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Raised expectations: Saints prepare for training camp after banner year in 2006

this is a discussion within the Saints Community Forum; By Nick Deriso First-year New Orleans Saints coach Sean Payton deftly handled both an overtalented offense and a defense that was less so in 2006. And he did it under the stinging white spotlight of post-Katrina media attention. That sets ...

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Old 07-24-2007, 10:02 PM   #1
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Cool Raised expectations: Saints prepare for training camp after banner year in 2006

By Nick Deriso


First-year New Orleans Saints coach Sean Payton deftly handled both an overtalented offense and a defense that was less so in 2006.
And he did it under the stinging white spotlight of post-Katrina media attention.

That sets him up well for 2007, as mountainous expectations await the NFC's runner-ups.

And, yeah, the offense is still better than the defense.
The centerpiece of the Saints' historic run last year was Chargers free agent Drew Brees, who many overlooked on the market in the wake of off-season surgery.

In the end, the only people with sore shoulders were those patting Payton on the back.

Brees would top the NFL in passing yards and finish third in touchdowns, earning a Pro Bowl invite, as New Orleans won its third division title ever and advanced to the NFL Championship Game for the first time in franchise history.

Payton's message? That was then.

This staff has done a good job preaching about the dangers of complacency, even staging a New Orleans-style jazz funeral for last season.

The Saints, in fact, had turned their attention to getting over that hump long before the team got set to convene for training camp this week in nearby Jackson, Miss.

Leading the NFL in total offense didn't get the Saints any closer than one game away from the Super Bowl a year ago. So, New Orleans targeted the defense for improvement — signing a series of free agents to a No. 11 unit that lost no starters.

The Saints must also sort out who will serve as Brees' primary targets at wideout. Joe Horn is gone; Marques Colston is only in his second season; and first-rounder Robert Meacham underwent offseason knee surgery.

Offense outlook: New Orleans — with quarterback Drew Brees (4,418 yards, 26 TDs and 11 interceptions in 2006), receiver Marques Colston and running backs Deuce McAllister and Reggie Bush — didn't lose much on offense over this offseason.

Thing is, they didn't gain all that much either.

Not with Meacham's knee wrapped.

Colston (70 receptions, 1,038 yards and 8 TDs — including seven in his first eight pro games) will have to prove, then, that he can shoulder the weight of being the team's No. 1 receiver. He missed three games to injury as a rookie.

An unsettled depth chart at wideout also opens the door for LSU product Devery Henderson — who led the league in yards-per-catch in 2006, but still stumbles through periods of inconsistency. Terrance Cooper also improved over the balance of last season.

Their transitions will likely be smoothed by Brees, a canny leader on the field who was not just steady but often spectacular.

The offense also boasts rare depth in the backfield with McAllister (1,255 multipurpose yards/10 TDs in '06) and Bush (1,307 multipurpose yards/8 TDs) — a player just beginning to discover his own depth of ability.

Bush didn't even reach the endzone until the Saints' triumphal return to the Superdome in Week 9, then scored nine more times before the regular season was over — not to mention a stunning 88-yarder in the NFC title match.

Defense outlook: This wasn't mistaken for a championship-caliber unit last season (not giving up 130 yards rushing a game), and likely won't be again.

Not even with the additions of defensive backs Jason David (Colts; 55 tackles/2 picks in 2006) and Kevin Kaesviharn (Bengals; 64 tackles/6 picks); nose tackle Kendrick Clancy (Cardinals; 29 tackles; 1 sack); and linebackers Brian Simmons (Bengals; 61 tackles/0 sacks) and Dhani Jones (Eagles; 76 tackles; 0.5 sacks).

Each is solid, but none looks to be a game-changing addition. In particular, it's difficult to imagine Jones unseating Scott Fujita (96 tackles; 3.5 sacks) on the strong side.

Other new acquisitions like Trev Faulk and Troy Evans are only expected to contend for backup positions.

Still, the Saints boast talent at both ends with Charles Grant (65 tackles;6 sacks in '06) and Will Smith (52 tackles/10.5 sacks). A scheme that took few chances, but illicited mistakes by forcing opponents into long drives, was sometimes ugly — but more often worked.

New Orleans will have to improve on takeaways. The Saints had 19 last season, 31st in the NFL.

Special teams outlook: The Saints released John Carney, replacing him with Dolphin Olindo Mare — who is coming off a miserable campaign, missing 10 of 36 FGs in 2006. On the other hand, he led the NFL in touchbacks — propelling Miami to No. 2 in the league for average opponent starting position — and Carney had proven a liability with kickoffs.

The Saints also released returner Michael Lewis, and beloved veteran Fred McAfee has retired. That leaves the primary duties to Aaron Stecker, though Reggie Bush has also excelled in spot duty — notably against the Falcons last season on Monday Night Football.

Injury report: Clancy could see some early action after a foot injury felled Brian Young. Special-teams standout, and fan favorite, Steve Gleason could miss as much as two weeks of camp, as well, putting his future in jeopardy on a team that values versatility. Safety Roman Harper saw a promising rookie season end just five games in with a knee injury, and now faces stiff competition from Kaesviharn.

Farewell: Carney and Lewis have, of course, left as has well-regarded tight end Ernie Conwell and defender Willie Whitehead. The Saints brought in oft-injured Eric Johnson from San Francisco to compete at the TE spot. With Brees' penchant for short passes in this quick-strike offense, Johnson could have a big impact.

PREDICTIONS

Experts say: Many have the Saints advancing to Super Bowl XLII, though none of them predict a win. Here's the rundown — SI's Peter King, Colts over Saints. Lindy's: Ravens over Saints. Pro Football Weekly and Street and Smith's: Patriots over Saints. (Athlon and Sporting News both have Patriots over Cowboys.)

Nick says: OK, me too. I see New Orleans at 11-5, winning the NFC South. The Saints look like the best team in the conference, but should they get to the Super Bowl, there are at least three AFC teams (Colts, Patriots and Chargers) that would manhandle a club that's still improving.

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