The Saints have some obvious issues.
But they have their leader, and their edge back.
After a year’s suspension, head coach Sean Payton is back, and the Saints feel like they have something to prove after last year’s 7-9 mess.
They have a new defensive scheme, which seems like a good move, since they had the worst statistical defense in NFL history last year. The bigger question is whether they have the parts in place to make it work.
The Saints have one of the top offenses in the game, and the brains behind it all made his way back to the sidelines.
Between quarterback Drew Brees, wide receiver Marques Colston, tight end Jimmy Graham and a group of role-filling running backs, the Saints have the capability of dropping 40 on you any Sunday.
But the biggest boost is getting Payton back. It’s not that other people are incapable of calling the same plays. It’s more than Payton and Brees have that kind of Bill Walsh-Joe Montana vibe, where the whole is greater than the sum of two very good parts.
There was clearly something missing last year, but they’re back together, and ready to do their part to fixing things.
Then, on the other hand, you have the other side of the ball.
Which is frankly a mess.
They needed to make more changes than they were able to make this offseason, though bringing in cornerback Keenan Lewis in free agency and drafting safety Kenny Vaccaro was a good start to fixing things from the back to the front.
But about that front.
Converting to Rob Ryan’s 3-4 system could be problematic, because the guys they kept aren’t perfect fits.
Trying to turn Will Smith into an outside linebacker seems like an effort to jackhammer a square peg into a round hole. They lost perhaps their best chance at a consistent pass rush when former Cowboys backup Victor Butler tore an ACL during OTAs (O-U-C-H). Trying to figure out to do with linebacker Jonathan Vilma, who took a pay cut to stay for a role he’s not really suited for, is another challenge.
But once they decided to part ways with former defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo, which seemed inevitable, the act of changing took precedence over whether the change was the right one.
By shipping out Chris Ivory to the Jets, the Saints streamlined a crowded running back room.
Now, they might actually find something for former Mark Ingram to do.
Pierre Thomas will likely continue to start, and Darren Sproles will get his touches in space, but getting something from the former first-rounder would be a benefit.
The Saints are never going to feature the run game as prominently as the other three teams in their division, but Ingram looks like a waste of draft currency at this point.
And while a subtle difference, they’re also looking for a new backup quarterback after Chase Daniel left for Kansas City.
They’re still in a bind if anything happens to Brees, but Daniel was a better Plan B than the current cast of Seneca Wallace and Luke McCown, who are nothing more than place-holders.
When your top asset is your quarterback, having uncertainty at left tackle is not the best spot to be in.
But after losing Jermon Bushrod (and line coach Aaron Kromer) to the Bears in free agency, the Saints are looking at a number of options.
Incumbent replacement Charles Brown probably has the lead at this point, but he’s never been able to stay on the field. Former No. 2 overall pick Jason Smith was added to the mix, but there’s a reason he’s on his third team in a year. The most intriguing option might be third-rounder Terron Armstead, an athletic project with the most pass-blocking upside.
As good as their offense could be, that’s a big question mark to begin the season with.
Finding someone to play outside linebacker sure would help, and holdouts such as Junior Galette and Martez Wilson have a chance to take on a bigger role, in the absence of a veteran option.
The Saints are going to score a pile of points.
Between the talent on hand and the chip on the shoulder, that’s a given.
The degree to which they can stem the flow of points going the other direction will determine how successful they’re going to be this season.
The Saints didn’t have enough draft picks or cap room to make the necessary fixes to a horrible defense, and they can only hope to move all the way up to insufficient.
But their offense will be so good that such a move might be enough to get them back to the playoffs.
Perhaps as importantly as anything, they’re able to focus on football this season, which should be a huge relief and motivator to everyone in the organization.