Three teams ready to make playoff run after missing out in ’21

REASONS TO BE BULLISH: When a fighter absorbs major body blow after major body blow, that fighter typically wears down in the late rounds. But that wasn’t the case with the Saints last season, despite losing so many key players to injury. The fact that many of those players are returning and the roster has been significantly upgraded at key areas of concern influenced my decision to make them one of my favorites to go from watching the playoffs to making a deep run. But what puts them at No. 1 is the fact that they play in the NFC, which will offer a much smoother road to the Super Bowl than the loaded AFC, which is as deep as I can recall in nearly three decades covering the league.

The Saints’ 9-8 finish last season was impressive considering they lost quarterback Jameis Winston (torn ACL) for the final 10 games and started four different players at the position; were without two-time All-Pro wide receiver Michael Thomas (ankle) the entire year; lost defensive linemen David Onyemata (suspension) and Marcus Davenport (shoulder) for six games each; and had an offensive line that was in constant flux due to tackles Terron Armstead (elbow/knee) and Ryan Ramczyk (knee/COVID-19) missing nine and seven games, respectively, and guard Andrus Peat missing the final 11 games because of a torn pec. Star running back Alvin Kamara was sidelined for four games with a knee injury, and backup Mark Ingram missed four contests due to injury and COVID-19 after being traded back to New Orleans at midseason.

Can we really expect that type of misfortune to strike New Orleans again this year? I don’t think so. In the meantime, the roster appears to be loaded. Winston and Thomas are on schedule to be ready for training camp, and the receiving corps could be among the deepest in the league after being one of the shallower units last season. The Saints did not have a player reach 700 yards or 50 receptions last season, but this year they should have Thomas, who averaged 118 catches for 1,378 yards in his first four seasons, speedy rookie first-rounder Chris Olave, free-agent pickup Jarvis Landry and returning threat Marquez Callaway, who had a team-high six receiving touchdowns in 2021.

On defense, they signed free-agent safeties Tyrann Mathieu and Marcus Maye, and drafted cornerback Alontae Taylor in the second round. They also used the second of their two first-round picks on offensive tackle Trevor Penning, who could compete to replace the departed Armstead.

REASONS TO BE SKITTISH: There has been significant turnover at some spots, most notably head coach. Sean Payton stepped down after 15 seasons, nine playoff appearances and a Super Bowl championship. He cast a long shadow over the organization and was at the center of every football decision. How will the Saints adjust to his absence? If nothing else, the changeover is expected to be smooth, with defensive coordinator Dennis Allen being promoted to succeed Payton. Allen was 8-28 in two-plus seasons as coach of the Raiders, from 2012 through ’14, but it’s unfair to judge him on that. The Raiders were one of the league’s most dysfunctional franchises at that time. Allen inherited a situation in which the team was well over the salary cap and did not have a 2012 draft pick in the first three rounds before ultimately receiving a compensatory selection.

It’s worth noting the Saints could be without their most dynamic player for some time with the possibility of a suspension looming for Kamara, who is facing battery charges after his February arrest. Also, keep an eye on changes in the secondary. Both starting safeties are gone after Malcolm Jenkins retired and Marcus Williams signed with the Ravens. Armstead, a three-time Pro Bowler at left tackle, signed with Miami in free agency. Mathieu and Maye are talented safeties, but how long will it take for them to get comfortable on a new team and in a new system? That said, the good news for the Saints is that there appears to be only one true competitor (Tampa Bay) for the division title. That’s another reason they’re my favorite to make the deepest playoff run among teams that did not qualify for the postseason last season.

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