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                === New Orleans Saints 2013 Season Preview ===
 
 By Shawn Clarke, Contributing NFL Editor
 
 (Sports Network) - It wasn't anarchic as the storyline from William Golding's
 classic novel "Lord of the Flies," but last season for the New Orleans Saints
 was in disarray without figurehead Sean Payton.
 
 Due to his alleged involvement in a bounty scandal, Payton was suspended
 without pay the entire 2012 campaign. Payton, the first head coach suspended
 by the league for any reason, was accused of trying to cover up a system of
 payouts on targeted players from opposing teams.
 
 Even then-defensive coordinator Gregg Williams received an indefinite ban from
 NFL commissioner Roger Goodell.
 
 Payton, one of just seven active coaches to lead a team to a Super Bowl
 victory, is back with the Saints and excited to resume head coaching duties.
 
 "Just getting back to being out on the field in practice and having a chance
 to coach in a regular game, that part of it is exciting," Payton said earlier
 this month. "The fans have been great. They get excited about our team,
 especially at the start of the season after everything that went on a year
 ago. I know our players are excited to play."
 
 The Saints lost their edge a bit without Payton and lost their first four
 games of last season en route to a 7-9 finish, the worst since an identical
 mark back 2007. They managed to get their act together by winning five of the
 last nine games of the season and Drew Brees had another epic campaign. He was
 one of the heavy supporters for Payton and is glad to hear his voice again.
 
 "I had Sean Payton in my ear for 5 1/2 years," Brees said in late July "I've
 got confidence in whomever is calling the plays, but I'm happy to have Sean's
 voice in my ear (again)."
 
 Brees finished first in the NFL last season with 5,177 passing yards, 43
 touchdown passes and was tied with 19 interceptions. The veteran quarterback
 is the bona fide leader of this team and the Saints would be in deep sludge
 without him. Brees, one of the more intelligent signal callers in the league,
 still has a bevy of weapons at his disposal in New Orleans' fast-paced style
 of offense. The Saints enjoy attacking opponents through the air and, with
 Payton back, will compete with Atlanta again for NFC South bragging rights.
 
 New Orleans is expected to have a four or five-game turnaround in 2013 if the
 offense can revert back to its balanced ways under Payton. The ground game
 finished 25th in the NFL with 98.6 yards per game and it will once again be a
 committee approach this season.
 
 A potent offense needs a stingy defense to maintain leads and give the likes
 of Brees, the offensive line and other skill position players a rest. New
 Orleans was simply awful on defense a year ago, finishing near the bottom in
 every major category. The Saints were last in rushing yards allowed (147.6)
 and total yards allowed (440.1), and 31st against the pass (292.6) and points
 allowed (28.4) under defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo, whose defense gave
 up 7,042 yards last season, the most yards given up by a team in NFL history.
 
 The Saints needed to counter their high-powered offense with a different
 philosophy on defense, so they hired Rob Ryan as Spagnuolo's replacement.
 Ryan's flowing locks will be on the sidelines and he will implement is
 energetic 3-4 defense, which consists of position shifts and changes up front.
 Ryan tries to intensify pressure up front and hold up blockers to allow the
 linebackers and secondary to make plays. The Saints had just 30 sacks last
 season, while Ryan's Dallas Cowboys unit registered 34.
 
 In fact, the Cowboys weren't that great on defense as they were 19th in both
 pass defense (230.2) and total yards allowed (355.4), 22nd in rush defense
 (125.2) and 24th in points allowed (25.0). Whether Ryan can make it work with
 his aggressive nature and co-exist with Payton will be one of the team's
 biggest obstacles.
 
 2012 RECORD: 7-9 (tied for 2nd, NFC South)
 
 LAST PLAYOFF APPEARANCE: 2011 (lost to San Francisco Divisional Round)
 
 HEAD COACH (RECORD): Sean Payton (62-34, eighth season)
 
 OFFENSIVE COORDINATOR: Pete Carmichael (fifth season with Saints)
 
 DEFENSIVE COORDINATOR: Rob Ryan (first season with Saints)
 
 KEY ADDITIONS: S Jim Leonhard (from Broncos), LB Victor Butler (from Cowboys),
 CB Chris Carr (from Chargers), CB Keenan Lewis (from Steelers), S Kenny
 Vaccaro (draft), WR Kenny Stills (draft), TE Benjamin Watson (from Browns), QB
 Luke McCown (from Falcons)
 
 KEY DEPARTURES: QB Chase Daniel (Chiefs), QB Seneca Wallace (released), WR
 Steve Breaston (released), WR Patrick Crayton (released), RB Chris Ivory
 (Jets), WR Devery Henderson (released), DT Sedrick Ellis (Bears)
 
 QB: Brees (5,177 yards, 43 TD, 19 INT) tried desperately to hold the Saints'
 offense together during the tumultuous 2012 season and did the best he could.
 Known for lighting up the sky within New Orleans' aerial attack, Brees has
 thrown for 5,000-plus yards in back-to-back seasons and could be eyeing
 another now that Payton is back. Brees, though, proved that he didn't need his
 coach on the sidelines to inspire another passing masterpiece.
 
 Brees has also thrown 40 or more TD passes in back-to-back campaigns and had
 thrown a TD pass in 54 games in a row until Atlanta picked him off five times
 in November. His 19 interceptions were the most since he had 22 in 2010, so
 the Saints are hoping he can keep that down.
 
 Luke McCown is the new backup in New Orleans after Chase Daniel headed to
 Kansas City. McCown played two games with Atlanta last season and spent
 training camp with the Saints in 2012. McCown is a seasoned veteran and has
 played in 22 career games (9 starts) with the Browns, Tampa Bay Buccaneers,
 Jacksonville Jaguars and Falcons.
 
 GRADE: A
 
 RB: It will be another running-back-by-committee approach for the Saints'
 backfield with Pierre Thomas, Mark Ingram and Darren Sproles.
 
 New Orleans struggled on the ground last season, finishing 25th in the NFL
 with 98.6 yards per game, and it appears nobody wants to prove their worth as
 the starter. Ingram (602 yards, 5 TD) led the bunch in rushing and really
 hasn't lived up to expectations after winning a Heisman Trophy. Ingram, who's
 also injury prone, also had a team-best 156 carries, while Thomas (473 yards,
 TD) was second in touches with 105.
 
 With Chris Ivory now playing for the New York Jets, Sproles could see more
 carries. The multi-purpose back has the most talent in the backfield yet he is
 tremendously undersized. Sproles (244 rushing yards, TD) shined in the passing
 game with 667 yards and seven TDs on 75 catches, third-highest on the team.
 The Saints need a balanced attack to regain their dominant form from years
 past and it rests on the shoulders of these running backs. In 2011, the Saints
 finished the season ranked sixth overall in the NFL in total rushing yards
 (2,127).
 
 GRADE: C+
 
 WR: The reason why Brees and the Saints' offense has been so potent over the
 last few seasons is because of the passing game. Brees helped the Saints
 finish first with 312.3 passing yards per game last season, second in total
 yards with 410.9 and third in points scored at 28.8. With so many weapons in
 the aerial assault, there's no reason why New Orleans won't compete for
 another NFC South title.
 
 The Saints nearly had three 1,000-yard receivers a season ago, as Marques
 Colston (1,154 yards, 10 TD), Lance Moore (1,041 yards, 6 TD) and Jimmy Graham
 (982 yards, 9 TD) garnered much of the attention.
 
 Graham has been Brees' favorite target recently and battled with a wrist
 ailment in 2012. It didn't stop Graham from playing 15 games and finishing
 with a team-best 85 receptions. Colston and Moore are New Orleans' deep
 threats and Devery Henderson took his talents elsewhere in the offseason.
 
 Rookie Kenny Stills was drafted in April and veteran tight end Ben Watson was
 added in the offseason to provide stability. Wideout Joe Morgan suffered an
 ACL injury and is out for the season. Sproles and Thomas are also valuable
 commodities out of the backfield. Will the Saints' offense be more potent than
 Atlanta's? Perhaps, but the Falcons do have the edge right now.
 
 GRADE: A-
 
 TE: Graham is one of the best tight ends in the game and his height and size
 add to that claim. The sure-handed Graham, who led the Saints in receiving for
 a second year in a row, underwent wrist surgery in the offseason and dropped
 15 passes in 2012. That number must be cut in half this season. Graham, a
 former hoops star at the University of Miami, ranks second among NFL tight
 ends and sixth overall in receiving since 2011 with 184 catches for 2,292
 yards (12.5 avg.) and 20 touchdowns. Graham has deceiving speed and is a
 matchup nightmare for ends and linebackers.
 
 If should anything happen to Graham, health-wise, the Saints have Watson as an
 insurance policy. Watson played the past three seasons with the Browns. Last
 season, he recorded 49 receptions for 501 yards and three touchdowns in 16
 games.
 
 GRADE: A
 
 OL: Granted Brees has enough time and smarts to hit the open receiver, but
 reading defenses doesn't always work out. Brees was sacked 26 times last
 season, one short of his career high in 2005 with San Diego. The 26 sacks,
 though, tied for third in the league in fewest allowed. In fact, the former
 Purdue star has been sacked at least 20 times in each of the previous four
 season (95 total).
 
 For the lack of protection Brees may sometimes get, the offensive line should
 be blamed for last season's ineptitude in the ground game. Guard Jahri Evans,
 one of the best in the business, and tackle Jermon Bushrod were named to the
 Pro Bowl last season, but Bushrod is no longer with the team. Evans was
 selected to his fourth consecutive Pro Bowl, while center Brian de la Puente
 is coming off his first full season as a starter.
 
 An entire offseason and training camp can only make this line even more
 cohesive. Charles Brown is penciled in to start at left tackle, Brees' blind
 side, and Zach Strief is expected to win the job at right tackle. Ben Grubbs
 is at left guard for the Saints, who were hoping to add depth with Jason
 Smith, but he was cut on Wednesday.
 
 Eric Olsen is a quality backup and rookie tackle Terron Armstead is hoping to
 gain some valuable experience in his first season. The line helped the offense
 soar in a lot of categories last season, but struggled in others.
 
 GRADE: C+
 
 DL: Switching to a 3-4 scheme could help the Saints' awful defense from a year
 ago. But if they still can't apply pressure up front or stymie the run game,
 then what's the point?
 
 Defensive end Kenyon Coleman, who came over with Ryan from Dallas, will miss
 the season with a chest injury and played in just seven games last season.
 Rookie defensive tackle John Jenkins and rookie end Rufus Johnson hope to see
 action up front, while Akiem Hicks (20 tackles) and Cameron Jordan (66
 tackles, 8 sacks) are expected to start at the end spots.
 
 Jordan, who played in a 3-4 defense in college, is a young and up-and-coming
 talent and led the unit in sacks last season. Trying to help the inexperienced
 Jenkins up front will be starting nose tackle Brodrick Bunkley. Bunkley (23
 tackles, 2 1/2 sacks) is a veteran of the game and needs to collapse the
 pocket more often this season.
 
 GRADE: C
 
 LB: Since a 3-4 system moves personnel around, Will Smith will be playing a
 new position from his ordinary DE spot. Smith (58 tackles, 6 sacks) was second
 in sacks last season and is now on the outside.
 
 Junior Galette (20 tackles, 5 sacks) will start on the opposite end of Smith
 and is making a transition from the defensive line as well. Galette played
 well in a rotation last season and his role will increase in 2013.
 
 New Orleans leading tackler Curtis Lofton (123 tackles, sack) and Jonathan
 Vilma (37 tackles, sack) will man the inside spots for Ryan's stop unit. Vilma
 reportedly underwent knee surgery earlier this month and is expected to play
 in Week 1. Vilma played in 11 games last season, starting 10, and allegedly
 played a key role in the bounty scandal. If the Saints fail to slow opposing
 offenses down up front, the linebackers will be in for a long day. That's why
 it's important for the lineman to hold up blockers so the linebackers can
 attack ball carriers or get sacks.
 
 Butler was signed in the offseason, but tore his ACL in OTAs. He was supposed
 to be a pass rusher in Ryan's new system.
 
 GRADE: C
 
 DB: It's difficult to imagine the Saints struggling so badly against the pass
 last season with two of the more talented safeties in the league. Roman Harper
 (115 tackles, 2 INT) and Malcolm Jenkins (94 tackles, INT) are great tacklers
 and hitters in this league. They were beaten in coverage several times last
 season and need to produce more turnovers. The Saints are hoping the new
 defense will open more holes for both Harper and Jenkins.
 
 Hard-hitting rookie Kenny Vaccaro was drafted to push either one of the
 safeties and may even crack the starting lineup by mid-season.
 
 Cornerbacks Jabari Greer (51 tackles, 3 INT) and Keenan Lewis (71 tackles)
 have their work cut out for them in the NFC South and the latter was signed
 away from Pittsburgh in the offseason. Lewis is a New Orleans native and led
 the league with 28 passes defensed a season ago.
 
 The Saints have some depth in the secondary with Patrick Robinson (63 tackles,
 3 INT), who finished tied for the team lead in picks, Corey White (31 tackles,
 INT) and newcomers Jim Leonard (18 tackles) and Chris Carr (4 tackles).
 
 Leonard appeared in 16 games last season for the Denver Broncos and the
 undrafted Wisconsin product is playing for his fifth NFL team. Carr played
 nine games with San Diego in 2012.
 
 GRADE: C
 
 SPECIAL TEAMS: For how dangerous Sproles is running and catching the football,
 he can cause some damage in the return game, too. Sproles will handle both
 kickoff and punt return duties even though he'll be put in harm's way. Sproles
 had 18 kickoff returns for 483 yards (26.8) and 23 punt returns for 183
 yards (14) last season. His small stature makes it difficult for defenders to
 see him and Sproles has quick feet for proper cuts. Sproles has brought back
 five kickoffs and punts for touchdowns since 2007.
 
 Kicker Garrett Hartley connected on 18 of his 22 field goal attempts last
 season and nailed all 57 of his PAT tries. Perhaps no kicker gets more
 involved in extra-point plays than Hartley, who kicked the Saints to the Super
 Bowl a few years ago and missed 2011 with a hip issue.
 
 Punter/holder Thomas Morstead averaged 50.1 yards per punt on 74 tries (3,707
 yards) in 2012 and landed 20 inside the 20-yard line. The Pro Bowl pick's
 longest of the season was a 70-yard boom and he handles kickoff duties as
 well.
 
 Justin Drescher is the Saints' longsnapper and signed a new deal. Courtney
 Roby owns 61 special teams tackles in the past five seasons and is the captain
 of the unit. Last season he had 10 tackles, forced a fumble and recovered a
 blocked punt for a TD.
 
 GRADE: B
 
 COACHING: The return of Payton is supposed to ignite the Saints' offense once
 again and has the players relieved their head coach is back. Payton is a
 mastermind of the offense, having learned under a handful of intelligent
 minds, and he owns the franchise's top winning percentage (.646).
 
 The 14th head coach in team history, Payton is counting on Ryan's defense to
 keep opposing offenses off the field. For how poorly the Saints were a year
 ago on defense, they finished 20th in the league in points allowed and 25th in
 yardage during the championship run of 2009. But that's because Brees and the
 offense brought back memories of the St. Louis Rams from years ago with a
 dangerous pass attack and a solid ground game. New Orleans allowed 400-plus
 yards on defense in the first nine games last season, including three
 occasions in which the Saints gave up 500 or more. The streak reached 11 games
 from the 2011 playoffs. That cannot happen again or the Saints will be
 battling to stay out of the NFC South basement. Payton's return to the
 offensive-minded Saints will have a huge impact on how the defense performs.
 
 GRADE: B+ (only because of Payton's return)
 
 THE SKINNY: Not to beat a dead horse, but Payton's return to the sidelines is
 just as important as having a healthy Brees under center.
 
 Uncertainty ran wild and played a significant role when Goodell cracked down
 on the bounty scandal. But it's a new year and New Orleans is right back in
 the playoff mix months after a 7-9 finish. The Falcons are now forced to look
 over their shoulder in defense of last season's NFC South title.
 
 
 08/23 15:40:08 ET