- Mike Triplett, ESPN Staff Writer
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With the 5-1 New Orleans Saints on their bye week, I checked in with ESPN scouting Insider Matt Williamson for his breakdown of the team so far. Williamson, a former scout with the Cleveland Browns who has analyzed the NFL for ESPN since 2005, said he is "very high on the Saints" this year. And as of now, he would pick New Orleans and the Seattle Seahawks, also 5-1, as the two leading contenders to reach the NFC championship game.
"I could certainly see them getting a bye, and nobody wants to play in New Orleans in the playoffs, that's for sure," Williamson said.
I'll add a quick take from Williamson on each position group as I break down the roster position-by-position over the next few days. Below is Williamson's overall take on the Saints:
"I'm very high on the Saints. I picked them to win the division before the season. I thought the addition of [coach Sean] Payton was huge.
"On defense, generally I'm very critical of teams that say, 'Hey, let's switch from a 4-3 to a 3-4 [or vice versa], because either defense you can win a Super Bowl with. It's not like one's superior to the other. And generally speaking, the front office has been building years and years of 4-3 personnel, and then you switch to a 3-4 and it usually doesn't work right away. To me, it's an unnecessary transition. But with the Saints, it's one of the rare cases where they were so bad anyway that they didn't have that many guys that were building blocks for the old defense that it even mattered. And in fact, I thought guys like [end] Cameron Jordan and [outside linebacker Junior] Galette and some of the other outside linebacker types, [Martez] Wilson, fit a 3-4 better. And same with [defensive end Akiem] Hicks. So I thought that scheme move was a really smart move. And I think they're better coached on that side of the ball, they're more aggressive.
"And everyone wants to give [defensive coordinator] Rob Ryan a ton of credit -- and he deserves it, don't get me wrong. But their personnel is way better than it was a year ago, too. [Rookie safety Kenny] Vaccaro is a difference maker, [veteran Keenan] Lewis at corner. Their secondary is way improved. And their pass rush is much better, because I think of the secondary, and because front seven guys are in the right spots now. And in a way, I think the losses of [veteran end/outside linebacker] Will Smith and [linebacker Jonathan] Vilma were actually blessings. I thought they were holding this team back, and they were much more 4-3 players. Smith is an end, and Vilma is an inside linebacker. So I thought both guys were past their prime, and I was shocked they even brought them back.
"On offense, they are what they are. I mean, they're great. I don't know if they're as great as they were two years ago when Payton was calling the shots, because I have some concerns at the receiver position. I thought we saw it in New England, that rarity that you can take [tight end] Jimmy Graham out of the game -- which I don't think will ever happen again. I don't think [receiver Marques] Colston is what he used to be. And I like [rookie receiver Kenny] Stills, but I think I would rather have Lance Moore in his prime than Stills right now. They kind of have a bunch of unknowns at the receiver position. But Graham's such a force. They're pretty close to an unstoppable group, mostly because of Graham and the way they use [running back Darren] Sproles so well, too.
"And the running game's good, but it's not great. It would be nice if they had a real banger, inside runner to take advantage of [situations like Week 6, when the New England Patriots defense was injury-depleted up the middle]. And I'm not saying [running back Mark] Ingram ever was or ever will be that guy. But I think that's always been why he's on the team and what they envisioned him to do. And he's not there, or even when he is, he's not living up to it."