STATE OF THE FRANCHISE
Maybe it was the infamous "Super Bowl Hangover" after a few too many Hurricanes at Pat O'Brien's, but the Saints became the latest team to fail to repeat as champions after falling to Seattle in last year's NFC Divisional Round. The Saints again coupled their trademark explosive offense with an opportunistic defense, but were unable to recapture the magic that led to the franchise's first Super Bowl trophy in 2009. Specifically, the team's shortcomings can be blamed on an inconsistent run game, an inability to stop opposing ball carriers and fluster opposing quarterbacks, and Drew Brees' knee troubles.
In 2009, the Saints' three-headed monster of Pierre Thomas, Mike Bell and Reggie Bush combined to finish in the top ten in the NFL in rushing yards. With Bell no longer in the fold and Thomas and Bush missing significant time with injuries, head coach Sean Payton essentially abandoned the run, leaving quarterback Drew Brees to do most of the heavy lifting. This year, only Thomas returns as the Saints added former Heisman Trophy winner Mark Ingram in the first round of the NFL Draft and replaced Bush with the elusive Darren Sproles via free agency in an effort to restore the flame in the run game. A healthy ground attack should do wonders for Brees, who competed last year with a sprained MCL. Although Brees did not miss any games and still posted a whopping 33 touchdowns, he struggled to the tune of a career-high 22 interceptions. Healthy again, Brees should thrive with a more reliable run game taking pressure off of him.
Defensively, the Saints successfully masked their deficiencies in 2009 by finishing second in the NFL in takeaways under defensive coordinator Gregg Williams' aggressive scheme. While the defense actually improved significantly in yards allowed, the team regressed towards the mean in takeaways. Injuries hit the secondary hard, but more significant were the failures of the pass rush, which managed only 33 sacks. Unable to pressure opposing quarterbacks, Williams resorted to blitzing more, a tactic inconsistent with his philosophy of swarming ball-carriers to force fumbles and aggressive secondary play focused on producing interceptions. To address these woes, the Saints added dynamic DT's Shaun Rodgers and Aubrayo Franklin and young DE Turk McBride via free agency. They also nabbed DE Cameron Jordan and LB Martez Wilson in the first and third rounds of the Draft, respectively.
The NFL schedule makers did the Saints no favors despite the team's first round flameout. Drew Brees and Co. will kick off the 2011 season on the road against the defending champion Packers. Ten days later, the Saints host a tough Bears squad before Peyton Manning and the Colts pay a visit in October. This is in addition to six tough games against NFC South teams, including two each against reigning division champ Atlanta, hungry Tampa Bay (10-6 in 2010), and young-but-talented Carolina led by top overall pick Cam Newton. The Saints clearly have the talent to make another Super Bowl run but will need to improve on their 2010 form if they wish to celebrate on Bourbon Street once again.
Round, Overall, Player
1. (24) Cameron Jordan, DE, California
Likely to start immediately in an attempt to improve anemic pass rush.
1. (28) Mark Ingram, RB, Alabama
Former Heisman Trophy winner will enter an already crowded backfield, but should have opportunity to contribute immediately.
3. (72) Martez Wilson, LB, Illinois
Blazing speed, but lapses at times caused stock to fall. Blame Ron Zook? Could start at OLB.
3. (88) Johnny Patrick, CB, Louisville
Skilled ball hawk, but Saints already loaded at cornerback.
7. (226) Greg Romeus, DE, Pittsburgh
Physical beast could be steal if he recovers from knee injuries.
7. (243) Nate Bussey, LB, Illinois
Special Teams Player of the Year at Illinois last year. A Senior on special teams? Yikes.
Darren Sproles, RB (Chargers)
Reggie Bush 2.0.
Aubrayo Franklin, DT (49ers)
Will team with Sedrick Ellis and Shaun Rogers to form one of most feared DT rotations in NFL.
Shaun Rogers, DT (Browns)
See above: Franklin, Aubrayo.
Reggie Bush, RB (Dolphins)
Bust or not? May finally have the chance to be The Man in Miami.
Remi Ayodele, DT (Vikings)
37 tackles in 2010, but expendable with DT acquisitions.
Heath Evans, FB (FA)
Versatile fullback who scored four touchdowns in last two years.
Julius Jones, RB (FA)
Mid-year acquisition was unproductive in limited action as injury replacement.
RUNNING BACK ROULETTE
Head coach Sean Payton's handling of his running backs is truly an enigma for fantasy owners. It would be foolish to expect anything different this year. The Saints traded back into the first round in the 2011 NFL Draft to pick former Heisman Trophy winner Mark Ingram. While Ingram is a talented workhorse in the mold of Emmitt Smith, he enters a crowded and capable backfield. Pierre Thomas averaged 10 touchdowns and over five yards per carry between 2008 and 2009, but was hit hard by the injury bug last year. His absence opened the door for unheralded rookie Chris Ivory to shine (716 yards in 12 games). And if those three weren't enough, the Saints replaced the versatile Reggie Bush with the equally adroit Darren Sproles. It seems likely Thomas and Ingram will likely split most of the carries, with Sproles serving as the third down "scat back," but with any Payton-coached team, who will blow up on a given week is truly a roll of the dice.
ALL BREES-Y IN THE BIG EASY
Drew Brees had his worst statistical year as a Saint in 2010 (33 touchdowns but a whopping 22 interceptions), failing to live up to his lofty draft position (2010 ADP: 11.84). By no means was Brees terrible, but the interceptions were not what fantasy owners have come to expect from the all-world quarterback. Brees consistently downplayed the significance of his knee injury suffered in Week 3, but it clearly affected his level of play. Completely healthy entering 2011, owners should expect a return to pre-2010 form. This is particularly true given the fact that Brees successfully organized numerous player-only workouts during the lockout, ensuring that he will be on the same page as his receivers and running backs while most teams struggle to get their timing down in a shortened training camp.
RETURN OF THE HEAVY LUNCH BUNCH
Last year, the Saints finished in the bottom half of the NFL by recording only 33 sacks, despite the addition of proven defensive ends Alex Brown and Jimmy Wilkerson. Surprisingly, it was defensive tackle Sedrick Ellis who led the team with six sacks. To address the deficiency, the Saints brought in DTs Shaun Rodgers and Aubrayo Franklin and DE Turk McBride via free agency, and drafted DE Cameron Jordan in the first round of the NFL Draft. Rodgers, Ellis and Franklin should form one of the most fearsome interior rotations in the league and Jordan and McBride will have a chance to start immediately, especially with Will Smith likely to serve a four-game suspension to start the year. With the new additions, players such as Roman Harper and Jonathan Vilma will be asked to blitz less and should be able to improve on their 2010 numbers, particularly in the turnover department. To put it simply, the additions to the defense give aggressive defensive coordinator Gregg Williams a bunch of shiny new toys to play with in 2011, which will hopefully lead to a return to a 2009-level of success (39 takeaways, seven defensive touchdowns).
Rising: Jimmy Graham came on strong in the final eight games last year (307 yards, five touchdowns), enough to earn the former basketball star the starting gig.
Declining: Robert Meachem was remarkably inconsistent following his breakout second half in 2009. Expect a similar story given the Saints' numerous offensive options.
Sleeper: Pierre Thomas. Many have already anointed rookie Mark Ingram the starter, but Thomas averaged 5.1 yards per carry, 35 catches and 10 touchdowns in 2008 and 2009.
Supersleeper: Adrian Arrington is a huge talent and red zone threat. Should injuries strike the WR corps, Arrington could become a Drew Brees favorite.
Jonathan Vilma, LB
Stats have slid last few years but Vilma still the captain of the Saints' defense.
Roman Harper, S
Tackle machine has thrived under defensive coordinator Gregg Williams.
Malcolm Jenkins, S
Entering his second full year at the safety position, expect Jenkins to improve on 2010 numbers (64 tackles, two interceptions).
RotoWire Rank: 14