Just because the New Orleans Saints enter the 2019 season with as formidable a lineup as there is in the NFL – 18 of 22 starters return from a 13-3 team that advanced to the NFC Championship Game and likely fell one missed call away from reaching the Super Bowl – doesn't mean there's no intrigue for the reigning, two-time NFC South Division champions.
No, there don't appear to be any five-alarm fires. New Orleans is a favorite to repeat as division champ, and to represent the NFC in the Super Bowl.
But there are no guarantees of carryover from last season. The work still has to be done and the Saints, like every team, have concerns that could blossom into serious issues if they aren't smoothed.
1. CENTER OF ATTENTION: Who's going to take over at center for Max Unger, who was the Saints' most reliable and, likely, best overall offensive lineman during his four-year stint? There's no lacking for candidates. Rookie Erik McCoy, two-year veteran Cameron Tom and free agent signee Nick Easton will sort it out during training camp, but undoubtedly the Saints took McCoy in the second round – and told him he specifically would play center – for a reason. The good thing is, regardless of who rises to the top, he will be in the middle of a veteran line. That should help with diagnoses and, perhaps, will accelerate comfort. But after Unger, New Orleans obviously doesn't want this to become a weak link in an otherwise formidable line.
2. WHAT'S COOKIN'? With Michael Thomas looking to improve on his record-setting, All-Pro season, expect him to attract even more attention. A productive second receiver would be nice, and there are several candidates for the role. Ted Ginn Jr. was injured most of last season, but the speedy veteran is healthy and ready to stretch the field. We saw flashes from Tre'Quan Smith and Keith Kirkwood, and the Saints have high expectations for Smith, a third-round pick in '18. Whoever it is, he should benefit from the attention that Thomas attracts, but don't rule out tight end Jared Cook stepping into the vacancy and wreaking a little havoc. Cook was a coveted free agent and had a Pro Bowl season for the Raiders in '18. He should be an attractive red zone option – he's a huge target – and Drew Brees likely is looking forward to any one-on-one matchups he can find with Cook. If Cook does what the Saints believe he can in this offense, and running back Alvin Kamara keeps putting up the numbers he's compiling (he averaged 81 receptions per year in his first two), then it might not be a glaring issue if another "receiver" doesn't have a breakout season.
3. HIDE AND SEEK: One of the ways "hidden yardage" shows up is in penalties. We've seen how that can adversely affect a team. Another way is through return yards, and while that hasn't adversely affected the Saints the previous two seasons, it still is an area where the Saints could use a boost. If we take Alvin Kamara out of the mix as a kickoff returner – and he rarely has been used as one – the Saints haven't had a returner they really have felt good about since Darren Sproles, who last wore the Black and Gold in 2013. Marcus Sherels could be the guy that finds some of those hidden yards, especially as a punt returner. In nine seasons with the Vikings, Sherels set a franchise record with five punts returned for touchdowns, and is tied for the franchise lead with a 10.4-yard average on 208 returns. If he can tilt the field a few times, and give the return game some punch, it can make life a little easier for the offense.
4. "D" END: New Orleans had a pretty good idea of what it had in defensive end Alex Okafor, and Okafor was a solid and productive complement to Cam Jordan. But Marcus Davenport looks like he has the goods. We only saw it briefly last season – he was injured for a good portion of the year – but Davenport has a set of gifts that few others possess. He has tons of ability; now, it's his availability that has to catch up. If he's on the field, and defensive tackle Sheldon Rankins returns well from his ruptured Achilles, the Saints' defensive line could be special by season's end. But for training camp, watching Davenport get reps against left tackle Terron Armstead will be must-see, and beneficial for Davenport.