The Saints bounced back from a disappointing 2012 campaign to finish second in the NFC south with an 11-5 record. Not only that, but they stopped a five game losing streak on the road in the playoffs to win in Philadelphia before coming unstuck in Seattle against the Champion-elect Seahawks. Drew Brees and Jimmy Graham were star performers again while the defensive improvement was a big factor on their season. At 9-2 they looked well placed to take the divisional title, but three defeats in five on the road down the stretch (including a tough divisional loss in Carolina) ultimately ensured the Wild card spot and that early trip to the West coast. Further improvement will be expected in 2014…
Once again, the offensive game plan revolved around Brees. The former Charger threw for a highly impressive 5162 yards and 39 scores, enabling him to rack up a passer rating of 104.7. Graham was the chief beneficiary, with 86 grabs, 1215 yards and 16 touchdowns. All this despite missing playing time and having his effectiveness limited in the second half of the season due to injury. Marques Colston chipped in with 75 catches and the propensity to use short passes to running backs is highlighted by the 77 catches hauled in by Pierre Thomas and 71 by Darren Sproles. On the ground the entire team managed just 1473 yards, with Thomas leading the way on 549 yards. Just 10 touchdowns on the ground (three of which came from Brees himself) show firmly where the offensive emphasis is in New Orleans.
The appointment of Rob Ryan as defensive coordinator galvanised the defensive unit and lead to a huge improvement from the lows of 2012. New Orleans ranked fourth in the league in allowing just 305.7 yards and 19 points on average per game. Curtis Lofton stepped up with 125 tackles, with the tandem rushing threat of Cameron Jordan (12.5) and Junior Galette (12) combining for 24.5 of the teams’ 49 sacks. Keenan Lewis racked up four picks and impressive first round rookie Kenny Vaccaro made an immediate impact at safety, racking up 79 tackles, a sack and a pick in his first campaign before an ankle injury cut it short. Much will be expected of him in his second year and the defence could become even more effective as Ryan is able to manoeuvre personnel to bring in the type of players he needs to run his system effectively. The defence could be about to get very special in the Big Easy!
Sproles handled most of the return duties, averaging 21.3 yards on kick returns and a mere 6.7 yards per punt. Garrett Hartley managed a poor return of just 73.3% on his Field Goal attempts, leading to him losing his job at the end of the year. Shayne Graham replaced him at the end of the year, but the Saints could well be in the market for a new kicker in the draft. Thomas Morstead punted effectively in racking up a NET average of 42.3 yards per punt.
Returning after his one year exile following the bounty scandal, Sean Payton showed his importance to the team by leading them to the turnaround and postseason. He enters his eighth season at the helm hoping to overtake the Panthers and mix it with the Seahawks and 49ers deep in the postseason. Ryan’s appointment as defensive coordinator was a key addition to the coaching staff as it lead to a vastly improved defence and a much more competitive team.
DRAFT/FREE AGENCY NEEDS
The most important move in Free Agency came in the form of the retention of Jimmy Graham on a big contract. Given his importance to the team it is unsurprising that he was not allowed to walk away and kept with the Saints. The loss of Sproles to Philadelphia removes a great deal from the passing game, especially on third down, and others will need to step up and fill the void. Keeping tackle Zach Strief ensures some stability on the offensive line. In the secondary, the loss of Malcom Jenkins to the Eagles has been offset by the addition of former Bills’ safety Jarius Byrd.
Robert Meachem and Lance Moore’s departures in the offseason means that the team will probably be on the look out for some more targets in the passing game in the upcoming draft. As well as at wide receiver, expect the Saints to look at bringing in defensive personnel and linebacker and cornerback whilst a move for an offensive lineman could also be on the cards.