Brees, Saints brace for rising Raiders in season opener
FILE - In this Sept. 1, 2016, file photo, New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees (9) avoids the pass rush in the first half of a preseason NFL football game against the Baltimore Ravens in New Orleans. The Saints host the Oakland Raiders in the first game of season on Sunday. (AP Photo/Bill Feig, File)
NEW ORLEANS (AP) Just because Drew Brees always speaks respectfully about even the Saints' lowliest opponents doesn't mean he's being insincere when pumps up the Raiders.
Oakland hasn't had a winning season since 2002, but Raiders coach Jack Del Rio has a team that appears to be sprinkled with up-and-coming stars who are trending up.
''They are extremely talented and they have a great quarterback, who I think we all look at and say this guy will be one of the best quarterbacks in the league,'' Brees said, referring to Oakland's Derek Carr. ''Defensively, they have some playmakers.''
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Carr didn't quite put up Brees-like numbers last season – 3,987 yards passing and 32 TDs – but the talented 25-year-old seems headed in that direction as he enters his third NFL season.
It helps to have targets such as second-year former Alabama star Amari Cooper, whose 72 catches for 1,070 led all rookies last season.
Then there's Oakland pass rusher Khalil Mack, who had 15 sacks and 23 tackles for losses last season and will face a New Orleans offensive line that struggled throughout the preseason.
''Khalil Mack is one of the best, if not the best pass rusher in the league – a guy that you have to a have a plan for and you have to know where he is,'' Brees said.
Del Rio is going into his second season and thinks it'll only help to have a staff that remained largely stable in the offseason.
''You have cohesiveness, you have a group that worked together for a year,'' Del Rio said. ''The time and the relationships are important. We work hard at the relationships and I think having that and having that with our staff and having this staff with the players, I think there is value in it.''
The Saints, meanwhile, are coming off consecutive 7-9 seasons and have a roster heavy on youth and relative inexperience, particularly in the secondary. But that doesn't mean New Orleans can't return to the ranks of NFC contenders, Brees said, particularly if the Saints are able to put up confidence-building victories early on.
''I'd say we've got a great group, and a really tight group, too,'' Brees said. ''Now, you want that to translate to wins and success. I know it's important for us to start fast. There's a great sense of urgency there. In years that we have been really good here, we have started fast. That is definitely something that is being talked about.''
Here are some key story lines heading into the Raiders-Saints matchup:
ROSTER SHUFFLE: The Saints will have several key players in Week 1 who weren't with the club at all this preseason. Starting defensive end Paul Kruger agreed to join the Saints last week, shortly after his release from Cleveland, but didn't officially join the team until after the preseason finale. This week, New Orleans brought back right guard Jahri Evans and brought in rookie kicker Wil Lutz and veteran cornerback Sterling Moore.
RUNNING HELP: Latavius Murray rushed for more than 1,000 yards and made the Pro Bowl as an alternate in his first full season as a starter in 2015. But Oakland wants to be a better running team after struggling for consistency a year ago. Powerful guard Kelechi Osemele was signed in free agency to bolster the line, and Oakland added a couple of rookie backs to ease Murray's load in DeAndre Washington and Jalen Richard.
NEW TARGETS: Veteran tight end Coby Fleener, lured away from Indianapolis as a free agent, and second-round pick Michael Thomas, a standout receiver from Ohio State who is Keyshawn Johnson's nephew, make their regular-season debuts in a passing game that led the NFL last season.
DEFENDING DREW: The Raiders placed a premium on upgrading their secondary this offseason by signing big-ticket free-agent cornerback Sean Smith, safety Reggie Nelson, and using a first-round pick on safety Karl Joseph. That revamped unit will get an intriguing early test. Ever since his early days in San Diego, Brees has feasted on the Raiders, completing 67.5 percent of his passes with 19 TDs in 10 starts.
''Sometimes he knows the defense better than the defenses,'' safety Nate Allen said of Brees. ''We have to give him some different looks and hopefully capitalize on mistakes.''
REUNION TIME: The Raiders will run into an old friend Sunday when they face New Orleans defensive coordinator Dennis Allen for the first time since he was fired as head coach in Oakland in 2014. Allen and general manager Reggie McKenzie were brought in to rebuild the Raiders following the death of longtime owner Al Davis. Allen was fired four games into his third season with an 8-28 record, but a handful of players he helped bring in remain in key spots, most notably Carr and Mack.
AP Sports Writer Josh Dubow in Oakland contributed to this report.