The New Orleans Saints head into this week's bye with a 3-2 record. They’ve managed a winning record by overcoming several early season obstacles.
New Orleans was already faced with breaking in a new quarterback with Jameis Winston taking over for the retired Drew Brees. Next, the arrival of Hurricane Ida in late August also impacted the franchise.
The team operations relocated to Texas and forced the Saints to play their season-opening ‘‘home’’ game in Jacksonville. New Orleans has played just one of their first five games in the Superdome, a Week 5 loss to the Giants.
Making matters even worse, the Saints suffered a rash of injuries that thinned out a roster already hit hard by offseason personnel losses.
Going into last week, New Orleans had ten starters or major contributors on the injured list that had missed multiple games, with DT David Onyemata serving a six-game suspension to start the year.
The bye week couldn't come at a better time. All but Onyemata and RB Tony Jones Jr. are either eligible to come off injured reserve or could be healthy enough to play when the Saints return to action on October 25 at Seattle.
This doesn't mean that all their injured players will be back on the field in week 7, but several are expected to return. Here are the players we’ll see back in action for New Orleans.
The Saints passing attack has struggled in a manner we haven't seen since Sean Payton took over as head coach in 2006. New Orleans ranks 31st in passing yardage, anchoring the team to a 28th rank in total offense.
Some of those struggles can be attributed to Payton not completely taking the reins off Jameis Winston and uncharacteristic breakdowns in pass protection.
The team's receiving corps has also underperformed. Wideouts Deonte Harris, Marquez Callaway, and Kenny Stills are talented complementary pieces, but have shown that they can't be counted on as featured receivers.
Michael Thomas is the NFL's most dominant receiver when healthy. After a record-breaking start to his career over his first four years, Thomas suffered an ankle injury in the 2020 season opener that sidelined him for nine games and limited his effectiveness on the field.
Thomas had offseason surgery on that ankle and has been on the Physically Unable to Perform list. A player on the PUP list is unavailable for six weeks, meaning Thomas will be eligible to play in week seven against Seattle if medically cleared.
Thomas had at least 90 catches and over 1,000 yards receiving from 2016 to 2019. He led the league in receiving yards (1,725) and set an NFL record with 149 receptions in 2019.
An unstoppable wideout through the intermediate zones, Thomas overwhelms defenders with his precise routes, physicality, and tremendous hands. A healthy Thomas upgrades the entire offense, freeing up space for dynamic RB Alvin Kamara and loosening coverage on Harris, Callaway, and Stills.
Lutz is one of the most consistent kickers in the NFL. He’s converted 86.6% of his field goal attempts in five seasons with the Saints and has missed only three extra points in the last three years.
Lutz slumped a bit down the stretch of last year and underwent core muscle surgery early in August for a groin injury. The team placed him on injured reserve to start the year. He was eligible to be activated last week, but the team kept him sidelined in hopes that he’d be fully recovered after the bye.
A combination of K Aldrick Rosas and K Cody Parkey have performed miserably in Lutz' absence. Rosas was successful on all 13 of his extra points, but was only 1 for 4 in field goal attempts. Parkey was signed to replace the released Rosas last week, but missed two extra points in a victory at Washington.
Parkey was released on Tuesday. The team signed K Brian Johnson, an indicator that Lutz may not be ready to go immediately after the bye.
An unreliable kicking game has also altered Payton's third and fourth down strategies once entering opposing territory.
Lutz is an impressive 78.3% on field goals over 40 yards in his career. His range and accuracy all but guarantees points from an opponent's 40-yard line.
McCoy went down with a calf injury early in the season-opening rout of Green Bay and has missed the last four games. A second-round selection in the 2019 NFL Draft, he has developed into one of the league's better all-around centers.
McCoy's injury caused starting RG Cesar Ruiz to move to center, with Calvin Throckmorton stepping in at guard. Throckmorton has played adequately. Ruiz has not, looking especially awful in pass protection.
With McCoy healthy, Ruiz would presumably move back to guard. It would also restore the continuity to an offensive line considered one of the league's best.
Davenport, the number 14 pick in the 2018 NFL Draft, was off to a monstrous start against the Packers before leaving with a pectoral injury. It was another career setback for the oft-injured Davenport, who has missed 17 games in less than four years.
The Saints have 35 QB hits this year but only 8 sacks, second fewest in the NFL after five games. They've gotten little pass rush from their defensive tackles, but will be without Onyemata for one more game.
Without a stud interior pass rusher, the Saints need more from their defensive end spot. Veteran Cam Jordan, rookie first-round pick Payton Turner, Tanoh Kpassagnon, and Carl Granderson have had nice moments but haven't gotten the quarterback on the ground enough.
Davenport's return would further strengthen a talented edge rush. It would also allow defensive coordinator Dennis Allen to use his defensive ends inside more often without sacrificing talent along the outside.
Armstead is one of the best left tackles in the game and routinely silences the league's best pass rushers. He left a week 3 win at New England with an elbow injury and has missed the last two games.
The injury could keep Armstead out for several more weeks. Luckily, veteran lineman James Hurst has stepped in and played well in Armstead's absence. As long as Hurst continues to perform well, don't expect the team to rush Armstead back in the lineup.
Once Armstead does return, Hurst becomes valuable as a versatile depth piece and as an extra lineman on jumbo packages and goal-line situations. Armstead's return would also further bolster the team's erratic pass protection.
The fact that Alexander was even on the field for the season opener after rupturing his Achilles in a Christmas Day rout of Minnesota was a remarkable achievement. Unfortunately, he suffered an elbow injury against Green Bay, causing the team to put him on injured reserve.
Alexander, like Marcus Davenport, could have been activated last week. Barring a medical setback, both could be back in the lineup to face Seattle. Since arriving in a mid-season trade last season, Alexander teamed with Demario Davis to give the Saints one of the league's best linebacking duos.
Rookie LB Pete Werner, a second-round selection, has played extremely well and has been a coverage standout alongside Davis.
Third-year LB Kaden Elliss has emerged as a solid downhill defender, but struggles in coverage. Second-year LB Zack Baun has also been exposed as a coverage liability after an outstanding training camp.
The Saints have more linebacking depth around Davis than originally thought. Alexander's return gives the unit even more flexibility. He’s a terrific athlete and one of the best coverage linebackers in the NFL.
Smith has been a mostly mediocre receiver since the Saints selected him in the third round of the 2018 NFL Draft. Despite several opportunities, he’s never been able to seize control of the number two wideout spot opposite Michael Thomas.
Smith has difficulty separating from coverage, doesn't run precise routes, and disappears for long stretches. Even with Thomas unavailable most of last year, Smith managed a career-high of just 34 receptions for 448 yards over 14 games.
A hamstring injury forced Smith to the sideline early in training camp, causing the team to put him on injured reserve to start the year.
Smith has flashed signs of productive potential throughout his career, especially as a big play threat. Callaway and Harris are both better route runners, but Smith could make some plays for this receiving corps with the return of Thomas attracting defensive attention.
The Saints went into the 2021 season with an inexperienced second-year TE Adam Trautman as starter and converted wideout Juwan Johnson providing depth. Veterans Josh Hill and Jared Cook had both been released, but New Orleans signed veteran TE Nick Vannett to add experience.
After a quiet start to training camp, Vannett suffered a knee during a preseason win over Jacksonville and was placed on injured reserve. He was eligible to return in week four.
Vannett won't threaten defenses as a pass catcher. He’s a decent short-yardage receiver and is a reliable blocker. His return would give the team more options at a tight end position that’s been a disappointment so far.
Johnson is emerging as a viable receiving threat and has a nice chemistry with Winston, but doesn't have the size to be an every down in-line tight end. Trautman had two big receptions against Washington, but had been a non-factor as a receiver and abysmal as a blocker over the first four games.
Cornerback was a perceived position of weakness heading into training camp, but has developed into a team strength.
Marshon Lattimore is playing like a Defensive Player of the Year candidate through the first quarter of the season. Rookie third-round choice Paulson Adebo has had an immediate impact, and the team added quality starting depth by trading for CB Bradley Roby.
Forgotten in the performance of the secondary was the fact that CB Ken Crawley was projected to be the starter opposite of Lattimore to open the year.
A starter for the Saints at cornerback from 2016 to 2018, Crawley spent a year with the Miami Dolphins before returning to New Orleans last year. He was having a tremendous training camp before hurting his hamstring during a preseason win over Jacksonville.
Crawley will have to fight for playing time upon his return. Lattimore is an elite defender who locks down the league's best wideouts. Adebo shows the potential of a top corner and Roby is a proven starter.
Not all of these players will be back in action when the Saints return to the field against Seattle in week 7.
Onyemata won't be eligible to return until week 8 and it looks like Lutz may need a few more games to recover. Other players may also need more time to be fully ready and may initially be on a limited snap count.
The Saints carried a winning record into their bye week despite the absence of a long list of talent. This team will now be back near full strength by Halloween, poised to send a wave of terror through the rest of the league.