If not for the bounty scandal that led to a season-long suspension to coach Sean Payton, the Saints would have joined the Giants and Packers as the three overwhelming favorites to win the NFC. Without Payton's incredible offensive mind, can quarterback Drew Brees get close to matching last year's production, when he threw for an NFL-record 5,476 yards and paced the league with 46 touchdowns and 71.2 percent accuracy?
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Brees has an outstanding supporting cast, led by all-world tight end Jimmy Graham and a diverse set of running backs that includes do-it-all Darren Sproles. Then again, maybe Brees won't have to do quite so much. General manager Mickey Loomis did some great work before serving his eight-game suspension. A defense that was dissected by Aaron Rodgers in Week 1 and Alex Smith, of all people, in the divisional playoffs figures to be much better.
The Saints dramatically upgraded the defense in free agency. They added run-stuffing defensive tackle Brodrick Bunkley and three linebackers -– Curtis Lofton, David Hawthorne and Chris Chamberlain –- with Lofton being a big upgrade over the suspended Jonathan Vilma. All-Pro guard Carl Nicks signed with Tampa Bay and was replaced by Baltimore's Ben Grubbs.
The Saints will be leaning on Curtis Lofton to step up at linebacker.
The Saints didn't have a pick in the first round (due to last year's trade to get running back Mark Ingram) or second round (due to the NFL's punishment for the bounty scandal). The Saints didn't get any instant impact, but third-round defensive tackle Akiem Hicks is a terrific talent, fourth-round receiver Nick Toon helps replace Robert Meachem and fifth-round defensive back Corey White can play corner and safety.
New Orleans faces the league's 11th-toughest schedule, with its opponents carrying a combined winning percentage of .504 (129-127). That's on paper, of course, and doesn't take into account that the Saints play just five teams that won at least nine games last season. Only Atlanta and New England (four apiece) will play fewer quality teams.
The Saints should get off to a strong start with Washington, Carolina and Kansas City to lead things off. Those teams combined to go 18-30 in 2011. In fact, a Week 4 clash at Green Bay will be the only game against a team that finished over .500 until Week 10 at home against NFC South rival Atlanta. However, Denver (Week 8) and Philadelphia (Week 9) should improve on their 8-8 finishes. The key stretch is Week 12 against San Francisco, Week 13 at Atlanta and Week 14 at the Giants.
BEST OFFENSIVE PLAYER
Drew Brees, quarterback. Brees got $60 million guaranteed in his five-year deal after setting records for passing yards (5,476) and completion percentage (71.2) in 2011.
BEST DEFENSIVE PLAYER
Curtis Lofton, middle linebacker. Jonathan Vilma used to hold down this position, but he is serving a season-long suspension for his role in the bounty scandal, a decision that led him to sue NFL commissioner Roger Goodell. The Saints, however, upgraded by signing Lofton away from rival Atlanta.
WILL WIN DIVISION IF ...
They can use their anger over the NFL's punishment to fuel them throughout the year rather than just a few weeks. In an expected two-horse race with the Falcons, Brees is better than Atlanta quarterback Matt Ryan and the revamped linebacker corps will help the defense.