We continue our team-by-team early off-season look at the NFL with the ...
NEW ORLEANS SAINTS
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2007 record: 7-9 (379-388)
2007 Expected W-L (based on PF/PA):7.8-8.2
All-time franchise record: 254-367-5 (.410)
Playoff record: 2-6 (.250)
Last five seasons: 36-44 (.450)
Best game of 2007: 41-24 home win over Jacksonville (Week 9). When the Saints' offense was on last year, the team won games – they averaged 31.1 PPG in their seven wins, none more explosive than the victory over Jacksonville. The Saints rolled up 538 yards on Jacksonville, their fourth consecutive victory and one that appeared to right a listing ship. But then they lost consecutive games to the pathetic Rams and an at-best mediocre Texans team. New Orleans would end the season with just three victories in their final eight games.
Strength: Passing game. Drew Brees took a small step back in 2008, but an 89.4 rating (despite 98 more pass attempts in 2007 than in 2006) isn't half bad. The Saints re-signed David Patten and Devery Henderson at WR, and still have hopes that 2007 1st-rounder Bobby Meachem will contribute. Reggie Bush caught more than 70 passes last year, although he did little with them. His abysmal 5.7 yards per catch was barely more than Minnesota phenom Adrian Peterson's 5.6 yards per attempt on the ground.
Defensive back seven. It'd be easy to blame the secondary alone for the Saints' No. 32 showing in Defensive Passer Rating
(96.9), but their linebackers were clearly a problem as well. All three of their starters at LB (Scott Shanle, Scott Fujita, Mark Simoneau) were free agents that had been part-time guys in other cities. Fujita alone is routinely a part of some of the worst defenses in football. During his time as a starter with the Chiefs, for example, Kansas City could stop nobody in the ground and his speciality seemed to be getting knocked 10 yards off the ball. The Saints defense has fared no better during his two years in New Orleans. The addition of ILB Jonathan Vilma can only help.
Most underrated player: WR Marques Colston. This guy is mentioned as a pretty good receiver, but he goes beyond that. Not only did he break 1,000 yards as a rookie in only 12 starts, he followed it up with 98-1,202-11 as a second-year man despite battling injury and the lack of a standout No. 2 option at WR. He had six drops on 143 balls thrown his way, and Drew Brees completed 68.5 percent of the passes thrown to Colston – top numbers for a WR.
Unit on the rise: Secondary. Wait, what? Yes, the Saints secondary was the worst in the league last year. However, the addition of DE Bobby McCray to the defensive line and CB Randall Gay to the secondary and the firing of secondary coach Tom Hayes are all steps in the right direction. By all accounts, CB Jason David was the main offender in the secondary, and if he shifts to a more-natural role as a nickel back and young safeties Roman Harper and Josh Bullocks step up ... well, they've got to be a bit better, don't they?
Silly-season activity: The Saints have had a good free-agent period. They added four starting-level players to the defense (McCray, Gay, Vilma and LB Dan Morgan), and lost only C Jeff Faine while re-signing several of their own lesser free agents they wanted to keep.
2007 Draft grade: F. Wow. The Saints' draft was just an utter failure of epic proportions. First-round WR Robert Meachem didn't play a single down all year, and the Saints got a total of one start from their entire rookie class. If you're looking for reasons why New Orleans went from title-game contender in 2006 to nobody in 2007, there's a big one.
2008 Draft power: 1st (10), 2nd (41), 3rd (79), 5th (141), 6th (172), 7th (201)
General Draft strategy: The Saints have gone offense in the first round in five of the last seven drafts, and missed badly on one of their two defensive top picks (DT Johnathan Sullivan, 2003). This tend has obviously contributed to their problems on defense, where there were only four home-grown starters on defense. This was in keeping with the Saints' pathetic showing in 2007, and the Saints will almost certainly utilize most of their total draft power on defense in 2008.
Youth/experience: The Saints were one of the older teams in the league last year, with 12 players 30 or older starting games at times. Only 11 members of their last three draft classes played for the team in 2007, and there are a lot of free-agent types in their late 20s on the roster.
Coaching: Sean Payton is 17-15 in two years with New Orleans, not so much better than the departed Jim Haslett's 45-51 over five years. Payton hasn't figured out how to get productive yards out of Reggie Bush despite a great QB and solid offensive line. He'll be on the hot seat this year. Defensive coordinator Gary Gibbs was lucky to keep his job after New Orleans' disastrous showing last year, but New Orleans was a solid 13th in scoring defense during the playoff run of 2006. The Saints have a new special-teams coach, Greg McMahon, replacing John Bonamego. New Orleans was 29th on our Special Teams Index last year.
So, which Saints team is for real? The 10-6 team of 2006 that threatened to go to the Super Bowl? Or the 7-9 team of 2007 that couldn't play defense or run the ball? The Saints were pretty poor across the board in 2K7, failing to break into the top 10 in any of the Quality Stats
. But they've averaged 25.8 PPG and 23.7 PPG in two years with a young offense that should be hitting its stride in 2008. It all hinges on whether the defense can be fixed – a pretty big if, considering last year's performance. Their schedule should be favorable – of their opponents, only Green Bay, Dallas and San Diego won more than 9 games in 2007. They won't be a trendy Super Bowl pick, but as long as Brees-to-Colston is in effect they'll have a chance to go as far as the defense will let them. And if Reggie Bush ever breaks through with numbers that match his talent, the sky's the limit.