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2018 Giants opponents: Can the New Orleans Saints take another step forward?

Giants play Drew Brees & Co. Week 4 at MetLife

Divisional Round - New Orleans Saints v Minnesota Vikings Photo by Adam Bettcher/Getty Images

Training camp is used for players to get ready for the upcoming season. We’re not going to leave you out of that — you’re getting prepared, too. As players report and training camp opens, we’re going to preview the opponents on the 2018 New York Giants schedule. We’ll look at how 2017 played out and what 2018 might look like to get everyone ready for the season to come.

Next up, the New Orleans Saints. The last time the Giants and Saints faced off, a surprising defensive battle broke out with a score of 16-13 in Week 2 of 2016. While the Giants struggled last season, New Orleans finally broke out to become one of the best teams in the league.

When will they play?

Week 4 at home

2017 in review

Record: 11-5, first NFC South

Expected W-L (Pythagorean Expectation): 10.9-5.1

DVOA rankings: First overall, second offense, eighth defense, 15th special teams

New Orleans was the best team in the league last year per DVOA, but missed out on a chance to prove it with the last-second touchdown scored by Stefon Diggs in the Divisional Round. The Saints won’t look much different in 2018 and many of their young players could be better with a year in the league under them. Drew Brees will be 39 years old, but is still on top of his game. The improvement in the running game and on defense took the burden off Brees to carry the team — he had fewer than 600 passing attempts for the first time since 2009 — but he turned that into more efficiency and led the league in yards per attempt (8.1).

Offseason Overview

Draft Picks

1 (14) Marcus Davenport, EDGE, UTSA

3 (91) Tre’Quan Smith, WR, UCF

4 (127) Rick Leonard, OT, Florida State

5 (164) Natrell Jamerson, DB, Wisconsin

6 (189) Kamrin Moore, CB, Boston College

6 (201) Boston Scott, RB, Louisiana Tech

7 (245) Will Clapp, OL, LSU

Key Losses

Kenny Vaccaro, Coby Fleener, Willie Snead, Senio Kelemete, Rafael Bush

Key Additions

Kurt Coleman, Demario Davis, Patrick Robinson, Cam Meredith, Ben Watson, Jermon Bushrod, Shane Vereen, Terrance West

Mark Ingram will serve a four-game suspension to open the season — the Week 4 game against the Giants will be the final week without Ingram — so the Saints have been collecting running backs to potentially split some time with Alvin Kamara in the backfield to start the season. Those players have included Terrance West, sixth-round pick Boston Scott, and former Giant Shane Vereen. Those additions are likely to become less relevant as the season goes on.

New Orleans made a swap of restricted free agents at wide receiver. The team signed Cam Meredith from the Chicago Bears to a two-year $9.5 million deal Chicago did not match after placing an original round tender on the receiver (Meredith was undrafted, which left the Bears getting no compensation in return). Meredith missed the 2017 season with a torn ACL, but was productive on a stale Bears offense in 2016 and is expected to be healthy in 2018. He also won’t turn 26 years old until the end of September. The addition of Meredith allowed the Saints to let Willie Snead sign a restricted offer sheet with the Baltimore Ravens. Snead saw more than 100 targets in both 2015 and 2016, but struggled to get on the field last season after starting the year with a suspension and hamstring injury. Ted Ginn had his most efficient season and Brandon Coleman was second in snaps played behind Michael Thomas in the receiver rotation last year.

On defense, the team added Demario Davis from the Jets, one of the league’s best blitzing linebackers (19 pressures in 2017 per Sports Info Solutions) to a unit that was already ninth in defensive pressure rate last season. They’ll also get back a re-signed Alex Okafor, who tore his Achilles in Week 11 and still finished fourth on the team with 13.5 pressures. The relative success rushing the passer does make it a surprise the Saints went so hard (giving up a 2019 first-round pick) to acquire Marcus Davenport in the draft.

The biggest change on the defensive side of the ball will come at safety. New Orleans allowed Kenny Vaccaro, who played 65 percent of the defensive snaps last season, to test free agency and went aggressive bringing in Kurt Coleman after he was released by the division rival Carolina Panthers. It’s fair to wonder if the Saints were a little too aggressive in their pursuit of the 30-year-old Coleman with a three-year/$16.4 million deal with $6.2 guaranteed given how the safety market has played out this offseason. Vaccaro and the likes of Tre Boston and Eric Reid are still unsigned.

Numbers to know

1: There’s only one defensive lineman to play at least 90 percent of his team’s defensive snaps in each season since 2012: Cameron Jordan. While that could wear a player out, Jordan is a clear exception. He had his best season in 2017 with 49 pressures — seventh in the league — a career-high 13 sacks, and 11 passes defensed.

3.23: Per NFL’s Next Gen Stats, Kamara led all running backs in Efficiency (total yards run per yard gained) at 3.23. Per a few studies I’ve done Efficiency has a high correlation (-0.72) with yards per carry and — in a small sample — is slightly more stable year-to-year (0.43 vs 0.35).

6.0: Much of the attention at cornerback was given to rookie Marshon Lattimore (7.3 yards allowed per pass, 53 percent Success Rate, per Football Outsiders), but second-year corner Ken Crawley had better charting numbers with 6.0 yards allowed per pass (18th among 81 qualified corners) and a 62 percent Success Rate (t-10th).

-0.4: New Orleans was one of six teams last season to average fewer yards on play-action passes, but non-play-action passes. But that wasn’t really because of ineffective play-action. The Saints’ 7.4 yards per attempt on play-action passes still ranked 13th-best in the league, however they were the league’s best team on non-play-action passes at 7.9 yards per play.

Opponent Q&A

Chris Dunnells of Canal Street Chronicles answered a few questions about the Saints and their outlook for this coming season.

Q: The Giants will get the Saints for the last game of Mark Ingram’s suspension. Is there a sense it will be the Alvin Kamara show for the first four games, will there be extended appearances from the likes of Terrance West and the other backs on the roster, or is it still too early to tell?

A: I know like this sounds like a bit of a cop-out, but it’s likely to be a little bit of both. Kamara will almost certainly see a larger workload in the season’s first four games, but at the same time, I imagine that Sean Payton and Company do not want to risk overwhelming the 2017 Offensive Rookie of the Year. After the trade of Adrian Peterson last season, Kamara and Ingram each averaged around 15 offensive touches per game. It wouldn’t shock me to see Kamara’s totals only go up to maybe the low 20s during the season’s first four weeks, with other backs spelling Kamara for around 10 or so touches each week.

Regarding Terrance West, yes, the Saints did sign the former Brown, Titan, and Raven late this offseason, but there’s still no guarantee he makes the team come Week 1. Look for some combination of West, Trey Edmunds, Jonathan Williams and Boston Scott to be primary No. 2 RB in the team’s first four weeks. Whoever of that quartet stands out the most in training camp and the preseason is likely to be the “hot hand” the Saints roll with until the Bye week.

Q: This defense turned into an excellent and young unit basically overnight. What are the current expectations for a follow up in 2018?

A: There’s no reason to think last year’s defensive success (relatively speaking) to have been a fluke. The entire defense outside of DE Cameron Jordan was revamped heading into the 2017 offseason. That being said, they should be even better this year.

The Saints secondary was average to above-average all year when fully healthy. NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year Marshon Lattimore looks to be a true lockdown corner in the making, and Ken Crawley showed flashes of being an above-average #2 corner. Marcus Williams — Minnesota Miracle or not — had himself a stellar rookie year also in 2017, and has a lot to prove in 2018. If there were concerns on the defensive side of the ball heading into this offseason, they’ve all been addressed.

Kenny Vaccaro was inconsistent (to say the least) in 2017. He’s still sitting on the free agency board as the Saints chose to not bring him back for 2018. Instead, the Saints signed former Carolina Panthers Safety Kurt Coleman. The additional of Coleman allows Vonn Bell to shift into Vaccaro’s role at strong safety in a full-time capacity.

The Saints struggled at the nickel corner position and at generating consistent pressure on the defensive line. Both of those issues have been addressed as well. They brought back former New Orleans Saints whipping boy Patrick Robinson, who really grew into his own as a slot corner with the Philadelphia Eagles. They also made headlines trading up in the 2018 NFL Draft to select Marcus Davenport to rush the passer opposite Cam Jordan.

The linebackers struggled in coverage last season, but that was due in part to injuries throughout the linebacking corps. The addition of former Jets LB Demario Davis should free up AJ Klein from calling plays on the defense and allow the pair to focus on making plays in front of them.

If the Linebackers can stay healthy (which was a real struggle in 2017), the defensive unit could actually be an impressive bunch in 2018.

Q: What’s the most underrated aspect of this team heading into 2018?

A: I’d have to go with the wide receivers, actually.

It would have been easy to pick an aspect of the defense because it’s been a long time since someone brought up the New Orleans Saints and said the word “defense” without following it with “historically terrible,” but after last year’s improvements, they actually are getting a lot of credit heading into this season.

The wide receivers, on the other hand, are typically viewed as a weakness for the team right now. Granted, they’re by no means spectacular, but the unit deserves more credit than it’s getting right now. Michael Thomas is a budding superstar, but outside of that, most NFL pundits view the Saints to have too many questions at Wide Receiver.

The Saints lost Willie Snead to the Ravens in free agency. Ted Ginn Jr is 108 years old. I know, I know.

But Cameron Meredith is only two years removed from totaling 888 receiving yards in 14 games for the Bears in 2016. Rookie Tre’Quan Smith ran the 14th fastest 40=yard dash time at the combine while coming in at 6’1 and 210 lbs. Between Meredith, Ginn, Smith, and Brandon Coleman, the receiving corps for the Saints isn’t quite as bad it seems.

Q: If you had to predict a regular season record, what would it be?

A: I pride myself on being cautiously optimistic but realistic at the same but, but the Saints 2018 schedule looks brutal at points. During one four-week span, the Saints play the Vikings, Rams, Eagles and Falcons. Not to mention their second game against the Falcons, two with the Panthers, and a Week 15 matchup with Big Ben and the Pittsburgh Steelers. 12-4 would be a best-case scenario. 9-7 wouldn’t absolutely shock me either, unfortunately. 10-6 is more likely, though, but considering the schedules across the NFC South, I think 10-6 can still win the Saints their division.