The 2013 NFL regular season is right around the corner. With that being said, it’s time to launch our team previews. FOXSports.com contributor Taylor Jones will answer important questions for every franchise.
NEW ORLEANS SAINTS
2012 Record: 7-9. Missed the playoffs
What is the position battle to watch?
The Saints have utilized a running back-by-committee approach dating back to the Deuce McAllister days and while that won’t necessarily change this season, it will be interesting to see if one of the three can actually separate themselves as the lead dog. Mark Ingram was drafted 28th overall in the 2011 NFL Draft to do just that, but he has yet to live up to his hype and has struggled to unseat Pierre Thomas as the feature back of this offense. Darren Sproles, entering his third season with the Saints, averaged nearly seven yards per carry in 2011, but without Sean Payton calling the plays, Sproles’ touches were cut in half in 2012. Sproles will never grow into a 20 carries a game type of running back, but he is easily the most explosive player in the group and should average around 15 touches per game, whether it be on the ground or through the air. With Chris Ivory gone, Ingram and Thomas will once again be in a battle to determine who will get the chance to do the dirty work for this offense on first and second down, but there hasn’t been a clear-cut frontrunner to assume that position up until now. Over the last two seasons, Ingram has averaged 139 carries to Thomas’ 107.5, but Thomas is averaging a full yard better per rush at 4.8 compared to Ingram’s 3.8. Thomas has also proven to be more diverse, averaging slightly better than 34 catches per season during his six-year career, compared to a career total of 17 catches for Ingram.
Between the three, this may be the best and deepest running back group in all of the NFL, but we are still waiting for one of them to take the bull by the horns and become the clear-cut starter.
What is the team’s biggest obstacle?
This defense gave up 7,042 yards last season, the most yards given up by a team in NFL history. So what did they do? Fired Steve Spagnuolo after just one season and hired Rob Ryan in his place. Ryan comes with a big name and an even bigger mouth, but don’t let that cloud his success as a defensive coordinator in this league. Ryan has been a defensive coordinator in the NFL for the past nine NFL seasons, with the Raiders, Browns and Cowboys, and has yet to be on a team that posted a winning record. The 2012 Cowboys were the closest with an 8-8 record and prior to that, none of his teams won more than five games. Not only that, but only once has his defense finished in the top 10 in total yards. The 2006 Oakland Raiders finished ranked third with an average of 285 yards allowed per game, but even then, the team gave up more than 20 points per game and finished only as the league’s 18th-best scoring defense.
Combine all of that with Ryan’s 3-4 defensive scheme used with personnel better fit for a 4-3 and this year’s unit may not fare any better.
What is the team’s biggest asset?
If a quarterback’s best friend is a good running game, then his second best friend is a reliable tight end. Jimmy Graham has been nothing short of that for the past two seasons. He has matured into the league’s most dynamic tight end, yes, even better than a healthy Rob Gronkowski. Graham is always open, even when double-covered, because he out-jumps everyone and has phenomenal body control when attacking the ball in the air. Much like Tony Gonzalez, his basketball background is in full display when he is on the field and from a skill perspective, he is every bit as good as Gonzalez, too.
Which rookie stands the best chance to succeed?
With the 15th overall pick, the Saints got the best safety in this years draft class by far. Kenny Vaccaro has the ability to hit like a linebacker and cover like a corner. In the three previous drafts, there have been four safeties selected in the first round. In 2010, it was Eric Berry and Earl Thomas. In 2011, there were none and in 2012, it was Mark Barron and Harrison Smith. Berry and Thomas have each made the Pro Bowl in two of their three seasons while Barron and Smith each started 16 games last season and had a combined 192 tackles and four interceptions. This proves this is a blueprint for success by taking a safety in the first round, and Vaccaro will continue that trend.
What is the team’s biggest addition/loss from the previous season?
This is easy: Sean Payton. This team was doomed for failure as soon as Payton was suspended for the season. Not only is he the clear-cut leader of this franchise, he is also the play-caller for a completely offensive-minded football team. Although Brees and offensive coordinator Pete Carmichael have a great relationship, it was clear that missing the third peg of the wheel was causing this wagon to run a little wobbly. The numbers weren’t bad, but the imbalance put huge pressure on a defense that was barely ever on the sidelines and could hardly catch a breath, let alone make any in-game adjustments. The casual fan doesn’t think about how a team’s offense can affect a defense, but look at the numbers. In Payton’s absence, the Saints gave up nearly a full touchdown more per game and gave up more than an average of 100 additional yards per game. While he may be viewed as an offensive-minded coach, he will have just as big as impact on this defense as he does on the offensive side of the ball.