is built to win it all, and most logical thinkers agree with that assessment. There's a blend of youth, experience, talent and smarts that suggest the Saints have a good chance to win their third consecutive NFC South Division title and advance to the Super Bowl.
But before we get too far ahead of ourselves, first things first: The regular-season opener against the Houston Texans, Monday night in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome. It's a monumental initial step into the season, considering the Texans, too, legitimately have their sights on winning a division championship and making a playoff run.
A stiff test right out of the gate. Here are a few ways in which the Saints can pass it:
- It'll be loud in the Superdome, just because of the occasion: Regular-season opener, really good home team, raw deal in the playoffs that prevented the team from reaching the Super Bowl last season. The Saints have to give the crowd a reason to stay loud. They've been talking about getting off to a fast start all offseason record-wise, but it'll help the cause to do so in this game to jump out early, too. In the past, we've seen instances – many instances – where a fast Saints start resulted in a snowball effect, and the team ran away from the opponent. If New Orleans can build some early momentum, the crowd will be more than willing to help keep it going.
- This Saints defense sounds ready to be one of the best in the league. Here's the first chance to put some plays in front of the talk. The Texans have a talented quarterback (Deshaun Watson) and an elite receiver (DeAndre Hopkins). Hopkins is the kind of receiver that a team drafts cornerback Marshon Lattimore for, and Lattimore relishes this kind of challenge. It's a big one. It'll help if the Saints can corral Watson and turn him into a pocket passer. Often, the opposite is true: A defense wants a quarterback to have to move. But Watson is so comfortable out of the pocket, and such a running threat, that the Saints need to keep him confined. Saints defensive end Cam Jordan is as complete as any defensive end in the league, and he keys the pass rush. Houston hopes it has upgraded its offensive line, and while it has different players this season, know that Watson was sacked 62 times last season. When there are opportunities to get him on the ground, the Saints need to finish the play.
- J.J. Watt wrecks offensive gameplans. The Texans defensive end is a three-time NFL Defensive Player of the Year, and he's coming off a season in which he had 16 sacks and seven forced fumbles. But New Orleans may have some tools to combat him with (I didn't say "stop," because that word might not be applicable, ever, when it comes to dealing with Watt). Right tackle Ryan Ramczyk was All-Pro in his second season, and he's only getting better. If Watt flips to right defensive end, he'll be staring at left tackle Terron Armstead, another All-Pro. The concern will be when he lines up inside, and sets his sights on rookie center Erik McCoy. Fortunately for McCoy, he's supported with veteran guards Larry Warford, a former Pro Bowler, and Andrus Peat. True, you can't pay so much attention to Watt that linebacker Whitney Mercilus, who has a 12-sack season on his resume, is allowed to wreak havoc. But, like every other Houston opponent, the Saints will know where Watt is and need to minimize what he'll be up to.
- There's every reason to believe that tight end Jared Cook will have a huge season with the Saints. First, he's a big, talented target. Second, he has players (receiver Michael Thomas, running back Alvin Kamara) who can relieve the pressure on him. Third, he has a quarterback (Drew Brees) who knows how to get him the ball. There will be some opportunities for Cook because everyone can't be given special attention, especially when he's on the field with Thomas and Kamara. It could be a fun debut.