As training camp approaches for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, and with it the unofficial start to the season, we are taking a closer look at the opponents on the team's 2022 schedule. Next up is the New Orleans Saints, who draw the Buccaneers at home in Week Two, on September 18, before coming to Tampa for the Week 13 rematch on December 5. The latter game is the lone Monday Night Football contest on the Buccaneers' 2022 ledger.
The Saints moved on from franchise quarterback Drew Brees in 2021, and while they saw their four-season run as NFC South champions snapped by the Buccaneers, they still finished with a winning record at 9-8. New Orleans started the season 5-2 with former Buccaneer Jameis Winston taking over for the retired Brees but then lost five straight following Winston's season-ending knee injury in Week Seven. A strong 4-1 finish that included their second win over Tampa Bay got the Saints to within a tiebreaker loss for the final NFC playoff spot.
After Winston's injury, and with gadget player Taysom Hill dealing with a concussion, the Saints turned first to Trevor Siemian but saw their playoff hopes fade with four straight losses. Hill did return to start five of the last six, missing one with a finger injury, and the Saints won four of those. However, Hill also suffered a foot injury in the season finale that would require offseason surgery. The Saints announced later in the offseason that Hill would play exclusively at tight end in 2022, with Winston expected to return to his starting role.
Running back Alvin Kamara continued to be the driving force in the Saints' offense, especially with ultra-productive wideout Michael Thomas missing the entire season. Though he missed four games – which also contributed greatly to the team's midseason slide – he averaged more than 100 yards from scrimmage per game and scored nine touchdowns. The Saints' offense never really found a number-one pass-catching option in Thomas's absence, though wideout Marquez Callaway led the team with 698 receiving yards on 46 catches.
The Saints' defense dealt with some key injuries, too, especially along the defensive front, but still ranked as one of the league's best unit, finishing fourth in points allowed and seventh in yards allowed. New Orleans featured the league's best run defense and two Pro Bowlers on that side of the ball in cornerback Marshon Lattimore and defensive end Cameron Jordan. Jordan led the team with 12.5 sacks while Lattimore broke up 19 passes.
With Malcolm Jenkins retiring and Marcus Williams leaving for Baltimore, the Saints remade their safety corps by signing former Jet Marcus Maye and former Chief Tyrann Mathieu, the latter not arriving until after the draft. The defense also got some lower-priced depth with the likes of safety Daniel Sorenson, defensive end Kentavius Street and defensive tackle Jaleel Johnson.
The wide receiver room also got a much-needed infusion of talent, which will be doubly true if Thomas returns to health and his former form after two largely lost campaigns. The draft brought in first-round pick Chris Olave, like Thomas a former Ohio State wide receiver who figures to provide significant production right away. A late-offseason signing added former Brown Jarvis Landry, who is another high-volume pass-catcher.
The Saints actually ended up with two first-round picks after some wheeling and dealing and used the other one to land Northern Iowa tackle Trevor Penning, who could be the replacement for one of the roster's most significant 2022 losses (see below). Overall, the Saints only made five draft picks, including second-round cornerback Alontae Taylor out of Tennessee.
The Saints also have a new backup quarterback, with Siemian now in Chicago, as they added former Bengals starter Andy Dalton.
The Saints reworked more than a dozen contracts in order to do their annual dance with salary cap obliteration but still suffered a couple of key losses in free agency. As noted above, Williams left for the Ravens but perhaps the most painful, if not unexpected, departure was that of standout left tackle Terron Armstead, who priced himself out of the Saints' range with a huge contract from the Dolphins.
What Else is New?
Well, the head coach, surprisingly. We could have put long-time coach Sean Payton in the departures section above, as he shocked the league by stepping down from his post in late January. Payton had been at the Saints helm for 15 seasons and was widely considered one of the best head coaches in the league. His departure comes just one season after quarterback Drew Brees retired, and those two developments definitely mark the end of an era in New Orleans.
Defensive Coordinator Dennis Allen, who previously had a record of 8-28 as the Oakland Raiders' head coach from 2012 through the first month of 2014, was promoted to the corner office, with assistants Kris Richard and Ryan Nielsen now sharing the DC title.
How much will Sean Payton's departure affect the team's performance?
The 2022 season in New Orleans should be a pretty good case study on the topic of how much difference a top-shelf head coach actually makes on a team's outcomes. Payton kept the Saints in contention in 2021 despite the retirement of Brees and a very deep round of injuries. The 2022 squad might conceivably be more talented if Winston plays well, the two first-round draft picks pan out and Thomas returns to form, and General Manager Mickey Loomis made it clear early in the offseason that this team expects to contend. If they do not, could that be taken as strong evidence Payton was a critical part of the team's success over the past decade and a half?
Will Jameis Winston continue to thrive as a low-turnover game manager?
The Buccaneers drafted Winston first overall in 2015 and over the course of the next five seasons he put up some legitimately impressive numbers, including three seasons of more than 4,000 passing yards. The enduring symbol for his time in Tampa, however, will be the combination of 33 touchdowns and 30 interceptions he threw in 2019, the first 30-30 season in NFL history. Over those five seasons Winston bombed away for 135 touchdown passes but also 91 interceptions. After a season backing up Brees, Winston looked in 2021 as if he had fully absorbed the message from Payton to take care of the football at all costs, including his own stats. Before his injury he averaged just 167.1 passing yards per game but threw 14 touchdown passes against just three interceptions. His 1.9% interception rate was easily the lowest of his career. Is this the path the Saints will follow with Winston again in 2022, and will he maintain that approach and effectiveness for a full 17 games?
How will the secondary shape up?
The Saints look as if they've put together a talented group of cornerbacks and safeties but it's not clear yet how they will all be deployed. The late addition of Mathieu certainly opens up some possibilities, given that he has shown great versatility to line up all over the defense during his career. Nickel back and professional instigator C.J. Gardner-Johnson is also a versatile player who could be moved around in different packages. Will the incoming Maye show as much range and make as much of an impact as the departed Williams did? Was 2021 third-round pick Paulson Adebo's relatively impressive rookie season a true indicator of how good he will be? Were the Saints right when they picked cornerback Alontae Taylor significantly higher (49th overall) than most draft pundits expected?