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pakowitz 05-02-2003 02:39 AM

Saints can get first check on their middle at minicamp

Associated Press
METAIRIE, La. (AP) _ One of the New Orleans Saints' top priorities during the off-season is to improve their defense up the middle.

They can get their first progress report this weekend, at the first of two minicamps for veterans and rookies.

``All you've got to do is watch our games last year on defense and you could see the problem,'' coach Jim Haslett said. ``We couldn't stop the run up the middle.

``We weren't very good up the middle. Right up the middle, defensive tackle all the way up to the safety spots, so that's the areas we tried to address. We just wanted to address the gut of the defense.''

So in last weekend's draft, the Saints traded up to draft Georgia defensive tackle Johnathan Sullivan with the sixth pick and then traded tackle Norman Hand, a starter for three seasons, to Seattle.

In free agency, the Saints signed Orlando Ruff from San Diego to replace Charlie Clemons at middle linebacker, and traded three draft choices to New England for free safety Tebucky Jones, who replaces Sammy Knight.

Clemons signed with Houston as a free agent and Knight, who had the third-most interceptions in New Orleans history, remains a free agent.

The team needs to be able to take on speedy and elusive quarterbacks like the Atlanta Falcons' Michael Vick, defensive coordinator Rick Venturi said.

``We feel like the new emphasis that we have to be very concerned about is brought about by Michael Vick and there are a lot of guys like him today,'' Venturi said. ``We have to have a little bit more overall quickness in the front seven to be able to control those guys.''

The Saints' off-season moves have not been limited to defensive line, or even defense.

They signed cornerback Ashley Ambrose from Atlanta to join a mixture that includes veterans Dale Carter and Fred Thomas and second-year prospect Keyuo Craver.

On offense, they traded former All-Pro tackle Kyle Turley to St. Louis for a draft choice and replaced him with Wayne Gandy, a free agent from Pittsburgh. On Wednesday, they released guard Wally Williams, a former starter.

``It was time to go back and build up the lines again,'' Haslett said. ``We've done a pretty good job.''

The Saints signed tight end Ernie Conwell as a free agent from St. Louis to try and improve a position that hasn't been productive in the passing game in years.

They also signed free agent punter Mitch Berger from St. Louis to replace Toby Gowin on punts and kickoffs.

They traded a sixth-round draft choice to Minnesota for backup quarterback Todd Bouman, who replaces Jake Delhomme, who signed as a free agent with Carolina.

Bouman will work with the first-team offense in minicamp as starter Aaron Brooks is not yet fully recovered from off-season surgery on his throwing shoulder.

Pro Bowl wide receiver Joe Horn is expected to skip minicamp in a dispute over negotiations for a new contract.

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