New Orleans Saints

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By Will Brinson | Senior NFL Blogger

Offense

The city of New Orleans breathed a sigh of relief on Friday (the 13th, no less), when Drew Brees and the Saints agreed to a long-term deal that will keep him in the Bayou for another five years. That means this team will be dangerous enough offensively to compete in the division. Without Brees in the fold, the Saints could well have become this year's version of the 2011 Colts.

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The issue for Brees and the offense now will be overcoming another offseason storyline you may have heard of: Sean Payton's suspension resulting from the Saints bounty scandal. Payton's out for the year, which means Brees will have to put on coaching, coordinating and quarterbacking hats this year.

Fortunately, he has help. Marques Colston, a perfect fit for the New Orleans offense, returns after being re-signed in the offseason. Jimmy Graham is one of the best in the league at his position, and probably the most dangerous tight end, offensively speaking. Darren Sproles is a multi-faceted gamechanger and a perfect for what New Orleans does. If you had to pick one team's QB/RB/WR/TE combo, you would be hard-pressed to find a better skill-position group than the Saints.

There are other weapons too: Devery Henderson needs to be more consistent to replace the departed Robert Meachem. Lance Moore provides another versatile weapon. Mark Ingram needs to improve on his rookie campaign, but combined with Sproles and Pierre Thomas, he should be dangerous. In short, the Saints remain an extremely talented and potent offense, regardless of which administrators got suspended.

Defense

The opposite side of the ball is a different story, however. Obviously, the Saints bounty scandal centers around departed defensive coordinator and exotic-blitz junkie Gregg Williams. He was "not invited back" before the scandal broke, so it's not as if the Saints are making wholesale changes here because they were caught handing out cash for quarterback hits. Instead, Williams left to join Jeff Fisher in St. Louis, and was replaced by the guy Fisher replaced: Steve Spagnuolo. Williams' Super Bowl-winning defense in 2009 wasn't necessarily an "elite" defensive unit: that Saints squad simply generated a ton of turnovers.

And over the past two seasons, that's happened less and less. Spags will attempt to install a more standardized 4-3 defense. The problem is that the Saints still lack a ton of talent on that side of the ball. The pass rush is beyond underwhelming: Will Smith will be suspended for the first four games of the season, Greg Romeus is already out for the year, Cameron Jordan underwhelmed with just one sack in his rookie season (although he was stout against the run and could improve under Spags).

Junior Galette lead all Week 1 returnees with 4.5 sacks last year. Well, on the line anyway -- Roman Harper had 7.5 sacks in 2011, but it's unlikely he'll be coming after quarterbacks as much under Spags. New linebackers Curtis Lofton, David Hawthorne and former Spagnuolo player Chris Chamberlain should should actually equate to an improvement in that area. The secondary should hold up alright, especially if defensive backs aren't spending half their time blitzing the quarterback and leaving their fellow secondary members vulnerable: Jabari Greer and Patrick Robinson are an OK duo at cornerback, and Malcolm Jenkins and Harper are decent safeties.

Key Changes

Roster Additions: Curtis Lofton, MLB; Ben Grubbs, G; Brodrick Bunkley, DT; David Hawthorne, LB; Luke McCown, QB; Chris Chamberlain, LB; Remi Ayodele, DT

Roster Departures: Carl Nicks, G; Jonathan Vilma, LB (suspension); Robert Meachem, WR; Aubrayo Franklin, DT; Shaun Rogers, DT; Tracy Porter, DB; Courtney Roby, KR; Jo-Lonn Dunbar, LB

Staff: Hoo boy. Where to start? Head coach Sean Payton suspended for 2012 season; Assistant head coach and linebackers coach Joe Vitt named interim head coach, also suspended for season's first six games; offensive line coach Aaron Kromer named interim-to-the-interim coach; Defensive coordinator Gregg Williams left to become Rams defensive coordinator before being suspended indefinitely; Steve Spagnuolo hired as defensive coordinator; general manager Mickey Loomis suspended first eight games of 2012.

No one had better interior linemen than the Saints. Losing All-Pro Nicks was a tremendous blow, but New Orleans was able to end up in the best possible spot during the game of musical guards. They snagged Grubbs, the next best available free agent at the position. The former Ravens lineman, who was also a Pro-Bowl caliber player, should fill in well as a physical replacement for Nicks. The bigger issue here is really how the Saints handled their free agents: because they couldn't reach a deal with Brees, they were forced to use the franchise tag on their quarterback, even though they paid him what he wanted eventually. Had they struck a deal with Brees earlier, the Saints could've used the tag on Nicks instead, which would've kept their offense even more intact. It worked out alright, but the process to achieve the outcome was questionable at best.

X-Factor: Steve Spagnuolo

The offense in NOLA is going to be good. Only Brees going down could really stop that (the Saints could even deal with the loss of one of Graham, Sproles or Colston, though it wouldn't make things easier). They'll score their points. The question is whether New Orleans can keep other teams from scoring points. To do that, Spags will need the Saints to pick up on his 4-3 defense quickly. If he can coach up a somewhat underwhelming group of talent and the Saints outperform their expectations on defense, they could very well end up at the top of the heap in the NFC South once again.

Versus the world

The offseason bounty scandal put the Saints in a bubble. Go ahead, read the comments section in any article about the Saints. The fans are a touchy bunch right now. It's hard to blame them, and it would be hard to blame the Saints players if they weren't looking to come out and strike down upon their opponents with great vengeance. This happened when the Patriots were busted for SpyGate a few years back, and you might recall that the 2007 Patriots team put up some points. The Saints are capable of something similar, so seeing Brees and company eviscerate an opponent or two wouldn't be surprising.

Bounty aftermath

Just as demolition seems like a possible scenario, so too does implosion. Given all the talent the Saints have on their roster and the consistency that Brees represents for the offense, the idea that Who Dat Nation could completely melt down seems like a long shot. However, it's definitely still worth watching to see whether or not additional info comes out from the NFL about the bounty scandal, how the Saints will deal with Payton missing, how Vitt will handle his head-coaching duties, whether Loomis' fill-ins can correctly manage the roster, and also whether or not any of the players who've been suspended can possibly return any sooner than expected.

Hot start?

Whenever teams deal with serious offseason controversy, the world wants to watch and see whether or not they can quickly overcome their struggles. The Saints will have the microscope on them to begin the year and with games against the Redskins, Panthers and Chiefs before a Week 4 showdown with the Packers in Green Bay, the Saints will have high expectations for how they start out. If the Saints come out sluggish early, they could put themselves in a tough hole, especially with a tough five-game stretch (plus a bye) after Green Bay.

Insider's Take

"The obvious issue here is how do they overcome losing Sean Payton as their offensive coordinator? What is the impact of that? They're still a team built on size and power on both sides of the ball. They're going to score points. I dont see [Ben] Grubbs as much of a dropoff from [Carl] Nicks at guard. The corners are pedestrian. Can Cam Jordan give them some pass rush? They need more from him. I really like [Akiem] Hicks, the tackle they took in the third round. He's going to be a very good player for them, but the question is how soon?"

Xs and Os

By Pat Kirwan | NFL Insider

Maybe the most bizarre offseason in NFL history took place in New Orleans. The head coach and play caller Sean Payton suspended for the year, four players facing suspensions, the GM gone for eight weeks, the interim head coach out four weeks and Drew Brees signs a five-year, $100 million deal on Friday the 13th. All that being said, this is still a very explosive, balanced offense.

Saints' Rivals: NFC South

2012 Preview • Schedule
Falcons @ Saints: 11/11 (1 p.m. ET)
Saints @ Falcons: 11/29 (8:20 p.m. ET)

2012 Preview • Schedule
Panthers @ Saints: 12/30 (1 p.m. ET)
Saints @ Panthers: 9/16 (1 p.m. ET)

2012 Preview • Schedule
Bucs @ Saints: 12/16 (1 p.m. ET)
Saints @ Bucs: 10/21 (1 p.m. ET)

Most people think this is exclusively a passing machine, but it really has a power run game element to it that makes it dangerous. Jed Collins is a 6-1, 255-pound fullback that started 11 games last year and he will lead block for Mark Ingram or Pierre Thomas behind All-Pro guards Jahri Evans and Ben Grubbs. That dimension of the Saints' offense was good for 1,000 of their 2,127 rushing yards last year and will do the same this year.

The most dangerous aspect of this offense is the seam route passing game to Jimmy Graham and Marques Colston. Safeties are always in a bind against this offense. Both receivers are big and a mismatch for safeties, plus the safeties are worried about that power run game and occasionally need to get down in the box to support the run. Graham and Colston caught 179 passes and 19 touchdowns last year and that production may grow this year if the offense can be as creative without Sean Payton around.

There is speculation that the offense will fall off without Payton, but it's hard to stop an offense that in six division games last year saw Brees throw for 2,018 yards (336 per game) and 16 touchdowns.

On defense, there are some significant issues that new coordinator Steve Spagnuolo has to resolve in his version of the 4-3. The pass rush has been minimized by the suspension of Will Smith, so Spagnuolo will bring more fire zone blitz to the package. Some think he plays a lot of man coverage, but he was trained by Jimmy Johnson and that usually means a cover three zone behind the blitz.

The Saints were the 30th-ranked pass defense last year and will struggle to improve without a pass rush and the loss of CB Tracy Porter. It was very unusual for a safety to lead a team in sacks, but that's exactly what happened when Roman Harper recorded 7 ½ sacks. Spagnuolo will take advantage of his pressure skills.

Draft Recap

By Rob Rang | NFLDraftScout.com Senior Analyst

The Saints didn't have a first-round pick -- that went to New England last year in the deal that landed running back Mark Ingram. And if the Saints' brass had hopes for a flashy draft that could build up the enthusiasm of their beleaguered fans, they didn't deliver, instead focusing on mostly developmental prospects.

Saints Draft Analysis

That included raw defensive tackle Akiem Hicks from Regina (Canada) with the club's first pick, No. 89 overall. The 6-5, 314-pound Hicks was highly regarded coming out of high school but was unable to qualify academically, then had a mix-up trying to land at LSU after two seasons at Sacramento City College and wound up in Canada.

As one might expect, Hicks dominated at Regina, registering 42 tackles, eight tackles for loss, 6.5 sacks and two forced fumbles while starting all eight games as a senior.

On tape, it is easy to see that Hicks' combination of size, strength and athleticism was simply too much for opponents to handle at this level. He remains very much a work in progress in terms of his technique, but there are some in the scouting community who believe his upside isn't that far off from that of another former LSU Tiger -- Michael Brockers -- who was selected No. 14 overall by the St. Louis Rams. Of course, Brockers demonstrated his ability to take over games in the SEC. Hicks did his damage against Manitoba, Calgary and the University of British Columbia.

The rest of the Saints' picks:

3rd Round - No. 89 overall - Akiem Hicks, DT, Regina
4th Round - No. 122 overall - Nick Toon, WR, Wisconsin
5th Round - No. 162 overall - Corey White, S, Samford
6th Round - No. 179 overall - Andrew Tiller, OG, Syracuse
7th Round - No. 234 overall - Marcel Jones, OT, Nebraska

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