32 Teams in 32 Days: New Orleans Saints
The New Orleans Saints finally won a Super Bowl following the 2009 season but only have one playoff win since. In 2012, not only did they miss the postseason, but their organization was engulfed in the Bountygate scandal, which resulted in Sean Payton being suspended for the year. They didn’t even finish with a .500 record. The Saints should contend for the competitive NFC South this season, but even with Payton’s return to the sidelines, can they fix up what was a historically bad defense last year?
Five Reasons to be Confident
1. Back to Normal
Despite winning seven games in 2011 (some teams have trouble consistently winning four games), the Saints’ 2012 season was a black eye for the organization. The Bountygate scandal had several repercussions for the team, the most devastating being the suspension of head coach Sean Payton. The Saints named linebackers coach Joe Vitt as the interim head coach, even though Vitt himself was also suspended, albeit for only six games. That left offensive line coach Aaron Kromer to lead for the first six games, and during their 0-4 start. Payton’s great offensive mind and fiery leadership can’t be explained by stats, but they will certainly be welcomed back this season. One of the first things the coach who learned from Bill Parcells did upon his return was fire defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo, whose defense set a new precedent in yards allowed. Sean Payton is back.
2. Drew Brees is Still a Top QB
Drew Brees was tied for most interceptions thrown in 2012 with Tony Romo (19), but he’s still one of the best signal-callers in the business. Since we started watching every play of every game in 2008, Brees’ lowest TD total was 33 (in 2010) and from ’08 to now he’s received our seventh-best, third-best, fifth-best, best, and last year our second-best passing grade. The man is a machine and, despite missing the postseason last year, still left his imprint on the league by breaking Johnny Unitas’ record of 47 consecutive games with a TD pass. Brees only failed to throw a scoring pass in one game last year. He is getting older, but, especially with Payton back, there’s no reason to think he won’t be one of the top five QBs again this season.
3. Junior Galette and Martez Wilson Will Play More
While the Saints’ defense may still struggle to consistently generate pressure on opposing QBs, it probably won’t be because of Junior Galette and Martez Wilson, both of whom will be outside LBs in the new scheme. While most of the defense flopped last season, this pair combined for eight sacks, 11 QB hits, and 35 hurries. Galette, a 2009 undrafted free agent, earned his own ‘Secret Superstar’ article for his 2012 efforts and won’t have to lose snaps to Cameron Jordan, who will be a 3-4 defensive end. Wilson was another nice surprise and came up with some big plays, including taking maximum advantage of a hobbled Jared Gaither to get a game-clinching strip-sack of Philip Rivers. He played some LB last season and should challenge Will Smith for the other starting spot.
4. Jimmy Graham
Despite playing only 712 snaps (30th among tight ends), Jimmy Graham had the third-most yards (982) and tied for fourth with Kyle Rudolph in TDs grabs (nine) among all tight ends. The former basketball player is a star, and his mysterious disappearance on NFL’s Top 100 players was questioned by many. He did have a nagging wrist injury that led to a league-high 15 drops among tight ends (and only Wes Welker had more in the league), but with his production it is a forgivable sin.
5. Solid Guards
While the New Orleans’ tackles are not exactly elite, the guard spots are solidly cemented with Jahri Evans and ex-Raven Ben Grubbs. Both were reliable run blockers, especially Grubbs who could be downright nasty when he got to the second level. Perhaps more importantly, this talented duo only allowed Brees to hit the ground 11 times (and Evans didn’t allow a single sack) and finished as our sixth- (Grubbs) and eighth- (Evans) best overall guards in 2012. Over the last five years, Brees’ rated a -5.2 versus interior pressure so Evans and Grubbs are money well spent.
Five Reasons to be Concerned
1. WR Depth
The Saints have a lot of offensive weapons, but they did lose some firepower this offseason. Devery Henderson was the tenured, if inconsistent, deep threat, but he’s been released. Third-year wideout Joe Morgan was supposed to fill Henderson’s spot after averaging 37.9 yards-per-catch in 2012 and making one of the most astonishing scoring catches of the year in Week 7 at Tampa Bay. However, Morgan, like many other players in the past few weeks, suffered a season-ending knee injury in training camp. Behind dependable pass-catchers Marques Colston and Lance Moore is a void that the Saints have tried to fill by signing Steve Breaston and Patrick Crayton. Journeyman Breaston dealt with knee issues last season with Kansas City while only catching seven passes for 74 yards; he also dropped three passes. Crayton is perhaps best known for his horrible drop in the Cowboys’ home playoff loss to the Giants years ago and wasn’t in the NFL last season. The previous year Crayton spent with the Chargers found him collecting under 250 yards receiving with more drops (four) than TDs (one). There’s also Courtney Roby, but he’s mostly been a special teams player and only has a drop and two catches for 15 yards in the past five years. Rookie fifth-round pick Kenny Stills may need to contribute immediately.
2. The New Defense
The Saints’ defense in 2012 was a disgrace, ranked dead last in the league, and ‘achieved’ the feat of allowing the most yards in a single season in league history (7,042). They were terrible. So it’s no surprise that Payton wanted to make a change, but the hire of Rob Ryan is not a move that should immediately inspire confidence. In nine years as a defensive coordinator, his unit has been a Top 3 defense once, 14th-best once, 19th-best once, and every other year 22nd-best, at best. Whether Ryan’s firing by Jerry Jones was a ‘scapegoat’ move or if Ryan’s defense was too complex to ultimately work can be debated. What can’t be debated is that the switch from a 4-3 to a 3-4 usually takes some time to pay off; it can be because certain players need time to completely adjust to the new scheme, or because the team needs an offseason or two to acquire enough players to competently run the new scheme. It will probably be another long season for New Orleans’ defense.
3. Pass Rush?
Like most areas of the Saints’ defense last year, the pass rush was a problem. After shining in limited snaps as a Dallas Cowboy, the Saints signed free agent Victor Butler to be one of their OLB pass rushers, but he tore his ACL in training camp. It seems the Saints are relying on long-tenured, 2004 first-round pick Will Smith to pick up the slack but his production rushing the passer has evidently decreased the last few years; now they’re asking him to move from defensive end to OLB which can be done, but doesn’t always work (Andre Carter was in a similar position in Washington that didn’t work). Smith will probably also be asked to drop into coverage more, which is a problem – his 14 coverage snaps last year resulted in a -3.0 coverage grade. While Wilson and Galette should provide some semblance of a pass rush, they can’t do it alone. The Saints hope that former first-round pick Cameron Jordan will be able to get home more in the new scheme (-20.9 pass rushing grade in his first two years). There’s also newly signed Jay Richardson, an ex-Raider and Seahawk, but the former seventh-round pick hasn’t played since 2010.
4. The Safeties
While the Saints drafted Kenny Vaccaro to eventually help man the secondary, they still have two major liabilities on their roster in Roman Harper and Malcolm Jenkins. Harper had been known for his blitzing ability (13 sacks, 19 QB hits, 23 hurries since 2009), but only rushed 63 times last year, his lowest total since 2008, resulting in a mere one knockdown and eight hurries. Asked to play a more traditional safety role, Harper struggled. Former first-round pick Jenkins occasionally delivers a big play (running down Vincent Jackson on a 95-yard catch-and-run which was followed by a four-down goal line stand was one example), but, like Harper, he played a large role in this defense’s ineffectiveness, and performed below-average in the previous season as well. Jenkins and Harper were unsurprisingly our two lowest-graded safeties in 2012 and combined to miss 32 tackles. While their teammates let them down often, it can’t be encouraging that both of these liabilities are still going to be roaming the backfield.
5. The LBs
In the 4-3 last year, the Saints’ LBs struggled in all areas of the game. Ex-Falcon Curtis Lofton’s +0.1 run defense grade was the best of the group in that area while he struggled in blitzing (seven pressures on 108 pass rushes) and coverage (allowed a 103.1 NFL passer rating on 66 targets). Jonathan Vilma didn’t play until Week 7, but he rarely made an impact and was a huge liability against the top teams they faced (Denver, Atlanta, and San Francisco). Ex-Seahawk David Hawthorne was injured in last year’s preseason, played in only 11 games, and failed to make an impact. There’s also the concern of this group transitioning to the 3-4. It could be another long year for the New Orleans’ defense.
What to Expect
With offensive mastermind Sean Payton back in the saddle, the Saints should continue to put points on the board and contend for the NFC South. Their main competition should be the reigning division champion Atlanta Falcons, but they did end the Falcons’ undefeated streak last season and barely lost in the rematch which saw Brees uncharacteristically throw five picks. The Carolina Panthers could also pose problems, having swept the Saints in 2012. The biggest question mark on this team – and the biggest factor that could lead to another disappointing season – is the defense. Can Rob Ryan get this demoralized unit to play at least at a mediocre level?
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