New Orleans Saints 2010 Preview

July 10, 2010 by

Scott Fujita was a sold player for the Saints. He was a consistent tackler; an eight0year veteran and defensive captain; a smart pass defender. He was beloved throughout the New Orleans community and within the Saint locker room.

But you can excuse the Saints for cracking a smile when they think about losing Fujita. Because when they think about losing Fujita, they inevitably think about how that’s really all they lost. Oh sure, they said goodbye to running back Mike Bell, but he was third on the depth chart. They released defensive ends Charles Grant and Bobby McCray, but Grant was slowing down and sidelined during the playoff run, and McCray has been released by respectable longtime-Bear Alex Brown. And sure, the Saints traded offensive tackle Jammal Brown. But they didn’t need Brown; he missed virtually all of last season.

In short, every key contributor from the Super Bowl Champion Saints is back in 2010. (Except for Fujita.) 100 out of 100 GM’s would gladly give their right arm in exchange for an opportunity to defend a title with the entire championship roster – save for one solid defensive role player – intact

So how did Saints GM Mickey Loomis do it? He got lucky, for one. The NFL’s uncapped year turned would-be unrestricted free agents like safety Roman Harper, running back Pierre Thomas, tight end David Thomas, wide receiver Lance Moore and right guard Jahri Evans into restricted free agents, keeping them not only in a Saints uniform, but in a Saints uniform at a ridiculously low price. Of this group, only Evans cashed in with a long-term contract (seven years, $56.7 million). Sure, not every player is happy. Harper didn’t sign his RFA tender until the last minute. Pierre Thomas finally went public with his contract demands. (Hard to blame him; he’s earned the league minimum three-straight years but has led the team in rushing the past two years. Now, he’s being asked to play for $1.68 million, while his backup, Reggie Bush, is making $8 million). But this type of drama is happening with all 32 teams this year.

The best remedy for drama is success. With Sean Payton and Gregg Williams on the sideline, and Drew Brees under center, the Saints have the perfect ingredients for success. Payton is a brilliant in-game strategist – his onside kick against the Colts may ultimately be remembered as the greatest coaching decision in Super Bowl history – and maddening adversary to gameplan against. After his Patriots got thumped in New Orleans last November, Bill Belichick said the Saints offense literally uses a greater array of formations than opponents can prepare for. The Saints are able to do this because they have what Jon Gruden calls a CEO quarterback. As long as Brees is on the field, this team has a legitimate chance to win.

Defensively, Gregg Williams knows he has mid-level talent, particularly in the front seven. But he also knows that aggressive, deceptive blitzing can mask a lot of flaws. The Saints defense is like the homely-looking guy who somehow gets the ladies by being a brash alpha male. Thanks to a standout secondary, Williams has been able to remove the hinges from his blitz-heavy scheme. New Orleans ranked 26th against the pass and 21st against the run last year (a product of mediocre talent), but they were second in forced turnovers (a product of an aggressive attack).

But above all schemes, the ’09 Saints were hungry. Before last season, they were the biggest tease in football. They could be counted on to have a high-soaring offense, loyal fan base and, come season’s end, anywhere from seven to nine wins. Overcoming mediocrity was a great motivating factor for them. But with doubters now disproved and Katrina being old news, where will the inspiration come from?

Perhaps the Saints should shoot for a perfect season. Most great teams avoid this kind of talk. They find it too distracting. But the Saints might need it. They’re young and unfamiliar with the concept of building on success. They have a swagger – which comes from their head coach – and relish marching to their own drumbeat.

Logic says that 19-0 is not out of the question. After all, on paper, this team could be better than the one that started 13-0 last season. But we say this about every defending Super Bowl champ, don’t we? We always think the defending champ can somehow accomplish bigger and better things. The reality is, no team has even won back-to-back titles since the ’03-’04 Patriots, let alone achieve perfection. Maybe this is where Payton can begin his first motivational speech in 2010.

Offense

Drew Brees is the reason the Saints have the league’s most prolific offense. The 10th-year pro is everything you could possibly want in a quarterback. He’s a leader. He has laser-like precision. He’s smart, both before and after the snap. He’s fundamentally perfect in the pocket. Brees is like L’Oreal for his teammates: he makes them look good.

None of New Orleans’s receivers are stars in and of themselves, but all are excellent in this scheme with this quarterback. Sinewy 6’5” Marques Colston is a sure-handed possession target, but his stiff change-of-direction would make him a No. 2 on most teams. However, the former seventh-round pick is coming off his third 1,000-yard season in four years. Speedy Devery Henderson no longer drops balls with regularity and has solidified his reputation as one of the preeminent catch-and-run weapons in the game. Henderson averages 19.7 yards per catch for his career, but it’s No. 3 receiver Robert Meachem, who is now the team’s top deep threat. Once thought to be a first-round bust, the soon-to-be 26-year-old Meachem will command more attention in 2010.

What separates the Saints’ passing attack from the rest of the NFL are the ancillary targets. No. 4 receiver Lance Moore, when healthy, becomes superhuman on third down. Jeremy Shockey is a warrior underneath and in the flats. Combine his ’09 numbers with those of lithe, fluid backup David Thomas, and you have 83 catches for 925 yards coming from the tight end position. Then there’s Reggie Bush. While as a pure running back he’s nowhere near living up to the hype, as a decoy he often exceeds it. Even in games where Bush is bailing to the sidelines, gaining nothing on plays that should get five yards, or fumbling, he’s still valuable because the very threat of his speed and quickness forces defenses to make awkward adjustments. And Payton is a master at punishing defenses for awkward adjustments.

Back to Brees. As much as he does for the receiving corps, he’s an even better cosmetic for the offensive line. Not to be harsh, but left tackle Jermon Bushrod may have been the worst starting player in football last year. The only reason you didn’t hear about Bushrod’s slow feet and shoddy technique each week was because Brees knew how to move in the pocket and hide his blocker’s flaws. Brees did the same thing – to a lesser extent – for Jon Stinchcomb on the right side. Bushrod is back at left tackle in ’10 but could eventually surrender the position to second-round rookie Charles Brown (though likely not this season).

Mediocre as the front five is in pass protection, it’s a dominant run-blocking unit. 343-pound Carl Nicks is the best left guard in the NFC (yes, even better than Steve Hutchinson). Great footwork and mechanics allow him to be a staple at the second level in the run game. Nicks does have some shortcomings in pass protection (he struggles with lateral movement), but they’re not defining issues.

Jonathan Goodwin is a rock at center, and Jahri Evans is as good as it gets at right guard. Evans is nimble enough to operate in space, but the Saints prefer to feature his power in plough-ahead fashion. New Orleans’s ground game does most of its damage between the tackles. Pierre Thomas is somewhat undersized but very physical. Fullback Heath Evans is a superb all-around lead-blocker. Reggie Bush is strictly an outside runner, which is why Lynell Hamilton will inherit the carries of the departed Mike Bell.

Defense

Gregg Williams’s scheme doesn’t work without great defensive backs. The scheme uses plenty of zone-based concepts, but it thrives when the corners can play press-coverage on the outside. Tracy Porter and Jabari Greer can both meet these demands. Porter, who has great quickness and loose hips, is immortalized as the hero of Super Bowl XLIV. Entering his third season, he is blossoming into a star. However, right now, Greer is the Saints’ best corner. His timing against underneath routes is textbook, and his understanding of situations and receivers’ tendencies is phenomenal.

Randall Gay is too stiff to consistently thrive in man coverage, which is why Mickey Loomis used the 32nd overall pick on fleet-footed Patrick Robinson. Gay isn’t nearly as stiff as Malcolm Jenkins, at least. Drafted last year as a corner/safety in Round One, Jenkins’s poor lateral agility and even poorer change-of-direction made it quickly apparent that his future in the NFL is as a safety/safety.

Jenkins will only get on the field if he can beat out Usama Young for dime duties. Young spent most of the offseason filling in for veteran free safety Darren Sharper. Sharper eventually re-signed after realizing other teams weren’t willing to give a hefty contract to a 34-year-old fresh off of arthroscopic microfracture knee surgery. The future Hall of Fame ballhawk (Sharper Hall of Fame – there’s a good debate to have) plans to be ready for Opening Night.

Valuable as Sharper is, strong safety Roman Harper might be New Orleans’s most important defensive player. Harper has the speed to run with most wide receivers – though he makes too many coverage mistakes in space – and the strength to be a thumper in the box. In fact, the only Saint run-defender more dynamic than Harper is middle linebacker Jonathan Vilma. When untouched by blockers, the quarterback of this defense uses his lateral speed and well-honed instincts to dominate.

Vilma will play a crucial role in filling the leadership void left by Fujita. Jo-Lonn Dunbar will get the first crack at replacing Fujita. The ’08 undrafted free agent was unimpressive in limited action as a fill-in starter last year, but he’s had an entire offseason to study the system and build his confidence.

If Dunbar struggles, ex-Jaguar Clint Ingram will get a look (assuming his surgically-repaired knee is okay). Ingram showed a good burst early in his career but has tailed off as of late. Speaking of good burst, that’s what scouts write about Jonathan Casillas – at least when they see him blitzing. Competitive veteran Scott Shanle could play the strong side if need be, but if he does, the Saints will have to find a new starter on the weak side.

Super Bowl ring or no Super Bowl ring, this D has to get better play from its tackles. Sedrick Ellis has good suddenness off the snap, but his technique in shedding double teams is poor. He’s not much better than fellow third-year pro Remi Ayodele, which wouldn’t be so bad if not for the fact that in 2008 Ellis was drafted seventh overall and Ayodele was not drafted at all. Backup DeMario Pressley is big but also struggles to get off blocks. Anthony Hargrove doesn’t hold ground very well, but he takes advantage of momentum-swinging opportunities. Both these backups could be pushed by fourth-round pick Al Woods.

Will Smith is a step short of being a top-tier defensive end. Smith’s relentless energy and agility are crucial to this pass-rush. Alex Brown is quick off the snap and better in run defense than people think, but he’s not a star. The Saints will miss Bobby McCray off the bench. Veteran Jimmy Wilkerson could warrant snaps, but he’s coming back from a knee injury and offers no particularly dazzling skill.

Special Teams

Kicker Garrett Hartley proved his mettle in overtime of the NFC Championship. Last year’s fifth-round pick, Thomas Morstead, will see the field in the rare instances that this offense doesn’t score. In the return game, Reggie Bush makes opposing coaches think twice about punting. Courtney Roby is the dangerous kick returner people tend to forget about. It’s worth noting that the Saints had the worst coverage units in football last year. They allowed 14.3 yards per punt return, which was nearly three yards more than the 31st-ranked Chargers allowed. They also gave up 24.5 yards per kick return, fourth worst in football.

Bottom Line

Undefeated won’t happen. Talent-wise, the Saints should be around 13-3, 14-2. But we’ve seen how things go for defending Super Bowl champions. One or two key injuries and this team could be looking at 9-7 again.

Predicted Finish: 1st NFC South

Andy Benoit is the founder of www.NFLTouchdown.com and writer for CBSSports.com’s NFL Blog. He can be contacted at andy.benoit –at – NFLTouchdown.com.

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