8 Players Most Responsible for New Orleans Saints' Success or Failure in 2012
In no season has any team played without their head coach as a result of suspension. In no season has a team gone into June without their future Hall of Fame quarterback signed on the dotted line—which the team is likely headed for (and Brett Favre doesn't count since he wasn't part of the team's plans in any of the seasons you're likely thinking of). And no team has entered a season as vilified and hated as the New Orleans Saints will enter 2012.
Yet no team has ever been better positioned to overcome this kind of controversy and adversity.
The New Orleans Saints could have a magical 2012 season, but it's going to depend largely on the following players. Each of them is going to need to step their game up in 2012 if the Saints are going to do what no other team has ever done.
QB Drew Brees
As nice as it was for Drew Brees to take part in a memorial surfing event in honor of Junior Seau after the legendary Charger's death earlier this month, Saints fans would much rather see Drew Brees on the field.
And the same is true for the Saints' coaches and players.
While backup Chase Daniel is getting the first-team reps in OTAs as a result of Brees' holdout, he is not the option Saints fans want to see under center in 2012. And frankly, the former Missouri Tiger simply won't get the job done for this particular team.
Drew Brees must find his place in the Saints lineup, or the team is in trouble.
Beyond the stats, beyond the continuity and beyond even the leadership, Drew Brees' presence in the Saints lineup simply provides a confidence that few teams possess.
Even teams like the Chargers, Cowboys and Falcons that possess great quarterbacks don't go into every game expecting to win. The Saints do, mainly because they possess a quarterback who can make up for the rest of the team's mistakes, a player who can figure out a way to lead his team to victory no matter how poorly he or the rest of the team has played for the majority of the game.
No player is more integral to the success of this Saints team than Drew Brees. And I'm guessing he'll be there on September 9.
RB Darren Sproles
Versatility is the key to any great offensive attack. The Saints receive an abundance of that quality from the diminutive Darren Sproles.
Joe Morgan could take Sproles' role as a returner, which would actually work out well for all parties involved. It would allow Sproles to focus on the multitude of offensive packages he is placed in and would allow Pete Carmichael to feature Sproles even more within the offense.
In no year did Sproles produce more than in 2011. In 2012, Sproles will likely garner even more attention than he did at the beginning of 2011, which could turn him into Reggie Bush 2.0, "The Great Decoy."
If that's the case, the following two skill players would figure to benefit greatly.
RB Mark Ingram
When he returns from injury, Mark Ingram promises to run intelligently and powerfully for the Saints offense.
He will do so knowing opposing defenses are more focused on Darren Sproles, Jimmy Graham and a host of other offensive weapons at the Saints' disposal.
When defenses aren't looking, Ingram will have the opportunity to run through, around and over teams. In so doing, he will provide a power game the Saints do not ordinarily possess in their lineup—save for when Pierre Thomas is at his peak health.
When Thomas is not healthy, the Saints possess no other back capable of running with the kind of power Ingram can present.
The power running game allows the Saints to be physical and overpowering in short-yardage and clock-killing circumstances, in addition to setting up play-action—where Drew Brees and the Saints offense is clearly at its best.
Ingram ought to add to his statistical output with more catches out of the backfield and be an every-down contributor, with his exceptional ability to pass protect.
It's hard to imagine Ingram not developing into the exceptional player the Saints envisioned when they traded this year's first-round draft selection to move up and select him 28th overall in the 2011 draft, so long as he is able to play healthy.
WR Marques Colston
If there's no Drew Brees for any length of time in 2012, Marques Colston will be the go-to guy for Chase Daniel. Even with Brees, Colston will kill it, as teams focus more and more on the running game and tight end Jimmy Graham.
The 6'5" target is still the most underrated receiver in the NFL, even after putting together six of the most consistent seasons any receiver has ever produced. Colston has long been a third-down and red-zone favorite of Drew Brees.
Though Brees is unafraid of fitting the ball into any player under any circumstance, no player incites the trust that Colston does for Brees. That trust often manifests itself in back-shoulder targets into triple-coverage that few quarterbacks would ever consider making.
That rapport among Brees and Colston makes the latter the most valuable offensive skill player the Saints have aside from No. 9. His re-signing should allow the Saints passing offense to remain one of the best in the game for years to come.
LT Jermon Bushrod
With or without Drew Brees in the lineup, Jermon Bushrod is going to be the key offensive lineman for the Saints in 2012.
Whether it's running off-tackle, play-action passing or the straight dropback game, Bushrod is going to anchor much of what the Saints do in their protection schemes.
When the Saints go to some of their spread sets, Bushrod's job becomes infinitely more difficult. Brees will often sit back in the shotgun, drop a few steps and scan the field as he waits for a receiver to break free. That means Bushrod has to go one-on-one versus some of the most prominent pass-rushers the league has to offer.
In the running game, the Saints are likely to begin running to the left side of the line more than in previous seasons, due to the signing of Ben Grubbs.
In Baltimore, Grubbs established himself as one of the most physically dominant run blockers in football. That puts the onus on Bushrod to live up to his end of the bargain when Carmichael calls anything with an odd number at the end of a run call (1,3, 5, 7 and 9 all mean the run play is headed to the left side of the center).
And most notably, Bushrod has a Pro Bowl berth to live up to in 2012. He has a newfound reputation in the NFL as a great offensive lineman. 2012 and beyond are the times for him to prove he was deserving of such an honor.
No matter who is playing quarterback this fall, Bushrod's production is key to the success and protection of that QB and this offense.
DE Cameron Jordan
Without Will Smith for the first four games of the year, Cam Jordan will be the only responsible defensive end in the run game.
Maintaining a respectable rush defense while Smith is out falls almost exclusively on the shoulders of Jordan. He must continue to set the edge and force runners back inside to the improved linebacking corps.
Additionally, the Saints are going need to find a better pass rush in 2012 in order to improve on the defensive side of the ball. That is the second area upon which responsibility lies with Jordan.
Look for Jordan to get some snaps inside in nickel situations in order to take advantage of his quickness against interior offensive linemen. However new defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo chooses to use him, Jordan needs to improve his production as a pass-rusher.
If he does that and maintains his excellent play in the run game, the Saints defensive line and overall defensive attack promises to improve in 2012.
LB Curtis Lofton
Taking over for Jonathan Vilma (don't think Vilma's defamation lawsuit is going to change his eligibility in 2012), Curtis Lofton is going to immediately assume the quarterback-of-the-defense duties that Vilma has handled over the past four years in New Orleans.
Lofton brings a new face to that leadership role but does so with experience and confidence—after being deemed by many as one of the top middle linebackers in the game during his time in Atlanta. The former Oklahoma Sooner doesn't bring anything tremendously different to the position—except more youth.
However, Lofton does bring a proclivity to cause turnovers and make big plays—something the Saints defense is desperate to add to its repertoire.
Combined with some of the other players on the Saints defense, Lofton should bring about a turnover-motivated mentality and competitive streak not commonly seen in the franchise's history.
If all that turns out true, the Saints shall reign victorious early and often in the 2012-13 campaign.
S Malcolm Jenkins
In Steve Spagnuolo's defense, Malcolm Jenkins will finally get to play the hybrid role he was destined to play from the time he entered the NFL.
Spags will allow Jenkins to reprise the role that Charles Woodson created and mastered in Green Bay.
Jenkins will be able to play free safety, move to corner in the nickel or dime packages and occasionally blitz the quarterback. No other use has ever made sense for Jenkins, but previous coaches (who will remain nameless) did not know how to use Jenkins effectively.
If Jenkins performs in this new hybrid role as masterfully as I expect him to, he will not only earn a Pro Bowl bid but make the Saints defense one of the most intimidating (not because of bounties) and relentless units in the league.
They ought to exploit the weaknesses of opposing offenses and steal possessions and scores. Malcolm Jenkins promises to be the primary culprit in this new turnover enterprise.
And all of that will, of course, make the New Orleans Saints a football team ready to equal its triumphs of 2009—this time in their own city.