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If Saints are weakened, impact will be considerable

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Posted June 19, 2012 @ 2:34 p.m. ET
By Mike Wilkening

Whether you’re a Saints fan or not, the fallout from the bounty scandal is likely to affect you in some way this season.

(Turns off flashing ‘Broad Statement’ sign)

Yes, the appeals of suspension made by Saints LB Jonathan Vilma and DE Will Smith are still being weighed by the NFL. Vilma faces a yearlong ban, and Smith is slated to miss four games. It’s possible those punishments could be reduced.

That said, the Saints have effectively replaced Vilma with former Falcons LB Curtis Lofton. Ex-Seahawk David Hawthorne can also play in the middle. Vilma’s return would surely strengthen the LB corps, but the Saints did well to prepare for the prospect of life without him. Moreover, Smith will miss, at most, a quarter of the season. It’s a loss, but no dream-crusher.

The players’ appeals are important. I respect that they have challenged their suspensions. But from a football perspective, the biggest blow to the 2012 Saints came in April, when the NFL upheld head coach Sean Payton’s yearlong suspension.

In six seasons, Payton, one of the game’s top offensive coaches, has led the Saints to a 62-34 regular-season record and a 5-3 mark in four postseason trips.

At best, the Saints band together without Payton, and there’s no drop-off in performance. At worst? The Saints lack the same efficiency and potency on offense, and they tumble down the standings in the tough NFC South.

So how does this affect you?

Let’s suppose you play fantasy football. If you’re drafting early in Round One and Saints QB Drew Brees is on the board, what do you do? (This scenario assumes that Brees resolves his contract dispute with New Orleans.) Brees, who shattered the single-season passing yards record in 2011, would be an asset to any offense, but he has taken his play to another level since he joined New Orleans six years ago. Clearly, Payton’s offense has suited him well.

I wouldn’t dare project a major fall-off for Brees, the No. 4 overall player on PFW’s draft board, without Payton, but I would feel a lot better taking Brees toward the middle or end of Round One in a fantasy draft than toward the beginning.

This means I’m probably not going to have Drew Brees in many fantasy leagues. Someone else will likely roll the dice. By extension, I’m probably not going to have TE Jimmy Graham, WR Marques Colston or RB Darren Sproles on many of my teams. I like all of those players, but I believe it’s possible Payton’s absence will materially affect the offense.

Likewise, handicappers will have to weigh Payton’s absence when calculating the Saints’ title chances. Again, risk tolerance will tell the tale. At last check, the Saints were 20-1 at the MGM Resorts International sportsbooks to win Super Bowl XLVII. That price implies that the Saints roughly have a 4.8 percent shot at winning at all.

I have my doubts about the Saints, but 20-1 isn’t bad value on a still-formidable club. The possibility of the Saints struggling is reflected in the price. They opened at 10-1 at MGM.

Still, expectations remain relatively high for New Orleans. Cantor Gaming, which has released pointspreads for all regular-season weeks save the final one, has the Saints favored in 11-of-15 games.

New Orleans is a consensus 9.5-point favorite in its season opener vs. Washington. The Saints’ best game would be too much for the Redskins. But what are the capabilities of the 2012 Saints without their head coach? If they aren’t sharp, perhaps the Redskins can pull the upset — and what a start to Robert Griffin III’s career that would be. Perhaps it could be just the springboard Washington needs in Mike Shanahan’s third season as head coach.

Yes, there would be no small trickle-down effect if the Saints are compromised in 2012. Will they be? We won’t know until the games begin, but Payton’s absence is not at all helpful.  

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