NFL Team Previews: New Orleans Saints

The New Orleans Saints rolled into last year’s playoffs as an offensive juggernaut and had they not inexplicably led San Francisco’s Alex Smith beat them on late drives not once but twice in divisional round it’s very fair to think New Orleans would have beaten the Giants at home for the NFC Championship and then beaten New England in the Super Bowl. Instead, the defense fell apart. Then it all came apart in the offseason, as the fallout from Bountygate came down hard. Head coach Sean Payton has been suspended for the season, and interim coach Joe Vitti is suspended for the first six games. Key defensive players in end Wil Smith and linebacker Jonathan Vilma will miss a good chunk of the season. TheSportsNotebook previews the Saints as they try and pick up the pieces…

OFFENSE: Drew Brees is coming off a record-setting year at quarterback where he threw for over 5,400 yards, and had a TD/INT ratio of 46-14. Brees truly makes this offense go—while wide receiver Marques Colston is a solid #1 option and Jimmy Graham a good tight end, it’s not as though the Saints are stacked with receivers. The quarterback is the one who makes it happen, which makes it even more difficult to understand why the front office messed around with him in contract negotiations this summer.

New Orleans is hoping that Mark Ingram, the 2009 Heisman Trophy winner at Alabama and first-round draft pick in 2010, can be the featured back. I have my doubts if Ingram is shifty enough to be a premier back, but there’s no doubt he’s got the bulk and the Saints have Pierre Thomas to offer a contrast in styles. Then you add in the magnificent Darren Sproles, who can catch the ball out of the backfield as well as anyone, and New Orleans has a good package of backs. The offensive line isn’t bad, but nor is it a strength. Jermon Bushrod is certainly not what you want as far as a blind-side protector of an elite quarterback and the center spot is a liability. Where New Orleans is strong is at the guards, with Jahri Evans leading the way.

DEFENSE: For a team that uses a 4-3 alignment, New Orleans has rather pedestrian talent up front. Will Smith and Cameron Jordan only combined for 7.5 sacks a year ago. In a 4-3, you’d like to see individual ends come up with at least their number, and Smith—who got all but one of those sacks—is suspended for the first four games. The interior of the line doesn’t get a pass rush, but Broderick Bunkley and Sedrick Ellis do a respectable job anchoring against the run.

The linebackers are a good group, with Curtis Lofton steady in the middle and David Hawthorne a solid presence on the weak side. What happens with the Vilma situation will tell us about the other spot. The strong side linebacker, for whom the team has no adequate replacement, is suing the league regarding his eight-game suspension and the half-hearted response of the NFL seems to indicate the league thinks the player has a case. My guess is Vilma could get the suspension reduced right now, although the player, who feels his reputation has been maligned is going for all-out victory, so the whole drama is still unfolding.

Jabari Greer is still a solid corner at age 30, and young Patrick Robinson is improving on the other side. The one thing this secondary doesn’t have is a truly elite player, and Robinson is the one both young and talented enough to change that if he can keep improving. Safety Malcolm Jenkins has great range and speed as he patrols centerfield. Roman Harper is not ideal at strong safety, but he’s functionable.

LAS VEGAS OVER/UNDER: 9.5—The Saints have hit double-digits in wins for three straight years, with two of those being 13-3 seasons, including last year. The number is the obvious consequence of the Bountygate fallout. This number is reasonable, but I’m still going Under. As good as Brees is, repeating his 2011 numbers will be impossible and with the team being average at best in both lines, I’m not sold on their ability to win a lot of games without an MVP-caliber season from the quarterback. And that’s before we get into the suspensions, instability and general psychological fallout. I don’t see New Orleans going back to the playoffs.