STATE OF THE FRANCHISE
While the 2011-2012 season ended in heartbreak to San Francisco in the NFC Divisional Round, that was just the prelude to one of the most tumultuous offseasons in NFL history. First, the Saints were forced to place their franchise tag on All-Pro quarterback Drew Brees. This paled in comparison to the pay-for-pain bounty scandal that broke a few weeks into the offseason. As a result of “Bountygate,” head coach Sean Payton and linebacker Jonathan Vilma were both suspended for the entire 2012 season; GM Mickey Loomis received an eight-game suspension; assistant head coach Joe Vitt (who will replace Payton as interim head coach upon finishing his suspension) was docked six games; and DE Will Smith will miss four games. In addition, the team received a hefty fine and forfeited its 2012 and 2013 second-round picks.
On the heels of the bounty scandal, the Saints have now been accused of violating federal wiretapping laws (and NFL competitive bylaws) by recording opposing coaches' radio communications during the 2002-2004 seasons.
Despite all the troubles, there is plenty of reason for optimism. Though he still has not signed a new contract, Brees is in line to once again lead the Saints' high-powered attack. It's easy to forget with all the offseason drama that last year Brees shattered Dan Marino's NFL record for passing yards in a single season, throwing for an incredible 5,476 yards with 46 touchdowns, while completing passes at a record-setting clip of 71.2 percent. The Saints will also return Brees' favorite target, WR Marques Colston, who hauled in 80 passes for 1,143 yards and eight touchdowns despite missing two games with injuries. Moreover, the Saints witnessed the emergence of the next great basketball-player-turned-tight-end, Jimmy Graham, who exploded for 99 catches, 1,310 yards and 11 touchdowns in only his second year as a pro, and do-it-all RB Darren Sproles, who broke the NFL single-season record with 2,696 all-purpose yards.
The defensive side of the ball is where the Saints saw the most turnover this offseason. In addition to the season-long suspension of Vilma, the Saints let disappointing DTs Aubrayo Franklin and Shaun Rogers walk, and starting CB Tracy Porter departed for Denver. To replace Franklin and Rogers, the Saints added DT Brodrick Bunkley, and will hand the starting CB spot to former first round pick Patrick Robinson. Most importantly, the Saints added a trio of linebackers who all could be starting by September: Curtis Lofton, David Hawthorne, and Chris Chamberlain. These additions, along with tackle-machine SS Roman Harper and the budding star FS Malcolm Jenkins in the secondary, should help the Saints feature a much-improved defense in 2012.
Nick Toon, WR, Wisconsin (Round 4, 122nd overall)
Good hands. Great pedigree (son of former NFL star Al Toon). But can he separate from coverage?
Curtis Lofton, LB (Falcons)
Coming off a huge year in Atlanta (147 tackles in 2011) and will step right into Jonathan Vilma's MLB spot.
David Hawthorne, LB (Seahawks)
Another big defensive upgrade (115 tackles in 2011); expected to start at OLB alongside Lofton.
Brodrick Bunkley, DT (Broncos)
Saints expect him to shut down the run, an area where 2011 offseason additions Shaun Rogers and Aubrayo Franklin failed.
Robert Meachem, WR (Chargers)
After four up-and-down years in the Big Easy, the Saints let the former first-round pick walk, clearing the way for Adrian Arrington to step up.
Tracy Porter, CB (Broncos)
Departure of Super Bowl XLIV hero could leave a big hole in the secondary if Patrick Robinson isn't ready.
Carl Nicks, G (Buccaneers)
Loss of the All-Pro guard is huge, but mitigated by addition of Pro Bowler Ben Grubbs.
Jonathan Vilma, LB
Will Smith, DE (Suspended)
Pending appeal, Vilma will miss all of 2012, and Smith the first six games, for their respective roles in Bountygate.
THE MAN, THE MYTH, AND THE LEGEND
2011 first-round pick Mark Ingram was expected to finally give the Saints the bell cow running back the team had lacked in seasons past. Unfortunately, he averaged an underwhelming 3.9 yards per tote and missed significant chunks of the year with various ailments. Still, Ingram led the team in carries (122) despite appearing in only 10 games, and should have every opportunity to improve on last season's disappointment once he bounces back from offseason arthroscopic knee surgery. Meanwhile, Pierre Thomas averaged an impressive 5.1 yards per carry and often looked to be the best back on the field. However, the Saints have made it clear that they do not ever plan on entrusting him with an Adrian Peterson-esque workload. Enter Darren Sproles. The 5-6 dynamo exploded in his first year in New Orleans. Sproles put up huge stats in standard leagues (603 yards rushing, 710 receiving, with nine total TDs) while delighting his PPR owners with 86 catches. While his overall numbers may see a slight decline, especially with offensive mastermind/head coach Sean Payton suspended for the season, he just may be the safest of all the Saints running backs given Drew Brees' proclivity to feed him the ball early and often.
Jimmy Graham broke Kellen Winslow's tight end record for receiving yards (before New England's Rob Gronkowski passed him), gaining 1,310 yards on 99 receptions and scoring 11 touchdowns. While Graham's 2011 campaign was one for the record books, there may be reason to pause in 2012 given his substantial draft price. After averaging a whopping 88 yards per game and 15 yards per catch over his first eight games, those numbers dipped to 75 yards per game and 12 yards per catch as defenses shifted coverage to the young tight end. Still, Graham is only 25 years old and has only played competitive football for three full seasons after playing hoops in college, so there is room for continued growth.
As a result of the enigmatic Robert Meachem's departure, a coveted starting spot on one of the most prolific offenses in the NFL is up for grabs. Veteran Devery Henderson will get the first shot to start opposite Marques Colston. However, after gaining 265 yards in his first three games last year, Henderson caught only 20 passes and averaged 18.3 yards per game over the final 13 weeks. Lance Moore, meanwhile, had a solid year, gaining 627 yards on 52 catches and scoring eight touchdowns, but is much better served operating out of the slot in three-receiver formations. Thus, the real sleepers to watch will be Adrian Arrington and Nick Toon. Arrington has all of nine career catches, but at 6-3 he is a big red zone target and has shown the ability to make tough catches if he can stay healthy. Like Arrington, Toon is also 6-3 and could see action early if either Arrington or Henderson struggles to stay on the field.
RISING: Darren Sproles came over from San Diego to catch a whopping 86 passes and accumulate 1,313 yards from scrimmage with nine touchdowns. Good things happen when Sproles has the ball.
DECLINING: In his seventh year, Devery Henderson had only 32 grabs for 503 yards and scored two touchdowns, modest numbers in an offense this explosive.
SLEEPER: Adrian Arrington has been featured in this spot before, but with Meachem gone, only the aging Devery Henderson stands between the talented Arrington and a starting spot in the prolific Saints' offense.
SUPERSLEEPER: Nick Toon has a big body and solid hands to go with an NFL pedigree. Should injuries strike the WR corps, Toon could become a Drew Brees favorite.
Curtis Lofton, LB
147-tackle season in Atlanta last year and should fill in nicely for the suspended Jonathan Vilma.
Roman Harper, S
Escaped punishment in the bounty scandal and motivated to build on 95-tackle, 7.5-sack season.
David Hawthorne, LB
Three straight years of 100+ tackles; will likely start at
RotoWire Rank: 28