Lewis: Vegas sees 9.5 wins in the Saints, but we’ll take the over

The oddsmakers in Las Vegas are saying the over/under victory total for the Saints this season is 9.5.

What the heck do they know? Well, quite a bit, usually. How do think all of those palatial casinos get built?

But in this case, they are far underestimating the potential of the Black and Gold.

Going into training camp, which begins when the players report Thursday to The Greenbrier in White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia, the Saints of 2014 look to be a substantially improved product from the Saints of 2013. And that bunch went 11-5, posted the franchise’s first road playoff win and fell just a touchdown short of taking eventual Super Bowl champion Seattle into overtime in the divisional round.

But lest Who Dat hearts go all aflutter, we’re not ready to say the Saints are going to win the Super Bowl.

Or even get there.

We do see them going 13-3, winning the NFC South and hosting Seattle in the conference championship game, homefield being a must if the locals are to advance to the Super Bowl.

Here are 9.5 reasons why:

1. Mickey and Sean

Is there is more underappreciated general manager than Mickey Loomis? He and his team’s management of the salary cap is the envy of the league.

Plus, he brought the Jimmy Graham situation to a seemingly amicable conclusion and, if there’s ever been a hiccup in his relationship with coach Sean Payton, it’s never been a public issue, as such things become with other teams.

As for Payton, going into his ninth season (eighth if you don’t count 2012), he’s secure in his authority while being smart enough to recognize when strategic and personnel changes have to be made. And Bountygate is now a thing of the past.

2. Drew Brees

He’s the third-oldest quarterback in the NFL (behind Peyton Manning and Tom Brady) but is showing no signs of aging as he enters his 14th season and ninth with the Saints.

But as Brees continues to rise on the league’s career lists for every meaningful QB statistic, he plays with the enthusiasm of a rookie while also acting as the team’s unquestioned leader.

Mindful of protecting his body, even while his starting offensive line annually changes personnel, Brees knows he may never have a better opportunity for a second championship.

3. Brandin Cooks

The first-round pick is being viewed as the offense’s most dangerous weapon before he even takes a snap in the NFL — with good reason.

A younger, larger, faster version of the departed Darren Sproles, Cooks will operate primarily out of the slot, but look for him to get his hands on the ball in other ways besides catching passes, including improving the return game.

Cooks had to miss most of the organized team activities because of the NFL’s archaic rules about rookies supposedly having to finish school, but he had a “wow factor” impression on all who saw him.

4. A revived running game

Going into last season, Payton talked about rushing the ball better, but it took getting to the latter half of the schedule before it happened.

That was largely because much-maligned Mark Ingram finally showed his ability, averaging 5.8 yards per attempt in his final nine games. In the final year of his contract, Ingram will have that extra motivation as well.

Second-year man Khiry Robinson is a rising star, and Pierre Thomas’ versatility complements Ingram’s between-the-tackles style. Payton would like to control the ball like the Seahawks do, and he has the personnel to do so.

5. Rob Ryan

He looks like an over-the-hill biker and doesn’t miss a festival weekend, much less a meal. But behind the facade is a first-rate mind for defense and the ability to motivate players by making them feel that each of them is vital to the team’s success.

Injuries and other necessities forced Ryan to get away from his usual 3-4 defense last season and play a 4-2-5 most of the time. Yet the team still improved from worst-ever in the NFL to No. 4 in total defense and scoring defense.

With a year to get to know his personnel even better and to add some needed pieces, anything less this season will be a letdown.

6. A revamped secondary

Roman Harper, Jabari Greer and Malcolm Jenkins were terrific locker room guys, but on the field they were no longer producing turnovers. (The combined for four interceptions in 2013.)

That’s why the Saints brought in ball-hawking safety Jairus Byrd and future Hall of Fame corner Champ Bailey. Along with Kenny Vaccaro, whose aggressive attitude should be seasoned by a year’s more maturity, plus 2013 free agent gem Keenan Lewis, this is a group with a different mindset.

7. Cameron Jordan

With Will Smith, Jonathan Vilma and the other remnants of the Super Bowl squad now gone, Jordan becomes the leader of the defense — both in ability (12.5 sacks in his first Pro Bowl season) and enjoyment of the spotlight.

Set for a potentially huge contract — get your thinking cap on, Mickey — and bolstered by the presence of rising stars Junior Galette and Akiem Hicks, Jordan’s No. 99 ranking among the league’s best players by his peers could take a big leap.

8. Health and character

If it’s better to be lucky than good, it’s great to be both.

The lucky: The team got through the offseason without any apparent serious injuries, although there are questions about the training camp availability of Byrd and second-year defensive tackle John Jenkins. A year ago, linebacker Victor Butler and wide receiver Joseph Morgan had been lost for the season with injuries suffered during OTAs.

The good: With the caveat that four days remain before the players report, there have been no arrests, suspensions or any other reported misdeeds by any of the players in the offseason. Contrast that to Baltimore, which has had five players arrested this offseason. Hear anybody talking about the Ravens going to the Super Bowl just two seasons after they won it all?

Obviously the NFL isn’t populated by choirboys. But making the right decisions off the field translates to doing the same thing on it.

9. The schedule

There are no easy outs in the NFL, but things couldn’t seem more in the Saints’ favor when it comes to the opposition.

They don’t play a team that had a winning record in 2013 until Week 8 at home against Green Bay (8-7-1). They play only one road game against a 2013 playoff team — at Carolina on Oct. 30. No games at Seattle, San Francisco, Green Bay or Philadelphia, last year’s other NFC playoff qualifiers.

Jet lag isn’t going to be a problem, either. There’s only one game west of the Mississippi — at Dallas. In fact, the flight to training camp is farther than four of the eight road games.

9.5. Jimmy Graham

Yes, he got a four-year deal that makes him the highest-paid tight end in NFL history and puts him at No. 7 among all receivers, no matter what they call themselves.

But shouldn’t there be some lingering resentment over having to watch his coach speak against his quest to be franchised as a wide receiver? And all of those missed workouts with Brees and his teammates must have created some rust, even for the best tight end on the planet.

So we’ll only credit Graham’s return for half a point. But that’s the half-point that could make the difference between meeting the Seahawks in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome instead of at CenturyLink Field.

Wanna bet on it?