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Saints enter 2021 with plenty of uncertainty, and intrigue

September 1, 2021 GMT
New Orleans Saints quarterback Jameis Winston (2) celebrates his touchdown pass with wide receiver Marquez Callaway (1), who caught the pass, in the first half of an NFL preseason football game against the Jacksonville Jaguars in New Orleans, Monday, Aug. 23, 2021. (AP Photo/Brett Duke)
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New Orleans Saints quarterback Jameis Winston (2) celebrates his touchdown pass with wide receiver Marquez Callaway (1), who caught the pass, in the first half of an NFL preseason football game against the Jacksonville Jaguars in New Orleans, Monday, Aug. 23, 2021. (AP Photo/Brett Duke)
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New Orleans Saints quarterback Jameis Winston (2) celebrates his touchdown pass with wide receiver Marquez Callaway (1), who caught the pass, in the first half of an NFL preseason football game against the Jacksonville Jaguars in New Orleans, Monday, Aug. 23, 2021. (AP Photo/Brett Duke)

NEW ORLEANS (AP) — Whether or not the temporarily hurricane-displaced New Orleans Saints extend their playoff streak to a fifth season, there’ll be no shortage of intrigue surrounding their first season in 15 years without all-time leading passer Drew Brees.

The first successor to Brees will be 2013 Heisman Trophy winner and 2015 top overall draft choice Jameis Winston, whose talent has never been in doubt, but whose productivity vacillated wildly with his former team, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. He won a preseason competition with Taysom Hill, a former utility player whom coach Sean Payton said will retain a role.

Alvin Kamara, one of the most dynamic and explosive players in the NFL as both a runner and receiver, remains a pillar of a New Orleans offense that also fields a formidable front five. Record-setting receiver Michael Thomas is expected to be back from ankle surgery before midseason.

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And several key players return on defense from the previous four playoff seasons, including 2017 All-Pro defensive end Cam Jordan, 2019 All-Pro linebacker Demario Davis, and three-time Pro Bowl cornerback Marshon Lattimore.

“Our goal is to win a championship, and how we get there doesn’t matter,” said veteran safety Malcolm Jenkins, who won a Super Bowl with Philadelphia in the 2017 season, when backup QB Nick Foles took over for injured starter Carson Wentz.

“We’re not saying, ‘Oh we want to win a championship only if we got our best guys, or only if things go right or only if we stay healthy,’” Jenkins continued. “No, we want to win a championship. So, whatever we have to do to get there, we embrace that.”

Meanwhile, Payton, who is known for his offensive acumen and has coached the Saints to the playoffs in nine of his 14 seasons on the sideline – including one Super Bowl title – remains in charge. While he acknowledges that moving on from Brees represents a major shift, the coach also seems no less eager to forge ahead with new, and in some cases, unproven players in key roles.

“It’s different because one of the players we lost was our quarterback that had been with us for a long period of time,” Payton said. “Outside of that, there’s a certain amount of attrition every year.

“The most important thing for our team,” Payton continued, “is to get the right 53 guys and get the right vision and lineups for our team as we move forward.”

Yet another challenge has been posed by Hurricane Ida. The Saints expect to enter the regular season practicing in the Dallas area because of the widespread damage in southeast Louisiana, and will play their Sept. 12 home opener against Green Bay in Jacksonville.

MISSING TARGET

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The Saints open the regular season with Thomas on the physically unable to perform list, meaning the two-time All-Pro will miss at least the first six games. Expect Winston to rely on second-year pro Marquez Callaway and small but speedy receiver Deonte Harris, who is also the Saints’ top return man.

YOUNG LINBACKERS

The Saints expect to have the same top two linebackers this season in Demario Davis and Kwon Alexander, but anticipate greater roles from 2020 third-round draft choice Zach Baun and 2021 second-rounder Pete Werner.

“You got quite a few guys that were drafted pretty high,” Davis said. “Even though they’re young, they’ve shown they have a high talent level.”

INTERIOR CHALLENGE

While the Saints have veteran defensive ends, their interior will rely on less established players, particularly early in the season. The Saints traded Malcom Brown and let Sheldon Rankins go in free agency. And their top returning tackle, David Onyemata, is suspended the first six games for violating the NFL’s performance enhancers policy.

“It’s a challenge, especially not having a player like David early on,” Davis said. “On the outside, we’ve got some dominant guys and you’re not going to find a better defensive line coach than Ryan (Nielsen), so I’m not worried.”

CORNERBACK CONSIDERATIONS

Because the Saints let 2020 starting cornerback Janoris Jenkins go as a cost-saving move, they’ve been trying to fill his spot. The top candidates are Ken Crawley and third-round draft pick Paulson Adebo. Both could start if Lattimore is suspended at some point because of his offseason arrest on a gun possession charge.

KICKING GAME

Blake Gillikin is the Saints’ first new punter since Thomas Morstead won the job as a rookie in 2009. Placekicker Aldrick Rosas made the final cut because Wil Lutz, who has kicked every game for New Orleans the past five seasons, is recovering from surgery to repair a core muscle injury and could start the season on injured reserve.

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