Saints training camp preview: Cap-strapped team faces pivotal 2024 season

The start of NFL training camps is on the horizon, so we’re doing a lap through the NFC South, identifying five lingering questions for each team.

We’ll start with the Saints, who went 9-8 last year, finishing with the same record as the division champion Bucs but losing out on a tiebreaker. New Orleans was frustratingly close to making the playoffs, though five of its nine wins came against teams that finished with six wins or fewer.

Consider this: Five NFL teams finished in the top 10 last year in scoring offense and scoring defense. Four of them — Dallas, San Francisco, Baltimore and Buffalo — won their divisions, and the other was New Orleans, which didn’t make the playoffs. It’s a stat easily skewed: If the Saints score their average of 24 points in the final game instead of 48 in a rout of the Falcons, they’re around 19th on offense. But still, it points to a team that was capable of more than it achieved.

What can the Saints do in 2024? Their Vegas over-under for wins is 7.5, same as the Bucs, two fewer than the favored Falcons. Seven wins is a rather arbitrary line, but if the Saints fail to get there, it would be the first time since 2005. Only the Steelers (2003) have a longer streak with at least seven wins every year. That “worst record since xxxx” graphic is never a good thing to see, but it speaks to how much is on the line for Dennis Allen and his staff in the season ahead.

We’ve written about the uncertainty of the offensive line, and the defense will lean heavily on a pair of 35-year-olds in linebacker Demario Davis and edge rusher Cam Jordan. We’ll write plenty about quarterback Derek Carr and whether this year is closer to his outstanding final five games of 2023, or his relative struggles before that. But here are five pivotal questions left to be answered in the season ahead:

Is this Alvin Kamara‘s final season in New Orleans?

Kamara will turn 29 as training camp opens, and he enters his eighth season with the Saints. He’s already the franchise leader in career touchdowns with 78, and he needs just 672 yards this year to overtake Deuce McAllister and Mark Ingram to become the team’s career rushing leader.

But it’s also very possible this is his last year in New Orleans. The Saints, needing all sorts of restructuring to free up salary-cap space, did not touch his $10.2 million base salary this year. That suggests not wanting to add to the millions in dead cap space they’ll face if they release him after this season — he’s due to make $25 million in 2025, and he’s almost certainly not going to be back on that contract. If the Saints cut him after this year, they’d still have about $10 million in dead money from previous restructures, but that might be the better option than committing more money to him with a new deal.

Kamara made the Pro Bowl in each of his first five seasons in New Orleans, but he hasn’t been the same back in the post-Drew Brees era. Last year’s 1,160 yards from scrimmage was a career low (some of that was a three-game suspension) and so was his yards per touch, just 4.5. Out of 255 touches last season, none went for more than 25 yards, suggesting he might not have the same burst as in years past. In the Saints’ loss to the Bucs, Kamara caught 13 passes, but he totaled 33 yards, the least in NFL history for a game with so many catches.

Kamara will share the workload with another veteran in Jamaal Williams, but the wild-card might be second-year pro Kendre Miller, who was limited by injuries as a rookie. The third-round pick from TCU mustered only 156 rushing yards all season, and 73 of those came in mop-up work in the season-ending win over the Falcons.

Saints, Seahawks, Steelers & Bears: Trending up or down in 2023-24?

Saints, Seahawks, Steelers & Bears: Trending up or down in 2023-24?

Can Chase Young spark an improved outside pass rush?

Cam Jordan is now 35 years old, at a position and age where some decline is unavoidable. His PFF grade has dropped six years in a row, from being top 10 at his position every year from 2016-21 to 31st in 2022 and 41st in 2023. More obviously, his sack numbers have dropped from 12.5 to 8.5 to two in the past three seasons.

He could bounce back, but more troubling is the way high draft picks haven’t been able to pick up the slack. Payton Turner, a first-round pick in 2021, has played in only 15 games in three seasons, totaling three sacks; Isaiah Foskey, a second-rounder last year, finished his rookie year with nine total tackles and zero sacks. Carl Granderson led the team with 8.5 sacks, and Tanoh Kpassagnon has managed 9.5 in the past three years for some depth, but as a position group, the production wasn’t there.

With limited cap space, the Saints found their answer in Young, who is coming back from neck surgery and signed a contract heavy on bonuses for each game he’s active — $470,000 per game, accounting for about two-thirds of the $13 million he could make. Health has always been the limiting factor for Young. He had 7.5 sacks as a rookie and the same total last year in his two seasons playing close to every game; he has 1.5 total in the other two seasons when he was limited by injuries.

The Saints set up his contract in a way to protect them from a cap standpoint if he can’t play, but there isn’t much insurance on the field. New Orleans had 48 sacks in 2022, but that dropped to 34 last year. Without a double-digit season leading the way, they might be closer to the lower total again in 2024.

Where does Taysom Hill fit into the new offense?

For years, Hill has been a unique offensive weapon — subbing in at quarterback, a danger to throw or run — but there’s no telling exactly how he’ll be used in Klint Kubiak’s new Saints offense.

Last year, he was a pass-catcher at a level he’d never been, catching 33 passes after totaling 43 in his first six years in the league. And yes, he took 115 snaps under center as a quarterback, but he only threw 10% of the time. He was 6-for-11 for 83 yards for the entire season. There’s been talk of using him as a more traditional running back or even as a fullback.

Hill is another veteran with an expensive contract that’s been reworked for cap help. Like with Kamara, New Orleans will have a tough decision after this season: pay Hill a non-guaranteed $10 million in base salary in 2025, or move on, taking on $18 million in dead money against the cap.

Speaking of Kamara and Hill, they were both strong short-yardage run options last season. If you look at third or fourth downs, needing 1 or 2 yards for a first down, the Saints got first downs on 78% of their run plays, well above the league average of 70%. Kamara went 8-for-10 (80%) on such plays, and Hill went 5-for-5. Only two players in the NFL had more such carries and a 100% success rate: The Bucs’ Baker Mayfield and the Ravens’ Justice Hill both went 6-for-6.

Where will the depth be at receiver?

Last season showed the Saints have a solid 1-2 punch at receiver in Chris Olave and Rashid Shaheed, but with Michael Thomas gone, there’s a void in the depth behind those two.

New Orleans made three modest additions in free agency — Cedrick Wilson, Equanimeous St. Brown and Stanley Morgan — but Wilson had the only real production of the three last year, getting 22 catches for 296 yards and three touchdowns. They’re expecting more from AT Perry in his second year. He impressed with four touchdown catches as a sixth-round rookie, but finished with just 12 catches for 246 yards. The Saints could get help from their fifth-round pick, Pitt receiver Bub Means, as well.

How much will Kubiak lean on a third receiver? His only other year as an offensive coordinator was 2021 with the Vikings, and they had a strong third receiver in K.J. Osborn, who had 50 catches for 655 yards and seven scores while playing behind Justin Jefferson and Adam Thielen. Then again, last year when Kubiak was coaching with the 49ers, they got very little from their receiver depth beyond stars Brandon Aiyuk and Deebo Samuel. No other receiver had even 20 catches, with the rest of the position totaling just 42 catches for the season.

If the Saints are to thrive without much depth, it’s crucial that Olave and Shaheed stay healthy. Olave has missed only three games in his two seasons in New Orleans, and Shaheed has missed only two since joining the roster during the 2022 season. The dream scenario? Those two stay healthy and Wilson performs as a strong WR3 like he did with Dallas in 2021, piling up 45 catches for 602 yards and six scores while playing behind CeeDee Lamb and Amari Cooper.

Can the Saints overcome a difficult first six weeks?

New Orleans opens the season with perhaps its easiest game of the season, at home against the Panthers, coming off a 2-15 season. Even with that, the Saints’ opening six games are the toughest stretch of the year, including four 2023 playoff teams: at Dallas, home vs. Philadelphia, at Atlanta, at Kansas City, home vs. Tampa Bay.

The Saints could be an improved team in 2024 and still go 2-4 in that stretch. New Orleans didn’t beat a team that finished with more than nine wins last season, and the Cowboys (12), Eagles (11) and Chiefs (11) all were better than that last season.

With a division schedule stacked early in the year, those games are hugely important for the Saints. If they just go 2-1 in the first lap through the NFC South, beating the Panthers and splitting the other two, they get Carolina and Atlanta again in Weeks 9 and 10, with just one division opponent in the final eight weeks. Go 4-1 in those games and take care of business with lesser opponents the rest of the way, the Saints should be in good shape heading into a Week 18 showdown with the Bucs in Tampa.

On the other hand, a bad start could be fatal for Allen. If the Saints are 2-4 after that daunting start, they’ll have a short week in Week 7 before guess who comes to town: former Saints coach Sean Payton and the Broncos in a high-profile Thursday night window. Lose there, and it could be too big a hole for the Saints to dig themselves out of.

Greg Auman is FOX Sports’ NFC South reporter, covering the Buccaneers, Falcons, Panthers and Saints. He is in his 10th season covering the Bucs and the NFL full-time, having spent time at the Tampa Bay Times and The Athletic. You can follow him on Twitter at @gregauman.

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