Athlon Sports is counting down its 2012 NFL preseason Power Rankings with in-depth team previews, schedule analysis and more as the start of the NFL season draws near.
The New Orleans Saints check in at No. 13.
Don’t count out the Saints. They might be down after the NFL bounty scandal, but they’re far from out of the race to the NFC championship. Over the years, the Saints have shown a remarkable resiliency under head coach Sean Payton and quarterback Drew Brees. Whether it is a hurricane relocation or freak midseason injury to Payton, they have thrived in adverse situations.
The Saints will play the entire 2012 season without Payton and linebacker Jonathan Vilma, and GM Mickey Loomis, assistant head coach/linebackers coach Joe Vitt and defensive end Will Smith are each facing multi-game suspensions for their involvement in the bounty probe. What effect their losses have on Sundays remains to be seen. But it seems certain the Saints will have to rely on Brees and the league’s most prolific offense more than ever this season.
The league’s No. 1 offense was unfazed by the bounty sanctions, which is bad news for NFL defenses. The Saints attack opponents at all levels of their defense and are adept at exploiting weaknesses with an aggressive multi-faceted system that relies heavily on Brees’ superior decision-making and uncanny accuracy. His pocket awareness, anticipation and mobility make him one of the most difficult sacks in the league. At 33, he’s in his prime, has few weaknesses and has shown no signs of slowing down.
The addition of running back Darren Sproles and the emergence of tight end Jimmy Graham took the passing attack to another level last season. Graham follows in the footsteps of Tony Gonzalez and Antonio Gates as former college basketball power forwards turned star NFL tight ends. Graham creates mismatches with his 6'7" frame and 37-inch vertical leap.
The Saints’ receiving corps has a little bit of everything. Marques Colston is the go-to guy on third down and in the red zone. He has excellent size, hands and body control. Lance Moore uses savvy and superior quickness to beat defenders and find seams in zones on underneath and intermediate routes. Devery Henderson’s deep threat role has diminished in recent years, but he can still deliver a big performance if defenses ignore him. The primary candidates to replace Robert Meachem are Adrian Arrington, Joseph Morgan and Nick Toon.
The Saints’ stable of running backs is deep and talented even though they rarely get to showcase their skills in the pass-happy system. Sproles fit seamlessly into Reggie Bush’s satellite back role and made fans quickly forget about the one-time franchise savior. Injuries derailed Mark Ingram’s rookie season. When he played, he showed flashes of his Heisman Trophy skills. His rare blend of agility, power and balance make him a yards-after-contact machine. He appears primed for a breakout season. Hulking Chris Ivory provides the power between the tackles and will continue to play the closer role in the fourth quarter. Pierre Thomas is the jack-of-all-trades back. He’s one of the best screen receiver/runners in the business and another Brees favorite.
The offensive line continues to be a strength, led by powerful All-Pro guard Jahri Evans. Ben Grubbs replaces Carl Nicks at left guard. Former journeyman Brian de la Puente outplayed veteran Olin Kreutz and Matt Tennant to win the starting center job last season. Left tackle Jermon Bushrod and right tackle Zach Strief ably man the flanks.
The 2009 season, in which the Saints ranked among the league leaders in takeaways, is starting to look like an outlier. Before and after, the Saints have ranked among the league’s worst in total yards allowed (24th) and takeaways (31st). The lack of production is puzzling considering the talent on hand.
Consequently, Steve Spagnuolo became the third defensive coordinator in Payton’s six-year tenure. Spagnuolo is expected to continue the high-pressure system predecessor Gregg Williams ran for the previous three seasons, albeit out of more conventional sets and alignments.
His first order of business will be to improve the club’s perennially tepid pass rush, and he’ll have to do it without his best pass-rusher, Smith, for the first four games. Smith remains a solid player and sound against the run, but he has lost his burst off the edge. At right end, the staff hopes Cameron Jordan can take a step forward after a solid-but-unspectacular rookie year. He lacks the explosiveness to be an elite pass-rusher. Junior Galette has the speed and burst Jordan lacks but must develop other skills and techniques to be an effective rusher at this level.
The linebacker corps was overhauled in the offseason. Three veterans with starting experience — Curtis Lofton, David Hawthorne and Chris Chamberlain — were signed in free agency to bolster a unit that has struggled to make many sacks, interceptions or fumble recoveries in recent years. Lofton will replace Vilma in the middle. He’s bigger, younger and healthier than Vilma but isn’t as instinctive or as adept in coverage. Hawthorne, a big hitter who can play all three linebacker spots, will compete with Jon Casillas and Chamberlain on the weak side. Veteran Scott Shanle and Martez Wilson will compete on the strong side. Wilson has the size and athleticism the unit has lacked in recent years.
The secondary is talented and experienced but lacks quality depth. Cornerbacks Jabari Greer and Patrick Robinson should excel in Spagnuolo’s press coverage. Robinson should be an upgrade over Tracy Porter, whose performance tailed off because of injuries the past two seasons. Former third-round pick Johnny Patrick, a tough, physical player the coaches like, has the inside track at the nickel spot. Roman Harper is a classic in-the-box strong safety. He’s one of the instinctive playmakers on the unit but can be exploited when opponents catch him in man-to-man coverage. Malcolm Jenkins has not met high expectations since converting to free safety from cornerback.
Once a weakness, the Saints’ special teams made significant improvements in several areas last season. Punter/kickoff specialist Thomas Morstead owns one of biggest legs in the game. The elusive Sproles handles punt and kickoff return duties with equal effectiveness. In addition to his game-breaking running skills, he’s a sound ball-handler and decision-maker. Coverage units were improved thanks to an influx of young defensive talent. The lone question mark is placekicker Garrett Hartley, who is coming off a season-ending hip injury.
Final Analysis: 2nd in the NFC South
Brees and the high-flying offense are good enough to carry the club to another division title. But the Saints need the defense to play more consistently and produce more big plays if the club hopes to become the first team to play in the Super Bowl on its home field. The Saints have a veteran team and are built to win now, but their leadership will be challenged early. The losses of Payton, Vitt, Vilma and Smith will be tough to overcome, but they are manageable for a team as talented and experienced as the Saints. Their status as playoff contenders remains unchanged. A fourth consecutive double-digit win season is achievable.
Related: 2012 New Orleans Saints Schedule Analysis
Outside The Huddle
The impact of the bounty scandal on the Saints’ personnel might be tough to sort through. Here’s a rundown of who was punished by the NFL: Head coach Sean Payton and linebacker Jonathan Vilma are suspended for the season. General Manager Mickey Loomis is suspended for the first eight games. Assistant head coach/linebacker coach Joe Vitt will be suspended for the first six games of the season and will be the interim head coach upon his return on Oct. 28 at Denver. Offensive line coach Aaron Kromer will be the head coach in place of Vitt through the first six games. Payton’s suspension began before the NFL Draft in April, while the suspensions for Loomis and Vitt will begin following the preseason. Vilma was not the only player suspended, but he faces the harshest punishment. Current Saints defensive end Will Smith (four games) and former Saints defensive end Anthony Hargrove (eight games, now with Green Bay) and linebacker Scott Fujita (three games, now with Cleveland) also face suspension to start the season. Former Saints defensive coordinator Gregg Williams, who was hired by St. Louis before the bounty system was revealed, is suspended indefinitely.
Payton has cultivated a number of celebrity friends during his tenure as Saints coach. Among them: Jimmy Buffett, who showed his support for the embattled head coach during the offseason, appearing at a Final Four concert in a “Free Sean Payton” T-shirt. At his Jazz Festival show in May, he tweaked the lyrics to his hit “Margaritaville”: “Some people say that Sean Payton’s to blame, but I know, it’s all Roger Goodell’s fault.”
It was a busy offseason for 85-year-old owner Tom Benson, who shocked everyone by purchasing the NBA’s New Orleans Hornets in April. Benson is the only person to own an NBA and NFL team in the same market. His first order of business is to re-brand the team. Among other things, Benson wants a more colloquial nickname.
Center Brian de la Puente and fullback Jed Collins are tight friends. How tight? Collins became a licensed minister and officiated the wedding ceremony for de la Puente and his wife Makenzie in 2011.
Off The Clock
The Saints didn’t have a first- or second-round draft choice for the first time in history. They traded their first-round pick in the 2011 draft to New England in a deal to acquire Mark Ingram. This year’s second-round pick was stripped by commissioner Roger Goodell in the bounty scandal.
The Saints set 10 NFL records during their 2011 season, all on offense. Among them: Most yards (7,474), net passing yards (5,347), highest passing percentage (71.3), pass completions (472), first downs (416), passing first downs (280), fewest fumbles (six) and third down conversion rate (56.7 percent).
Guard Ben Grubbs was acquired to replace Carl Nicks as the starter at left guard. Grubbs has the bulk and lower-body strength to anchor the interior wall in pass protection yet is athletic enough to pull on traps and screens, two staples of Sean Payton’s offense.
2012 Athlon Sports NFL Power Rankings and Team Previews:
No. 32:Jacksonville Jaguars
No. 31:St. Louis Rams
No. 30:Minnesota Vikings
No. 29:Indianapolis Colts
No. 28:Cleveland Browns
No. 27:Miami Dolphins
No. 26:Arizona Cardinals
No. 25:Tampa Bay Buccaneers
No. 24:Kansas City Chiefs
No. 23:Oakland Raiders
No. 22: Washington Redskins
No. 21:Seattle Seahawks
No. 20: Carolina Panthers
No. 19:New York Jets
No. 18:Buffalo Bills
No. 17:Tennessee Titans
No. 16:San Diego Chargers
No. 15:Cincinnati Bengals
No. 14:Philadelphia Eagles
No. 13:New Orleans Saints
No. 12: Thur., August 15, 2012
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Related: 2012 New Orleans Saints Schedule Analysis