Sean Payton's back in the saddle, but the Saints will need the most from new defensive coordinator Rob Ryan (right). (Stacy Revere/Getty Images)
With the 2013 NFL season rapidly approaching, we’re taking a spin around the league for a closer look at all 32 teams. Track all of our Snapshots here.
Obviously, no NFL team has ever gone through what the New Orleans Saints went through last year. No NFL team has ever had its coach suspended for a full season, as Saints head coach Sean Payton was for the 2012 season for his role in the BountyGate mess. No NFL team has ever had its general manager (Mickey Loomis) and current and former assistant coaches (Joe Vitt, Gregg Williams) suspended in the same season, and no NFL team has ever had that compounded by the suspensions of current and former players (Jonathan Vilma, Will Smith, Scott Fujita, Anthony Hargrove).
As one would expect, the effects of these suspensions were severe. Though former NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue vacated the player suspensions in December 2012, the damage had been done. New Orleans' offense still had Drew Brees at the helm, but without Payton to guide it, Brees threw more errant deep passes and tied for the league lead in interceptions with Tony Romo. The defense, led by Steve Spagnuolo in Williams' wake, was the worst in the league by some measures. The Saints finished 7-9 and had their first losing season since 2007.
When Payton came back to the team in January, he fired Spagnuolo almost immediately and replaced him with former Dallas Cowboys defensive coordinator Rob Ryan. The Saints intend to move to more hybrid fronts and complex blitzes, common specialties of Ryan and Williams. If Ryan can bring his new defense back to the middle of the pack, and the offense does what it always does when Brees and Payton are operating it, the Saints could be in for a big rebound year.
- Biggest storyline: How will New Orleans' defense be different?
Rob Ryan is certainly creative in his front concepts, but it's a bit of a mistake to put him in the "big-blitz" category -- in 2012, Ryan's Cowboys defense rushed just three defenders on 15.7% of all plays, the second-highest figure in the NFL. They rushed six or more defenders just 4.8 percent of the time, which ranked 24th. Mostly, Ryan creates confusion in his fronts by alternating down linemen and standup defenders at the line to alter offense reads and protections. He will run a lot of nickel and dime coverages -- the Cowboys had six or more defensive backs on the field 17 percent of the time, which ranked seventh in the NFL.
End Cameron Jordan could have a dominant season in Ryan's schemes -- he has the right mix of run-stopping toughness and explosion off the snap -- but the guy to watch against the pass is outside linebacker Junior Galette. In 2012, he amassed five quarterback sacks, five quarterback hits and 12 hurries in just 299 snaps. Many around the league believe that Galette is on the verge of a breakout campaign. The Saints also have two rookies who could play major roles in Ryan's defense, and we'll get to them in a bit.
- Most intriguing positional battle: Receiver.
The Saints didn't re-sign Devery Henderson, and lost Joe Morgan for the season to a knee injury in an early August scrimmage. They're taking it easy with number-one target Marques Colston after he dealt with a foot injury last season, and that's allowed younger guys to take more targets from Brees and his backups. Second-year man Nick Toon, who missed his rookie season with a foot injury of his own, fifth-round rookie Kenny Stills, and Tampa Bay Buccaneers castoff Preston Parker have all looked strong at different times this preseason. Stills made an impressive touchdown grab against the Raiders in the Saints' second exhibition game, but Parker leads the team in catches (six) and touchdowns (two), while Toon leads the offense with 122 receiving yards. It's a nice problem for Payton to have.
- New face, new place: Cornerback Keenan Lewis.
Ryan likes big, physical cornerbacks who can press at the line and win battles downfield with speed receivers, and Lewis seems to fit the bill. Though he collected no interceptions in 2012 for the Pittsburgh Steelers, he had 20 passes defensed and ranked 13th overall in Football Outsiders' Adjusted Yards Per Pass metric. The Saints signed him to a five-year, $26.5 million contract in March, hoping he can help turn around a pass defense that was woefully inefficient last season.
- Impact rookie(s): Two, and both on defense.
The Saints took Texas safety Kenny Vaccaro in the first round, and he's just the kind of rangy hitter Ryan loves to have patrolling his backfield. He's played strong and free safety, excels in the slot, and is a big (and sometimes reckless) hitter. Third-round pick John Jenkins out of Georgia is a mountain of a defensive tackle, but he has very surprising speed off the snap, and he will see a lot of different gaps in Ryan's defense. That's nothing new for him -- Jenkins played everywhere from straight over center as a nose tackle to defensive end in the Bulldogs' multiple fronts. It's easy to see why the Saints found both players attractive.
- Looking at the schedule: According to Football Outsiders' Projected Average Opponent metrics, the Saints have the fifth-hardest schedule in the NFL for 2013. Atlanta comes to the Superdome for the opener, followed by a New Orleans trip to Tampa Bay. After home games against the Cardinals and Dolphins, the Saints travel to Chicago. There's a three-game AFC East tour after that, with road games against the Patriots and Jets, and a homer versus the Bills.