It can never be too early to discuss who will face the San Francisco 49ers in the team's second year under Jim Harbaugh. Throughout the offseason, we'll take a team-by-team look at the 49ers' 2012 opponents and the storylines for each team. Up next are the New Orleans Saints, who are scheduled to host the 49ers in an NFC Divisional Playoff rematch, as the 49ers will face last year's division champions from the NFC South. View the 2012 schedule.
Team: New Orleans SaintsWhen:Week 12 (Nov. 25)2011 Record: 13-3 (8-0 home)
All-Time Series:46-24-2 49ers
2011 Recap: The New Orleans Saints had their Super Bowl dreams dashed in epic fashion thanks to a memorable 14-yard touchdown pass from Alex Smith to Vernon Davis that edged the Saints 36-32 in the Divisional Playoffs. The Saints were also defeated by the 49ers for the NFC's No. 2 seed in the playoffs. Despite finishing the year 13-3 with a perfect 8-0 mark at home, New Orleans had the difficult task of facing the 49ers on the road. The highlight of the year came when Drew Brees broke the NFL's record for single-season passing yards (set in 1984 by Miami Dolphins Hall of Fame quarterback Dan Marino, who threw for 5,084 yards). Brees finished the season with 5,476 passing yards to go with 46 touchdowns against 14 interceptions. New Orleans' explosive offense, led by Brees, featured seven players who caught 32 or more passes in 2011. The ground game also featured numerous contributors. Following an offseason trade of Reggie Bush to the Dolphins, free agent addition Darren Sproles and first-round pick Mark Ingram, joined veteran Pierre Thomas to form a three-pronged rushing attack. Although they had strong offensive showing in 2011, the Saints defensive efforts came into question following the season when a league investigation revealed the team potentially utilizing a pay-for-performance program. As a result, New Orleans head coach Sean Payton has been suspended for the entire 2012 season, so too has a small group of players for various amounts of games based on their of participation in the alleged program. The players are currently appealing their suspensions; Peyton's was upheld for 2012.
2012 Outlook:The upcoming season will test the resiliency of the Saints. Filling in for Payton will be interim coach Joe Vitt, the team's assistant head coach and linebackers coach. On defense is where the Saints made their biggest changes this offseason. The additions are highlighted by inside linebacker Curtis Lofton, who signed a five-year contract following a four-year stint to start his career with the Atlanta Falcons. In addition, New Orleans used its highest draft pick of 2012 (pick No. 89 overall in the third-round) on 6-foot-5, 318-pound defensive end Akiem Hicks. Two rounds later, the Saints selected Samford strong safety Corey White with the No. 162 overall selection. However, the most notable selection of the draft might be another weapon for Brees and the offense. In the fourth round, pick No. 122 overall, the Saints added Wisconsin wideout Nick Toon. The son of a longtime NFL wide receiver figures to boost a competitive group that lost Robert Meachem to the San Diego Chargers in free agency, but returns leading wide receiver Marques Colston, who signed a five-year contract early in free agency to remain with the Saints. Following the final rulings of the league's ongoing investigation into the Saints defensive practices, the team will also need to sign Brees to a long-term contract. The former Super Bowl MVP has not participated in offseason workouts, nor has he signed the franchise tender he was previously offered.** Three to Watch
QB Drew Brees: *Under Brees' watch, the Saints offense averaged 36 points per game and finished the regular season with three consecutive 40-point outings. But without Brees in the fold, backup Chase Daniel has taken the lion's share of reps at Organized Team Activities and minicamps. Brees' presence remains vital in New Orleans. Not only is he the face of the franchise, but Brees' 15, 300-yard passing games in 2011 (regular season and postseason combined) prove that he can produce in any circumstance. With the Saints facing a challenging slate of games in 2012, the company of the locker room's leader looms large. * TE Jimmy Graham: ** In just his second season in the league, Graham became a household name. Fantasy football players had to appreciate the former college basketball player's 1,310 receiving yards and 11 touchdown catches. Opposing defensive backs and linebackers? Not so much. The 6-foot-6, 260-pound tight end figures to be one of the league's top red zone targets for years to come and will likely continue his development in the Saints offense this coming season.
*RB Mark Ingram: * Last year's first-round pick struggled with minor lower-body injuries, but managed to lead a crowded backfield with 122 carries and five touchdowns. Ingram averaged just 3.9 yards per carry, while Sproles and and Thomas offered averages of 6.9 and 5.1 yards per carry, respectively. Ingram, the 5-foot-9, 215-pound runner, should benefit greatly from having one year of professional football under his belt.