Saints riding youth movement that eases pressure on Drew Brees

Michael Thomas, right, and Alvin Kamara combined to score 19 TDs last season as part of a balanced Saints attack. AP Photo/Bill Feig

For the New Orleans Saints to contend for the playoffs this season, here are the five most important players who can help make that happen:

Drew Brees, quarterback: This one's pretty obvious. Quarterback is the most important position on the field for any team, and Brees is one of the best to ever play (the 39-year-old is on pace to overtake Peyton Manning as the NFL's all-time passing yardage leader in October). But the beauty of the Saints right now is that they have become as balanced as they've ever been during the Brees-Sean Payton era by reloading their offensive line, run game and defense in recent years. So Brees doesn't have to be Superman every week. His yards, touchdowns and interceptions in 2017 were all his lowest totals in 12 years with the Saints. But he was as efficient as ever, setting the NFL record for single-season completion percentage (72.0) for the third time in his career.

Cameron Jordan, defensive end: The Saints landed seven players in the Pro Bowl last season, but only one was a first-team All-Pro. Jordan has been one of the NFL's most underrated disrupters throughout his seven-year career. But he finally earned his due last season by completing what he called a "triple-double" (13 sacks, 17 tackles for loss and 11 passes defensed). The only other NFL player to do that over the past decade-plus is J.J. Watt. You could make an argument that the other defensive-end position is just as important to the Saints' success this season -- they either need rookie Marcus Davenport to make an instant impact or veteran Alex Okafor to come back strong from a torn Achilles. But Jordan is the one who really makes this defense tick as both a pass-rusher and run defender.

Michael Thomas, receiver: Thomas is vital to the Saints' success because he is more of a true "No. 1" receiver than the Saints have ever had in the Brees-Payton era. For one thing, he has emerged as one of the NFL's elite receivers -- his 196 catches over the past two seasons are the most in league history over the first two seasons of a player's career. Also, there are a lot of question marks behind him among the Saints' pass-catching corps. Veterans Ted Ginn Jr. and Benjamin Watson are solid, but the Saints don't yet know what to expect from newcomers Cameron Meredith (coming off of a major knee injury) and Tre'Quan Smith (a rookie third-round draft pick).

Alvin Kamara, running back: Kamara would be on this list no matter what after his incredible rookie season in 2017. He had 728 rushing yards with a NFL-leading 6.1 yards per carry; 81 catches for 826 yards; and 14 total touchdowns, including a 106-yard kickoff return. But the NFL's reigning Offensive Rookie of the Year will be even more important to the Saints in September, since fellow running back Mark Ingram is facing a four-game suspension to start the season. Payton said he doesn't plan to just increase Kamara's workload by 15 touches a game to pick up the slack, because he doesn't think it would be "wise" to overextend him after he was so effective in a 50-50 split with Ingram last season. But Kamara started to become a little more of the 1A in the dynamic duo late last season, and that trend should continue this fall.

Marshon Lattimore, cornerback: Speaking of Rookies of the Year, Lattimore won the NFL's defensive honor last season, making the Saints the first team to sweep the awards in 50 years. The 6-foot, 192-pounder quickly emerged as one of the league's top cornerbacks and earned a trip to the Pro Bowl with five interceptions, 18 passes defensed and a forced fumble in just 13 games played, while routinely matching up against the opponent's No. 1 receiver. The Saints had multiple defensive backs break out in 2017, including rookie safety Marcus Williams and second-year cornerback Ken Crawley. But a true, No. 1 shutdown guy is vital -- especially in a division that includes star receivers like Julio Jones and Mike Evans.