One of the lasting images of the New Orleans Saints' 2010 season was Seattle running back Marshawn Lynch breaking several tackles against the team on his way to the end zone in an NFC Wild Card Playoff victory for the Seahawks.
Not a good way to go out if you're the defending Super Bowl champions.
Some believed it was a fluke that the Saints won Super Bowl XLIV after a 13-3 regular-season campaign in 2009, while others gave them a legitimate shot to defend the only title won in franchise history. It was the naysayers who had the last laugh when a 7-9 NFC West champion Seattle team erased hopes of back- to-back championship runs for the Big Easy squad.
"It's disappointing," Saints head coach Sean Payton said after the playoff loss. It starts with us and myself and the rest of the coaches. I thought they had effort but in the end, not enough to win this game. It's disappointing to get in the postseason and finish with a loss to start."
Payton and the rest of the NFL's coaches also got off to a late start to the 2011 season due to the lengthy lockout between the owners and players. During that time teams had a chance to spend countless hours evaluating talent and determining what players fit, both financially and schematically.
Running back Reggie Bush apparently did not fit into the long-term plans of the Saints and was dealt to the Miami Dolphins for safety Jonathan Amaya and an undisclosed draft pick. Bush was slated to earn $11.8 million this season with New Orleans, a large amount of cash for a man who played just eight games a season ago and has been injury-prone throughout his pro career.
With Bush now out of the fold, there are now questions concerning a New Orleans rushing attack that finished 28th in the league last season. Chris Ivory led the team with 716 yards rushing as early-year starter Pierre Thomas battled leg injuries. Both are back to run the show on the ground, and will be joined by a couple of new faces in former Heisman Trophy winner Mark Ingram and ex-Charger Darren Sproles. Ingram was one of two first-round picks the Saints had the honor of selecting in this past April's draft, with the other being Cal defensive end Cameron Jordan.
Will the Saints be better on the defensive line this season? That's another question yet to be answered, and Jordan has a lot to learn in such little time. Luckily, the rookie has veteran end Will Smith to learn from. Smith was 10 pounds heavier last season in order to make a bigger difference against the run -- an area in which the Saints ranked in the middle of the pack in 2010 -- but the tenured pass-rusher showed up at camp at around 270 pounds and is anticipating the start of a new season.
"They like the way I look, and like the way I'm playing so far, so I'm excited about this year," said Smith. "We've got a lot of new packages in that get us free, get us to the quarterback, so [the defensive linemen] are all excited."
Gregg Williams is entering his third season as the Saints' defensive coordinator and said he still thinks about last year's playoff loss in Seattle. His unit must be ready to compete in a tough NFC South Division that contains an energetic Atlanta offense and a resurgent Tampa Bay team, so it will be up to the Saints' defense to leave their mark early.
The Saints further revamped their defensive line with the offseason additions of tackles Aubrayo Franklin and Shaun Rogers, who will rotate with team 2010 sack leader Sedrick Ellis and better help the team deal with the talented running backs the division has to offer.
On offense, Pro Bowl quarterback Drew Brees has wiped the dust off after his involvement in the lockout and back for his sixth season donning the Fleur-de- lis on the side of his helmet. Signaling plays into that hat has been offensive coordinator Pete Carmichael, who's very familiar with what Brees is capable of.
Brees may not be the best quarterback in the NFL, but he's certainly in the discussion along with Tom Brady and Peyton Manning. He's compiled better overall numbers than those aforementioned players at times, having passed for at least 4,000 yards in each of his last five seasons and over 30 touchdowns in three straight.
The star signal-caller was also the Saints' lynchpin during this unprecedented season of uncertainty, keeping his teammates on the same page during by organizing player workouts at Tulane University.
"When you have a leader like that on your team, it makes it easy for guys to rally around and understand what's available to us," said former Saints offensive tackle Jon Stinchcomb.
Brees is without question the leader of this team, and as he goes the Saints go. The desired destination will be Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis, site of Super Bowl XLVI, as New Orleans enters this 2011 campaign with very high expectations.
Below we take a capsule look at the 2011 edition of the New Orleans Saints, with a personnel evaluation and prognosis included therein:
2010 RECORD: 11-5 (2nd, NFC South)
LAST PLAYOFF APPEARANCE: 2010, lost to Seattle in NFC Wild Card
COACH (RECORD): Sean Payton (49-31 in five seasons)
OFFENSIVE COORDINATOR: Pete Carmichael, Jr. (sixth season, third as OC)
DEFENSIVE COORDINATOR: Gregg Williams (third season with Saints)
OFFENSIVE STAR: Drew Brees, QB (4620 passing yards, 33 TD, 22 INT)
DEFENSIVE STAR: Jonathan Vilma, MLB (105 tackles, 4 sacks, 1 INT)
2010 OFFENSIVE TEAM RANKS: 6th overall (28th rushing, 3rd passing), 11th scoring (24.0 ppg)
2010 DEFENSIVE TEAM RANKS: 4th overall (16th rushing, 4th passing), 7th scoring (19.2 ppg)
KEY ADDITIONS: RB Mark Ingram (1st Round, Alabama), C Olin Kreutz (from Bears), NT Aubrayo Franklin (from 49ers), OLB Will Herring (from Seahawks), RB Darren Sproles (from Chargers), RB Patrick Cobbs (from Dolphins), FB Korey Hall (from Packers), OT Jordan Black (from Texans), DE Cameron Jordan (1st Round, California), DE Turk McBride (from Lions), DT Shaun Rogers (from Browns), CB Fabian Washington (from Ravens), CB Trumaine McBride (from Bears), CB Quincy Butler (from Rams), S Paul Oliver (from Chargers), S Jonathan Amaya (from Dolphins)
KEY DEPARTURES: TE Jeremy Shockey (to Panthers), C Jonathan Goodwin (to 49ers), OT Jon Stinchcomb (released), NT Remi Ayodele (to Vikings), OLB Danny Clark (released), LS Jason Kyle (released), RB Reggie Bush (to Dolphins), RB Lynell Hamilton (released), RB Ladell Betts (not tendered), RB Julius Jones (not tendered), RB DeShawn Wynn (not tendered), FB Heath Evans (not tendered), DE Jimmy Wilkerson (to Seahawks), DT Anthony Hargrove (to Eagles), OLB Stanley Arnoux (released), OLB Anthony Waters (not tendered), MLB Marvin Mitchell (to Dolphins), CB Randall Gay (released), S Darren Sharper (not tendered), S Usama Young (to Browns)
QB: Brees (4620 passing yards, 33 TD, 22 INT) has cemented himself as one of the few truly elite quarterbacks in the NFL, as he's nearing the 40,000 mark in career passing yards, and his leadership both on and off the field is also beyond reproach. An excellent ambassador to the league as well, he's poised to lead the Saints on another championship run after those dreams were dashed in Seattle last season. The former Purdue star passed for 404 yards and two touchdowns against the Seahawks, but couldn't overcome his team's defensive meltdown in that debacle. New Orleans will be in major trouble if Brees goes down, because all it has behind him are unproven options in Chase Daniel and Sean Canfield. Neither have ever started a game in their short careers.
RB: Training camp generally sorts out all of the starting positions, and the Saints had a real battle going on at running back between two seasoned players and a rookie. When New Orleans plucked former Alabama star Ingram in the first round of April's draft, Bush knew he wasn't going to earn that $11-plus million salary and his days with the team were over. The highly-regarded newcomer is competing with Thomas, who was limited by injuries to 269 rushing yards and two scores last season after finishing fourth in the league in rushing average in 2009, and Ivory (716 rushing yards, 5 TD), though he's fallen back in the race after undergoing surgeries for both a sports hernia and a foot sprain over the summer. When healthy, the 2010 rookie free agent showed last year he can be a key contributor. Sproles was added in the offseason to fill Bush's old role, as the speedster is both a threat between the tackles and a receiver out of the backfield.
WR/TE: The Saints have plenty of talented pass catchers at Brees' disposal, none better than Marques Colston (1023 yards, 7 TD), who eclipsed the 1,000- yard receiving mark for a second straight year and the fourth time in his five years at the pro level. The big target led the Saints with 84 receptions and missed only one game. Lance Moore (66 receptions, 8 TD) led the Saints in touchdown receptions and was second on the team in catches, and he, Robert Meachem (44 receptions, 5 TD) and Devery Henderson (34 receptions, 1 TD) saw action in every game last season. Tight end Jeremy Shockey is gone, however, after appearing in 13 games a year ago and finishing with 408 yards and three touchdowns on 41 catches. Taking over the starting spot will most likely be either Jimmy Graham (31 receptions, 5 TD) or David Thomas (30 receptions, 2 TD), while Tory Humphrey will also get some looks. The New Orleans tight ends must be able to block as well, now that it appears the Saints will run more. Graham's 11.5 yards per catch last season ranked fourth among rookie tight ends who had at least 30 receptions.
OL: The Saints will miss center Jonathan Goodwin, who signed with San Francisco in the offseason, but have filled the void by adding ex-Bear Olin Kreutz. The 13-year veteran was also brought in to mentor second-year pro Matt Tennant, whom the team has high hopes for down the road and will start out the year as the primary backup at the center and guard positions. New Orleans has one of the best guard tandems in the league in left-side starter Carl Nicks and Jahri Evans, while Jermon Bushrod was re-signed to once again man left tackle. Longtime right tackle Stinchcomb was released during camp after injuries hampered his effectiveness, with valued reserve Zach Strief and 2010 second- round draft pick Charles Brown battling for that open spot.
DL: In order to bolster a run defense that finished in the middle of the pack in defending the run last year, the Saints signed former 49ers defensive tackle Franklin (39 tackles) to a one-year contract. Though not a highly-skilled pass rusher, he's been regarded as one of the better stoppers in the league in recent years. He'll work in a healthy rotation with Ellis (44 tackles, 6 sacks) and Rogers (17 tackles, 2 sacks with Browns), and the trio at full strength can only make the Saints' front line even more dangerous and help atone for the nightmare in last season's playoffs. Veteran Smith (39 tackles, 6 sacks) has some mentoring to do with first-round draft pick Jordan, who joins a cast of returnees that also includes Alex Brown (39 tackles, 2 sacks) and Jeff Charleston (26 tackles, 3 sacks). Williams has to be elated by the group's newfound depth.
LB: The bulk added up front should make life a little easier on middle linebacker and leading tackler Jonathan Vilma (105 tackles, 4 sacks, 1 INT), who's recorded 100-plus tackles in three straight seasons and six times over the course of his seven-year career. The unit didn't come with its best game in the playoffs, but has had plenty of time to shore things up. Scott Shanle (75 tackles) is back on the weakside, while New Orleans brought in free agent linebacker Will Herring (36 tackles, 1 sack) from Seattle to add depth. The ex- Seahawk is one of several candidates for the other starting job, along with returnees Clint Ingram and Jo-Lonn Dunbar (38 tackles, 1 sack) and rookie Martez Wilson, a third-round draft pick out of Illinois.
DB: New Orleans is known for throwing the football, but last year it defended the pass rather well. Hard-hitting Roman Harper (98 tackles, 3 sacks) re-upped with the team in the offseason and has started all 67 games he���s appeared in at strong safety. Fabian Washington, who spent the previous three seasons with Baltimore, was also added to play cornerback and will most likely take the place of the departed Randall Gay as the team's nickel defender. Cornerback Jabari Greer (61 tackles, 2 INT) and free safeties Malcolm Jenkins (64 tackles, 2 INT) are back to reprise their starting roles, with Tracy Porter (60 tackles) to join them in the lineup once he's all the way back from offseason knee surgery. Porter is best remembered for intercepting Peyton Manning in Super Bowl XLIV and returning it for a score that sealed the Saints' win. Safeties Paul Oliver (62 tackles, 1 INT with Chargers) and Pierson Prioleau, along with a pair of young corners in 2010 first-round pick Patrick Robinson (26 tackles) and rookie Johnny Patrick, will all supply depth.
SPECIAL TEAMS: Garrett Hartley is back for his fourth season with the Saints and made 20-of-25 field goals a year ago despite having to deal with the pressure of grizzled vet John Carney looking over his shoulder. Carney is most likely finished with his career, meaning Hartley will have the job all to himself after connecting on a career-long 52-yard field goal and making all 40 of his PAT kicks in 2010. He owns an overall success rate of 85.7 percent on field goals. Punter and holder Thomas Morstead averaged 45.9 yards per punt last season and landed 21 attempts inside the 20. That alone should help New Orleans' revamped defense in the trenches if he's able to duplicate those numbers. Justin Drescher is expected to retain his job as long snapper after the Saints cut ties with veteran Jason Kyle in the summer. Even with Bush, the Saints ranked 23rd and 31st in punt returns during the past two seasons. Sproles averaged 24.6 yards per kick return and 6.9 yards on punts with the Chargers last year and hopes to provide an upgrade in those areas, while Courtney Roby (23.8 avg.) will try to stick as a kick returner and special teams contributor.
PROGNOSIS: New Orleans took the NFL world by storm two years ago en route to its first-ever championship. Last season's defense of that title didn't go as planned, but the Saints still did enough damage to register back-to-back playoff appearances for the first time since the early 1990's and put themselves in the hunt for another Lombardi Trophy. The same goes for this season, as the Saints are tabbed as one of the best in the NFC. They'll be competing with an already elite Atlanta squad and a rising Tampa Bay bunch for NFC South supremacy, and will be counting on a few changes along the defense to make a difference. New Orleans knows it can count on Brees and his golden arm, and now it's time for the defense to shoulder some of the load. Expect another 10-plus win season and a possible playoff berth in the Big Easy, which could be a Wild Card if the Saints can't overtake the Falcons or Bucs in the division.