The Saints had a banner year in 2011, posting a 13-3 record and winning the NFC South. The face of the franchise Drew Brees broke Dan Marino's single season passing yards mark and they outscored the upstart Lions in the wild card game.
The 49ers brought the Saints' year to an abrupt end though when they solved them in the divisional round and the Saints went on to their worse off-season in team history. The NFL came down hard on the team for their bounty program and suspended head coach Sean Payton, general manager Mickey Loomis, and assistant coach Joe Vitt.
New Orleans also had to forfeit draft picks in the process. The Saints will be hoping that some early season wins can help erase some of the bad memories from the last six months.
Important Additions: LB Curtis Lofton, G Ben Grubbs, DT Brodrick Bunkley, LB David Hawthorne.
Important Losses: G Carl Nicks, WR Robert Meachem, CB Tracy Porter, DT Aubrayo Franklin, LB Barrett Ruud, K John Kasay, coach Sean Payton (suspension)
Reasons To Believe
1. Face of the Franchise - Amidst all the bounty gate issues, the most shocking aspect of the Saints off-season was their refusal to reward Drew Brees with a new contract. No one deserved a contract more than the man who has been the leader of the team, was integral to keeping them in New Orleans and was MVP in their Super Bowl victory. After a brief holdout the two sides resolved the issue and Brees is back where he should be - in the pocket. While it will be hard to throw for more yards than he did in 2011, Brees will remain among the elite at his position.
|How much will Sean Payton's absence affect the Saints this season? Payton was suspended for the entire 2012 season for his role in the Saints' bounty program.
2. New Look Defence - Gregg Williams was long gone when news broke of his bounty program. The Saints had already found a new defensive coordinator in former Rams head coach Steve Spagnulo. The former architect of the New York Giants defence, Spagnulo will try to improve a unit that crumbled in their last two trips to the post-season. Unlike Williams, Spagnulo likes to bring pressure using a four-man front, which should help the team cut down on the big plays they've given up in recent years.
3. According To Jim - Jimmy Graham became Brees' favourite target and established himself as one of the top two tight ends in the NFL. Along with Rob Gronkowski, Graham re-wrote the record books at the tight end position catches 99 passes, for 1,310 yards and 11 touchdowns. It was only Graham's second year in the league and at 25 years old, he is poised to exploit defences for a long time.
Reasons To Doubt
1. "Do Your Job" - Those were head coach Sean Payton's final words to his club before leaving to serve his year-long suspension. Under Payton's watch, New Orleans has made the playoffs four out of six seasons, including the last three straight. The team has a 62-34 record with him on the sidelines and his absence cannot be overstated. Offensive coordinator Pete Charmichael actually began calling plays last season when Payton suffered a broken leg, a turn of events that may have unintentionally helped prepare the offence for this season.
2. Rush Hour - Spagnulo likes to bring pressure with a four-man front, but that may be tough to do with the team's personnel this season. The Saints' best pass rusher Will Smith avoided a four-game suspension, but he will need to get back up to speed. New Orleans' other defensive linemen are more suited towards stopping the run, with the exception of third rounder Akiem Hicks, who has showed well in the preseason. Hicks could be a situational pass rusher as the season progresses.
3. Replacing Meachem - With Graham, Marques Colston, Lance Moore and Darren Sproles drawing attention, the third receiver for the Saints can be a very productive slot. Meachem may primarily be a deep threat, but now that he is in San Diego there is an opportunity for someone to step up. Devery Henderson has been with the club for a while and never carved out consistent playing time. Other options include an unproven and often injured trio of Adrian Arrington, Nick Toon, and Courtney Roby.
What To Expect
The Saints have had 13, 11 and 13 wins in the last three seasons and despite all their off-season headlines, it's hard to imagine the team will drop off that much. With few changes on offence, Brees will once again have his group at or near the top of the league in points scored. If anything the club could improve on the defensive end and be an even tougher out come playoff time. The Saints will battle Atlanta for the division crown and win or lose they should reach in the post-season.