The New Orleans Saints suffered a season of losses -- the suspensions of coach Sean Payton and general manager Mickey Loomis, among others -- in 2012, a year in which the team's talent was never truly reflected in its win-loss record.
A year after winning the NFC South with an impressive 13-3 record, the Saints slipped to third place at 7-9 without Payton.
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At the outset of the 2013 offseason, they absorbed the significant loss of Drew Brees' blindside pass protector, Jermon Bushrod, to the Bears in a five-year, $35-million deal. The Saints, who have just five picks in the 2013 draft and likely won't see any of the top three offensive tackles fall to them at No. 15 overall, signed former No. 2 overall pick Jason Smith to a one-year deal Thursday in an attempt to shore up the position.
Even with questions at left tackle, offense isn't likely to be the issue in New Orleans.
A defense in continued decline allowed a league-worst 440.1 yards a game a season ago and is a much bigger concern. To put that ranking in perspective, the New York Giants, who surprisingly finished 31st last year in overall defense, allowed 383.4 yards per game ... that's a difference of 56.7 yards a game.
The addition of Rob Ryan as defensive coordinator is expected to improve New Orleans' defense immediately. While the conversion to Ryan's preferred 3-4 scheme could take some time, the Saints could be surprisingly well-equipped to handle the change. Former first-round defensive end Cameron Jordan is arguably better suited to the odd-man front, as is second-year pro Akiem Hicks. Optimism is high that one of the pass-rushing outside linebacker spots could be filled by Martez Wilson and the Saints spent big money on lanky cornerback Keenan Lewis.
Even the most positive Saints' fan can't ignore the ugliness of New Orleans' "defense" a season ago. If the 31st-place Giants shaved the 56.7 yards-per-game difference they had with the Saints last season, they would've finished in the top 10 in yardage allowed.
New Orleans Saints' 2013 draft picks: 15, 75, 109, 144, 183
Primary needs: OLB, OT, NG, S, WR
General manager: Mickey Loomis, 12th year
Five draft picks that clicked:
-- FS Malcolm Jenkins, 14th overall, 2009
-- OG Carl Nicks, 164th overall, 2008
-- OT Jermon Bushrod, 125th overall, 2007
-- OG Jahri Evans, 108th overall, 2006
-- WR Marques Colston, 252nd overall, 2006
Five players who should be on the New Orleans Saints' draft radar:
Player, school (overall rating, position rating)
OLB Barkevious Mingo, LSU (10, 2): It might seem unrealistic that the highly athletic Mingo would be available at No. 15 given his hype, but come draft day teams may have a hard time justifying the fact that the LSU star registered just 4.5 sacks before leaving early for the NFL. There is no denying Mingo's upside. He boasts the length and burst to be a star in the NFL as either an undersized defensive end in the 4-3 or as a stand-up pass rusher in the Saints' new 3-4 alignment. Given these traits, as well as the obvious fan-base satisfaction that might come with the pick, it is easy to picture the Saints leaping at the opportunity to add Mingo -- especially given Ryan's history of success with athletic edge rushers.
OLB Jamie Collins, Southern Mississippi (74, 8): If the Saints elect to go in a different direction with their first pick, Collins, 6 feet 4, 250 pounds, could prove an intriguing option in the third round. Collins originally earned action as a defensive back -- which says something about his athleticism -- but grew into the "bandit" position in USM's 4-2-5 scheme later in his career. Like Mingo, Collins is a spectacular athlete but the Conference USA star also proved quite productive as a pass rusher, racking up an average of 19.5 tackles for loss the past two seasons.
OT David Quessenberry, San Jose State (117, 11): Some would argue that protecting Brees with a quality left tackle should be the Saints' top priority, but given New Orleans' success at finding "diamonds in the rough" along the offensive line in the middle and later rounds, it wouldn't be a surprise to see the club elect to fill other positions of concern early. A former tight end, Quessenberry, 6-5, 302, has the lateral agility and length scouts are looking for and is surprisingly physical.
ILB Nico Johnson, Alabama (140, 6): Outside linebacker might be the focus for the Saints but don't expect the club to ignore run-stuffers given the attention division opponents Atlanta (now with Steven Jackson), Carolina and Tampa Bay dedicate to the running game. Johnson is an intriguing athlete who seems to love the physicality of the game. He's quick to attack and shed blockers and could prove an intriguing "plug and play" option available in the late rounds given his experience in Nick Saban's 3-4 scheme with the Crimson Tide.
DL Nicholas Williams, Samford (184, 16): Williams is a largely unknown commodity who dazzled at the combine and has therefore created a significant buzz for himself. Florida's Sharrif Floyd was generally credited with enjoying the most impressive all-around workout among defensive tackles tested at the combine but Williams proved to be quicker than Floyd and most others in the shuttle drill (4.65-seconds) and led his position in the 40-yard dash (4.84) and the vertical jump (33 inches). After spending most of his high school career on the basketball court, he was lightly recruited but has since proved to be a star, recording eight sacks in a "breakout" 2012 campaign and showing the length and athleticism to intrigue as a developmental five-technique defensive end.