New Orleans Saints 2008 Preview Report
New Orleans Saints
By Andy Benoit, www.NFLTouchdown.com
2007 Record: 7-9 (3rd NFC South)
Head Coach: Sean Payton (3rd year)
Roster Quick View
QB: Drew Brees As accurate as any passer in the game. Set an NFL record with 440 completions last season. Also led all non-Brady quarterbacks with 4,423 yards.
RB: Deuce McAllister A truly noble pro’s pro, which is why it hurts to doubt him coming off left ACL and right microfracture knee surgery.
FB: Mike Karney A more than serviceable FB who is like every other man at his position: gritty and a little clumsy athletically.
WR: Marques Colston Highly productive WR who is built like a TE. Quickly making his way up the NFL food chain.
WR: David Patten Good veteran who can really hurt defenses running after the catch.
TE: Eric Johnson Like a Pop Warner tight end in that nothing he catches is longer than seven yards downfield.
LT: Jammal Brown Took a half-step back last season, but don’t read too much into that. One of the finest blockers in the game.
LG: Jamar Nesbit An unheralded road-grader who should have gotten some Pro Bowl consideration last year.
C: Jonathan Goodwin Mild downgrade from Jeff Faine, but he’s handled the starting duties before. Saints like his versatility.
RB: Jahri Evans Might be the league’s best guard. It’s amazing more football purists aren’t buzzing about this guy. On a scale of 1-100, he’s a 97.5.
RT: Jon Stinchcomb Picture textbook technique and then ask yourself what the opposite of that might look like. Your answer’s right here. Still, he gets the job done.
QB: Mark Brunell** Don’t want to imply that he’s just hanging on….but he’s starting to look like a left-handed Testaverde.
RB: Reggie Bush You’ve read the hype. Now read this: his longest play last season? Twenty-five yards.
WR: Robert Meachem First-rounder in ’07 who was inactive for all 16 games. But impressed everyone with attitude and progress during the offseason.
WR: Devery Henderson Would be starting if he didn’t let so many passes hit the turf.
TE: Mark Campbell Coming off back surgery and may not be able to stay ahead of receiving threat Billy Miller.
LDE: Charles Grant Somewhat lackluster ’07 campaign seems insignificant after his involuntary manslaughter indictment over the offseason. Has a lot of non-football business on his plate.
DT: Sedrick Ellis* Played NT at USC but Saints will likely ask him to work the three-technique. They really need him to be an interior presence.
NT: Hollis Thomas Will make two or three monstrous plays a game….though he usually offsets them by falling on his face two or three times. Weight has been an issue.
RDE: Will Smith Pro Bowl caliber player who just signed a seven-year, $63 million deal. Coaches like his locker room presence.
SLB: Scott Fujita Defensive captain who plays an effective, gritty brand of football.
MLB: Jonathan Vilma** Saints traded a fourth-round choice and a conditional ’09 pick to get him. If he regains his pre-knee operation form, then New Orleans got a steal.
WLB: Scott Shanle Leaves a lot to be desired in terms of sheer skill, but makes good reads and has adept footwork.
CB: Mike McKenzie Physical cover corner but 32 years old and coming off a torn ACL from December.
SS: Roman Harper They wouldn’t give this guy up in the abortive Jeremy Shockey deal. Great strength, must be more consistent in coverage.
FS: Josh Bullocks Neither good nor bad, fast nor slow. Not strong or weak and isn’t smart or stupid. He just is.
CB: Randall Gay At least they didn’t pay him as much as they paid Jason David. Can survive as a starter but won’t ignite the secondary.
DL: Bobby McCray Pass-rushing specialist who recorded double-digit sacks with Jacksonville two years ago.
LB: Mark Simoneau A much better fit as a utility veteran off the bench.
NB: Tracy Porter* Instability at CB could land him in the starting lineup much sooner than expected.
Key Player Acquisitions
QB Mark Brunell (Was)
CB Randall Gay (NE)
CB Aaron Glenn (Jax)
OL Matt Lehr (TB)
DE Bobby McCray (Jax)
LB Jonathan Vilma (NYJ)
Key Player Losses
DE Josh Cooper
C Jeff Faine (TB)
S Steve Gleason (retired)
K Olindo Mare (Sea)
LB Matt McCoy (TB)
LB Brian Simmons
DE Renaldo Wynn (NYG)
The addition of Vilma is tremendous. He’s an elite MLB when healthy. He could invigorate this defense. Gay fills the void at CB left by last year’s disappointing free agent signing Jason David (now a dime back). Lehr gives them depth at G and C, but he won’t replace Faine as the starter. McCray adds pass-rushing prowess off the bench. Gleason’s special teams contributions will be missed. Mare’s won’t. The rest of the departed veterans are easily replaceable.
2008 – New Orleans Saints
Rd Sel # Player Position School
1 7 Sedrick Ellis DT USC
2 40 Tracy Porter CB Indiana
5 144 DeMario Pressley DT North Carolina State
5 164 Carl Nicks OT Nebraska
6 178 Taylor Mehlhaff K Wisconsin
7 237 Adrian Arrington WR Michigan
Considering they traded their fourth-rounder to get Jonathan Vilma, the Saints did an excellent job of plugging holes in this draft. They hope Ellis gives them the interior playmaking presence that the defense sorely needs. They sacrificed their third-round pick just to move up three spots to get him. Scouts were divided about Porter. He handled shutdown responsibilities in college, but not everyone admires his technique. Pressley will be used as a pass-rusher, which seems odd considering he had just 4.5 sacks in his career with the Wolf Pack. Nicks is powerful, Mehlhaff will compete with Martin Gramatica and Arrington is a project.
New Orleans Saints 2008 Preview Report
Have you ever met someone and been immediately impressed––even enamored––with the breadth of their knowledge and creativity? They seem to think just like you, only with slightly better ideas. You’re so intrigued that you come up with a brilliant project and then partner with this charismatic individual. Then, close to halfway through the project you realize this person is not at all what you thought they were. Ever been there?
We call these people flakes. The New Orleans Saints were the biggest flakes in football last season. After exploding as the darlings of the NFL in their miraculous post-Katrina ’06 campaign, they became the trendiest preseason pick. America partnered with New Orleans. But once the project began, the Saints waffled.
They started 0-4. When many quickly gave up on them, they rebounded to win four straight. Surrounded once again with excitement, the Saints promptly dropped three out of their next four. When people groaned, they won three out of four and got right back in the playoff picture. That set the stage for a two-game skid, a 7-9 finish and a lot of baffled partners standing alone wondering what happened.
This is how flakes operate. What’s maddening is, every time you’re ready to write them off, they show you just enough encouraging evidence to rope you back in. When you’re ready to sever ties again, the cycle repeats. You never can figure out how good the flakes actually are at what they do. They’re not as good as expected––you know that. But they’re magnificent at finding second chances.
This is where the Saints are in 2008. After disappointing the masses in ’07, they’re back to looking good.
The Saints have a high-powered offense led by venerable quarterback Drew Brees and imaginative play-caller Sean Payton. They have potentially the most dazzling runner in the game in Reggie Bush. And their receivers all seem capable of stretching the field. Defensively, New Orleans has two $63 million dollar defensive ends (Charles Grant and Will Smith). Their linebackers are hard-working and their secondary is on the rise. It is very difficult to pick against this team.
But before you go to Vegas and take those 22:1 odds, stop and realize that the Saints headed into the season with these same circumstance last year. Beneath the glamour and glitz you see that Brees is the same quarterback who threw 18 interceptions. And the imaginative Payton is woefully impatient when it comes to establishing the run. Can’t blame him––Bush didn’t register a single play over 25 yards last season. (Think about that. The almighty Reggie Bush didn’t make a run or catch longer than 25 yards last season. His average yards per carry was a trifling 3.7.) And New Orleans’s field-stretching receivers dropped more balls than a driving range dispenser. As for all those players on defense? Please––as a unit they ranked 26th overall. The $63 million ends combined for 9.5 sacks.
So what are we to believe? Talented or flakey? Or both? A lot rides on two things: the offense’s ability to run the ball, and the defense’s ability to integrate an infusion of new talent (defensive tackle Sedrick Ellis, defensive end Bobby McCray, middle linebacker Jonathan Vilma and cornerbacks Randall Gay and Tracy Porter).
First, the offense. Run the ball. Sounds simple. But Payton abandoned the run game last season after Deuce McAllister went down with a torn ACL in Week 3. Bush inherited the feature back job and learned that life as an NFL runner can be difficult when you don’t trust your blocking or appreciate the value of a tough four yards. Payton and Bush are the key ingredients to New Orleans’s offensive success in ’08. The latter can greatly influence the former simply by maturing. More on this later.
How about the defense? It was bad last year––no doubt. Its feebleness up the middle was crippling. With no interior pass-rushing presence, opposing offenses were able to dial in on Grant and Smith. Having all day to throw, quarterbacks torched New Orleans defensive backs (namely Jason David, though safeties Josh Bullocks and Roman Harper were nothing to marvel at either). And teams didn’t fear creaky Brian Simmons or the rest of the linebacking core.
In spring, Saints general manager Mickey Loomis set out to right these wrongs. He added another pass-rusher in ex-Jaguar Bobby McCray. Then he brought in Patriots cornerback Randall Gay who, unlike David, will not step in with a debilitating unfamiliarity of man-coverage. To indemnify his investment, Loomis also signed 15th-year veteran Aaron Glenn, a valuable practice presence who can bring some much-needed leadership.
Then, the GM traded a fourth-round draft pick to the Jets in exchange for middle linebacker Jonathan Vilma. The ’04 Defensive Rookie of the Year was expendable because the Jets did not trust his surgically repaired right knee or think he could operate in Eric Mangini’s 3-4 defense. If Vilma regains his form, as expected, this trade could turn into football’s version of the Louisiana Purchase. A mid-round pick––okay, two mid-round picks if Vilma meets certain playing time quotas––for an upper echelon middle linebacker!? A 26-year-old upper echelon middle linebacker?
The defensive tackle situation was addressed on Draft Day when Loomis dealt his third-round selection in order to move up to New England’s No. 7 slot and nab USC’s Sedrick Ellis. The four-year Trojan plays both tackle positions and is expected to start right away.
On the surface, this all sounds pretty good. Of course, with flakes, it always does.
Above all else, understand that this offense has a chance to be great simply because it has arguably the best front five in the NFC (a front five were every starter weighs over 310 pounds). Coached by offensive coordinator Doug Marrone––who, with Sean Payton calling the plays, can afford the added responsibilities––New Orleans’s offensive line gave up a league-low 16 sacks in 2007 (second best in franchise history).
Left tackle Jammal Brown is the most trumpeted of the group. The fourth-year pro from Oklahoma possesses punishing power and the mobility to be a force in the run game. Brown was an All-Pro in 2006, though mental mistakes and emotional volatility caused his play to drop a level last season. New Orleans actually shopped Brown around prior to the draft, hoping to move up and be in a position to select Glenn Dorsey. It’s doubtful that they’ll let go of Brown now. And it’s doubtful that he’ll fail to rebound in ’08.
For all the notoriety Brown gets, right guard Jahri Evans is actually the team’s best lineman. The third-year pro out of Bloomsburg (Bloomsburg? Anyone?….It’s in East-Central Pennsylvania) has been darn near flawless starting all 32 games in his career. He is a brilliant tactician blessed with tremendous strength and agile feet. The Saints would be wise to get more movement on his side in the ground game and allow him to flourish at the second level. That, however, would put more strain on right tackle Jon Stinchcomb, a dependable veteran but one who lacks the dexterity to do much more than scrap and survive.
Ninth-year left guard Jamar Nesbit still has excellent pop. At 325 pounds he’s a force as a run-blocker. Nesbit won’t have a nasty center playing next to him this season, as Jeff Faine was allowed to leave in free agency. Replacing Faine is former utility backup Jonathan Goodwin, an adequate plugger who performed well in his two starts last season. As an insurance policy, New Orleans signed guard-center Matt Lehr.
Given the power of the offensive line, it is almost inexcusable for the Saints to not conjure a formidable rushing attack in 2008. Reggie Bush, while the team’s most important figure, is not the one to spearhead it. The hope is that 29-year-old veteran Deuce McAllister can once again pound the rock behind fullback Mike Karney.
The Saints need an Obama-esque orator to sell this hope. McAllister is coming back from double knee surgery. His left knee operation repaired the ACL tear that felled him in Week 3 last year. His right knee operation was a microfracture procedure to correct the residual effects of the ACL tear he suffered in 2005. There isn’t a soul alive that doesn’t want to see the honorable seventh-year vet succeed. But what McAllister is attempting to do is next to impossible––especially for a running back. Should he be unable to go, New Orleans will call on either Aaron Stecker or Pierre Thomas, neither of whom weighs more than 215.
Bush is not a pounder. Granted, the Saints will continue to work with him on his patience as an inside runner, and they’ll ask him to get tougher in fighting for hard yards in traffic. But Bush is much more than a classic running back. He, in fact, is at his best when there is a power-runner in the backfield with him who can keep defenders honest and free from swarming the flats.
Sean Payton’s primary focus needs to remain getting Bush the ball in space. This requires using the third-year pro as a receiver––something he thrives at––and giving him freedom as an outside runner. If nothing else, the Saints need to ensure that Bush runs with more compactness and discipline. His willowy rushing style makes him dangerously susceptible to big hits. New Orleans can’t afford to lose his value as a decoy.
Drew Brees is a prolific passer, and Payton’s spread-formations naturally lend considerable playmaking opportunities to the receivers. Marques Colston is the best of the bunch. A seventh-round pick three years ago, the 6’4”, 231-pound Colston is an unstoppable possession target who is also capable of making plays deep. He caught a team-record 98 passes last season, 11 of them for touchdowns. The Saints are hoping to lock Colston up in a long-term deal sometime in the near future.
In a perfect world, last year’s first-round pick Robert Meachem would emerge as a lethal complimentary target. Meachem never caught up as a rookie after knee surgery caused him to miss several practice sessions during the summer. He wound up spending all 16 games on the inactive list. Eager to contribute, Meachem impressed the coaching staff and front office––not to mention Brees––with his diligent offseason work. He appears to be in line for the first job behind No. 2 receiver David Patten.
The slot duties could belong to Devery Henderson––if he ever learns to catch the ball. Henderson, instead, will have to fight off underappreciated veteran Terrance Copper for the No. 4 position.
Tight end Mark Campbell is returning from back surgery––something very few 32-year-olds do successfully. The Saints value Campbell because he offers better blocking than Eric Johnson or Billy Miller, but it’s highly unlikely that they’ll ask him to start again. Heading into training camp, Johnson was listed at the top of the depth chart.
A big reason why this defense stumbled in ’07 was because it gave up a league-high 15 plays of 40 yards or more. That was almost a direct result of a fruitless pass rush.
Newbies Sedrick Ellis and Bobby McCray are expected to help change that. Ellis will do so from a three-technique tackle––a role that he produced 8.5 sacks in as a senior at Southern Cal. McCray will come off the edge as a third-down specialist, which means regular defensive end Charles Grant will slide inside in nickel situations. The 291-pound Grant has a fairly quick first step, but not as quick as the 260-pound McCray. Grant does, however, have enough strength to be destructive inside.
With three competent pass-rushers flanking him in ’08, fifth-year veteran Will Smith could top his career-high sack total of 10.5 (set back in 2006). Smith has outstanding quickness and is also powerful enough to make plays in traffic. There are, however, mild concerns about his motor. Generally a high-energy player, Smith’s effort level seems to flutter at times (and this was before he got $25 million in guarantees).
Part A for New Orleans is rushing the passer. Part B is stopping the run. The Saints ranked 13th in rush defense last season, but that number is a little misleading given the number of Saints contests that turned into shootouts. The game film showed that too many opposing offensive linemen got bodies on the linebackers last year. It will be up to Ellis to use his 305-pound mass to control the line of scrimmage. And it will be up to 306-pound-(cough….350-pound)-Hollis Thomas to stay on the field. The 13th-year vet is a load in the middle, but poor durability and stamina routinely hindered his output.
Thomas may wind up backing up hearty Brian Young, should the longtime starter overcome the knee soreness that has plagued him as of late. If Young is hampered, Antwan Lake and Kendrick Clancy can both be big bodies off the bench.
If the defensive tackles do their job, Jonathan Vilma will dominate. Assuming his surgically repaired right knee is healthy, Vilma’s speed and instincts make him one of the game’s most vigorous run defenders. He is well suited for coordinator Gary Gibbs’s 4-3 system. His presence alleviates the pressure that has been mounting on strongside linebacker Scott Fujita. Effective as Fujita is––he uses his hands very well to disengage from blocks, and his tackling is of textbook form––he’s a much better fit in a complimentary role.
Weakside linebacker Scott Shanle is nothing special, but he can hold down the fort out in space. He doesn’t like to mix it up in congested areas, so it’s conceivable that Mark Simoneau could capture his job. But considering that energetic but insufficient Troy Evans is the only other reserve linebacker with experience, it’s likely that New Orleans will expect to keep the safety valve Simoneau in a utility role off the bench.
It’s not hard to spot this team’s Achilles heal. Virtually every defensive back could triumph or tumble in 2008. The first is cornerback Mike McKenzie. One of football’s elite cover corners, the ultra-physical McKenzie is coming off a torn ACL suffered in Week 16 last season. He’s listed as the starting left corner heading into camp, but being just eight months removed from reconstructive knee surgery, it’s doubtful he’ll be able to cut and change directions effectively.
If McKenzie can’t go, then oft-injured Randall Gay becomes the No. 1 corner. Gay is decent, but his Patriot aura is creating unrealistic expectations. The fact of the matter is, Gay is middle-tier player. That’s why, last season, fully healthy for the first time since his rookie year of ’04, he started only three games for New England.
Jason David can play the run, but he has been awful in man coverage. He’ll likely fall behind second-round rookie Tracy Porter, who was inconsistent yet promising as a senior at Indiana. Jason Craft is capable of handling the No. 4 duties should the falling dominoes of McKenzie’s situation call for it. Craft, however, would have to beat out well-traveled veterans Aaron Glenn and Jerametrius Butler.
Free safety Josh Bullocks looked very good as a rookie in ’06, but his play seemed to water down as a sophomore. That could have had something to do with the overall instability of the secondary. Or, perhaps Bullocks did not respond well to being pushed by veteran Kevin Kaesviharn. Regardless, he has an opportunity to cement his spot this season.
It would help Bullocks tremendously if strong safety Roman Harper became more consistent. His coverage woes have drawn the ire of Payton and defensive coordinator Gary Gibbs. Harper’s strength is against the run. He was second on the team with 94 tackles last season and, through his physicality, showed a propensity for making big stops.
Martin Gramatica is cute, but not cute enough to simply be handed the kicking job. Gramatica will have to earn it by beating out sixth-round rookie Taylor Mehlhaff. Punter Steve Weatherford is solid across the board. He can leave balls inside the 20, he can kick for distance and his boots don’t get blocked.
Speedy backup receiver Lance Moore handles punt return duties. Moore can be a playmaker….as a fourth receiver on offense. In the return game, he’s never taken one to the house. Pierre Thomas helps on the kick returns; he averaged a commendable 24.0 yards on 36 runbacks last season.
The Saints have fire power on offense, and there are some intriguing pieces on defense. That said, they haven’t proven capable of running the ball or pressuring the passer. If the adjustments they make this year produce results in this realm, they’ll win the NFC South. If not, they’ll contend for a wild card.
Fullback Mike Karney is a ball-handler
On a nationally televised Sunday night game in 2006, America was introduced to fullback Mike Karney. A third-year pro at the time, Karney scored the first and second touchdowns of his career.
Karney actually found the end zone twice again in 2007: a one-yard TD run against the Bucs in Week 2, and a two-yard plunge against Carolina in Week 4. However, he is not Larry Centers.
In case there was any confusion, Karney is a classic lead-blocker. He’s rock-hard on contact….including when the contact is between his hands and the football. His balance as a runner is poor (like any fullback) and his range as a receiver is non-existent.
One of the best television commercials last season was the VISA ad that showed the city of New Orleans jiving to Louis Armstrong’s rendition of When the Saints Go Marching In. There was something inherently cheery about the ad––probably because it had bright colors and a Katrina recovery undertone.
For those who didn’t know, the Saints are actually named after the song. (The song is a big element in the Crescent City’s funeral march tradition.)
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