New Orleans Saints are flying under the radar this offseason

New Orleans Saints are flying under the radar this offseason
June 21, 2009
Jeff Duncan
The Times-Picayune

Is it just me or has the New Orleans Saints offseason seemed interminably long this year?

Seems like forever ago that defensive coordinator Gary Gibbs was fired and the savior Gregg Williams was hired to work his miracles at the Saints' facility on Airline Drive.
John McCusker/The Times-PicayuneThe New Orleans Saints, led by quarterback Drew Brees, are a confident bunch as they get a break before training camp.
View the Saints training camp schedule

Doesn't it seem like Deuce McAllister, Mike McKenzie, Brian Young and Hollis Thomas have been gone for ages, rather than months?

With the 2009 season less than three months away, the Saints and their overhauled defense are flying under the radar nationally. Scorned pundits have understandably turned their backs on the Saints after watching them fall woefully short of Super Bowl expectations the previous two years.

All of which suits the Saints fine. They prefer the underdog role.

I'll say this, the Saints are extremely confident. Everyone from Drew Brees to Darian Barnes seems to think the team is sitting on a special season. The quiet confidence in the locker room is tangible.

"You can say the last two years we've not gotten exactly what we set out to get," Brees said. "I feel like we've learned a lot along the way. I feel we've assembled a great group of veteran free-agent guys who have been a part of good teams and know what it takes to win and be professional and fight through adversity. .¤.¤. We're much better prepared for the journey this year than we ever have been."

What we've learned from offseason observations and discussions with players and coaches:
Chuck Cook/The Times-PicayuneThe hiring of Gregg Williams was a big move.

Biggest reason for hope: Williams is just what the doctor ordered for long-suffering Saints fans. The Saints might still give up 20-plus points a game this season, but they're going to make their share of plays as well. Williams' exotic blitz packages should confuse opposing quarterbacks.

Biggest reason for concern: The schedule is backloaded with heavy hitters and NFC South opponents. If the Saints starts slowly during its opening four-game stretch while trying to adjust to Williams' complex scheme and playing without starting ends Charles Grant and Will Smith, it might be difficult to recover.

Potential land mine No. 1: Knock on wood. Brees hasn't missed a start as a Saint, but all it takes is one hit to sideline a player. Backup Mark Brunell has the full confidence of Coach Sean Payton, but no one knows how much gas he has left in the tank at 38. Third-stringer Joey Harrington has failed to impress.

Potential land mine No. 2: Question marks abound after starting defensive tackles Sedrick Ellis and Kendrick Clancy. I expect the club to closely monitor the waiver wire during camp to see if any veteran help becomes available. If Ellis goes down, the Saints would be hurting inside. There's no margin for error with Grant and Smith already facing suspensions to start the season.
Scott Threlkeld/The Times-PicayuneIf Sedrick Ellis gets injured, that could spell trouble for the New Orleans Saints.

Potential undrafted rookie gems: CB Danny Gorrer, LB Jonathan Casillas. Is Casillas the next Jo-Lonn Dunbar? Could Gorrer make an impact like Pierre Thomas did two years ago? It's too early to say, but the rookies have made strong first impressions. Gorrer has stood out on special teams and has excellent speed, but he's buried behind several players at one of the deepest positions on the roster. Casillas' chances to make the final roster were helped tremendously by Dan Morgan's retirement and the unfortunate injury to Stanley Arnoux.

Top candidate for a rebound year, offense: WR Marques Colston. At training camp a year ago, Colston looked like the best player on the roster not wearing No. 9. Then a fractured thumb in the opener derailed his season. He has returned to form and should reward fantasy football owners who select him this fall.

Top candidate for a rebound year, defense: SS Roman Harper. Scott Fujita said Harper has had one of the most impressive offseasons of any teammates he has seen. Indeed, the fourth-year head-hunter appears perfectly suited for Williams' aggressive scheme. Harper is in tremendous shape and playing with a swagger.

Top candidate for a breakout year, offense: Thomas. Reggie Bush led the NFL with nine touchdowns in the first seven games last season, but did you know Thomas scored nine touchdowns in the final six games once he assumed the lead-back role in the offense? He might be the best-kept secret in the league.
Ellis Lucia/The Times-PicayuneBobby McCray could have a breakout season for the New Orleans Saints.

Top candidate for a breakout year, defense: DE Bobby McCray. Jevon Kearse, another rangy end from Florida, blossomed in Williams' system in Tennessee. The explosive McCray could enjoy similar results in New Orleans. Look for Williams to isolate the speedy McCray in mismatches across the line in pass-rush situations.

Best position battle: The battle between punters Glenn Pakulak and Thomas Morestead should be contested throughout camp. This one could require all four preseason games to settle.

Rookie watch: First-round draft pick Malcolm Jenkins has an uphill battle to win a starting spot. He'll compete for playing time in Williams' plethora of substitution packages, but he's well behind Jabari Greer, Tracy Porter and Randall Gay in the cornerback pecking order. Nonetheless, Jenkins could be the lone rookie from the club's four-man draft class to see playing time this fall.
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