SI.com is laying out offseason road maps for all 32 teams as they start their journey for the Lombardi Trophy -- two teams per day, from the teams that need the most work to contend in 2013 to the ones that are in pretty good shape. See them all.
2012 Record: 7-9
Key Pending Free Agents:Jermon Bushrod, T; Jonathan Casillas, LB; Devery Henderson, WR; Junior Galette, DE (RFA); Brian De La Puente, C (RFA); Chris Ivory, RB (RFA)
List of Draft Picks (pending compensatory picks): 1 (15), 3 (75), 4 (106), 5 (137), 6 (173), 7 (204)
Available Cap Space: About $16 million over the limit
GM/Coaching Moves: Head coach Sean Payton returns after serving his bounty suspension in 2012. Former Cowboys coordinator Rob Ryan was hired to oversee the defense on Feb. 9, replacing the fired Steve Spagnuolo.
2012 Season Recap
Consistency never materialized for the Saints as they dealt with the fallout from Bountygate. They didn't win a game in September, starting 0-4 for the first time since 2007. By Week 11, however, this team seemed poised to avoid missing the playoffs. Despite their poor start, the Saints won five of their next six, improving to 5-5 with six games left to play.
At times New Orleans seemed like a playoff team; it had one of the league's best offenses, ranking third in points and second in yards. Other times, not so much. It also had one of the worst defenses, ranking 31st in points and 32nd in yards (their 7,042 yards allowed was the worst all time mark) allowed under Spagnuolo, who was fired in late January. The first two games of December were a microcosm of the season. The Saints were blown out by the Giants, 52-27, in Week 14 but thumped the Buccaneers, 41-0, the following Sunday. New Orleans ultimately lost four of its last six, finishing 7-9 and in a three-way tie with the Bucs and Panthers for second in the NFC South.
Stat To Feel Good About
77. The number of big plays (20 yards or longer) the offense had in 2012, the most in the NFL. The league average was 60.
If It Ain't Broke ...
Drew Brees led the league in passing yards (5,177) and touchdowns (43) for the second straight season, and with Sean Payton returning to the sideline in 2013, he should only get better. The quarterback threw 19 interceptions last year, tied for most in the NFL with Tony Romo. According to Pro Football Focus, seven of Brees' picks came on deep pass attempts, the most in the league. He gambled too often and forced too many throws into tight coverage, but Payton and Brees having a working relationship like no other head coach and QB in the NFL. Payton would have constantly told Brees to check down and take what the defense was giving him, something he'll doubtless do next season. Even if the Saints' defense remains horrible, this alone could make New Orleans a playoff team again.
34.7. The percentage of time that the Saints ran the ball, a lower rate than all but three other teams had in 2012. The league average was 42.3 percent, while playoff teams averaged 45.2 percent.
Must Fix It
The NFL might be a passing league, but defenses still need to be kept guessing. Mark Ingram led the Saints with a paltry 602 rushing yards last season, followed by Pierre Thomas (473), Darren Sproles (244) and Chris Ivory (217). This wasn't merely a result of the Saints falling behind and needing to throw the ball to overcome large deficits. In the first half of games last season, they ran the ball a lower percentage of time than any other team.
More On The To-Do List
1. Find a lockdown corner. The secondary needs a boost after giving up 4,681 yards last season, the second most in the league. According to Pro Football Focus, Patrick Robinson gave up a league-high 1,071 yards when in primary coverage, most among NFL cornerbacks. It's a strong free agent class at the position, but the Saints may not be in a position to spend on a veteran. With no second round pick as a result of the bounty discipline, the team may look to deal a future draft pick to get an additional pick late in the first round, or to recoup the forfeited selection, where they'd have a wealth of prospects to choose from.
2. Find pass rushers. New defensive coordinator Rob Ryan will install a 3-4 scheme in hopes of creating more havoc for opposing quarterbacks. The Saints tied for 25th with only 30 sacks last season, 10 fewer than what playoff teams averaged and 22 fewer than the league-leading Broncos and Rams had. The Saints' ranking would have been much lower if not for 23-year-old end Cameron Jordan, who led the team with eight sacks. A pass-rushing outside linebacker will likely be the team's top priority in the draft, with Dion Jordan, Ezekiel Ansah or Jarvis Jones likely targets.
3. Young receivers must step up. Despite putting up monstrous numbers in 2012, Drew Brees finished with his lowest completion rate (63.0) in nine seasons. Jimmy Graham dropped 15 passes, most among tight ends in the league. The Saints' two leading receivers -- Marques Colston had 1,154 yards and Lance Moore had 1,041 -- will both be 30 next season. Wideouts Joe Morgan and Nick Toon, both 24, need to emerge as bigger threats in 2013.
What We'll Be Saying In July
Can the defense make this team whole again? If Rob Ryan can turn the unit into one of the league's best, the Saints won't simply be a playoff team again, they'll be a legit Super Bowl contender -- assuming the offense also addresses the areas mentioned above. As the team struggled last season, Drew Brees often compared the Saints' plight to climbing a mountain. Returning to the top of the league still won't be easy. The Saints will play the league's third toughest schedule in 2013, but there's a chance they'll also be flying under the radar a bit after last year's down season. Ultimately, the answer to one question will define success in 2013: Can the defense make this team whole again?
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