METAIRIE, La. – Has any team ever appreciated an early-season bye more than the New Orleans Saints?
They survived the first five weeks at 3-2 despite missing eight starters for most of the season: Receivers Michael Thomas and Tre'Quan Smith, left tackle Terron Armstead, center Erik McCoy, defensive tackle David Onyemata, defensive end Marcus Davenport, linebacker Kwon Alexander and kicker Wil Lutz.
Combined, that group has a total of three All-Pro honors, eight Pro Bowl selections and 355 games started, including the playoffs.
This year, they have appeared in a grand total of six games.
The good news is they all have a chance to return soon after the Week 6 bye – many as early as the following Monday night game at the Seattle Seahawks.
“It’s huge,” said running back Alvin Kamara, who started rattling off names and still forgot half the list. “Sometimes you kind of go into a game and forget how many people you don’t have out there. It’s ‘next man up.’ But just to have all those guys back, it’s gonna be huge.
“We’ve got some juice coming back.”
The Saints have also been without veteran backup tight end Nick Vannett and cornerback Ken Crawley all season. They lost backup running back Tony Jones Jr. in Week 4. Offensive playmakers Deonte Harris and Taysom Hill got knocked out early in Week 5.
Of course every team deals with injuries. And coach Sean Payton stressed that he has put an emphasis on making sure his team wouldn’t use it as a crutch.
“I just hate being around this idea of … the excuse already built in. I think that can be extremely contagious in a negative way,” Payton said. “In this league, there’s no utopia where everyone is healthy.”
Still, the sheer volume of crucial missing players should at least stress the point that we don’t yet know what the Saints’ offense will look like when it’s closer to full strength.
Things like Jameis Winston’s fit in New Orleans or the overall run-pass balance (fourth in the NFL in rushing attempts, 32nd in pass attempts) are still evolving.
Here’s a look at the impact each return should have:
Michael Thomas and Tre'Quan Smith
Their absence has been impossible to miss. The Saints have patched together an undistinguished group of pass-catchers after they also released veterans Emmanuel Sanders, Jared Cook and Josh Hill in the offseason. And while Winston has flashed impressive big-play ability with 12 touchdown passes, the Saints still rank 32nd in the NFL in both attempts and completions (73 of 120), 31st in net passing yards (847) and 29th in completion percentage (60.8).
Thomas, the 2019 NFL Offensive Player of the Year, is exactly the type of go-to receiver Winston has been missing, with his ability to work the middle of the field, catch contested passes, and provide another big-play threat.
Thomas is eligible to return to practice in Week 7 for the first time since having major ankle surgery in June and being placed on the physically unable to perform (PUP) list to start the season. It’s unclear if he will play immediately at Seattle or how long it will take him to get back up to speed.
However, he has been rehabbing with the team. And this was targeted as a likely timetable for his return when he first had surgery, with the Saints suggesting they were giving him time to recover fully when they placed him on the PUP list.
Smith could also be back as early as Week 7 after being placed on injured reserve with a hamstring injury in Week 1. He should be a prominent part of the rotation along with Thomas, Marquez Callaway and Harris, especially with his blocking ability.
Terron Armstead and Erik McCoy
McCoy (calf) was injured early in Week 1, and Armstead (elbow) was injured early in Week 3. Their exact timetables haven’t been specified, but it’s a good sign that neither went on IR. Payton said both are “doing well” and the bye will be important for them.
The offensive line has generally held up well without them. But Armstead is among the NFL’s best left tackles, and this is an elite unit when it’s at full strength. Second-year pro Cesar Ruiz has been hit-and-miss as McCoy’s replacement – with the entire line struggling with communication issues in Week 2. When McCoy returns, Ruiz can slide back to right guard.
David Onyemata, Marcus Davenport and Kwon Alexander
The defense has remained very good, ranking fourth in the NFL in points allowed (18.2 per game), fourth in rushing yards (79.0 per game) and 14th in total yards (354.0 per game). But they had a late-game collapse in the Week 4 loss to the New York Giants. And they are tied for second to last in the NFL with just eight sacks.
Onyemata, who has emerged as one of New Orleans’ best defensive players over the past two years as both a pass-rusher and run-defender, will be back in Week 8 after a six-game suspension. Both Davenport (shoulder) and Alexander (elbow) could be back as early as Week 7 after getting hurt in Week 1.
Davenport, a first-round pick in 2018, looked like he was finally on the verge of a breakout with his stellar play in the preseason and Week 1. Alexander has flashed dynamic playmaking ability when healthy, particularly against the pass.
The 2019 Pro Bowler has been missed as much as anyone. New Orleans has rotated through a whopping total of four replacements since Lutz had core muscle surgery in August. Aldrick Rosas missed all three of his field goal attempts in Weeks 3 and 4, and then Cody Parkey missed two extra points in Week 5, with Payton admitting the kicker struggles have affected his play calling. Lutz could be back as early as Week 7, per a source, though it’s possible he’ll need another week or two.