Brandin Cooks, Sean Smith

New Orleans Saints wide receiver Brandin Cooks (10) pulls in a touchdown reception in front of Oakland Raiders defensive back Sean Smith (21) in the second half of an NFL football game in New Orleans, Sunday, Sept. 11, 2016. The play was longer than any in the NFL last year, and was the longest touchdown pass in Saints history. (AP Photo/Bill Feig) ORG XMIT: LAGH1

Bill Feig

The New Orleans Saints' 2017 schedule is full of golden nuggets, tantalizing matchups buried within the 16-game slate the NFL released Thursday night. 

With that in mind, here's the five juiciest matchups the Saints face this season:

1. The return of Brandin Cooks (Sept. 17)

Before Cooks was traded to the Patriots, he made it clear there were parts of the New Orleans offense that he felt he wasn't getting a chance to perform in. Now that Cooks is in New England, he'll be coming back to the Mercedes-Benz Superdome to play against his former teammates. A fan favorite for much of his time in New Orleans, it will be interesting to see the reception The Archer gets.

2. Trip to Lambeau (Oct. 22)

For the most part, the schedule outside of the division does the Saints defense a favor, putting New Orleans up against a lot of iffy quarterbacks — although there are two glaring exceptions. One is the Patriots' Tom Brady; the other is the Packers' Aaron Rodgers, who stopped being human about halfway through the 2016 season. If Rodgers is in that form again this year, there's no tougher test for a defense than trying to corral No. 12 in Lambeau Field.

3. Lion tamers (Oct. 15)

For whatever reason, Matthew Stafford has had the Saints' number lately. Detroit has beaten New Orleans in three straight seasons, including wins in the Superdome in the past two. By a quirk of the schedule, the Lions will be back again this year. A playoff team a year ago, Detroit is no easy out, but a win would go a long way toward rebuilding some of the Superdome mystique that has taken a hit in the past three seasons.

4. Unger, Warford and Peat under fire (Oct. 1)

New Orleans faced a murderer's row of edge rushers last year; this time, it's the best of the interior. Miami's Ndamukong Suh, Green Bay's Mike Daniels, Los Angeles' Aaron Donald and division rivals Gerald McCoy of Tampa Bay and Kawann Short of Carolina will be a brutal test for the interior of the Saints' offensive line, fortified this offseason by the signing of Larry Warford.

5. Familiar foes (Dec. 3 & Dec. 24)

The two games against the hated Atlanta Falcons are always circled on the Saints' schedule, but there's a little more there this season. Atlanta torched New Orleans in two games last season, rolling up 45 and 38 points. And as the defending NFC South champs, the Falcons are the obvious target for New Orleans. Expect Saints fans to be amped for these showdowns. 

Follow Joel A. Erickson on Twitter, @JoelAErickson.