|Jason O. Watson/US Presswire|
|In his second season in the NFL, the Saints' Jimmy Graham led all tight ends with 99 receptions in 2011.|
With the 2011 season in the rearview mirror for most teams, it's time for NFL.com's annual "Exit Interviews," a chance to review the ups and downs of each team's past season and spin it forward.
2011 in a Nutshell: Disappointment. Tough to characterize the 2011 season in any other way, due to the fact that many inside and outside the organization felt they could repeat what this franchise did in 2009: win it all. Still, delivering a 13-3 record, a playoff win, and several NFL records on offense represented part of a campaign that many organizations around the league would take in a heartbeat.
What Went Right: Almost anything that draws up images of offense, scoring, or dudes in black tights slam-dunking the ball over the crossbar and running around like little kids ... that went right. The Saints seemingly scored at will, topping 40 points eight times during the 2011 season, including four in a row from Week 15 to the wild-card win over the Lions.
Drew Brees was unstoppable, taking advantage of the rules that consistently limit the manner in which defensive backs can play, throwing for a league-record 5,476 yards and 46 touchdowns. He also cut down his interceptions from 22 to 14. Meanwhile his receivers consistently made big plays, with Marques Colston leading the pack with more than 1,100 yards. Like Colston, Lance Moore had eight receiving touchdowns while Robert Meachem and Devery Henderson contributed several big plays between them. Tight end Jimmy Graham (99 receptions, 1,310 yards, 11 TDs) has only one peer in the NFL: Rob Gronkowski.
Defensively, New Orleans got its act together towards the end of the regular season, limiting four of its last five opponents to 17 points or less.
What Went Not So Right: Unfortunately, that same defense was barely effective through the first 11 games. Too often guys like Tracy Porter, Patrick Robinson or Roman Harper were out of position, and the linebackers failed to make enough plays, especially when Jonathan Vilma was hurt. His absence through the middle of the season hampered what defensive coordinator Gregg Williams could do. It's no coincidence that once Vilma returned in Week 13, the defense got a whole lot better.
It would've helped if New Orleans could have gotten more pressure. Despite teams throwing 626 passes on them -- the third-highest total in the NFL -- the Saints only got to the quarterback 33 times, which was tied for 19th in the league. That's not a good discrepancy.
Offseason Crystal Ball: There's much to get to this offseason for the Saints. Brees is a free agent. The likelihood of him signing elsewhere is slim. He might very well get the franchise tag. Yet, GM Mickey Loomis must solve that albatross of an issue before getting to other free agency concerns.
Then there's what to do with free agent Marques Colston. The Hofstra product ain't taking a pay cut, so temper the hopes. Whether the Saints want to spend the money to appease the 1,100-yard receiver is the question. Another offensive Pro Bowler, guard Carl Nicks, is also a free agent. He would be a tough loss, considering he's a big part of one of the best offensive lines in football.
On the sidelines, Williams and his risky schemes are headed to St. Louis. His replacement, Steve Spagnuolo, will use the offseason to teach his brand of defense. Spagnuolo believes in rotating linemen and getting pressure with fresh legs from the front four, an idea he rode to a Super Bowl win as Giants defensive coordinator. Doing it with the Saints' personnel is a different story.
Offensively, look for Sean Payton to get running back Mark Ingram more involved in the offense. Such a development would serve to close games out, as well as make the offense more productive in short yardage. Ingram wasn't a dud as a rookie, but his overall impact was negligible. Having a full season without a lockout will surely help the kid.
Team Needs and Draft: Because the Saints traded up to get Ingram last April, they will not have a first-round pick. That said, New Orleans has been weak at linebacker for some time now. Not awful, but linebacker is definitely not the strong point of this club. Getting help on the defensive line is a necessity, particularly with both Aubrayo Franklin and Shaun Rogers being free agents. The 2012 draft has plenty of prospects in this area. It's a matter of who will be left when the Saints pick 59th.
Follow Elliot Harrison on Twitter @Harrison_NFL