What were the New Orleans Saints thinking by signing running back Adrian Peterson to a two-year deal for $8.5 million when their offense wasn’t the unit in monumental trouble? It’s an easy response; raise your hand if it was your first impression too.
The Saints finished 31st in the league in points against and only five teams allowed more yards last season. The New Orleans defense was more porous than a three-month old sponge. Why not spend money fixing the ailing unit; the offense churned more yards than any NFL team in 2016 and finished second in scoring.
The answer lies in hope and blueprint replication.
If there’s one team the Saints know intimately it’s the Atlanta Falcons. And what did the Falcons just do last offseason? Atlanta found three defensive starters in the draft and one more as an undrafted rookie. And that was with only six draft picks and no fifth-rounder.
New Orleans has seven picks coming up and two first-rounders. In fact, before the draft even makes it to the weekend, the Saints will have made five picks in the first 103 selections.
And what have a ton of experts said about this upcoming draft? Let’s just say Mike Mayock is impressed.
“This is as good and as deep a class as I’ve seen in a draft in several years – with the exception of quarterback and offensive line,” said Mayock on a conference call with the media. “… Defensively, it’s unbelievable. The edge rushers … we haven’t seen a group like this in a long, long time. You’ll be able to get a starting edge rusher in the fourth round that last year or most drafts you’d compare to an edge rusher in the second round. Cornerbacks and safeties, it’s the best I’ve seen in 10 years at least.”
The Saints need a major overhaul on defense, they have three picks in the first 42 and two more before the third round ends. And they just watched the Falcons land a bevy of defensive starters, and then sprint all the way to the Super Bowl.
In this copycat NFL, why can’t New Orleans follow suit?
Let’s just say New Orleans finds three starters on defense in the 2017 draft and said defense progresses similarly to Atlanta’s of 2016. Now let’s flip over to the offense.
Drew Brees is still around. And who was the NFL’s offensive mastermind before Kyle Shanahan showed his chops last season? Oh yeah… Sean Payton, head coach of the Saints.
Sure, running backs don’t get better with age and Peterson is on the wrong side of 27 – hell, the wrong side of 30. But even though the probabilities are against him, crushing it after 30 isn’t unheard of.
Tiki Barber scored nine touchdowns and rushed for 1,860 yards at age 30. Curtis Martin posted two 1,000-plus yard seasons after he hit 30, including a 1,697-yard campaign at age 31 with 12 TDs.
And Falcons fans, remember Warrick Dunn? He went for 1,416 yards after he turned 30 too.
Peterson, in his prime, was more of a running back than any of those guys. And he’s already shown his insane ability to bounce back from injury, quickly. Why can’t he do it again?
There are a lot of ifs going on here, but that’s what the offseason is all about in this league. You plan and predict… if it all goes well good things happen.
IF the Saints find starters on defense in the draft, IF Peterson can return to some form of his past self (even as a change-of-pace back with limited carries) and IF the rest of general manager Mickey Loomis’ offseason plan comes together – that’s a lot of ifs – I have all the faith in the world that Payton can build a game plan week in and week out to push New Orleans on a playoff run, maybe even thrust that offense to heights even the Falcons last year didn’t reach.
New Orleans signing Peterson should worry the Falcons, big time. It now means there are three potential NFC South foes ready to knock off Atlanta.
This division is still Atlanta’s to lose, but don’t expect a two- to five-game cushion in the standings. The Panthers, Buccaneers and yes, the Saints are coming.