Print and Go Back ESPN.com: NFC South [Print without images]

Thursday, September 1, 2011
Previewing and predicting the Saints

By Pat Yasinskas
ESPN.com

For those who have been following as we’ve rolled out the predictions for the NFC South, you know by now that I’ve picked the New Orleans Saints to win the division.

It was a close call over Atlanta, and I suspect the race will be close throughout the season. I think both teams are going to be very good. But there are two reasons I chose the Saints. One is Drew Brees. The other is that I think they have a more talented roster than in the 2009 season when they won the Super Bowl.

Here’s the link to the complete preview page on the Saints. And here’s what I wrote about them.

Five things you need to know about the Saints:

1. Coach Sean Payton and GM Mickey Loomis don't sit still: They recognized the main reasons why they got beat by Seattle in the first round of last season's playoffs and went out and addressed those areas heavily. The price wasn't cheap. After drafting defensive end Cameron Jordan, the Saints traded back into the first round to get running back Mark Ingram. That led to the departure of Reggie Bush and the arrival of Darren Sproles, who will be used as a speed back. But the real key was adding Ingram. He should give the Saints the kind of consistency they've lacked in the running game since Deuce McAllister was still going strong. On the defensive side, the Saints knew they had to get better at stopping the run, so they went out and spent big money to get defensive tackles Aubrayo Franklin and Shaun Rogers.

2. Drew Brees isn't going to have a two-season "slump": Brees threw a career-high 22 interceptions last season and that was totally out of character for a guy who has been the model of efficiency since his arrival in New Orleans. Brees had a knee issue surface early last season. It never sidelined him and the Saints never talked much about it. But you have to assume the knee played some role in Brees having an off year by his lofty standards. The knee has had time to recover and the arrival of Ingram and Sproles should bring new dimensions out of the backfield. Brees should bounce back to his old form.

3. The defense isn't going to sit on its heels: One of the other major reasons the Saints weren't able to repeat as Super Bowl champions was because last year's defense wasn't the turnover machine it was in 2009. Coordinator Gregg Williams knows that and he's not the type to sit back and let it happen again. Williams is a big believer that the best way to create turnovers is to apply more pressure. Defensive ends Will Smith and the rookie Jordan need to produce a consistent pass rush, but Williams will supplement them with plenty of blitzes. The Saints want to get younger at linebacker, and Will Herring and Jonathan Casillas could play bigger roles. They have fresh legs and will be asked to blitz and drop into coverage, which sometimes will allow members of the secondary to blitz.

4. There's a new star on defense: Middle linebacker Jonathan Vilma is still the unquestioned leader of this defense, but the best player on the unit down the stretch last season was free safety Malcolm Jenkins. He was in his first season as a starter, after playing cornerback as a rookie. He took over for Darren Sharper, who was a catalyst for the 2009 team, and took a little time to get comfortable. But Jenkins is a student of the game and has young, fresh legs. He should start off this season as an upgrade over what Sharper was in 2009.

5. Change can be good: It wasn't easy to let center Jonathan Goodwin leave via free agency and release veteran right tackle Jon Stinchcomb. They were part of an offensive line that was great in 2009 and Goodwin still played at a high level last season. But the Saints didn't want to sign Goodwin, 32, to a long-term deal. Instead, they signed Olin Kreutz, 34, and plan to use him as a bridge until Matt Tennant is ready to be the center. Stinchcomb's level of play dropped dramatically last year as he played with a quadriceps injury. The Saints decided it was time to get younger at that position and they probably will go with Zach Strief. He has been a backup most of his career, but there's hope he can step up. If not, second-year pro Charles Brown could be an option.

DIVISION FINISH: 1 I'm picking the Saints for one reason -- on paper, they have more talent than they did in 2009. We know Sean Payton and Gregg Williams can coach and the roster is loaded. Plus, Brees is the only NFC South starting QB ever to win a playoff game.