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Saints poised to return to winning ways in 2013

Football season has arrived, in a matter of speaking. Droves of fans camp out overnight, in lawn chairs, sitting on the dew soaked ground, standing in the steamy conditions of a Metairie night to pay homage to their favorite team, the entity that unites New Orleanians and all in the region.

The New Orleans Saints have opened training camp after a quiet offseason, much to the delight of all associated with the organization.

Mickey Loomis, Sean Payton and Drew Brees were among those addressing media questions Thursday evening. All did so in eager fashion, which is not always the case, and why not?

The season of shame, disrepair, unwarranted punishment and disappointment is a thing of the past. The best advice in life is to look ahead, not to dwell on the past in either positive or negative fashion. Make today a better day. Make yourself better. Strive to achieve.

That is the approach the Saints are taking in 2013. Are the 2013 Saints the 13-3 Saints of 2011 or the 7-9 Saints of 2012? The answer would appear to lie somewhere in between.

Here are some key elements to watch for heading into 2013.

**THE PAYTON EFFECT

How much did the New Orleans Saints miss Sean Payton in 2012? We are about to find out.

The general consensus is that Payton was a massive loss. His brilliant play-calling, his feel for the game, his synchronicity with Drew Brees and his confident arrogance which his players feed off of were sorely missed. Despite good coaches being at the helm, there was a leadership vacuum last season. The players knew it and felt it. The absence was obvious to all observers.

Payton's batteries are recharged. He got a reprieve from the grind of being an NFL coach for a season, something many coaches secretly wish they had. He is motivated. So are his players. Are the Saints the 2011 version that could have reached and won the Super Bowl or the 2012 version that could not stop anyone? Payton was the top offseason addition for the Saints. He is clearly among the best in his profession.

**THE BLIND SIDE

Will it be Charles Brown, Jason Smith or Terron Armstead? While Jermon Bushrod was no star, he was dependable, solid, if unspectacular at left tackle, protecting "the franchise" in Drew Brees.

Brown has been a mixed bag thus far for the Saints, battling injuries. Smith is a castoff, a bust as a former first-round draft pick getting one last chance to salvage his career. Armstead is intriguing, very athletic but very raw.

At first blush, it would appear that the job is Brown's to lose. He would seem to be the present though Armstead could be the future. Smith is a bit of a long shot though he cannot be discounted. Under Payton, the Saints have proven that they can replace solid linemen (Jeff Faine, Jammal Brown, Jonathan Goodwin, Jon Stinchcomb, Carl Nicks).

**IS INGRAM READY TO CARRY THE LOAD?

Mark Ingram won a Heisman Trophy at Alabama. He runs hard, plays hard. He is not particularly fast or big. He is simply a running back. Ingram improved in 2012, enough to convince the Saints that he is ready to be the feature back, a guy that could get 15-20 carries a game.

I have always maintained that Ingram can be a solid player. I have never believed that he would be a star. Clearly, Payton is sold on his former first-round pick. Clearly, he will get the opportunity to prove his mettle in 2013.

The good news is that dependable, underrated Pierre Thomas is still around to provide a spark. Darren Sproles is still "the mighty mite," quick, fast, elusive and a definitive change-of-pace. Travaris Cadet is a year older.

**WHO'S ON THIRD?

The famous baseball phrase applies to the Saints wide receiver position. Marques Colston and Lance Moore are proven commodities. Behind them are question marks.

Joe Morgan has the speed and big-play ability you want to stretch the field. Can he continue to progress, mature and become a 40 catch guy? Is Nick Toon a player, a project or simply a player with promise that will not be realized? Can Kenny Stills, Jr. prove to be a good investment? Can sure-handed Andy Tanner stick? Will Courtney Roby earn a roster spot once more? Can the speed of Saliim Hakim earn him a roster spot? Can the experience of Preston Parker earn him a place on the team?

While Jimmy Graham provides a security blanket with his immense receiving skills, you must come up with a productive third receiver to keep defenses honest. Veteran Ben Watson provides another solid receiver at tight end, if he remains healthy.

**WHO IS THE CADDY?

At 34-years-old, Drew Brees will take every meaningful snap, barring injury. He remains the most important player on the roster. He still has the game to remain among the elite signal callers in the league.

That said, with Chase Daniel gone, who will serve as the reserve to Brees? The definite favorite is Seneca Wallace, who has experience in the league and has started games. Luke McCown has some experience and leadership skills but is limited. Ryan Griffin of Tulane has the intelligence and knowledge of the offense but is a project.

Wallace would seem to be the guy but as a Saints fan, if you see him on the field, it had better be in the preseason or in the midst of a regular season blowout.

**THE RYAN EXPRESS

Next to Sean Payton, Rob Ryan is the most important acquisition by the Saints heading into 2013.

Ryan brings an aggressive attitude, bravado to the party. He is colorful, frequently opinionated, outspoken. Does that sound familiar, Saints fans? Yes, he is comparable to Gregg Williams, without the baggage. He will return the Saints to being an attacking defense.

The question is whether he has the personnel to run the 3-4 alignment that he has installed. Losing Victor Butler to injury will not help. A possible offseason injury to Patrick Robinson may be a concern. Scheme is important but having players is more important. Butler has not been placed on injured reserve as of yet, with the Saints holding out hope that he will recover quickly from his knee injury.

**WHO BACKS THE LINE?

With Butler out, who will get the nod at linebacker? Curtis Lofton is a lock, one of the few bright spots from a year ago. Other than that, who steps up?

Can Jonathan Vilma play alongside of him in an alignment he clearly despised while with the Jets in New York? Can Chris Chamberlain come back from a serious injury or will he follow Steve Spagnuolo, who brought him here, exit stage right? Can Junior Gallette make the transition from putting hand down to rushing the passer from a standing position? Can Will Smith extend his career at linebacker? Can David Hawthorne get it done? Is Martez Wilson a player? What of Rufus Johnson? Can Chase Thomas be the surprise of the group? Can Will Herring hang around another year? Can Butler return at some point to help? Will Eric Martin (not the Saints Hall of Fame inductee out of LSU) surprise and make the team?

There are many questions to be answered here.

**SECONDARY BECOMES PRIMARY

The secondary is a work in progress. How bad is Robinson's knee injury? Will he be ready for the regular season? How quickly will Kenny Vacarro earn a starting spot at safety? Will Corey White take a big step forward in year two? Can Jabari Greer stay healthy and remain relevant? Will hometown hero Keenan Lewis become the coveted "shutdown" corner?

Lewis will be the team's top cover corner. If Robinson and White are healthy, Greer's position could become tenuous though his veteran presence and solid persona would be hard to part with.

Vacarro was drafted to play. Rafael Bush and Isa Abdul Quddus are capable of playing. The same is true of veteran Jim Leonhard, who has solid special teams qualities as well. Where does that leave Malcolm Jenkins and Roman Harper? Jenkins has more range but does not make enough plays. Harper is a good tackler but lacks coverage skills. Ultimately, Vacarro will displace one as a starter. The most likely loser, in time, could be Harper, who could be utilized as an outside linebacker in certain packages with his tackling ability.

**HICKS, JORDAN READY TO EMERGE

Akiem Hicks has the size and physical ability to play a very good inside player along the Saints defensive line. He plays with a fire that you love to see.

Cameron Jordan took a big step forward with a very solid season in 2012. Along with Lofton, he was the other building block of an otherwise sad defense last season.

Tom Johnson and Tyrunn Walker are competent and draft choice John Jenkins will get a shot to fit into the rotation up front immediately. Kenyon Coleman provides veteran leadership. Brodrick Bunkley is still on hand but must be more productive. This is a decent group that must improve. Rookie John Jenkins has the size and quickness to be in the rotation early in his career.

**THE INTANGIBLES

The Saints have a good kicking game with Thomas Morstead (punting, kicking off) and Garrett Hartley (placements). The return game should be fine. This is an area that they will win more often than not, perhaps providing the difference in a close game or two.

The chip on the shoulder of the organization following the too harsh punishment for BountyGate is substantial. It will serve as energetic motivation to succeed.

Brees burns to show that he still among the two or three best in the league after what was an ordinary season for him. He deserves to be mentioned in the same breath as Aaron Rodgers, Tom Brady and Peyton Manning. To play second-fiddle to Joe Flacco is a bit much, at the relative stages of their careers, but Brees understands the "what have you done for me lately" mentality of the NFL.

All signs points to a winning season. Nine wins would be a two-game improvement but might not be enough to make the playoffs in the tough NFC. 10 wins is certainly a possibility and would get you in. With Atlanta in the division, it will take 11 or 12 wins to win the NFC South. With Payton's record against the Falcons, I would not dismiss the possibility.

San Francisco, Seattle, Atlanta and Green Bay will be slated ahead of the Saints in the NFC. The New York Giants, Minnesota and possibly Washington may be placed ahead of New Orleans or on par with the Saints by some observers as well.

Payton is one of the best game day coaches in the league and Ryan should improve what was a dismal defense that just needs to be competent, competitive. See the 2009 blueprint, though no one can expect the abundance of turnovers (39) that the Saints forced in their Super Bowl season.

The schedule is challenging. A fast start is imperative. You must get lucky with regard to injuries.

Let the games begin!

 

Saints Team Information

2013 New Orleans Saints Schedule