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Roster Roundouts ’10: A New Orleans Saints Season Preview

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New Orleans Saints (projected finish: 9-7)

Team synopsis: Just 6 months after winning Super Bowl, the Saints get back at it trying to defend their title.  They could be in trouble.  When you look at the NFC South, there’s an obvious contender in Atlanta, a darkhorse contender in the Panthers, and a team in Tampa Bay who is an obvious threat to beat New Orleans both times they play.  The Saints are too good to not be in the running for the wild card, but it would be a little surprising if they won the NFC South for the second consecutive season — that’s never been done before, by anyone.  They enter with perhaps the best chance to repeat since the 2003 Bucs, the last title defender in the division.  That team was probably better than the 2010 Saints, and they went 7-9.  So, obviously, 9-7 is a pretty passive prediction.  It’s most likely to happen of all potential outcomes, yet, it’s really not saying all that much.

Best Players

  • QB Drew Brees (signed — San Diego/2006 free agent)
  • RB Pierre Thomas (signed — Illinois/2007 undrafted free agent)
  • WR Marques Colston (drafted — Hofstra/2006 7th round pick)
  • WR Robert Meachem (drafted — Tennessee/2007 1st round pick)
  • WR Devery Henderson (drafted — LSU/2004 2nd round pick)
  • LG Carl Nicks (drafted — Nebraska/2008 5th round pick)
  • RG Jahri Evans (drafted — Bloomsburg (PA)/2006 4th round pick)
  • DE Alex Brown (signed — Chicago/2010 free agent)
  • LB Jonathon Vilma (signed — NY Jets/2008 free agent)
  • CB Jabari Greer (signed — Buffalo/2009 free agent)

Best Prospects

  • TE Jimmy Graham (drafted — Miami/2010 3rd round pick)
  • LT Charles Brown (drafted — USC/2010 2nd round pick)
  • C Matt Tennant (drafted — Boston College/2010 5th round pick)
  • DT Sedrick Ellis (drafted — USC/2008 1st round pick)
  • CB Malcolm Jenkins (drafted — Ohio State/2009 1st round pick)
  • CB Patrick Robinson (drafted — Florida State/2010 1st round pick)

The Saints offense remains loaded.  Well, beyond loaded.  Players who didn’t make the cut for “best players on the offense” include pro bowlers TE Jeremy Shockey and RT Jon Stinchcomb.  Neither is as critical to the passing game as Brees or the three receivers, and neither is as critical to the running game as Thomas, Nicks, or Evans.  Still, both are critical role players in the offense.

The Saints need to be able to throw to win, and they’ve been doing that successfully since 2006.  But what changed last year is that the Saints learned how to run, and win while running.  It’s a big difference being able top control opponents both on the ground and in the air, and while the passing game is far more important, the Saints struggled when they were shut down on the ground last year.

The talent concentration on this team is certainly not on the defensive end.  They’re trying to change that, adding four cornerbacks in the past two years, using each of the teams last two second round picks at the position.  Defensive Coordinator Gregg Williams is a secondary-first kind of coach, and even with the talent increase that has occurred at the position in the last three seasons, I can assure you that he’s not done adding pieces, and will not be until he has an all-star secondary.

It’s hard to say who might be part of that all star secondary.  Jabari Greer is one of the three best corners in the league, at least based on the season he had last year.  Greer might not be capable of back-to-back elite seasons, and if he isn’t the Saints pass defense will fall off considerably.  One of the main reasons is that they are already going to lose a few interceptions (and almost all the returns) from FS Darren Sharper, who re-upped with the club.  Sharper’s career year came out of nowhere at age 33, and he figures to offer them a quality starter this season who gathers a few interceptions, but not ten.  Roman Harper is a physical safety who will take the bait on misdirection and play action, and his contract expires at years end.  It’s likely that in 2011, the Saints will start two new safeties, and knowing Williams, one will be a high first round pick.

The front seven usually isn’t the focus of the talent.  The Saints were fortunate to land Jonathon Vilma in free agency from the Jets, and Williams was fortunate to inherit him.  Next to Vilma, the Saints will have veteran Scott Shanle competing with any number of middling prospects.  Stanley Arnoux is the most athletic of all the Saints LBs, but he missed his rookie season in 2009 with injury.  Clint Ingram has the fast track to start, or he would if he was physically able to perform.  He’s not.  Watch out for the name Marvin Mitchell.  He’s been a special teamer in his career up until this point, and now, could start.

Alex Brown should really bolster the Saints pass rush, allowing Will Smith to move to the other side of the line and displace Charles Grant, who was the weak link on the Saints defense last year.  The team won the super bowl in spite of the play of DT Sedrick Ellis, who might just be a poor scheme fit for Gregg Williams’ group.  Williams likes to hold onto and play his talent sparingly (the Redskins once made Adam Archuleta the richest safety in NFL history, then tried to play him part time), so while Ellis’ snap count will be cut this year, it would not be shocking if he is situationally productive.

The defense is something that I would consider to be “right” about the Saints, but it’s a high variance unit.  That’s excellent when you’re a mid-level franchise trying to win the super bowl.  It’s not so great once you’re on top.  Yards and points can be had against these guys.

The offense is going to keep them in all games.  Devery Henderson has the best career yards per catch figure of any NFL receiver with four or more accrued NFL seasons.  He has led the NFL in yards per reception in both 2006 and 2008.  This past year was a down year, he had a career high 51 catches, but just 2 TDs, a career low.  That’s okay, because Robert Meachem had a breakout year with 9 receiving TDs, just one year after averaging 24.1 yards per catch, which was second in the league (to, yes, Henderson).

There hasn’t been much written about Jeremy Shockey’s rebound season, but in 2009, Shockey had his best season since he was a franchise receiving TE on the 2005 Giants.  He had a down season in 2006, then was injured for the playoff run in 2007, and he set a career best for longest reception, a 66 yarder.  Shockey’s never been a downfield target before last year, and his emergence as one has really defined how dominant the Saints passing game is.  They can get the underneath passing production from players you have never heard of.  And their playmakers will be playmakers.

And quietly, the Saints number one playmaker remained Marques Colston.  Colston broke 1,000 receiving yards for the third time in his career, and scored 9 TDs, which was second most.  The former seventh round pick who played football at a school that no longer had a football program (Hofstra) is one of the seven or eight best receivers in football, and plays on a team that has three of the top 20 receivers in football.

So while there are concerns about the running game and concerns about the defense — the facets of football that came out of no where to propel the Saints to the Super Bowl — the Saints should look a lot like last year’s Saints, and being just as impossible to cover when Drew Brees has time.  Brees has been one of the most durable quarterbacks in football over the last six years, and one of the most accurate over the last four.

He also has the distinction of being perhaps the greatest free agent signing in NFL history.

Fighting for a spot on the roster

Chase Daniel is expected to beat out Sean Canfield for a backup role on the Saints, and while Patrick Ramsey would be the first guy off the bench to relieve Drew Brees, Daniel would probably be a better long-term solution if Brees were to get hurt early and miss the season.

With Lynell Hamilton out for the season, the Saints signed Ladell Betts to be their backup running back.  He will split second team carries with Reggie Bush.

One thing about having the best receivers in football: guys like Lance Moore are unhappy being fourth receivers (and like, the sixth option in the passing offense, and splitting that role with Betts).  Courtney Roby can flat out fly, and uses that speed on special teams and in long yardage situations.  Adrian Arrington is back with the team, and just as likely to miss the cut this time.

The Saints like to use TEs as H-Backs, which is the only reason that guys like converted-QB Tyler Lorenzen and Tory Humphrey are relevant.  Both will be behind Jimmy Graham in the pecking order, as Jeremy Shockey and David Thomas are expected to remain a one-two punch.

The crunch is coming at left tackle: Jermon Bushrod, Charles Brown, and Zach Strief are your three candidates to win the job.  Bushrod held it all of last season, which was more surprising than expected.  Brown is the team’s LT of the future, but this year, he’s just another rookie trying to win a job.  Terrence Metcalf, former Bear, is in the fold this year to back up the two best run blocking Guards in football.  Rookie guard Brandon Carter (the guy at Texas Tech with the face paint) is in an uphill battle to win a job.  Matt Tennant is safely the backup center.

Anthony Hargrove was such as useful player last year.  He had 5 sacks as an interior rusher, but his first position is defensive end.  Remi Ayodele and Demario Pressley are going to compete for the starting position opposite Sedrick Ellis.  Fourth round pick Al Woods figures to be the other defensive tackle on this team.  Bobby McCray and Jimmy Wilkerson are the front runners to hold on to veteran backup jobs at defensive ends.

With Arnoux back healthy at LB, Clint Ingram needs to win a starting job, or could be a late cut.  Jo-Lonn Dunbar and Marvin Mitchell are safe due to special teams value.  The last two guys vying for a spot are veteran Troy Evans, and second year man Jonathon Casillas.  Both can win spots, but that would mean either Arnoux or Ingram failed to make it.

With four cover corners on the roster, Randall Gay is pushed to the bubble.  Leigh Torrance is an able special teamer and is unlikely to be released.  The Saints could keep six corners and four safeties if they want to hold on to Gay.  Tracy Porter isn’t getting released.  I’m pretty sure, however, that the Saints won’t keep more than four safeties.  Chris Reis is the best on special teams, and is probably safe.  Pierson Prioleau is also good on ‘teams, but is significantly older and near the end of his career.  Still, Gregg Williams has as much loyalty to Prioleau as to any player in football.  Could Chip Vaughn and Usama Young get cut?  Probably not Young, who is the teams’ best cover safety.  Vaughn could be victim of a roster crunch at the position.

Doing the Jets and Saints back to back has shown me one thing conclusively: the Saints are a lot deeper.  On the offensive side of the ball, they are a lot better.  But their depth at every position is more impressive.

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