Team overview: MAN. 2012 was something else for the Saints, huh? I don't have the energy to recap the entirety of the bounty scandal (and do you have the energy and/or desire to read it again?) but suffice to say, the Saints are probably thrilled to turn the page on one of the more scrutinized seasons in NFL history.
They're now on their third defensive coordinator in three years, with Rob Ryan replacing Steve Spagnuolo, and in desperate need of improving a unit that was historically bad in 2012. The Saints stinking on defense isn't something new, though -- even in their Super Bowl-winning season the defense wasn't great as much as it simply created turnovers. Ryan's aggressive attack should be an improvement over Spags 4-3 alignment.
The offense was prolific in 2012 but not as efficient as in years past; the return of Sean Payton, who signed a multiyear deal this offseason, to the sidelines should help out immensely -- provided he's not forced to use binoculars anyway.
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What the depth chart tells you: The offense will be fine with a few minor tweaks. Drew Brees will use Marques Colston, Jimmy Graham and Darren Sproles once again. Lance Moore is a sneaky weapon and you shouldn't sleep on Joseph Morgan in 2013. Replacing -- or, more importantly, re-signing -- Jermon Bushrod is critical, but the Saints are by and large alright on the offensive line, particularly with Jahri Evans and Ben Grubbs manning the guard spots. My gut says Mark Ingram might even surprise in 2013 after a strong close to last year.
The defense is another matter altogether, but moving to a 3-4 should help. Restricted free agent Junior Gallette could really surprise as a pass rusher under Ryan and former first-round pick Cameron Jordan makes sense as an end in this defense, even if it might hinder his sack totals. New Orleans could stand to find a blocker-occupying nose tackle for their new alignment, but Brodrick Bunkley can make do if no pops in free agency or the draft.
Two guys who are question marks in the new defense were, ironically, at the center of BountyGate -- linebacker Jonathan Vilma and defensive end Will Smith are no sure things to work out in the new defense. Cornerbacks Jabari Greer and Patrick Robinson, along with safeties Malcolm Jenkins and Roman Harper, would see their play improve dramatically with some semblance of a pass rush limiting their exposure.
Ideal free-agent and draft strategy: Not having a second-round pick this year as a result of the bounty scandal is a complete nightmare, especially considering the Saints' areas of need and the level of pick (top 50) they'll be losing. But the draft, regardless of how many picks they have, should be focused on defense. Hitting on their first-round pick with a pass rusher who fits Ryan's scheme would be a fantastic start. If someone like Dion Jordan, Ziggy Ansah or Jarvis Jones fell to No. 15, Payton should risk re-injuring his ACL sprinting to the podium.
If the right guy doesn't fall, I'd seriously consider moving down if I were the Saints, if only to accumulate additional picks. Grabbing someone like Xavier Rhodes out of Florida State wouldn't be the worst move either.
With limited cap space (if any, right now!) the Saints might not have a whole lot of options in free agency, which rules them out from making a splash in the market. But if Mickey Loomis can create some space and the market cools, there are defensive options out there for New Orleans to chase. An underrated linebacker who could potentially pile up sacks like Victor Butler would be a fantastic addition if they can afford it.
Still, getting Bushrod or another tackle to step in should be priority No. 1 for free agency. The theme here, though, is that you probably won't see New Orleans too active in free agency, at least for the moment. A lack of cap space and a reasonable amount of quality personnel on the defensive end actually sets them up for more success in 2013.
What will happen in 2013: The Saints will rebound, if only because the offense will have the checks-and-balances system that Payton brings along with Brees on the offensive end. Defensively, things can't get worse. Like, it's impossible. Giving Ryan a few more weapons through free agency or the draft could go a long way toward making this team a viable contender again next season.
-- By Will Brinson
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