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JOESAM2002 07-01-2003 06:53 PM

ESPN'S Offseason overview- Saints-7/1-03
 
Thursday, June 26
Updated: July 1, 11:22 AM ET

Offseason Overview: New Orleans Saints

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By Keith Jackson II
ESPN.com


2002 RECORD: 9-7
TEAM RANK (NFL): Defense (27th); Offense (19th)
ADDITIONS:
Free agents -- FS Tebucky Jones (Patriots), OT Wayne Gandy (Steelers), CB Ashley Ambrose (Falcons), MLB Orlando Ruff (Chargers), P Mitch Berger (Rams), LB Derrick Rodgers (Dolphins), Todd Bouman (Vikings), TE Ernie Conwell (Rams).
Draft picks -- 1. DT Johnathan Sullivan (Georgia), 2. OT Jon Stinchcomb (Georgia), 3. Willie Grant (Ohio State), 4. G Montrae Holland (Florida State), 5. DE Melvin Williams (Kansas State), 6. WR Kareem Kelly (USC), 7. WR Talman Gardner (Florida State).
SUBTRACTIONS:
CB Steve Israel (released), P Toby Gowin (Cowboys), QB Jake Delhomme (Panthers), CB Ken Irvin (Vikings), TE Lamont Hall (Falcons), LB Charlie Clemmons (Texans), S Sammy Knight (Dolphins), OT Kyle Turley (Rams).
Team news | Roster | More on Saints draft

Tue., July 1
Were the defensive additions enough to avoid another late collapse or are the Saints' fortunes still all dependent on QB Aaron Brooks?
Well, at least on the offensive side, things are on Brooks' shoulders. Or more accurately, on his right shoulder, which certainly affected his performance in the final month of the 2002 campaign and which required January surgery. While the offense, with consecutive December swoons, has to assume some culpability for the Saints' late season pratfalls the past two years, most of the onus still falls on a defense that, in 2001 and 2002, surrendered points in bushels. In the 11 games the Saints played in December or January the last two seasons, they surrendered 20 points or fewer on just two occasions. In five of those games, New Orleans allowed 30 points or more. Head coach Jim Haslett and coordinator Rick Venturi have determined that more speed is the antidote for what has ailed the unit and, toward that end, sought to get significantly quicker over the offseason. The team placed particular emphasis on improving at the safety spot and the trade for Tebucky Jones, along with the elevation of Mel Mitchell to the starting lineup, seems to have provided an upgrade. The Saints staff knows it will spend the next 10-12 years chasing Michael Vick around and is fashioning a defense with that in mind.



Last season started well for the New Orleans Saints, but culminated in another long December. After marching to fast starts, the Saints are 1-7 in the final four games of 2001 and 2002 -- resulting in a failure to make the playoffs in either season.

Quarterback Aaron Brooks underwent shoulder surgery in the offseason for an injury suffered before the Saints' season-ending three-game skid. Although the Saints repeatedly stated that Brooks' injury wasn't a hindrance to his performance down the stretch, that theory seems far-fetched, at best.


What they've added?
The Saints sought to upgrade their secondary with the trade for former Patriots' free safety Tebucky Jones and the free agent signing of cornerback Ashley Ambrose. Their additions to the Saints' secondary should bring needed speed to a team that finished 27th in the league in passing yards (237.8) per game allowed. It will also allow coordinator Rick Venturi to play the zone defense he believes will allow his team to better defend against mobile quarterbacks such as Michael Vick.

They also hope that rookie defensive tackle Johnathan Sullivan from the University of Georgia will be able to step in and quickly contribute, as did last year's first round pick Charles Grant -- another former Bulldog. Sullivan will be asked to fill the big shoes of departed Pro Bowl defensive tackle Norman Hand.

The Saints offense is a different story. With the exception of the last month of the season, the Saints possessed one of the most potent offenses in the league, scoring 30 or more points eight times. For the first time in their history, the Saints had a viable triple-threat offense. Brooks threw for over 3,500 yards and Deuce McAllister and Joe Horn combined for more than 3,000 yards of offense.

Because of their success, the Saints stayed pat offensively, only trading for Vikings' backup quarterback Todd Bouman to work behind Brooks and take over if Brooks suffers another costly injury down the stretch. They also sought to upgrade the tight end position by signing Ernie Conwell from the Rams. Conwell is slated to back up Dave Sloan, but may be able to supplant him as the No.1 tight end by the end of training camp.

They're hoping new offensive tackle Wayne Gandy and draft pick Jon Stinchcomb will further stabilize an offensive line that is a good blend of youth and experience.


Fantasy Focus
Second-year wideout Donté Stallworth is one of fantasy's top sleepers because of his big-play ability. Although he was only the 39th highest-scoring fantasy receiver last year, Stallworth gave a glimpse of his potential when he made his first career start in Week 16. He had season bests with six catches, 111 yards and a 57-yard touchdown against Cincy. Stallworth, with his combo of size (6-foot and 197 pounds) and speed (4.18 in 40), has the physical skills to be a No. 1 wideout. However, he struggled with hamstring injuries in training camp and during the season, and finished with just 594 receiving yards. Despite the injury issues, his eight touchdowns (on only 42 catches) was tied for the NFL's sixth-highest total, placing him ahead of even Randy Moss (7). Given good health, Stallworth will reward owners who take him as their No. 3 wideout with Sundays similar to Week 16.
-- Roger Rotter, ESPN.com fantasy editor

What they're missing?
For the second consecutive year, the Saints will start a new left tackle due to an offseason trade. They traded Kyle Turley to the Rams for a second-round pick one year after trading former starting left tackle Willie Roaf to the Chiefs. Turley's departure was a welcome move for all parties involved. Turley had grown unhappy during the latter stages of his time with the team, while the Saints grew tired of his temper and repeated derogatory comments concerning team management. However, Saints' fans can only wonder how steady turnover at such a key position will affect the line's play in 2003.

On the other side of the ball, the Saints traded Hand to the Seattle Seahawks because of his reported weight problems. Hand has struggled with his weight for the past two seasons and was deemed expendable. The Saints also lost safety Sammy Knight to free agency. Knight, a former Pro Bowler, opted out of his contract after the Saints refused to renegotiate his contract due to his lack of speed. The leading tackler for the Saints in 2003, Knight's hard-nosed play will be missed.

What it all means?
Saints coach Jim Haslett is left wondering what it takes to get his team to win a late-season game. The team defense has been revamped with several key additions and the Saints seem to have added the necessary amount of speed it felt was lacking to compete for a playoff spot. With the returning nucleus and additions, the Saints certainly should contend for the division crown.

Keith Jackson II is an editor for ESPN.com.




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