The Saints enter the 2013 season as one of the most mysterious — and potentially dangerous — teams in the NFL. Are they the one-dimensional 7–9 squad that allowed an NFL-record 7,042 yards last season? Or the formidable 13–3 unit that set an NFL record for most yards gained in a season in 2011? The truth falls somewhere between the two extremes.
Coach Sean Payton’s swagger and offensive creativity should return the edge to the sideline and locker room. So should the arrival of defensive coordinator Rob Ryan, who has installed a pressure-based 3-4 defense. But whether the Saints have enough to keep pace with rising NFC powers San Francisco, Atlanta and Seattle remains to be seen. One way or another, we know they won’t be boring.
Athlon Sports NFC Power Ranking: 6th
As long as Drew Brees is under center, the Saints will have a puncher’s chance against anyone. Brees is the great equalizer for a team with a shaky defense and inconsistent running game. He spearheads an offense that has ranked first or second in total yards in five of the past seven seasons. The consummate field general, Brees understands every facet of Payton’s sophisticated offense and consistently keeps the Saints a step ahead of the defense with astute pre-snap reads and audibles. His anticipation, accuracy and pocket awareness rank among the best in the NFL. Indeed, Brees’ greatest strength might also be his biggest weakness. He can be interception-prone because he sometimes forces ill-advised throws.
Payton wants to re-establish the running game and become more physical up front. Mark Ingram should be the beneficiary of this renewed emphasis. The former first-round draft pick runs with power and balance and rarely is tackled by the first defender. It’ll be interesting to see if he can regain the acceleration and explosiveness he showed before injuries ended his rookie season in 2011. Payton plans to put the ball in Ingram’s hands more often this season. Pierre Thomas does a little bit of everything but lacks a special quality. He’ll continue to work his way into the rotation and make plays, especially on screens. The diminutive Darren Sproles makes plays as a runner and receiver whenever he touches the ball in space.
For the third consecutive year, the front line will have to find a replacement for a departing Pro Bowler. Jermon Bushrod’s departure in free agency leaves a gaping hole at left tackle. Former second-round draft pick Charles Brown will get the first crack at the starting spot, but the staff is high on rookie Terron Armstead. Both are excellent athletes who lack experience and prototypical bulk and power. When healthy, Brown has played well in cameo appearances. Reclamation project Jason Smith is the fallback option. The rest of the line returns intact, led by road-grader guards Jahri Evans and Ben Grubbs.
The receiving corps lacks a superstar talent but is versatile and deep. Marques Colston doesn’t possess prototypical speed but has excellent hands and body control. Few players make more clutch catches. Lance Moore is expected to assume Devery Henderson’s starting receiver spot. He’s one of Brees’ favorite targets in the red zone, where he uses his quickness and field vision to find seams in opposing zones and move the chains. Joe Morgan, who the Saints were hoping to utilize his big-play ability, tore his ACL during training camp, putting more pressure on second-year wideout Nick Toon and rookie Kenny Stills to contribute this season. Tight end Jimmy Graham is a freakishly talented athlete who uses his 6'7" frame to make big plays in the middle of the field and in the red zone.
Ryan’s pressure 3-4 scheme will be a welcome change for the Saints defenders, who never appeared to buy into Steve Spagnuolo’s complicated system. The Saints have invested a number of high draft picks on defensive players in recent years and need a few of them to enjoy breakout seasons if the team is to rejoin the NFC elite.
Up front, the search for a pass rush continues. Defensive end Cameron Jordan assumes the mantle as the top pass-rusher with Will Smith on the tail end of his career. Jordan lacks elite strength and explosiveness but is a solid technician who knows how to use his long arms to keep blockers at bay. Smith is expected to hold down the other end spot. The 32-year-old vet is smart, tough and reliable, but he’s no longer a double-digit pass-rushing threat.
Instead, the Saints will look to outside linebackers Victor Butler, Junior Galette and Martez Wilson to bring the heat on opposing quarterbacks. Butler is undersized but is strong and explosive off the edge and will get first crack to start on the right side. Galette will have to make the transition to linebacker but has the burst and acceleration to be a double-digit pass-rush threat off the edge. The lanky Wilson needs to turn his flashes of ability into production.
Defensive tackle Brodrick Bunkley was a disappointment as the interior run-stuffer and could be replaced by massive rookie John Jenkins. Inside linebackers Curtis Lofton and Jonathan Vilma form the heart of the defense. Both are smart, instinctive leaders. Vilma did undergo surgery on his knee during training camp, but the hope is he will be ready to play by Week 1.
Finding cornerbacks who can hold up in man-to-man coverage is critical to Ryan’s pressure packages. Jabari Greer thrived in Gregg Williams’ old system but struggled in 2012. He’s an excellent athlete but might have lost a step. The signing of cornerback Keenan Lewis is an indictment of Patrick Robinson, a former first-round draft pick who struggled in his first full season as a starter. Lewis has the size and speed Ryan likes. Safeties Malcolm Jenkins and Roman Harper are looking to rebound after subpar 2012 campaigns. Harper’s ball skills are rudimentary, and he’s become a popular target in coverage for opposing quarterbacks. That’s where rookie Kenny Vaccaro comes in. The athletic combo safety from Texas will see the field early in passing situations and could be the Saints’ answer to defending opposing tight ends.
Punter Thomas Morstead and placekicker Garrett Hartley form a solid one-two punch. Morstead finally earned his first Pro Bowl berth. He has a powerful leg and is a master at directional punts and rugby-style backspin kicks. Hartley is solid but might have lost some range last year after his knee injury. The elusive Sproles had a terrible season on punt returns. Courtney Roby is a standout on kickoff returns and as the gunner in punt coverage.
Final Analysis: 2nd in NFC South
How bad was the Saints’ defense in 2012? The Saints ranked third in scoring offense and second in total offense and still finished just 7–9. If the Saints can make modest strides under Ryan, a return to the playoffs is not just possible — it’s likely. But that’s a major question considering the club’s history of struggles on that side of the ball. The Saints appear to lack the defensive firepower to challenge the NFC elite, but they’ll undoubtedly be a factor in the race. And as always, they’ll be one of the most entertaining teams in the league.
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2013 Athlon Sports NFL Team Previews:
New England (8/30)
NY Giants (8/30)
Green Bay (8/29)
San Francisco (9/3)