Saints the early winner in NFC South

Posted by ESPN.com's Pat Yasinskas

Very quietly, the New Orleans Saints might be having the best offseason of any NFC South team.

A back-handed compliment? Maybe so, since Carolina and Atlanta have done virtually nothing and Tampa Bay might have taken a couple of steps back. But give the Saints, who finished last in the division in 2008, credit for one thing.

At this moment, the Saints are a better team than they were at the end of last season. That's more than you can say about the Falcons, Panthers and Buccaneers. Maybe that changes with the remainder of free agency and the April draft, but the Saints, who went 8-8 last season, clearly have taken a step forward.

They've made only a couple outside moves in free agency, but add in a stroke of luck, some time to heal and an overhaul of the defensive coaching staff and you've got a team that -- at least on paper -- is a serious playoff contender.

General manager Mickey Loomis and coach Sean Payton went for broke last year, trading for linebacker Jonathan Vilma and tight end Jeremy Shockey and it got them nowhere. This year, they're taking a slower approach -- mainly because of a shortage of salary-cap space -- and that might just be the formula to snap the Saints out of two years of mediocrity.

Start with the two free-agent signings the Saints have made. They brought in fullback Heath Evans from New England to replace Mike Karney. It may not seem like much, but it could make an offense that already was very good even better. Karney was the perfect fullback for a power-running game, but the Saints don't have a power-running game.

Evans can block a little bit, but he also can run the ball and catch some passes. Maybe he can pick up some of those short-yardage gains the Saints couldn't come up with last year. And there's still the possibility the Saints will add a bigger tailback to go with Pierre Thomas and Reggie Bush.

Other than that, the Saints are loaded on offense -- again. Offense has never been much of a problem since Payton and quarterback Drew Brees arrived in 2006.

But the defense has been a recurring problem and this may be the year the Saints finally fix that. This is where the other free-agent signing comes in. The Saints signed cornerback Jabari Greer on Thursday.

That might not sound like a big deal. Greer came into the league as an undrafted free agent, but there's a reason why he drew a lot of interest on the market (Tampa Bay also was very much in the running for Greer) and why the Saints are going to pay him $23 million over four years.

Greer has always had outstanding natural speed and he made himself into a legitimate player, holding down a starting spot in Buffalo much of the last two seasons. Greer is a player on the rise, which is more than can be said for veterans Mike McKenzie and Aaron Glenn, who the Saints had to rely on too much last season.

Pair Greer with Tracy Porter, who looked promising before suffering a season-ending injury midway through his rookie year, and the Saints suddenly could be set at cornerback. They're still looking for help at safety and have had Darren Sharper and Gerald Sensabaugh in for visits in recent days. Either or both could help solidify the secondary and the rest of the defense might not be as bad as you think.

Part of that could be because the Saints got lucky when linebacker Dan Morgan decided to end his one-season retirement and re-join the Saints. You have to cross your fingers here because Morgan's long history of injuries have plagued his career.

But Morgan says he's healthier now than at any point since he came to the NFL and that's a reason for hope. When Morgan's been healthy, he's been one of the best linebackers in the league. Put him on the weak side and you've suddenly got a play-maker to go with Vilma in the middle. Let veterans Scott Fujita and Scott Shanle handle the other side and -- knock on wood that Morgan stays healthy -- the Saints could have an above-average linebacker corps.

The same could be said for the defensive line.

Injuries were a huge problem here last season. Tackles Hollis Thomas, Sedrick Ellis and Antwan Lake and ends Charles Grant and Will Smith all were banged up at one time or another. But they're healthy now.

There's been plenty of talent on this defense the last couple years, but the unit underachieved under coordinator Gary Gibbs. That's why Gibbs was fired after last season and why the Saints went out and hired Gregg Williams, who was considered one of the game's best defensive minds a few years back.

Williams' reputation took a bit of a hit with stints in Washington and Jacksonville that didn't result in success. But coming to New Orleans might be a shot at redemption for Williams.

In a lot of ways, this might be a perfect fit. Williams is known as an old-school coach who likes to play very aggressive defense. The Saints haven't been very physical on defense in recent years.

But it's time for a change. Guys like Smith and Grant have been viewed as underachievers, but they're also guys with lots of talent. Maybe Williams can pull that out of them and pull this defense together.

There's no miracle needed here. The Saints already have a great offense and they're going to score plenty of points.

All they need is a defense that's somewhere around average and the Saints could be very good.