Saints open Derek Carr era looking to end two-year playoff absence


EXPECTATIONS: The Saints are looking to avoid missing the playoffs for a third straight season and appear confident they can contend in the NFC South following some key roster moves and the healthy return of star players who were injured much of last season. Their biggest move in free agency was to attract veteran quarterback Derek Carr, giving them a nine-year veteran with four Pro Bowl appearances under center. His top receiving playmakers should include former two-time All-Pro Michael Thomas, who missed 14 games last season with a foot injury. Meanwhile, the Saints now know dynamic running back Alvin Kamara will be eligible for their final 14 regular-season games after the NFL announced his three-game suspension in connection with a February 2022 arrest in Las Vegas. New Orleans also returns prominent players to a defense that was the NFL's fifth stingiest last season, led by cornerback Marshon Lattimore, defensive end Cameron Jordan and linebacker Demario Davis.

NEW FACES: Carr, TE Foster Moreau, DT Bryan Bresee, DT Khalin Saunders, RB Kendre Miller, RB Jamaal Williams, TE Jimmy Graham, Defensive line coach Todd Grantham.

KEY LOSSES: DE Marcus Davenport, DT David Onyemata, DT Shy Tuttle, DT Kentavius Street, S Justin Evans, WR-PR Deonte Harty, LB Kaden Ellis, Defensive line coach Ryan Nielsen.

STRENGTHS: New Orleans has one of the NFL's strongest secondaries, with Marshon Lattimore and Paulson Adebo at cornerback, Tyrann Mathieu and Marcus Maye at safety and 2022 second-round draft choice Alontae Taylor working in the slot. Last season, the Saints ranked second in the NFL in yards passing allowed (184.4 per game). New Orleans also could see its passing game rebound considerably with Carr having the ability to distribute the ball to Thomas, Kamara, receiver Chris Olave, tight end Juwan Johnson and utility player Taysom Hill, who also has been adept at stepping in at QB for designed runs.

WEAKNESSES: The Saints entered this season with a measure of uncertainty along the offensive and defensive lines. The club hopes 2022 first-round draft choice Trevor Penning is ready to step in at left tackle after missing most of last season with a foot injury. He's a ferocious run blocker but his pass sets remain a work in progress. The Saints also are hoping left guard Andrus Peat can stay healthy and that Cesar Ruiz can improve in his fourth season. On defense, meanwhile, New Orleans needs 2021 first-round pick Payton Turner to step in for Davenport at defensive end and need their new starters at defensive tackle, including 2023 first-round pick Bresee, to play well.

CAMP DEVELOPMENT: Two big questions coming into camp include whether Penning would be ready to step in for veteran journeyman James Hurst at starting left tackle and whether Thomas would regain his All-Pro receiving form of 2019 after missing most of the past three seasons with ankle and foot injuries. Penning looks to have won the starting job, but could be on a short leash if he allows Carr to get hit. Coach Dennis Allen says Thomas is still working his way back into form, but looks as if he can be affective enough to help open up the offense for Carr considerably.

FANTASY PLAYER TO WATCH: Johnson has emerged as the Saints most productive receiving tight end since being converted from receiver in 2021 and could very well lead the team in touchdowns this season. He had a team-leading seven TDs receiving last season after scoring four times in '21. And Carr has been looking for him often in seven-on-seven or 11-on-11 passing plays in practice.

FANDUEL SPORTSBOOK SAYS: Win Super Bowl: 40-1. Over/under wins: 9 1/2.