So we, admittedly, underestimated the commitment required for us both to preview all 32 NFL teams together in a little more than a month. It's tedious, thankless work. So from now on we're splitting the rest of the teams among the two of us to get done twice as quick (and with half the work). It is with that that we're proud to bring to you the 21st of our 32 team previews for the upcoming NFL season, the New Orleans Saints
TOM'S TAKE: Before you read on, I suggest you watch the video above. Your feelings on Coldplay aside, you should be in the right frame of mind to read on. The frame of mind every Saints fan, including those of us outside of New Orleans, is in heading into this season. You see, just the fact that the Saints are playing this year, and in the Superdome nonetheless, is a victory. The stadium will open for the first time since Katrina for the Monday night game against the Falcons in Week 3, and the excitement of Saints fans who had to watch their team go 3-13 in 11 different stadiums, none of which were their own, will be pretty inspiring. But, personnel wise, where do you start on a team that got 66% of its victories against the Bills and Jets?
How about the sideline? GM Mickey Loomis mercifully ended the Haslett era as his first priority this offseason. New coach Sean Payton is a Parcells disciple who was on the staff that brought the Giants to the Super Bowl and more recently the offensive coordinator for Parcells' Cowboys teams. He's got Parcells' no-nonsense attitude and has thus far commanded only the best from the '06 incarnation of the Saints. Together, he and Loomis have done an incredible job, given the short amount of time, overhauling the roster and molding it more to Payton's preference. Whereas Haslett favored athleticism over all else, Payton has rebuilt the Saints around brainy, disciplined, character guys. He's stressed conditioning thus far in the offseason to prevent the Saints from giving up the football, taking bad penalties, and losing leads late in games.
Rebuilding a team requires a quarterback to build around, and the new Saints staff got the best available in Drew Brees. Brees' shoulder scared away Miami, but he's wound up recovering months ahead of schedule and will start in Week 1. He's the epitomy of a Payton guy -- smart, accurate, reads defenses well, commands respect from his teammates and is prepared to lead them. Upon signing with New Orleans, Brees and his wife took out a full-page ad in the Times-Picayune declaring his dedication to the city and the team. It isn't the equivalent of a 75-yard strike to Donte Stallworth, but it was a classy move. With Saints fans coming off a brutal stint with Haslett and Brooks and dealing with a severe distrust of owner Tom Benson, it was a great way for Brees to endear himself to Saints fans immediately. He doesn't have LaDainian Tomlinson or Antonio Gates anymore, but the Saints offense as a whole is far better than San Diego's has been. The second godsend this offseason was Reggie Bush. With Deuce McAllister, it could be argued that Bush wasn't a necessity for a team that had so many holes elsewhere, but Deuce hasn't proven himself to be completely durable, and lacked the burst of his past last year before being knocked out of the season with a torn knee ligament. Adding Bush should benefit both backs -- Deuce will be able to take some plays off to keep the strain off of his knee, and after taking a pounding at the hands of McAllister defenses will not be able to keep up with St. Reginald. Reggie also provides a safety valve for Brees, in case the team's less-than-stellar offensive line fails him.
Ahh, the offensive line. The single greatest worry for Saints fans. With close to $200M invested in the backfield alone, fans are justifiably worried about the chance a porous line could create a costly injury. Although Payton's been tight-lipped about official depth charts, and the line is one of the most unsettled units on the team in that regard, we're beginning to see what the starting five will probably look like. The anchor of the line, 2005 first rounder Jamaal Brown, has been moved from right to left tackle, the most important position on the line. He's struggled in the transition thus far, but he proved himself a quick study last year when he stepped in immediately and proved to be the team's best blocker, and he'll adapt in time. The Saints replaced new Brown LeCharles Bentley with the center he replaced in Cleveland, Jeff Faine. Faine grades out as a better center than Bentley, who started his career at guard. But the Saints may be relying on two rookies to anchor the right side -- guard Jahri Evans and tackle Zach Strief. Both guys have showed promise in the offseason, but it's rarely a good sign when two late-round rookies hold one side of the line down from Week 1. They'll have the chance to adapt quickly being thrown in the fire, but the beginning of the season, at least, should see some rough times. The line doesn't need to be excellent -- Brees' quick decision-making and release will offset a lack of protection, and if they can give him just enough time to get into his 3- and 5-step drops, he'll be able to get the ball in the hands of one of many weapons.
The Saints receivers are the best group Brees has ever had. Joe Horn is healthy and inspired to prove that last season's poor numbers were an abberation. He and Brees have worked a lot on developing a chemistry -- two brainy vets such as themselves will be able to develop a quick rapport. After Horn, the Saints have a plethora of wideouts competing for the final four or five spots, more of an indication of the type of depth and talent the Saints have at receiver than the lack thereof. Donte Stallworth and Devery Henderson, the team's #2 and 3 receivers last season have each dealt with trade and release rumors, but they should both retain their roles from last year. The wild card of this group is Mike Hass, the Saints Biletnikoff Award-winning sixth round pick. The knock on him is his lack of speed, but he runs excellent routes and has the best hands of any receiver on the Saints roster. It took him weeks into training camp before he dropped his first pass. Marques Colston, a seventh-rounder out of Hofstra, has impressed in camp as well. He's got incredible size and surprising speed, and should crack the top five. It was a foregone conclusion last year that tight end Zach Hilton would enter this season as the starter after proving himself in the final handful of games last year, and his 6'8'' frame should remind Brees of Gates, but at that height Hilton has proven to be a liability as a blocker, and Sean Payton will probably opt to use Ernie Conwell or Mark Campbell, two guys who can catch as well as anchor the line.
On defense, the Saints' major weakness is stopping the run. This starts on the defensive line. Ends Charles Grant and Will Smith are about as good of a duo as one could expect. Smith in particular, entering his third year and first as full-time starter, should explode. Expect somewhere in the neighborhood of 15 sacks and a Pro Bowl berth for the Man in Black. The hole on the defensive line is at tackle. The Saints traded for Hollis Thomas on draft day to fill the nose tackle role as run-stuffer, but he'll need to be spelled occasionally. Brian Young is a high-motor guy but his lack of size hurts his ability to stop the run. The Saints will probably bring in another big guy, perhaps Brendson Buckner, to assist Thomas. Linebacker is another unit that is in flux on the depth chart. The Saints were dealt a blow by the late retirement of projected starter Anthony Simmons. Right now it appears that free agents Tommy Polley and Scott Fujita will man the OLB spots while second-year UConn alum Alfred Fincher plays the MIKE. Fujita was another early target of this staff -- both Payton and defensive coordinator Gary Gibbs are familiar with Fujita from their days in Dallas together. Fincher played sparingly as a rookie before injuring his wrist, but as a second round pick he's got lots of potential and is one of the few high-character guys Haslett brought in during his regime. Fincher could be replaced if, as has been rumored for months, the Saints and Chargers come to an agreement for Donnie Edwards, a beast who could plug the middle and instantly turn the Saints defense from below average to very good.
Depth at cornerback is a concern -- behind Mike McKenzie the Saints don't have a reliable #2 but a few #3s and some interesting prospects. The team will probably lean heavily on its deep group of safeties to help out in nickel and dime situations. Starting will be Josh Bullocks at free safety, a second-year ballhawk who stepped in almost immediately as one of the Saints best defenders last year. He's got Pro Bowl aspirations this year. Strong safety is a bigger question, but my money's on rookie Roman Harper, the defensive captain at Alabama, winning the starting spot sooner than later. Harper, fitting in with the theme of the offseason, is a reliable leader and a smart player who has already impressed the staff and his teammates with his ability to recognize offenses and call out coverage schemes to the rest of the defensive unit.
The Saints will have to decide on their kick and punt returners -- Henderson, Stallworth, Michael Lewis, Bethel Johnson, and Bush can all handle the responsibility. If Lewis and Johnson don't make the cut here they'll probably find themselves unemployed. I pray, as should all New Orleans faithful, that 42-year old John Carney is supplanted by Connor Hughes, an impressive rookie who's already proven capable of hitting from 50+ yards. Carney was once dependable but has since proven to be less accurate from 40+ and incapable of hitting anything near 50.
There are still holes on the team, no doubt. And it's a tough team to get a handle on because there has been such a change from last year's squad. No one is expecting Payton to win instantly -- he's made it clear he plans on sticking around for a few years because it takes time to build a winner with any sort of longevity. The true test of Payton's effect on the team won't be their record, it'll be how they compete in each game and if they can keep the penalties down and stay close until the end. Logically it seems the Saints will probably finish somewhere in the 7-9 area, but there is such a general feeling of positivity and comraderie in New Orleans this year that they could be a sleeper playoff team. At the very least, they should be able to hold their own in shootouts. There's just that feeling in the air that the Saints will do something special. Payton has recognized long-standing problems and has addressed them, something Haslett constantly failed to do. Brees and Bush are generating intense excitement. And, most importantly, they're playing. In New Orleans. After last year, just having someplace to truly call home should make all the difference in the world.