Seven players will determine much of the New Orleans Saints' 2015 season. What will happen if Drew Brees really is getting too old for all this? What if hometown hero Delvin Breaux helps forge the best secondary this side of Seattle? Are all the other new guys good enough? Everything could go two ways.
Let's break it down.
1. Is Drew Brees still Drew Brees?
Nothing matters more to the Saints today and tomorrow than the status of their great quarterback. Last year's questions about arm strength could lead to tomorrow's questions about whether rookie Garrett Grayson is ready to take over sooner rather than later.
What if Drew is still Drew?
Fortunately, Brees looked just fine during the preseason. Better than fine, really. He seemed healthy, rested and once again prepared to release hell on NFL defenses. As goes Brees, so goes the Saints' offense, and that's not a bad deal.
What if Drew really is in decline?
If the turnovers keep going up, the big plays start going away, etc. — then the Saints will need the defense to pick up the slack. That defense is full of questions, and it may not be up to the task. If Brees isn't great, by October we'll spend our Sunday afternoons doing laundry.
2. Brandon Browner
the leader we deserve?
The Saints signed cornerback Brandon Browner — fresh off back-to-back Super Bowl titles as a member of the Seattle Seahawks and New England Patriots — to provide locker room leadership and solidify a bad situation at cornerback.
What if Browner performs at his Super Bowl- winning peak?
A healthy, competent Browner will stop the Saints' carousel of disaster opposite Keenan Lewis and give the team's defense a huge boost. No matter what anyone says, NFL games are won through the air. Browner's aggressive style and rare size for a cornerback will pull the Saints' defense off the bottom. He might even make it average.
What if Browner is just an injury-prone penalty machine?
Browner has had injury troubles in camp. As the Saints learned with Jairus Byrd last year, big-name players in the secondary don't help much when they're on the sideline in street clothes. Even if Browner is healthy, the Saints will have to endure his propensity for penalties. Browner was penalized 15 times last year in just nine games. Saints fans once again might find themselves cursing the name of their second cornerback by midseason.
3. Hau'oli Kikaha
The Saints released pass rusher Junior Galette, and for good reason, but now the pressure on second-round draft pick Hau'oli Kikaha has increased. Somebody along the Saints' defensive front has to pressure the quarterback. Kikaha seems the only viable candidate.
What if Kikaha emerges as a pass-rushing force?
The Saints put almost no pressure on opposing quarterbacks during the preseason. When they did, it generally came from Kikaha. Even if Browner works out and the Saints' secondary is solid, the lack of a pass rush might ruin them. On the other hand, a solid secondary working with a Kikaha who terrorizes passers? That's a recipe for success.
What if Kikaha is just ... OK?
It's tough to put high expectations on any rookie, even one like Kikaha who seems a step ahead of the game. He could meet expectations this year and do just fine, collecting a few sacks to go along with a bunch of tackles, and still it wouldn't be enough to keep the Saints' defense from being torched.
4. Delvin Breaux
The McDonogh 35 alumnus with the miraculous story could save the Saints — if he stays healthy and plays as well as he practices.
What if Breaux is for real?
The Saints haven't had depth at the cornerback position in a long time. If Breaux can provide that, he could ensure that even if Browner gets hurt or is a disappointment, the Saints' secondary holds up.
What if Breaux is a mirage?
First, Breaux's failure would be disappointing because he's the sort of player we want to see succeed, but it also would be disappointing for the win total. Start pulling out pieces of the Saints' secondary, which seems strong, and the whole defense could fall apart.
5. Marcus Murphy
The 2014 Saints made things hard on themselves. Their poor kick return meant the offense more often than not started in bad field position, which meant a long road to points. Enter Marcus Murphy.
What if Murphy is the next Beer Man?
The Saints haven't fielded a threatening kick returner since Michael "Beer Man" Lewis. In 2002, when Lewis was a Pro Bowler, the Saints set what was then a record for most points scored in franchise history, though their offense ranked only 19th with respect to yardage. That was thanks to the Beer Man and the easy scoring opportunities he produced routinely. Imagine if Murphy does the same thing, only with Brees at quarterback instead of Aaron Brooks.
What if Murphy is nothing special?
The good thing here is failure wouldn't be disastrous. A great returner is a luxury, not a necessity. The Saints will still be fine on offense if Murphy is just another in a long line of below-average guys in that role — but the season will be a lot less fun.
6. Max Unger
The trade of Jimmy Graham made a lot of sense when fans began to realize what the Saints had acquired in exchange for the all-pro sorta-tight end, sorta-wide receiver. With Unger blasting open holes for running backs and protecting Brees, the Saints' offense has a chance to improve from really good back to great.
What if Unger stays healthy?
Unger is a good player, but the uncertainty lies in his inability to stay healthy. He missed 10 games in 2014 after missing a handful the year before. If Unger stays healthy, he'll give Brees plenty of clean pockets in which to step up and uncork bombs like the one to wide receiver Brandin Cooks against the New England Patriots this preseason, and that'll make the Saints' offense very fun to watch.
What if Unger can't stay healthy?
The problem with Unger's potential injury risk is he seems like the key to everything on the all-important interior line. A dominant Unger means the guards beside him, the aging Jahri Evans and new starter Tim Lelito, will have the support they need. Losing Unger would require the Saints to reshuffle their line, maybe moving Lelito to center and installing an unknown quantity at guard. That sort of chaos cou ld wreak havoc on the Saints' offense.
7. Brandin Cooks
Much was made of the way the Saints sent offensive weapons packing over the offseason. Graham? Gone. Receiver Kenny Stills? Gone. Running back Pierre Thomas? Ditto. The team thinks it can get away with this for two reasons: first, Brees is still great; second, the coaches and players believe in Cooks.
What if training camp Cooks is permanent Cooks?
Cooks set the Greenbrier on fire at training camp last year, too, and though he played well before his 2014 season ended with an injury, his numbers weren't scary-good. Somehow, Cooks looked even better in camp this year, and even better than that during the preseason. If that scintillating version of Cooks is the permanent Cooks, the Saints may have the best playmaker of the Sean Payton era on their hands — an unholy combination of Lance Moore, Devery Henderson and Reggie Bush who could be on his way to 100 receptions.
What if Cooks is just "some guy"?
If Brees has proved anything, it's that he can throw to and have success with almost anyone. But the 2015 Saints are stretching that concept as far as it can go. Beyond Cooks, the team's receiving options are old (Marques Colston) or unknown (everyone else). If Cooks doesn't become the Saints' new primary target, Brees may need to figure out how to throw to himself.