Jimmy Graham turned in a season to remember for the Saints.
Biggest surprise: The Saints knew it was significant when they signed Darren Sproles soon after the lockout ended. They had traded Reggie Bush and were looking for someone to replace him. But I don’t think even the Saints realized how much of an upgrade Sproles would be over Bush. Sproles turned out to be the best free-agent signing in the entire NFL and was a big reason the Saints went 13-3 and set all sorts of offensive records. Sproles had been a very nice player in San Diego, where he played the role of speed back, receiver and return man. Sproles took on all those roles in New Orleans. But he was used quite a bit more as a runner than he ever had been by the Chargers. Sproles averaged 6.9 yards per carry and also caught 86 passes for 710 yards and seven touchdowns -- all career highs.
Biggest disappointment: Despite having big-time talent in free safety Malcolm Jenkins and cornerback Jabari Greer and two other good cornerbacks in Tracy Porter and Patrick Robinson, the Saints managed only nine interceptions, which tied them for No. 28 in the NFL. That’s disappointing because the core philosophy of coordinator Gregg Williams’ defensive scheme is to come up with turnovers. That was a key when the Saints won the Super Bowl in the 2009 season. They’ll need to start coming up with some turnovers if they plan on going far this postseason. It would help if the Saints could force some mistakes with a pass rush that was mediocre during the regular season.
Biggest need: More athleticism at linebacker. The Saints got by with their current cast of linebackers this season, but there weren’t any real standouts. Middle linebacker Jonathan Vilma and outside linebacker Scott Shanle are getting older. Jonathan Casillas showed some potential when healthy and rookie Martez Wilson came on a little bit at the end of the regular season. This isn’t a glaring weakness. But the Saints could make their entire defense better if they added a playmaker or two at linebacker.
Team MVP: This is the easiest call ever. Quarterback Drew Brees is the MVP for the Saints. Heck, you can make a very strong case he’s the MVP of the NFL. In fact, I’ll go ahead and make that case right now. Yeah, I know Green Bay’s Aaron Rodgers will probably win the league-wide MVP award, largely because his team went 15-1 and the Packers have such a huge national following. But Brees’ numbers were better in many areas. Quite simply, Brees had one of the best years ever by a quarterback. His 5,476 passing yards set a league record. He also threw a career-high 46 touchdown passes and completed a career-best 71.3 percent of his passes. With his contract expiring the minute the Saints are done playing in the postseason, Brees has made his case to become the highest-paid player in NFL history.
On the road to greatness: The Saints obviously liked what they saw out of rookie tight end Jimmy Graham last season. His debut was so promising that the Saints felt comfortable in releasing veteran tight end Jeremy Shockey. But you have to wonder if this was a little like Sproles, where the Saints got even more than they thought they were getting. Graham, who played only one year of college football after playing basketball at the University of Miami, turned in one of the most prolific seasons ever by a tight end. Graham had 99 catches for 1,310 yards and 11 touchdowns. His athleticism caused all sorts of matchup problems for opposing defenses and this guy hasn’t even hit his full potential yet.