Week 1 Preview: Raiders at Saints
The talk of the offseason has been about both teams winning enough games to make the playoffs as the New Orleans Saints host the Oakland Raiders on Sunday.
New Orleans boasts a coach in Sean Payton and a franchise quarterback in Drew Brees, who have won a Super Bowl.
Oakland owns a dynamic offense led by quarterback Derek Carr and a veteran defensive coach in Jack Del Rio.
Saints general manager Mickey Loomis knows how to build a team that can win a Lombardi Trophy. General manager Reggie McKenzie, after tearing the Raiders roster down and starting over, is looking to leave his own fingerprints and legacy on the silver and black.
New Orleans is coming off a 7-9 season that felt worse than the record. The offense was stagnant at times and the defense struggled so mightily that Rob Ryan, the defensive coordinator, was fired.
Payton enlisted Dennis Allen to run his defense. Ironically, it was Allen who was McKenzie's first head coach hire in Oakland. And subsequently, his first coach to fire. In the NFL, it is truly how the world turns.
"We come in expecting to win our division. That's our goal, it's our goal every year. We're not going to back away from that," Del Rio said.
The Raiders have not made the playoffs since 2003. They also finished 7-9 in 2015 and there is more optimism for this young group of players. With third-year man Carr at quarterback and throwing to second-year wide receiver Amari Cooper, the Raiders' offense looks to be hitting full stride.
Brees, the beloved quarterback of the Saints, has to be excited about the financial windfall he received heading into the season opener. On Wednesday, Brees signed a two-year extension that had long been discussed.
The contract keeps him in black and gold for the next two seasons and pays him a fully guaranteed $44.25 million. Brees facing a very good Raiders' defense behind his much-maligned offensive line has to give the former Super Bowl MVP pause, though.
The Raiders' defense is full of upstarts and has one of the most explosive players in the NFL in defensive end Khalil Mack. The first-round selection in 2014 received All-Pro votes at two positions last season.
Mack has the speed and hand usage to beat tackles around the edge. He also has the power to bull-rush a guard on the interior. The Saints' offensive line is banged up, especially their best offensive lineman -- left tackle Terron Armstead.
If Armstead cannot play or is limited, second-year utility man Andrus Peat has played left tackle, left guard and right guard in his career. Starting left guard Tim Lelito may have to shift to right guard.
Because of the injury situation and the important responsibility to protect Brees, the Saints brought back former Pro-Bowl guard Jahri Evans on Wednesday.
New Orleans center Max Unger is the one true constant along the offensive line. If Evans can hold his own against Raiders defensive tackle Jihad Ward, the Saints should be able to find running room inside.
The Saints' offense has shown the ability to run the football with Mark Ingram. The former Alabama runner continues to produce better than four yards per carry and has become a viable threat out of the backfield.
Oakland's linebacking corps is still a work in progress and starting middle linebacker Ben Heeney was getting pushed for playing time by 2016 sixth-round selection Cory James in the preseason.
The running attack of the Raiders also needs to play a factor into this game. So much has been made of Carr's aerial attack, running back Latavius Murray often gets left out of the conversation.
Murray can find positive yards on the left side running behind a giant offensive line led by free-agent addition Kelechi Osemele and left tackle Donald Penn.
The Saints' defense is banged up as well and has Cleveland Browns castoff Paul Kruger, a natural outside linebacker, playing some defensive end.
This offseason brought much change to the aforementioned Saints defense. Linebacker James Laurinaitis signed after the Los Angeles Rams let him go. Laurinaitis and the Saints' secondary led by safety Jarius Byrd know they have to improve over last year's unit.
The new middle linebacker hopes that working against Brees will have them prepared for Carr, Cooper and wide receiver Michael Crabtree.
Said Laurinaitis: "It challenges our whole defense to raise our level up, because if not it's going to be all of those practices where he can carve you up and embarrass you. I have been really encouraged by how our defense has competed against our offense day in day out because they put a lot of stress on the tempo that they move at."
Updated September 8, 2016