10 important issues facing New Orleans Saints
10 important issues facing New Orleans Saints
July 30, 2009
by Brian Allee-Walsh, Mike Triplett
Before the first snap or the first cut of training camp, Saints Coach Sean Payton predicted that his regular-season roster of 53 has the potential to be his best from top to bottom.
Players are expected to report by 10 a.m. Thursday at the team's training facility in Metairie. Camp kicks off in earnest Friday with a practice session at 8:50 a.m. and another at 4:20 p.m. Both are open to the public.
"I think we're better than we have been three years prior for a number of reasons," Payton said during a mid-June interview. "It starts with Drew Brees on offense. He's got a great grasp of what we're doing. We've got experience in the offensive line. I think we've got a chance to be healthy and young at receiver, and we're young at running back.
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"I think we've added a few pieces on defense, especially in the back end, especially at corner, when you look at who we're lining up with now: Tracy Porter, Jabari Greer, Randall Gay, Malcolm Jenkins, Jason David -- that's five without even getting into Leigh Torrence or some of the younger players. I think we're more talented at linebacker than we have been in the past three years, and I think we're healthier in the defensive line, with the ends being back and Sedrick Ellis being in his second year."
Payton also said his corps of linebackers is "deeper one through nine" than at any time during the previous three years, although no proven player was added to the mix during the offseason.
"Jonathan Vilma is in his second year with us," Payton said. "You're looking at (veteran free agent) Anthony Waters, and (undrafted rookie free agent) Jonathan Casillas is a guy who we think has upside as a young player. Mark Simoneaux is coming back healthy. We're just deeper at linebacker."
Not to rain on Payton's parade, but Saints safety Pierson Prioleau said, "We are far from where we need to be on defense. We've only been together for a few months as a team and we are on the right track, but we have miles to go."
Prioleau played for new Saints defensive coordinator Gregg Williams at Buffalo, Washington and Jacksonville before coming to New Orleans during the offseason.
With that in mind, Saints beat writers Mike Triplett and Brian Allee-Walsh give their take on 10 important issues facing Payton leading up to the start of the regular season against the Detroit Lions on Sept. 13 at the Superdome.
Chris Granger/The Times-PicayuneNew York Giants cornerback Jabari Greer reins in an interception in front of New Orleans Saints receiver Terrance Copper during a preseason game Aug. 10, 2007, at the Superdome. The addition of Greer and rookie cornerback Malcolm Jenkins and safety Darren Sharper is expected to bolster the Saints' defense this season.
1. CAN DEFENSE FINISH WHAT IT STARTS?
Throughout the offseason, Payton has preached the importance of finishing plays and finishing games. Arguably, an inability to do that last season cost the team a trip to the playoffs, particularly on defense, where a missed tackle, a blown assignment, lack of pass rush or giving up a big play led to a defeat.
Those mistakes, in part, cost defensive coordinator Gary Gibbs his job and led to the exit of a handful of veteran defensive players. The job now falls on Williams to put players in position to make plays through a variety of exotic and aggressive schemes, on which he has built his defensive reputation.
On paper, the secondary, a source of concern for Payton the past few seasons, appears to have been upgraded with the addition of cornerbacks Greer and Jenkins and safety Darren Sharper, as well as Porter's return to good health.
"The bottom line is we needed a change on defense," Payton said. "Overall, I think we've addressed some of the issues. It started with the hiring of Gregg, but just as importantly with some of the personnel changes."
John McCusker/The Times-PicayuneNew Orleans Saints defensive coordinator Gregg Williams goes over a play with cornerbacks Malcolm Jenkins and Jason David during a practice June 18 in Metairie. Williams is expected to bring a more up-tempo style of defense.
2. WILL WILLIAMS PROVE TO BE KEY ACQUISITION?
Payton hired Williams to change the attitude on defense. If offseason workouts are any indication, fans should see a more physical, swarming, attacking and up-tempo defense under Williams. Payton wants his defense to play with a swagger and chip on its shoulder, which is the way former colleagues say that Williams coaches.
"All my life, players have the excuse, 'Oh I wish this coach would let me play tougher, I wish this coach would let be more aggressive,'" Williams said. "I'll tell you this: There won't be that excuse here. All my life I have been trying to speed people up and make people play more aggressive."
Brees said he believes the offense will benefit going against a Williams-led defense every day in practice. Williams returned the compliment, saying "that chess game that I have with Drew Brees every day lights my fire. I love that adrenaline rush with him every day because he's so competitive. He keeps me on my toes and makes me always have to adjust as a coach."
Michael DeMocker/The Times-PicayuneA healthy Reggie Bush is expected to enhance the New Orleans Saints' No. 1-rated offense and push the punt return unit to new heights.
3. WILL REGGIE BUSH MAKE FOURTH YEAR UNFORGETTABLE?
Time will tell if Bush's recent split with longtime girlfriend Kim Kardashian is one of the best moves he has made as a Saints running back. But it's one less distraction for him at the very least.
Payton took painstaking efforts to limit the amount of on-field work for Bush during the offseason while he recovered from micro-fracture knee surgery. Bush is expected to be close to 100 percent for the start of camp, a good sign for a team that needs him in the lineup on a consistent basis, especially after the release of veteran Deuce McAllister in March.
Though team officials tried to work a trade to acquire Ohio State running back Beanie Wells in the draft, Payton said he has confidence in his stable of running backs that includes Bush, Pierre Thomas, Mike Bell and Lynell Hamilton at the top of the depth chart. It's hard to improve on the NFL's No. 1-rated offense but a healthy Bush, over the course of a 16-game season, would enhance a formidable unit and bolster the punt return unit.
Chuck Cook / The Times-PicayuneNew Orleans Saints defensive end Bobby McCray knocks away the football from Oakland Raiders quarterback JaMarcus Russell in the fourth quarter Oct. 12 at the Superdome. McCray is expected to fill one of the holes left by the four-game suspension of starters Will Smith and Charles Grant.
4. WILL SAINTS WEATHER ANTICIPATED SUSPENSIONS?
Barring the unforeseen, starting defensive ends Will Smith and Charles Grant are due to serve their four-game suspensions at the start of the season for using a substance banned under the league's drug policy.
Bobby McCray, who usually plays end in nickel situations, is expected to fill one of the holes. Team officials made preparations during the offseason with the acquisition of veteran defensive ends Paul Spicer, who turns 34 on Aug. 18, and Anthony Hargrove, who missed the 2008 season after serving a year's suspension for violating the league's drug policy for a third time.
Lost in all of this is the signing of veteran defensive line coach Bill Johnson, who became available when Denver owner Pat Bowlen fired Mike Shanahan and his coaching staff in January. Johnson also coached Saints defensive tackle Rod Coleman in Atlanta.
Scott Threlkeld/The Times-PicayuneNew Orleans Saints tight end Jeremy Shockey, catching a pass for 6 yards against the Detroit Lions on Dec. 21 at Ford Field, completed his first full offseason with the team. A healthy Shockey is another weapon in Drew Brees' arsenal.
5. IS THE SHOCKEY EXPERIMENT GOING TO YIELD POSITIVE RESULTS?
"If he fits in, I'd love to have him." That comment was made by Brees about Jeremy Shockey in early June, a week or so after the enigmatic Saints tight end passed out because of "dehydration" at a Las Vegas pool party.
Shockey completed his first full offseason with the Saints after being acquired from the New York Giants on the eve of training camp a year ago for second- and fifth-round draft picks.
If healthy and on the same page with his teammates and organization, Shockey potentially gives Payton and Brees another weapon. He's big, rangy, has decent speed and good hands and can be a threat in the red zone.
"People are going to have the opportunity two, three, four years from now to evaluate that trade and to look at the impact he's had on our football team," Payton said. "I think he's going to have a tremendous impact on our football team. I like the player, and I think he's going to be a key part of what we do this year. In the end, it's always the proof is in the pudding anyway. We're going to play the best players and guys who we feel can help us win."
Michael DeMocker/The Times-PicayuneThird-year pro Usama Young has moved from cornerback to free safety to help the New Orleans Saints' defensive backfield.
6. HOW WILL THE SECONDARY LOOK AFTER EXTREME MAKEOVER?
You may not recognize the Saints' defensive backfield this summer. Or at least, that's the hope.
After being burned by one deep ball after another the past several years, the Saints have continued to reshape their last line of defense. They brought in Greer, Sharper and Prioleau and rookies Jenkins and Chip Vaughn.
Second-year corner Porter is back from a season-ending wrist injury that interrupted an impressive debut, as are veteran corner Gay and strong safety Roman Harper, among others.
Third-year pro Usama Young moved from corner to free safety. And much-maligned veteran David is still in the mix, hoping to salvage his career in New Orleans. It's the deepest, most versatile group they've had in several years. But is it enough?
Michael DeMocker/The Times-PicayuneLinebacker Scott Fujita has the confidence of the Saints' brass, which is why they didn't pursue other veteran options in free agency.
7. HOW WILL THE OUTSIDE LINEBACKERS LOOK WITHOUT A MAKEOVER?
The Saints are "stuck with" a pair of solid, unspectacular veterans, Scott Fujita and Scott Shanle, after their attempts to bring in some reinforcements didn't pan out.
Veteran Dan Morgan chose to re-retire early in the summer, and fourth-round draft pick Stanley Arnoux suffered a ruptured Achilles tendon on the first day of rookie minicamp.
But the Saints still have plenty of confidence in Fujita and Shanle, which is why they didn't pursue other veteran options such as Derrick Brooks in free agency.
Fujita and Shanle aren't explosive athletes, but they've got smarts and savvy, and they've been solid against the run for most of the past three years. Like everyone else, they should benefit from Williams' aggressive, attacking schemes. Backup options include second-year pro Jo-Lonn Dunbar, returning veteran Simoneau and Casillas, among others.
Scott Threlkeld/The Times-PicayuneRunning back Pierre Thomas says he has gained weight this offseason to carry the bulk of the carries for the Saints this year.
8. DID THE SAINTS BULK UP ENOUGH AT TAILBACK?
The Saints' power-running game didn't have enough juice last year, even with Deuce McAllister on the roster. Now that Deuce is gone, Pierre Thomas has talked about bulking up to be more of a physical runner, but it remains to be seen how he will handle the extra pounds - not to mention the increased role.
Several young backs are also hoping to step up and fill the void, which should make for a compelling camp battle among Bell, Hamilton, Herb Donaldson and P.J. Hill.
Scott Threlkeld/The Times-PicayuneSaints wide receiver Marques Colston had knee surgery in January.
9. IS THE RECEIVING CORPS DINGED UP OR DEEPER THAN EVER?
Lance Moore followed up his breakout 2008 season by tearing his shoulder in the weight room this past spring, but he hopes to be 100 percent by the start of the regular season.
Fellow starter Marques Colston is also working back to full speed after having knee surgery in January.
If those two guys are healthy, the Saints once again will field the NFL's most dangerous aerial attack. If not, then veteran Devery Henderson and young understudies Robert Meachem and Adrian Arrington will need to step up into more demanding roles.
Ted Jackson / The Times-PicayuneThe Saints traded up in the draft to pick punter Thomas Morstead in the fifth round.
10. WAS A PUNTER WORTH A FIFTH-ROUND DRAFT PICK?
Most punters live in relative anonymity, but Morstead will spend his summer under the spotlight after the Saints' controversial decision to trade up and snag him with one of their few draft choices this year.
The incumbent punter, Glenn Pakulak, seemed to do fine after signing with New Orleans in midseason. But the Saints felt they had a chance to make a significant upgrade.
First and foremost, Morstead needs to win the job during the preseason. If he does that - and eventually makes a few trips to the Pro Bowl - maybe Saints fans will concede it was a good move.
Morstead's not alone though. The special teams battles will be more intriguing than usual with new long snapper Jason Kyle, second-year kicker Garrett Hartley and kickoff return candidates Courtney Roby and Skyler Green all trying to lock down jobs.