By now, unless you've been living under a rock for the last three months, you'll know that one scandal has consumed the entire New Orleans Saints franchise and has been the talk of the entire National Football League for quite some time: Bountygate.
After much deliberation, it emerged earlier this week that commissioner Roger Goodell has taken it upon himself to suspend four players for varying periods of time; of note, Saints defensive captain Jonathan Vilma (for the entire 2012 season) and veteran defensive end Will Smith (for the first four games of the upcoming campaign).
Certainly, Vilma's suspension (among others) was anticipated by many, which could account for the numerous acquisitions the Saints have made in free agency. Saints, both old and new, will be expected to step up their game.
The will not only be expected to fill the void left by Vilma's suspension, but also to keep the franchise afloat. This all happens in a year that will almost certainly be defined by the Bountygate scandal.
It will also show how the team can bounce back from not only this handicap, but from a poor season defensively. In 2011, the Saints had the 24th-highest ranked defense. Not a spectacular statistic.
Key to these plans will undoubtedly be free-agent acquisition Curtis Lofton, the former Atlanta Falcon who will most likely line up at middle linebacker, Vilma's position of preference.
Coming off three consecutive 100-plus-tackle seasons at the Georgia Dome, Lofton lacks Vilma's eight seasons of pro experience, but still has vital offseason experience under his belt. He will likely be expected to lead the Saints' beleaguered linebacker corps by example.
Lofton could be joined by fellow new recruit David Hawthorne and Saints stalwart Scott Shanle in Steve Spagnuolo's 4-3 defensive system. As Vilma's replacement, the spotlight will certainly be on the ex-Falcon to see if he can reproduce the form that made him a standout in a red Falcons jersey.
Who will need to impress the most for New Orleans in 2012?
The aforementioned Shanle will also be under some scrutiny this coming season. Although the starting outside linebacker in the world champion Saints team of Super Bowl XLIV, Shanle's career in black and gold has been relatively unproductive. This is especially so when compared to Lofton's career at divisional rivals Atlanta; in terms of 100-plus-tackle seasons, Lofton leads Shanle, 3-0.
Although his six years as a Saints starter will provide stability and experience in the linebacker corps, Shanle will need to bolster his productivity to help make up for the loss of Vilma. Hopefully, the introduction of Spagnuolo will breathe new life into No. 58.
When Smith missed two games through injury in the 2011 season, it was five-year veteran Turk McBride who lined up opposite rookie Cameron Jordan at defensive end. Although McBride made some impressive plays, including this Jay Cutler sack in Week 2, he surrendered his place in the starting lineup back to Smith once he recovered from injury.
With Smith unavailable until Philip Rivers and the San Diego Chargers visit in Week 5, McBride should get a four-week audition for the starting role at defensive end. He needs to impress under Spagnuolo's new regime, not only to challenge for Smith's role as starter, but for the good of the team also.
Of course, when a defense is ranked in the bottom 10 in the league overall in one season, it's very much a prominent issue that ought to be addressed in enough time to see improvements in the next season.
Arguably, progress has already been made with the acquisition of Spagnuolo to the Saints coaching staff; Spagnuolo should provide stability to the black and gold defense, especially when contrasted with the volatile, blitz-first systems preferred by Gregg Williams.
In this respect, the entire Saints defense will know they need to step up. Not only to improve in order to complement New Orleans' top-ranked offense, but to also try and rid themselves of the ghastly shadow looming over the entire franchise, courtesy of the Bountygate scandal.
But, over to you: Who do you think needs to step up? There are a whole host of bit-part players on the Saints roster; can any of them be expected to explode onto the scene in 2012? Let me know in a comment.