State of the Franchise
2012 was truly a forgettable season for the Saints. Lacking the leadership of coach Sean Payton, who was suspended for the entire campaign for his role in the infamous pay-for-performance scandal, New Orleans started the season losing its first four games. Though the team managed to claw back to 5-5, an ensuing three-game slide ended any hopes of a fourth straight playoff appearance.
Though the offense took an expected step back from its record-setting performance in 2011, the team still finished third in the NFL in scoring. Despite a healthy 19 interceptions, QB Drew Brees cracked the 5,000-yard barrier for the second straight season and threw for 43 touchdowns. Wideouts Marques Colston and Lance Moore likewise posted huge seasons, each recording more than 1,000 receiving yards, and TE Jimmy Graham continued to show why he's one of the bright young stars in the league, with 85 catches and nine touchdowns.
The Saints will bring back most of their key offensive parts, and though they didn't re-sign veteran WR Devery Henderson and traded RB Chris Ivory to the Jets, there are plenty of options to replace their lost production. WR Joseph Morgan emerged as an impressive deep threat, and last season's third-round pick Nick Toon is healthy after missing all of last season with a foot injury. Additionally, Mark Ingram seems poised for a breakout after finishing last season strong, and fellow running backs Pierre Thomas and Darren Sproles should also see plenty of opportunities, particularly in the passing game.
While the Saints' offense held its own, the defense was historically bad, setting the NFL record for most yards allowed in a single season. As a result, the team fired defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo after just one season, replacing him with former Cowboys' coordinator Rob Ryan. Under Ryan, the Saints will make the drastic switch to a 3-4 defense with the hopes of improving an anemic pass rush. With that goal in mind, the Saints signed LB Victor Butler, fresh off a 2012 breakout campaign, but unfortunately he tore his ACL during June OTAs. In addition, Ryan plans to experiment with DE Will Smith at outside linebacker. To address the secondary, the Saints added CB Keenan Lewis via free agency and S Kenny Vaccaro in the first round of the draft. Capable of playing both safety positions, Vaccaro could push Roman Harper or Malcolm Jenkins for playing time immediately.
With a feeling in New Orleans that the Saints received a raw deal with the significant penalties imposed on the team, particularly the suspensions of offensive coordinator Joe Vitt and Payton, revenge and redemption seem to be the themes heading into the 2013 season. If the Saints defense can, at the very least, return to a respectable level, the team should once again contend for the division title.
Benjamin Watson - TE, Browns
Gives the team a proven veteran option with pass-catching skills to work behind Jimmy Graham.
Victor Butler - LB, Cowboys
Came over from Dallas along with coordinator Rob Ryan, but tore his ACL in OTAs.
Kenny Vaccaro - S, Texas
(Round 1, 15th overall)
His selection puts both Roman Harper and Malcolm Jenkins on notice.
Kenny Stills - WR, Oklahoma
(Round 5, 144th overall)
Was productive in college and could emerge as a threat for playing time with a strong preseason.
Keenan Lewis - CB, Steelers
Should form a solid tandem with Jabari Greer, while likely supplanting Patrick Robinson.
Chris Ivory - RB, Jets
Showed flashes when given opportunities, but was often a forgotten man in a crowded Saints' backfield.
Devery Henderson - WR, REDSKINS
A fantasy tease for a number of years with his home run ability, the Saints finally parted ways with the inconsistent receiver.
JERMON BUSHROD - OT, Bears
Though not elite, he was effective in protecting Drew Brees' blindside.
AND THEN THERE WERE THREE…
Following the jettisoning of Chris Ivory to the Jets, the Saints' backfield picture, at first blush, appears less murky than any year in recent memory. After reclaiming his starting gig from Pierre Thomas midway through last season, former first-rounder Mark Ingram would seem to be the undisputed alpha dog in the backfield entering 2013. Yet, Ingram rushed for a mere 602 yards in 2012, averaging a pedestrian 3.9 yards per carry. Thomas, meanwhile, is coming off arguably his worst season as a pro in which he scored only two touchdowns in 15 games. However, Thomas has averaged 4.8 yards per carry over his six-year career and has typically thrived under coach Sean Payton in the passing game. Ingram should see the majority of the carries, but if he struggles, the Saints have shown no qualms about flipping the distribution. And then there's Darren Sproles, who set the NFL record for total yards in 2011 under Payton. He was somewhat of a disappointment in 2012 though, as the Saints struggled to incorporate him as effectively in the offense. With a full year off to game-plan, expect Payton to find a way to get the ball back in the dynamic Sproles' hands on a more consistent basis, particularly as a receiver.
For the first time in years, there is some intrigue at the top of the Saints' receiver depth chart. The team returns two of its key cogs, in the uber-consistent Marques Colston and slot dynamo Lance Moore. Yet with the Saints letting nine-year veteran Devery Henderson walk via free agency, the starting spot opposite Colston is wide open. After seeing significant playing time in 2012, former undrafted free agent Joseph Morgan has to be considered the favorite to win the job. While Morgan possesses elite speed, his route running and hands could use polish. Coincidentally, those are two areas in which Morgan's likely biggest competition, Nick Toon, excels. Toon has the pedigree, size and hands to be a serious threat, especially in the red zone, but will need to show he can stay healthy after missing the entire 2012 season. With an inexperienced group fighting for such a critical roster spot on a team that prides itself on its offensive production, there also exists the chance that the Saints could sign a veteran prior to the season or that a long-shot candidate such as fifth-round pick Kenny Stills emerges during training camp. While the winner of the position battle will still likely fall in line behind Colston and Moore for looks, any starting wideout in the Saints' explosive offense is well worth a hard look on draft day.
Rising: 2013 sets up as a make-or-break year for former Heisman Trophy winner Mark Ingram, who should receive the bulk of the team's carries, particularly around the goal line.
Declining: Marques Colston caught 10 touchdown passes in 2012, a feat he has only accomplished one other time. With a fully healthy Jimmy Graham, some regression can be expected.
Sleeper: Joseph Morgan showed as a rookie that he could chase down a deep ball. With more consistency, he could post big numbers with Drew Brees spreading the wealth.
Supersleeper: Nick Toon was essentially red-shirted in 2012, but if he can beat out Morgan for a starting gig, he's a legitimate red zone threat.
CURTIS LOFTON - LB
Has recorded more than 115 tackles in each of the last four years.
CAMERON JORDAN - DE
Had a breakthrough sophomore campaign with eight sacks. Can he keep the momentum going?
Malcolm Jenkins - S
Posted a career-high 94 tackles but only one pick, and the selection of Vaccaro puts him in danger of losing playing time.
RotoWire Rank: 32