Possibly, the New Orleans Saints will enter the 2019 season with the most formidable team assembled during the Sean Payton era. And with good reason, they are among the favorites to represent the NFC in the Super Bowl, and to win it.
Show me the lie.
The reason that the Saints, who tied a franchise record with 13 regular-season victories last season and reeled off a 10-game winning streak, wear the bull's-eye isn't that New Orleans has won the last two NFC South Division titles.
It's not because they brim with incentive, given that last two seasons have concluded in two of the most bizarre endings in NFL playoff history. The loss to the Vikings happened on the final play of regulation in their NFC Divisional Playoff game following the 2017 season, and, well, everyone knows how the overtime defeat to the Rams in the NFC Championship Game came about. No need to rehash the details.
But the Saints are favorites – a title they embraced entering the '18 season, with the slogan "Prove Them Right" – in part because 18 of 22 position starters, and both kicking specialists, return. And because the expectation is that many of them, who already have shown star qualities, will continue to show significant strides in improvement (running back Alvin Kamara, tackle Ryan Ramczyk, cornerback Marshon Lattimore and safety Marcus Williams are entering their third seasons).
It's because the defense, entering its fourth full season in coordinator Dennis Allen's system and led by All-Pro defensive end Cam Jordan, could be as much of a complement to the offense as it ever has been.
True, much will depend on the progress of second-year defensive end Marcus Davenport, as well as how the defensive tackle position holds up until Sheldon Rankins returns to full health from a ruptured Achilles. David Onyemata will have a significant say in that once he returns from a one-game suspension, Taylor Stallworth had a productive season as an undrafted rookie and the Saints believe free agent signee Malcom Brown has skills that previously haven't been utilized to the fullest.
But the linebacker corps could be the best it ever has been under Payton (Demario Davis was lights out last season, and Alex Anzalone showed how much of an every-down play-maker he can be in '18). And the secondary doesn't nearly appear to be the soft spot that it has been in previous seasons. Lattimore already is among the league's best corners, Eli Apple is a solid bookend, safety Vonn Bell is coming off his best season, Williams is poised for a breakout year and in Patrick Robinson and P.J. Williams, the Saints have a pair of corners who have shown they can handle the duties as the nickel.
There was a six-game stretch last season – against Cincinnati, Philadelphia, Atlanta, Dallas, Tampa Bay and Carolina, in Weeks 10-15 – when the defense, headed by many of the aforementioned names, allowed 12.3 points per game and no opponent scored more than 17. The unit believes that can be the norm, rather than an exception.
This looks like it could be the best Saints collection of talent because offensively, Drew Brees is returning to captain the ship and while the most prolific passer in NFL history doesn't have to be a hero anymore, it's nice to know that he still is capable of donning the cape and producing the this-is-why-he's-a-first-ballot-Hall-of-Famer game.
And because Alvin Kamara, the NFL's most multi-faceted running back who has a bloodhound's nose for the goal line, equally can produce jaw-dropping plays as well as grimy, in-the-trenches plays. And because All-Pro receiver Michael Thomas is a physical menace on Sundays, relishing one-on-one coverage, coming off a record-setting season (125 receptions). And because free agent tight end Jared Cook should have a field day lining up opposite Thomas, and in the same offense with Kamara (who draws the double, and who does defenses hope to stop with single coverage?).
It's because the offensive line still could be among the top two or three in the league, even with the retirement of center Max Unger. Second-round pick Erik McCoy will have to learn fast, or Cameron Tom will have to show a jump, or Nick Easton will have to assert control over the position. But whoever starts at center will get to work with veterans along the line; left tackle Terron Armstead is among the league's best when healthy, left guard Andrus Peat might be the most versatile player on the line, right guard Larry Warford is a former Pro Bowler and Ramczyk was named All-Pro in his second season.
And because kicker Wil Lutz, in his second season, set a franchise record with 26 consecutive field goals in '18, while continuing to show every indication that he's as special as Payton said he was during a workout that earned him a roster spot in '17. And punter Thomas Morstead, position for position, does his job as effectively and efficiently as any player in the league and shows no sign of slowing down (no punter in the league – perhaps in league history – is as ripped as T-Mo).
It's because the Saints are a veteran special teams unit – Taysom Hill converts fake punts and covers punts, Craig Robertson sniffs out fake punts and produces momentum-changing tackles, and Justin Hardee could be on the verge of making the Pro Bowl as a special-teamer. And because if Marcus Sherels is any semblance of what he was in Minnesota, the Saints will have their best returner in years.
Entering the season, it has the look of, perhaps, the most formidable team ever assembled under Payton, with a mix of veteran (Brees, Jordan) and young (Thomas, Kamara, Ramczyk, Lattimore) stars that any team would welcome to its roster.
It has the look of a team that is, and should be, expected to do big things.
No lies told.