Shutdown Countdown: The return of Sean Payton is great news for the New Orleans Saints

Brian McIntyre
Shutdown Corner

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For the New Orleans Saints, 2012 was a year they'd like to forget.

2012 started badly, beginning with a 36-32 loss to the San Francisco 49ers in the 2011 NFC divisional playoffs. Then there were the "Bountygate" suspensions that cost the team the services of Sean Payton for the entirety of the 2012 season, during which the Saints were often a mess.

The offense may have racked up yards and points, but they were less efficient, dropping from second to ninth in Football Outsiders' offensive DVOA (Defense-adjusted Value Over Average). The defense, "led" by coordinator Steve Spagnuolo, set a single-season NFL record for yards allowed (7,042) and ranked dead last against the run, 31st against the pass and had the league's 31st-ranked scoring defense, allowing 28.4 point per game. Had it not been for Drew Brees and the offense's ability to score points (28.8 per game average), the Saints would have finished with a record far worse than the 7-9 mark they managed in 2012.

It's a new year and there's plenty for the Saints to be optimistic about. Payton was reinstated in January and was quickly signed to a five-year extension that is reportedly worth over $8 million per season. Spagnuolo is gone, news that was likely met with glee in the defensive meeting rooms after an anonymous player ripped the departed defensive coordinator after the season. To replace Spags, Payton picked up defensive coordinator Rob Ryan, who had been fired by the Dallas Cowboys and will be overseeing the Saints' conversion from a predominantly 4-3 defense to a full-time 3-4 base defense.

The Saints are no longer the top team in the NFC South. That distinction now belongs to the Atlanta Falcons, and both the Saints and Falcons should be wary of the Carolina Panthers. However, even with a difficult schedule — the NFC West is deep and talented and road games to Chicago and New England won't be easy — the Saints are a good bet to in the playoff mix this season.

Is the roster better, worse or about the same?: On paper, the roster appears to be worse. Gone are left tackle Jermon Bushrod, wide receiver Devery Henderson and defensive tackle Sedrick Ellis, each of whom landing on playoff-caliber teams within the NFC (Bushrod and Ellis to the Chicago Bears, Henderson to the Washington Redskins). The only notable free agent addition was cornerback Keenan Lewis, who along with first-round safety Kenny Vaccaro, provide upgrades in the secondary of the NFL's worst defense from 2012.

Best offseason acquisition: Aside from getting Payton back, the addition of Lewis was the team's top offseason addition. The Saints signed the New Orleans native to a five-year, $25.5 million contract that included $10.5 million to improve a pass defense that allowed 292.6 passing yards per game (31st in the NFL) and an NFL-worst 7.78 passing yards per play. Lewis was the No. 2 corner with the Pittsburgh Steelers and was one of the most-targeted cornerback in the league. With his size and length, Lewis could be asked to shadow the opponents' No. 1 receiver in New Orleans. According to the Football Outsiders Almanac 2013, the Saints defense ranked last in the league against opposing No. 1 receivers.

Biggest hole on the roster: As the Saints change to a 3-4 base defense under Rob Ryan, the biggest question mark is at outside linebacker. The Saints are attempting to move 32-year-old Will Smith, a 282-pound defensive end, to the position, which should be interesting when he has to drop into coverage. The Saints had hoped to start Victor Butler, a promising pass-rushing prospect who followed Ryan from Dallas to New Orleans. Butler suffered a torn ACL during one of the final practices of the offseason and will miss the 2013 season.

Position in flux: Payton mentioned during the offseason that the uncertainty at the left tackle position keeps him up at night. And it should. The Saints let Bushrod hit free agency and he scored a five-year, $35.965 million contract from the Bears. After doling out $92.7 million in contracts to guard Jahri Evans and Ben Grubbs, the Saints simply did not have the cap space or inclination to hand another big money contract to another offensive lineman, no matter how critical Bushrod had been to keeping Brees upright. The "favorite" to replace Bushrod is 2010 second-round pick Charles Brown, who has just eight starts in 21 NFL games during his first three seasons in the league. Also competing for the spot are Jason Smith, the No. 2 overall pick of the 2009 NFL draft whose career with the St. Louis Rams was derailed by concussions. The Saints also drafted Terron Armstead in the third-round of the 2013 draft. Armstead is an impressive athlete, but is very raw and is not expected to crack the starting lineup this season.

Player you might not have heard of yet, but will soon: The Saints drafted Martez Wilson out of Illinois in the third-round of the 2011 NFL draft. Wilson played inside linebacker in college, but the Saints moved him to defensive end. With the team moving to a 3-4 defense, Wilson is now slated to play outside linebacker where he could be successful as an edge rusher. In 333 snaps in 29 games over the last two seasons, Wilson has four sacks and nine quarterback hits.

Stat fact: The Saints defense has allowed 14 pass plays of 40 or more yards in each of the last two seasons.

This team’s best-case scenario for the 2013 season: With Payton back on the sidelines, the Saints offense is more efficient and continues to put points on the scoreboard. The change to a 3-4 defense goes smoothly under Ryan and the Saints don't even come close to setting a dubious NFL single-season record for yards allowed as the franchise wins 11+ games and makes the playoffs for the fourth time in the last five seasons, proving that 2012 was a fluke.

And here’s the nightmare scenario: The left side of the offensive line is a disaster, Brees takes more hits than his 6-foot, 209-pound frame can handle and the offense struggles as the top four skill-position players (Brees, Marques Colston, Lance Moore and Darren Sproles) all begin to show their age (average age: 31.2 years). The defense can't create pressure on opposing quarterbacks, the secondary continues to give up big plays and the Saints struggle just to finish .500.

The player who could swing this team’s season one way or another: With just nine starts and 1,076 yards and 10 touchdowns over his 26-game career, it's easy to forget that Mark Ingram was a Heisman trophy winner and a player the Saints once traded two high draft picks (a 2011 second-round and a 2012 first-round pick) to the New England Patriots for the opportunity to select the former Alabama standout. Ingram has been mostly used as a short-yardage back (thus explaining the low yardage and high touchdown total output), but is finally healthy and could push Pierre Thomas for the starting job and perhaps add some balance to the Saints offense.

TheShutdownCountdown previews you might have missed
32. Oakland Raiders
31. Jacksonville Jaguars
30. Arizona Cardinals
29. Buffalo Bills
28. Cleveland Browns
27. Tennessee Titans
26. Kansas City Chiefs
25. New York Jets
24. San Diego Chargers
23. Philadelphia Eagles
22. Miami Dolphins
21. St. Louis Rams
20. Minnesota Vikings
19. Tampa Bay Buccaneers
18. Dallas Cowboys
17. Detroit Lions
16. Pittsburgh Steelers
15. Indianapolis Colts

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