|OT Jermon Bushrod is a free agent the Saints must re-sign for 2013. (US Presswire)|
Who knew the Saints' defensive collapse at the end of their 2011 NFC divisional round playoff loss to San Francisco would carry through the entire 2012 season? Every other problem New Orleans experienced in its disappointing 7-9 season should disappear with the return of suspended coach Sean Payton. But Payton has to upgrade a defense that allowed more yards than any unit in NFL history -- starting with a decision on whether or not to retain coordinator Steve Spagnuolo. It won't be easy because the Saints are in some salary cap trouble. Here's a look at who they need to keep and where they need to get better:
Free agents who must be signed:
- OT Jermon Bushrod -- Bushrod, a four-year starter, did not have his best year, drawing five false-start penalties. But the Saints want to keep him if the price is right. He's a solid starter, he protects Brees' blind side and they don't have a capable replacement on the roster. The line received unjust criticism for the Saints' inconsistencies this season, but that criticism might become legitimate without Bushrod.
- LB Jonathan Casillas -- Casillas started once, made 30 tackles and recovered two fumbles. His tackles and start total were down from 2011 when he started five times and made 43 stops, but he's a young player with potential and energy. The Saints need those qualities as they revamp the linebacker corps.
- WR Courtney Roby -- The Saints need to re-sign him for one reason -- he's a terrific tackler on special teams. Otherwise, the lip service coaches pay to special teams will be nothing more than hot air.
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Positions needing improvement:
- Defensive end -- Although 2011 first-round pick Cameron Jordan had a solid year (68 tackles, eight sacks), the Saints desperately need a big-time pass rusher who forces opponents to alter game plans. Mobile QBs (and some not-so-mobile QBs) killed them by avoiding sacks and completing long passes. DE Will Smith likely will be a cap casualty. His replacement needs to be younger and more explosive.
- Defensive tackle -- Free agent Sedrick Ellis (36 tackles, no sacks) won't be re-signed, and the Saints won't miss him. Raw rookie Akiem Hicks showed promise and likely will start alongside Brodrick Bunkley in 2013, but the Saints need a reliable third tackle for the rotation. If it's not a position of strength, it can't continue to be a huge weakness.
- Secondary -- The starters will be back, but they all need to play better. Strangely, interim coach Joe Vitt praised CBs Jabari Greer, who was slowed by a groin problem early in the year, and Patrick Robinson, who allowed too many big plays, in his wrap-up press conference. Safeties Malcolm Jenkins and Roman Harper did not have good seasons. Improved depth is a big issue, too. Aside from promising rookie CB Corey White, whose season was cut short by a knee injury, the backups in the secondary were subpar.
Follow Saints reporter Guerry Smith on Twitter @CBSSaints.