Have Saints gotten better or worse? May depend on Jared Cook

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The New Orleans Saints may have gotten hosed by a missed call in the NFC Championship Game. But they sure aren't being shortchanged this offseason.

New Orleans ranked No. 2 (and tops in the NFC) in ESPN's latest NFL Power Rankings. ESPN's "way too early" mock draft for 2020 has the Saints picking 32nd next year, based on Football Outsiders' record projections. And ESPN analyst Mike Clay has their roster rated No. 1 in the league based on unit grades.

That all makes sense, considering the Saints started 13-2 last year before coming oh-so-close to the Super Bowl -- and considering they still have coach Sean Payton, QB Drew Brees, DE Cameron Jordan, WR Michael Thomas, RB Alvin Kamara, CB Marshon Lattimore, LB Demario Davis, one of the league's best offensive lines and one of the league's best punter-kicker combos.

But did their roster actually get better during free agency and the draft? That's up for debate.

Here's a look at where the Saints have improved and where they've thinned out:


1. TE Jared Cook. No pressure on the 32-year-old tight end, but he is the single biggest reason for optimism that New Orleans could be even better in 2019. Signing him in free agency was by far the Saints' biggest addition this offseason after they struggled to find reliable pass-catchers outside of Thomas and Kamara last year. Tight end Benjamin Watson finished third on the team in 2018 with just 35 receptions -- then announced his retirement.

Cook doesn't come without question marks: He made his first Pro Bowl in 10 seasons last year after battling some inconsistency early in his career. But after having his best season yet in Jon Gruden's system with the Oakland Raiders, Cook should continue to thrive in a similar scheme in New Orleans. Payton's offense has long been friendly to versatile, athletic tight ends like Cook.

The Saints' receiving corps should also get a boost from a healthy Ted Ginn Jr., who missed most of last season because of injury. And they're counting on the continued development of guys like Cameron Meredith, Tre'Quan Smith, Keith Kirkwood, Austin Carr and Dan Arnold.

2. NT Malcom Brown. The Saints' defensive line overall is a concern area heading into this year (see below). But they should be better at nose tackle, where they signed the former New England Patriots starter as a projected upgrade over Tyeler Davison. Brown started 61 games for the Patriots over the past four years, including the playoffs. He was used primarily as a run defender, but he has the versatility to be a penetrating pass-rusher as well. So he could play more snaps than usual while starting three-technique Sheldon Rankins recovers from a torn Achilles.

3. PR Marcus Sherels. The Saints have been mixing and matching their punt returners for years with middling success (their punt return units ranked 24th and 25th over the last two seasons). So they added Sherels, who has been one of the NFL's best punt returners over the past nine years with the Minnesota Vikings -- including five returns for touchdowns.


1. Defensive end. The Saints lost veteran starter Alex Okafor to free agency and haven't replaced him yet. Second-year pro Marcus Davenport is coming back from a postseason toe surgery. So they should definitely still be in the market for a veteran edge rusher this summer.

The Saints still have Jordan, one of the best defensive ends in the league. And they still have high hopes for Davenport after trading up to draft him in Round 1 last year. But Okafor was rock solid as both an edge rusher and run defender over the past two years, and he played 65 percent of New Orleans' defensive snaps last season while Davenport played just under 50 percent when healthy. Even if Davenport's playing time increases, the Saints could use another rotational piece.

They did add veteran defensive lineman Mario Edwards, who could spend some time at end. But Edwards figures to play more at defensive tackle, especially if Rankins isn't ready to play in September.

2. Running back. Ideally the Saints won't suffer much of a drop-off from Mark Ingram to Latavius Murray at the No. 2 RB spot. Murray appears to be the perfect type of complement to Kamara as a big 230-pounder who has been outstanding near the goal line (26 TD runs over the past three years). And the 29-year-old did make a Pro Bowl earlier in his career with the Raiders, so he has the experience to fill in as an every-down back if needed.

But Ingram won't be easy to replace on the field or in the locker room, where he was beloved by teammates. And no one expects Murray to flirt with the 1,540 yards from scrimmage and 12 TDs that Ingram had as Kamara's running mate in 2017.

3. Center. The Saints have done an excellent job of restocking this position after the retirement of Pro Bowl veteran Max Unger. They signed free agent Nick Easton from the Vikings then traded up to draft Texas A&M’s Erik McCoy in Round 2 -- which should make for a compelling training camp competition.

Unger admitted after the season that his play started to drop off a bit because of the wear and tear on his body. So it's possible that McCoy could step right in and play at a similar level -- and ultimately develop into a 10-year starter and a Pro Bowler himself. But it will be difficult for either one of these guys to immediately replace everything Unger did as a signal-caller on the line, a captain and a vocal leader.