…And we're back! After taking a few days to focus on the 2013 NFL scouting combine, "Shutdown Corner" resumes our look back at each team's 2012 season and a look at what lies ahead for the 2013 offseason. We resume our trek in the NFC South with the New Orleans Saints.
2012 record: 7-9
What went wrong: The Saints' problems in 2012 began with the suspensions handed down by the NFL after their investigation into an illegal bounty program that was in place from 2009-11. The Saints lost head coach Sean Payton for the season, linebackers coach Joe Vitt for six games, GM Mickey Loomis for eight games. Linebacker Jonathan Vilma was suspended for the season and defensive end Will Smith for four games, which were vacated by former NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue upon appeal.
The Saints opened the regular season with four straight losses, including a 27-24 overtime loss at home to the lowly Kansas City Chiefs, but managed to claw back to .500 before Thanksgiving. A three-game losing streak - to the San Francisco 49ers, Atlanta Falcons and New York Giants – ended any hope the Saints had of a miraculous run to the postseason. Quarterback Drew Brees, who missed the OTAs and minicamps while his agent and the team worked on turning his franchise tag into a five-year, $100 million contract, was intercepted nine times during that three-game losing streak that sunk the Saints' playoff hopes.
The Saints defense went very wrong in 2012, establishing an NFL single-season record for yards allowed. The Saints allowed nearly 60 yards more per game than the league's 31st-ranked defense and were last in the NFL in rushing yards per game, rushing yards per play and passing yards per play. New Orleans finished 31st in passing yards allowed per game and in scoring defense, allowing 28.4 points per game.
Perhaps it was due to playing without Sean Payton, but the Saints dipped from second in Football Outsiders offensive DVOA (Defense-adjusted Value Over Average) in 2011 to ninth in 2012. The Saints still ranked second in the NFL in terms of total offense, and were the league's No. 1-ranked pass defense, but having to throw the ball all the time led to the rushing offense to rank 25th in 2012, averaging less than 100 yards per game on the ground.
What went right: Four Saints would compete in the Pro Bowl, though only two were "Original Ballot" selections. Guard Jahri Evans was voted as a starter in his fourth straight Pro Bowl and the other selection was punter Thomas Morstead, who was tied for first in the NFL with a net punting average of 43.2 yards and had 45 touchbacks on 90 kickoffs. Evans and Morstead would be joined two injury replacements: left tackle Jermon Bushrod, who started at right tackle, and Brees, who started at quarterback for the NFC squad.
Brees led the NFL with 5,177 passing yards and 43 touchdown passes, but 19 interceptions kept his passer rating at 96.3. Another byproduct of airing the ball out was big seasons from wide receivers Marques Colston and Lance Moore, who both had over 1,000 yards receiving and combined for 16 touchdowns. Moore and Colston ranked fifth and sixth among wide receivers in Football Outsiders' DYAR (Defense-adjusted Yards Above Replacement) metric. Tight end Jimmy Graham led the team with 85 receptions, nine of which resulted in touchdowns, and was eighth among NFL tight ends in FO's DYAR metric.
Coaching/front office changes: One of the first things Payton did upon his return from a season-long suspension was to fire defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo, who replaced Gregg Williams for the 2012 season. The Saints' search for a new defensive coordinator ended with the hiring of Rob Ryan, who had been fired after spending the previous two seasons with the Dallas Cowboys. At the same time the Saints hired Ryan, they announced that they would be moving to a 3-4 defense on a full-time basis after dabbling with 3-4 looks the last few seasons, but remaining a base 4-3 team.
Estimated 2013 cap space: $15 million over their projected 2013 adjusted cap number.
Possible cap casualties: The Saints have nibbled a bit at their cap issue by releasing veteran tight end David Thomas and waiving cornerback Johnny Patrick. The two moves saved just over $2 million cap space. Another $3 million in cap space was freed up when inside linebacker Curtis Lofton agreed to restructure his contract. The Saints will likely restructure the contract of David Hawthorne, who has a $3 million roster bonus due on March 14. Hawthorne was banged up in 2012, playing in 28.14 percent of the defensive snaps, but his $1 million base salary in 2013 is fully guaranteed (with no offsets) and he and Lofton could make for a decent pairing of inside 'backers in a 3-4 system.
Other restructure candidates include Drew Brees, guards Jahri Evans and Ben Grubbs, wide receiver Marques Colston, cornerback Jabari Greer and safety Roman Harper. What makes restructures a possibility for these six players is that all or a portion of their base salaries were either fully guaranteed at the time of the contract's signing or became fully guaranteed (with no offsets) on the third day of the 2013 waiver period, which began after Super Bowl XLVII.
Two potential candidates for release are defensive end Will Smith and linebacker Jonathan Vilma, who may not be fits in Ryan's new 3-4 system. Smith is 6-foot-3 and 282 pounds, turns 32 in July and is due $10.15 million in cash, including a $1 million roster bonus that comes due on March 27, and has a team-high cap number of $14,541,667. Releasing Smith would clear $7.758 million in cap space. Vilma played in less than 40 percent of the Saints' defensive snaps after beginning the season on the physically unable to perform list. Vilma is entering the final season of his contract and the team could free up $6 million in cash and cap space by releasing Vilma before a $1.1 million roster bonus is due on March 13.
Unrestricted free agents
Jermon Bushrod, OT
Jonathan Casillas, LB
Chase Daniel, QB
Sedrick Ellis, DT
Devery Henderson, WR
Ramon Humber, LB
Elbert Mack, CB
Turk McBride, DE
William Robinson, OT
Courtney Roby, WR
Scott Shanle, LB
Restricted free agents
Brian De La Puente, OC
Justin Drescher, LS
Junior Gallette, DE
Chris Ivory, RB
RFA tender amounts in 2013 are:
• $1.323 million for right of first refusal and/or original draft round compensation
• $2.023 for right of first refusal and second round draft selection
• $2.879 for right of first refusal and first round draft selection
Franchise Tag candidates: The Saints are $15 million over the cap and do not have the cap space to use a franchise (or even transition) tag this offseason. If the Saints did use a tag, however, the most likely candidate would be Bushrod, a two-time Pro Bowl left tackle who has started 62 of 63 regular season games over the last four seasons. Based on a projected league-wide cap number of around $121 million, the cost of franchising Bushrod would be around $9.7 million.
With the Saints moving to a 3-4 defense under Ryan, retaining 2008 first-round nose tackle Sedrick Ellis would make sense. However, the Saints do have Brodrick Bunkley, who played nose tackle during a brief stint with the Denver Broncos. The franchise tag for a defensive tackle is projected to be worth around $8.3 million, however, because Ellis had a cap number north of $7 million, franchising Ellis would cost the Saints $8.779 million (120 percent his 2012 cap number) in fully guaranteed base salary.
Previous installments of the "Offseason TPS Reports" series:
AFC East: New England Patriots, Miami Dolphins, New York Jets, Buffalo Bills
AFC North: Baltimore Ravens, Cincinnati Bengals, Pittsburgh Steelers, Cleveland Browns
AFC South: Jacksonville Jaguars, Tennessee Titans, Indianapolis Colts, Houston Texans
AFC West: Kansas City Chiefs, Oakland Raiders, San Diego Chargers, Denver Broncos
NFC East: Philadelphia Eagles, Dallas Cowboys, New York Giants, Washington Redskins
NFC North: Detroit Lions, Chicago Bears, Minnesota Vikings, Green Bay Packers
NFC South: Carolina Panthers