Football fans tend to find their optimistic side in the spring. A batch of fresh-faced draftees fills the team with potential over the long haul, while free agents bolster short-term fortunes. Records are all reset at 0-0 and the remarkable parity in the NFL makes every team look like a competitor in June.
Sunny outlooks abound around, but there has been little to be positive about this offseason for the New Orleans Saints. Fallout from the bounty scandal sent them deep into the secession plans for a head coach. They lost draft picks. Adding another layer of suffering to a bleak spring is an ugly and prolonged contract battle with quarterback Drew Brees.
Remember when the Saints had a monopoly on the feel-good story in a league brimming with Horatio Alger tales?
If you buy into the power of narratives, this is going to be a rough season for the Saints. Fortunately, they already had a pretty well-stocked roster, but cap limitations, a small handful of draft picks and coaching questions put their de facto place on top of the NFC South standings in doubt.
The Saints played very much like many expected them to play last season, perhaps even a little better. Brees set a new record for single-season passing yards with 5,476, one of three quarterbacks to top the 5,000-yard mark. He led the league with 46 touchdown passes. He set another single-season record by completing 71.2 percent of his passes.
After trading away their 2012 1st round pick for Alabama running back Mark Ingram, whose knee injuries set him back in his rookie year, the Saints' best addition proved to be Darren Sproles. He led the team in yards-from-scrimmage, averaged 6.9 yards per carry on 87 attempts and was second on the team with 86 receptions as Brees' favorite dump off target. Jimmy Graham led the team with 99 receptions, 1,310 yards and 11 receptions. You get the feeling that he could top those numbers this season, approaching Gronkowski-like levels of production.
On defense, the secondary missed Darren Sharper, who retired after missing most of the 2010 season because of micro-fracture surgery on his knee. Williams' all-out blitzing failed to provide consistent pressure on opposing passers. Ironic, sort of, that Williams' defense would be a big part of the problem in the Saints' postseason loss to the 49ers, despite his little speech.
Best Free Agent Pickup
Offensive guard Ben Grubbs was the Saints' headline signing. He replaces Carl Nicks, who bolted to Tampa Bay. Grubbs is essentially a push, though it saved some cap space compared to what Nicks would have received.
The move likely to the have the biggest impact this season is the addition of middle linebacker Curtis Lofton. Lost in the hub-bub of the bounty punishments is the fact that Jonathan Vilma and Scott Fujita were not very in recent seasons with the Saints. Lofton improves the run defense, and the addition of David Hawthorne gives them a better answer on the weakside. Scott Shanle will be on the strong side, and the addition of Chris Chamberlain helps the special teams unit.
Related: Falcons Offseason Report
2012 NFL Draft
No 1st-round pick, no 2nd-round pick ... the Saints used their 3rd-round pick for Akiem Hicks, from Canada. Hicks might come into his own with Steve Spagnuolo coaching the defense.
Their best pick was Wisconsin wide receiver Nick Toon, who replaces Robert Meachem. Toon can run routes in the middle, and his size and physical play make up for a lack of speed. With Brees at quarterback, he could contribute some right away.
A pair of offensive linemen with their last two picks add depth. Guard Andrew Tiller from Syracuse could be effective as a rookie, should the Saints need to replace an injured starter. Defensive back Corey White might be able to contribute on special teams, but was not the best pick they could have made in the 5th round
All in all, it was not a great draft for New Orleans, but they have a pretty deep roster.
Related: Saints NFL Draft Grade
SB Nation's Saints blog, Canal Street Chronicles, discusses changes to the defense:
I'll be the first to agree that the Saints defense needed to move away from the all-out blitzing since they kept getting burned for big plays, were not getting much pressure on the QB, and were not creating takeaways. I also can picture clearly in mind how a prudent use of zone defense at the end of the game would have been a way to win against San Francisco last January.
And the value of Brees:
The easy task is quantifying Brees contribution on the field. Although it is somewhat fashionable now to speak of Sean Payton's "system" it should be said that it begins and ends with one important feature: Hall of Fame Quarterback ... He is the alpha and the omega; it starts and stops with him. The game is ultimately defined through what he is able to accomplish and there seems no limit to what Brees can.
You will forever remember Porter's Pick Six and Ambush but it was Drew Brees who brought the Saints to the mountaintop where those memories were made possible. The voodoo queen exorcised the demons plaguing the Superdome while Drew Brees exorcised the personal demons of the Saints and the demons of doubt within New Orleans. For that alone he is worth every cent he asks for.
They Make The Playoffs If ...
The Saints will naturally appear in most preseason playoff predictions, especially once pundits see the Brees situation resolved. He leads a loaded offense capable of scoring 62 points against weak opponents and 40 against the good ones.
Doubts about New Orleans' fourth straight trip to the playoffs hinge on two other questions. The first, a more schematic one, is whether or not the defense can hold off opponents just enough to allow the offense to win those basketball games. Spagnuolo has a history of making bad defenses play beyond their means, e.g. St. Louis, but the NFC South is a tough place to play with two dates against a beefed up Falcons team, a suddenly stocked Tampa Bay and, of course, Cam Newton.
The second task for the Saints is managing disruption. Sean Payton is out for the year. Joe Vitt is out for six games. The defense is changing schemes. All of this happening as the Saints lose all margin for error.