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Tampa Bay Buccaneers

2023 Opponent Preview: New Orleans Saints, Weeks 4 & 17

The Saints will be seeking to reclaim the top spot in the NFC South in 2023 after signing QB Derek Carr and reloading in the offensive backfield and along the defensive front


As the NFL enters its fallow period between the end the teams' offseason programs and the start of training camp, we are taking a closer look at each of the opponents the Tampa Bay Buccaneers will face during the 2023 regular season. From how those teams fared last year to what they've done with the roster since to some as-yet-unanswered questions, we want to get a better feel for what the Buccaneers will be up against this fall. Today we take a first look at an NFC South opponent and the last team to win the division before the Bucs' back-to-back titles.

2022 Results

The 2022 Saints finished with the club's first losing record in six years, though like the Falcons and Panthers they were only one game behind the Buccaneers in the final division standings. New Orleans won three in a row from Weeks 15-17, including one over eventual NFC champ Philadelphia (albeit with Jalen Hurts on the sideline), to stay in the race until Tampa Bay clinched it in Week 17.

It was, in fact, mostly divisional play that sank the Saints chances of winning a fifth division title in a six-year span. While they did beat Atlanta twice, they dropped all four of their matches against the Bucs and Panthers. That's not to say the Saints' final record was particularly misleading. They were outscored by 15 points on the season, ranking 17th in point differential, and while their defense ranked fifth in the NFL the offense came in at 19th.

Jameis Winston opened the season as the starter under center but was sidelined by a back injury in Week Three, after the Saints opened 1-2. Winston was replaced by Andy Dalton, and even when he was healthy enough to return to the field New Orleans stuck with their former number two the rest of the way. Dalton didn't put up huge numbers, but he did complete 66.7% of his passes and post a 95.2 passer rating. The Saints' passing attack found a new number-one target in first-round wideout Chris Olave, who topped 1,000 yards as a rookie, led the team with 72 catches and averaged 14.5 yards per grab. Running back Alvin Kamara missed some time due to injury but still contributed 1,387 yards from scrimmage. However, Kamara also scored a career-low four touchdowns on the season after 13.4 over his first five seasons. It marked the first time in his career that he was not voted into the Pro Bowl.

The Saints' defense, as noted, remained quite strong in 2022, giving up just 20.3 points per game to rank ninth in the NFL. Team leader Cameron Jordan made the Pro Bowl for the sixth year in a row and eighth time overall after an 8.5-sack campaign, but the Saints also got pass-rush contributions from a long list of players, including Kaden Elliss (7.0), Demario Davis (6.5), Carl Granderson (5.5), David Onyemata (5.0) and Kentavius Street (3.5). (Spoiler alert: You're going to see a lot of those same names in the "2023 Departures" section below.)

Davis has long joined the Bucs' Lavonte David on the annual list of the NFL's "most underrated" players, but he earned his first Pro Bowl berth in 2022 and was a second-team Associated Press All-Pro. In addition to his career-high sack total, he racked up 109 tackles, 10 tackles for loss, eight QB hits, one interception, six passes defensed and a fumble recovery. Star cornerback Marshon Lattimore missed 10 games due to injury by the new safety duo of Tyrann Mathieu and Daniel Sorensen combined to provide five of the Saints' seven interceptions.

2023 Arrivals

The most important newcomer for the Saints in 2023 is, of course, former Raiders quarterback Derek Carr, who got the biggest contract of any free agent switching teams (four years, $150 million). The Raiders originally tried to trade Carr, and the Saints showed interest, but New Orleans was eventually able to wait for Las Vegas to release their long-time starter. Carr was both durable and productive for nine years in Raiderland, only missing four games in that span and averaging 3,914 passing yards and 24 touchdowns per season. Two of those four missed games were his last two with the franchise, as he was benched in favor of Jarrett Stidham, presumably to avoid injury since the upcoming divorce was evident.

With free agency decimating their defensive front, the Saints responded by giving three year deals to interior linemen Nathan Shepherd of the Jets and Khalen Saunders of the Chiefs. Shepherd only started 12 games in five seasons with the Jets and Saunders only five in four years in Kansas City but they did combine for 5.0 sacks and 14 quarterback hits in 2022. Those efforts continued in the first two rounds of the draft, where New Orleans nabbed Clemson's Bryan Bresee at the 29th pick and Notre Dame's Isaiah Foskey at number 40. Otherwise, not too much was done to the defense other than filling in some gaps on the depth chart with one-year deals for cornerback Lonnie Johnson and safety Johnathan Abram plus a fifth-round pick on safety Jordan Howden.

With the possibility of a suspension for Alvin Kamara due to an incident in Las Vegas at the 2021 Pro Bowl, the Saints also reloaded in their offensive backfield. The first move was to sign Detroit running back Jamaal Williams, who notably scored 17 touchdowns during a 1,000-yard season in 2022, at the beginning of free agency. The Saints then doubled down by taking TCU running back Kendre Miller in the third round. The offensive line got some depth with the signing of tackle Storm Norton and the use of a fourth-round selection on Old Dominion guard Nick Saldiveri.

More recently, the Saints signed former Raiders tight end Foster Moreau after he had undergone treatment for Hodgkin's lymphoma, which was diagnosed when he received a physical from the team during a visit in March. Moreau, who had 63 catches for 793 yards and five touchdowns over the last two seasons, has returned to full participation in practice.

2023 Departures

The Saints lost a good portion of their defensive front in the early days of free agency, though many of the departing players stayed within the division. Defensive tackle David Onyemata and outside linebacker Kaden Elliss both left for Atlanta, while defensive tackle Shy Tuttle landed in Carolina. Meanwhile, defensive end Marcus Davenport signed a deal with the Vikings and defensive tackle Kentavius Street joined the Eagles. Those five players combined to record 18 of the team's 48 sacks last season while making a total of 51 starts.

Two pass-catchers from the Saints' 2022 squad reunited with former New Orleans Head Coach Sean Payton in Denver. Wide receiver Marquez Callaway, who had 16 receptions last year, signed a one-year contract with the Broncos while tight end Adam Trautman, who had 18 grabs, was traded to Denver in a pick swap during the draft. Dalton followed Tuttle to Carolina, signing a two-year deal. Wide receiver/return man Deonte Harty moved up to Buffalo on his own two-year contract. Safety Justin Evans, who had revived his NFL career working as a nickel back for the Saints, signed with the Eagles.

A number of relatively prominent names from recent Saints teams hit free agency and as of yet have not re-signed with the Saints or landed a deal elsewhere. That group includes cornerback and P.J. Williams, wide receiver Jarvis Landry and running back Mark Ingram. Sorensen has also not been re-signed after his first season in New Orleans.

Other Noteworthy Developments

When Dennis Allen was promoted from defensive coordinator in 2022 to take over for the departing Payton, his previous role was filled by two members of the staff, as Ryan Nielsen and Kris Richard were named co-defensive coordinators. After Nielsen left to become the Falcons' new defensive coordinator this offseason, the Saints dismissed Richard and brought in Joe Woods to be the new coordinator. Allen plans to continue making the defensive calls during games. The Saints also hired new coaches to lead the defensive line (Todd Grantham), the secondary (Marcus Robertson) and the tight ends (Clancy Barone).

After Winston failed to reclaim his starting job from Dalton last season, it appeared likely that he and the Saints would be parting ways, especially after the team signed Carr. However, instead of seeking an opportunity to compete for a starting job elsewhere, Winston elected to sign a renegotiated contract that reduced his cap hit and he will serve as Carr's primary backup in 2023. The Saints also used a fourth-round draft pick to grab Fresno States's Jake Haener and round out their quarterback room. Winston explained his decision by stating his love for the city of New Orleans and the team's fan base, and said "getting healthy and staying healthy" was his top priority after three significant injuries over the last two years. Winston also stated, "Let there be no doubt, I am still a championship caliber starting quarterback in this league."

Pressing Questions

How much better will the Saints offense be with the addition of Derek Carr?

In terms of completion percentage, yards per attempt, touchdown-to-interception ratio, interception percentage and passer rating, Dalton actually put up better numbers last year for the Saints than Carr did in Las Vegas. Neither quarterback had a particularly dynamic supporting cast around them, though Carr did get one season with his old college buddy, Davante Adams, a legitimate superstar. Obviously, however, the Saints felt their offense would have a higher ceiling with Carr at the helm.

Carr has plenty on his NFL resume that would make the Saints confidence in him reasonable. He was third in MVP voting in 2016 and has been invited to four Pro Bowls. He's topped 4,000 passing yards in four of the last five seasons and likely would have gotten there again in 2022 if he hadn't been taken out of the lineup near the end. In the 2019-20 seasons combined he threw for 8,157 yards and 48 touchdowns against 17 interceptions and had a passer rating north of 100.

The Saints may also have a better set of weapons at Carr's disposal than what Dalton had. Olave is likely to be even better in his second year and Michael Thomas could conceivably return to his pre-injury form. The running back room is very interesting the additions of Williams and Miller, and the tight end trio of Juwan Johnson, Taysom Hill and Moreau should give Carr plenty of options.

The Saints' biggest issue may be their offensive line, which has rarely been the case in New Orleans over the last two decades. Left tackle Trevor Penning battled injuries as a rookie and is still a bit of an unknown. Guards Andrus Peat and Cesar Ruiz struggled through most of the 2022 season, though right tackle Ryan Ramczyk is a rock and center Erik McCoy was solid in the middle. How far Carr is able to elevate the Saints' offense could depend on how well the Saints are able to return to their usual dominant form up front.

Did the Saints adequately respond to the free agency losses in their defensive front?

With a tricky cap situation (as usual) and the big contract given to Carr, the Saints had little chance of retaining all the front-line defenders who hit free agency this offseason. As noted above, five significant contributors along the defensive front found new homes in free agency, necessitating some serious repair work on the lineup.

With the departure of Davenport, Granderson should step into a more prominent role after starting only seven games in his first four seasons. Granderson has been effective in his rotational role, notching 13.5 sacks over the last three seasons despite never seeing more than 45% of the defensive snaps. Ellis departs after something of a breakout season (7.0 sacks), but that could open up an opportunity for versatile 2020 third-round pick Zack Baun.

Most of the interior defensive line is brand new, after the aforementioned additions of Shepherd and Saunders in free agency and the draft selections of Bresee and Foskey. That unit could take a bit of time to get in synch, but the Saints seem to have reloaded in terms of talent. And, of course, Jordan is still around to lead the defensive front and create havoc. The Saints gave up the fifth fewest net yards last season and were particularly strong against the pass, ranking second. The driving force was a pass rush that ranked fourth in sacks per pass play rate. Will the team's new-look front be able to duplicate those results?

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