It's becoming an annual tradition here at NFL.com. Each summer, I seek out the league's most fascinating team for the upcoming season. I try to find a team that has intriguing storylines and potential drama, a team that has both a very high ceiling and a relatively low floor. Last offseason, I picked the Seattle Seahawks. This time around ...
Are they a seven-win squad with one of the league's worst defenses? Are they a 12-win bunch that should be taken as seriously as -- or more seriously than -- the Green Bay Packers, New England Patriots and New York Giants (other teams with elite, Super Bowl-winning combinations at quarterback and head coach)?
In New Orleans, of course, the fascination begins with the head man. Welcome back, coach. I can't wait for the Sean Payton Redemption Tour -- scowling, muttering, fist-pumping and generally swashbuckling his way through a wild ride.
Payton is a football junkie, and he was without his vice last year, serving a season-long suspension for his role in Bountygate. The Saints suffered. The league wasn't the same. Payton is a true difference maker, as one of the most intense, colorful and bold coaches in the NFL today. You know it was painful for him to miss a season. I thought the Saints would take a bit of a step back without Payton, but I didn't think they would crumble.
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New Orleans missed his cocksure demeanor and accountability. Drew Brees and the offense missed his aggressive style and the rhythm of his play calling. Payton establishes an attitude and doesn't care what the pundits think. Go for it on fourth-and-3 from the Saints' own 35? Why not?! Payton was just forced to spend a year away from his passion, which gives you the sense that he's going to be even more intense and even more aggressive in calling offensive plays and managing the game. The Saints thrive on his mindset, even when it flies in the face of conventional wisdom. I think this season is going to be a 16-game reminder of what we missed last year.
Offensively, the Saints have the pieces to compete for another Super Bowl title. They have that aforementioned sensational pair at quarterback and head coach. I can't wait to see Brees and Payton working together again. Despite posting some gaudy numbers last year, Brees didn't enjoy as stellar a season as we're accustomed to seeing from the veteran star. You can chalk it up to Payton's absence or his own offseason holdout. In 2013, I think Brees is primed for a run at league MVP.
General manager Mickey Loomis has stockpiled incredible offensive talent around his franchise quarterback. Tight end Jimmy Graham is a freak, one of the most dangerous weapons in the entire league, and here's the scary part: I don't think the former basketball player has even reached his peak yet. Loomis stole Graham in 2010 NFL Draft. The very next offseason, Loomis pilfered Darren Sproles in free agency. The jitterbug is a terror in New Orleans' offense, and his explosiveness will be on full display yet again with Payton back as the maestro. Pierre Thomas is solid. Mark Ingram should be, the Saints hope, better. Meanwhile, Marques Colston anchors an underrated receiving corps, where Drew Brees' favorite target is the open target. One potential concern: The offensive line has gone through some personnel changes over the last few years. It will be interesting to see how this group jells.
Still, the bottom line is that I have a ton of confidence in this offense.
I do not have the same feeling with the Rob Ryan-led defense. Not even close.
Ryan has never coordinated an elite defense. I thought this was a head-scratching hire by the Saints. Suddenly, they want to play more of a 3-4. Unfortunately, they've drafted for a 4-3 through the years. Can Will Smith make the transition to outside linebacker after spending his entire career at defensive end? It's a major question, which is a common theme with this unit ...
How much does Jonathan Vilma have left in the tank? He loathed playing the 3-4 with the New York Jets (before getting traded to New Orleans). Are the cornerbacks good enough to deal with the top-flight receivers in the NFC South and on the rest of the schedule? Precedent says no. Can Ryan generate a consistent enough pass rush to help them out?
And of course, the overriding question: How will Ryan get along with Payton? Coupling those two attitudes, it certainly won't be boring. Neither man is known for shyness.
Finally, look at the schedule. I know: This is a pointless exercise. But it truly adds to the intrigue -- particularly, the opening stanza.
New Orleans kicks off the season at home against the rival Atlanta Falcons before hitting the road to face the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Are those should-win games for the Saints? Will they get both? Will they even win one? Before a bye in Week 7, New Orleans hosts the Arizona Cardinals and Miami Dolphins prior to roadies against the Chicago Bears and New England Patriots. Are the Dolphins more talented than the Saints? The Bears and Patriots are very similar to the Saints. Does this all add up to 4-2? 3-3? 2-4? Better? Worse? You could make very intelligent arguments all around.
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Here's what I believe: Brees and Payton will be back with more swagger and carry the defense (which will be awful early ... before getting a bit better down the stretch). I think New Orleans should bounce back and win 9 or 10 games. These Saints will lose games you think they should win and win games they are expected to lose. Tampa Bay is very close, but New Orleans is the second-best team in the NFC South behind Atlanta. At least that's what I believe.
Here's one thing I know: It won't be boring in New Orleans.