In depth KFFL Saints preview Part one
I am not able to post everything in one post ,so the defense and final analysis are in another part two post. The final line of the analysis is beautiful to hear from a national source.
2003 New Orleans Saints Preview
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2002 Record: 9-7
After winning the first playoff game in franchise history in 2000 behind a young quarterback that played behind Brett Favre in Green Bay, the fans of New Orleans were excited to have the opportunity to host the Super Bowl in 2001 knowing their hometown team would be in the big game. In 2001, the team was excellent, but it imploded at the end of the year and ended up being nothing more than another pretender that got rolled over on the way to the Super Bowl. The Saints finished 2002 and 2001 with a record of 0-3 and 0-4, respectively. Ultimately, there are some top-notch fantasy players on the offensive side of the ball including QB Aaron Brooks, RB Deuce McAllister, and WRs Joe Horn and Donte' Stallworth. The defense has undergone a major overhaul for the 2003 season to try to change the results the team has suffered through in December in both 2001 and 2002. With an improve defense should come a more efficient offense, although the Saints certainly won't be forced to score as many points in such a situation, which could potentially decrease the value of their offensive superstars.
After the first seven weeks, the Saints were 6-1, and some prognosticators had them booking plane tickets to San Diego for the Super Bowl after wins against Tampa Bay on the road and Green Bay, Pittsburgh, and San Francisco at home. Even after the loss in week 8 to Atlanta by two points, they won against Carolina, and people were still singing their praises. But this is the franchise that has one playoff victory in their history. The fans would wear bags on their heads for the first 20 years, and they became known as the Aints. After starting off 7-2, they finished the season 2-5 including three straight losses at the end of the year to three teams that ended up with top 10 picks in the draft. Unlike the Saints of old, the offense blossomed into a true powerhouse behind a relatively young crew including Aaron Brooks, Deuce McAllister, Joe Horn, and Donte' Stallworth. On the other hand, the defense was as bad as any in the NFL, but it wasn't realized (or ignored) due to the firepower on the offensive side of the ball. The defense was slow, couldn't tackle, and was easy to roll over for opposing offenses regardless of how poor they were.
Some say the Superdome and the franchise are cursed due to the stadium being built on an Indian burial ground. To those who watched closely last year, there were larger powers than a curse that caused the meltdown for the second consecutive year. It became obvious that the defense that was assembled since 2000 was not going to work in the new Michael Vick featured NFC South. The defense gave up 20 or more points in every game except for the last. They finished 26th in NFL in points scored against at 24.2 a game. On the flip side, the offense was third in the NFL averaging 27 points a game despite trading RB Ricky Williams and OT Willie Roaf prior to the season. As far as the offense exceed expectations, the defense was worse than anyone could have ever expected.
By the end of the year, McAllister was the NFL leading rusher, and he made everyone forget about Williams. Brooks hurt his shoulder, and the Saints' fans booed him as soon as he came on the field during pre-game introductions, causing him to lose his confidence. Kyle Turley had begun talking his way out of New Orleans, and it became evident he wouldn't return for another season. Finally, the defense needed an atom bomb to go off in the middle of it and start over again. Fan favorites S Sammy Knight and DT Norman Hand would likely be in their last season as Saints.
OFF-SEASON MOVES OVERVIEW
Everyone knew the first priority for the Saints was to overhaul the defense by adding seed and trimming the fat, literally. The second priority would be to move the player that management viewed as a cancer, Kyle Turley. The defense was a major liability throughout 2002 and it was only hidden by the production of the offense. The Saints did see one thing (or person) that had a major impact on their defensive philosophy, and that factor was Michael Vick. Vick dominated the Saints and as the foremost rivalry for the Saints, he would have to be contained. Would the team change everything they do based on a player who could impact two games? Of course not. What he did do was expose some enormous holes in the defense, something that they would have to work on.
Similar to 2000, the Saints quickly made a splash in free agency, but it wasn't on the defensive side. Marking the end of the Turley era, the Saints signed one of the top left tackles available in free agency, swiping Wayne Gandy from the Steelers. He is a dominant force on the left side and is a leader on and off the field. This signing was a clear message to Turley that he would be on his way out. Of course, the team spoke otherwise to try to keep his value as high as possible, but the attempt wasn't successful. Turley often fought with Brooks, and he publicly questioned the injury status of the quarterback over the last month and the competence of the head coach, general manager, and owner. Gandy was a huge upgrade to an already powerful offensive line. The Saints eventually traded Turley to the St. Louis Rams (they were really desperate) for a 2004 draft pick when there were rumors about the minimum asking price being a 2003 first-round pick. They settled for what they could get.
After that, they focused on the defense, signing MLB Orlando Ruff and CB Ashley Ambrose. Neither were the high profile free agents that people expected them to bring in, but they fill a specific role. Ruff will compete for the starting spot with the aging Darrin Smith. He is expected to fill the spot that opened when the Saints refused to re-sign Charlie Clemons who was severely out of position at middle linebacker. Ruff is much faster, but he isn't the pass rushing threat that Clemons was. Instead, he is more of a run stopper than Clemons could ever dream of being. Ambrose was brought in to compete with Fred Thomas for the starting cornerback position opposite Dale Carter. While the Saints are still lacking a shut down corner, they increased their depth, and the quality of player increased with this acquisition.
The Saints then lost P Toby Gowin to the Cowboys and quickly replaced him with Mitch Berger. The move is a lateral one in production, but they lose Gowin's grit as he made a significant number of touchdown saving tackles in his years in New Orleans. He also played tougher than most punters did, as he would lower his shoulder and deliver a blow to the returner.
The Saints re-signed K John Carney, Pro Bowler Fred McAfee, starting C Jerry Fontenot, and backups DT Martin Chase, DE Willie Whitehead, and OG Scott Sanderson. Despite the number of moves and the marketing machine saying that the Saints were vastly improved, there was a glaring hole at safety.
They also acquired Ernie Conwell to further boost the tight end position after David Sloan disappointed in his first year with the team. Conwell adds to the already potent offense and should see some opportunities to shine.
Before the draft, the Saints made the move that was expected, which was trading draft picks to the New England Patriots for franchise player, Tebucky Jones. Jones is a top-notch safety who is fast and can hit. The Saints lacked speed, tackling, and ability to read in both of the safety positions last year. Those are somewhat vital to be successful as a safety in the NFL. Jones fills all of those holes and should be an immediate impact player in the defense and should open up the possibility to bring additional heat on the quarterback. In addition to Gandy, Jones was the big catch of the off-season.
Right before the June 1 day where more veterans are cut, the Saints made another quality move by acquiring Derrick Rodgers from Miami in exchange for a seventh-round draft choice in 2004. He is expected to compete for starting outside linebacker spot with second-year man, James Allen. Rodgers is a quality player and brings additional speed and experience, so they won't have to rely on Allen to play a huge role.
The most important loss may end up being QB Jake Delhomme who signed with the division rival Carolina Panthers. Ultimately, he was someone the Saints never intended to bring back, but it wasn't due to a lack of talent. When you have a hometown boy as the backup quarterback who has been successful in limited opportunities, he is more popular than virtually anyone else on the field. Add on top the fact that Aaron Brooks was injured, and the fans turned quickly. This ended up being an ugly situation at home games as the chant of "Jake" gradually happened earlier in games and got louder every game. Instead, the Saints traded a sixth-round pick to Minnesota to acquire Todd Bouman. Bouman is an average backup, but he should clear the head coach of any headaches stemming from a quarterback controversy.
The Saints chose not to re-sign slow as molasses S Sammy Knight. They also traded DT Norman Hand to Seattle for a 2003 sixth-round choice. Hand ballooned to well over 300 pounds, and immobile wasn't the word to describe his agility. They also let Lamont Hall and Ken Irvin sign elsewhere, but they were not factors in any Saints success last year.
In an effort to continue upgrading the defense, the Saints traded up in the draft with Arizona to the No. 6 spot to draft DT Jonathan Sullivan (Georgia). As part of that deal, they also acquired Arizona's second and fourth-round picks in exchange for giving up their two first-round and second-round pick. With the fifth pick in the second round, the Saints drafted OT Jon Stinchcomb (Georgia). In the third round, the focus went back to defense with the drafting of OLB Cie Grant (Ohio State). The basic premise of the first day of drafting was to get players would could contribute and increase the team speed. They were successful in those respects.
On the second day of drafting, the shift went towards best available player. In the fourth round, OG Montrae Holland (Florida State) was selected. DE Melvin Williams (Kansas State) was taken in the fifth round to add more depth to the defensive line. Wide receivers Kareem Kelly (USC) and Talman Gardner (Florida State) were selected in the sixth and seventh rounds, respectively. Gardner could be the biggest steal for the Saints as he was projected as a possible second-round pick until he had some legal problems involving a gun and marijuana (two things not to be caught with).
THE PASSING GAME
QB Aaron Brooks has been one of the best first half quarterbacks in the NFL the past two years, but the second half has been a different story both years. Entering the 2003 season, the heat from the fans should decrease somewhat as local Jake Delhomme split to start in Carolina. To replace Delhomme as the backup is Todd Bouman who was acquired from the Vikings in a trade. Second-Year QB J.T. O'Sullivan and Chris Finlen will battle for the No. 3 quarterback spot. Brooks is head coach Jim Haslett's choice, and he will not be in any danger of touching the bench unless he gets injured.
Brooks had as good a year in 2002 as he did in 2001, but he felt a lot more heat from fans throughout the season. He quietly tied for second in the NFL in touchdown passes with 27 (tied with Brett Favre, Peyton Manning, and Rich Gannon). He was also ninth in the NFL in passing yards with 3,572 yards. This is proof that he can be a successful quarterback, especially with the weapons that he has surrounding him. His completion percentage decreased from 55.9 percent to 53.6 percent from 2001 to 2002. He also had 30 less attempts in 2002. An encouraging sign was the decrease in interceptions from 22 in 2001 to 15 in 2002. While the 2002 statistics are similar to 2001, the concerning part is the second half meltdown. While he was injured in the Tampa Bay game, the decline had already started. Ultimately, if he was injured bad enough to produce poorly, he should have been benched to help heal. There are two statistics that jump out when it comes to his two halves last year: In the first half, he threw 18 touchdowns and had a completion percentage of 57.1 percent; in the second half, those numbers dropped to nine and 50 percent, respectively.
Ultimately, Brooks is a quality quarterback and is good enough to lead the team to victory. He has a strong arm, he is mobile (although he moves around less than he did in 200 for some mysterious reason), and he is willing to take the chances necessary of winners. But he has some serious flaws that need to be rectified, or it could be another long season. First, he holds onto the football like it is his woobie that he cuddles with at night. Instead of throwing the ball away when he gets in trouble, he will take the pounding, further increasing his chances of injury due to the beatings. Second, he doesn't appear to read defenses as well as other top quarterbacks. Of course, all quarterbacks aren't created equal, but he appears to get confused and locks in on targets. Third, he needs to go back to the mobile style that he had at the end of the 2000 season. He doesn't appear totally comfortable as the pocket passer that it appears the coaching staff is trying to force down his throat. While this isn't solely on him, he has to take the initiative to make plays and move if necessary. Finally, he is being pushed into this leadership role. The Saints are even boasting about the seminar they sent him to as a way to further help him lead the team. Get real. Leaders are born, not taught. Joe Montana, Steve Young, Brett Favre, and others never went to a class to be a leader. If he isn't the leader, so be it. The quarterback isn't always the sole player to lead a team (Marshall Faulk in St. Louis is an excellent example), but someone has to step into that role.
If Brooks isn't able to get over his reluctance to throw the ball away when he is about to get leveled, Todd Bouman could see some time. He has seen very limited action over his career only getting three starts in 2001 and playing in seven total games in his career. During that very limited playing time, he has been solid with 8 touchdowns, 4 interceptions, and a 98.6 quarterback rating. He could step in should Brooks go down, and the offense could run without losing a ton of power. Ideally, the Saints hope that he never has to play this year.
QB J.T. O'Sullivan will likely win the No. 3 quarterback spot in training camp, and he could step into the No. 2 role next year, as Bouman is a free agent at the end of the season. Chris Finlen is a possibility for the practice squad, or he will be released. Neither one of them will see the field in all likelihood.
WR Joe Horn is the primary cog in the passing game, and he should get more help this year than he did last year. Since coming over from Kansas City as a free agent in 2000, Horn has been a top 10 receiver in the NFL. He is a playmaker that can be called upon to make the big play at any time during the game. He has enough speed to catch the deep ball, but he is still fearless when crossing the middle. He is a sure-handed receiver who is often expected to catch the big pass. In 2002 he was sixth in the NFL with 1,314 yards and first-down receptions with 65. He was tied for 11th with 89 receptions, and he had 7 touchdowns tying him for 13th in the NFL. He is a vocal leader on the offense and is a motivator for those around him. He is also one of the biggest trash talkers in the league, so he has the ability to get into the heads of opposing cornerbacks. With the maturity of some of the other offensive personnel, he could become a more dangerous weapon in the offense, but there is a limit since there are only a finite number of balls that can go around to the numerous playmakers.
In 2002, the Saints wanted a burner at receiver and drafted Donte' Stallworth to fill that role. While he had chronic hamstring problems throughout his rookie year, he showed the potential playmaking ability that caused the Saints to draft him. Despite missing three games and parts of others - and starting only seven games - Stallworth led the team with 8 touchdown receptions. He had 42 receptions for 594 yards despite the limited playing time. He also showed flashes that made everyone tingle, like the wide receiver screen that he turned into a 34-yard touchdown catch against Green Bay. The Saints often utilized his speed by throwing short slants or screens so that he could be in the open field against slower cornerbacks. When you run a 4.2 second 40-yard dash, most people won't catch you. With a year of experience and growth, Stallworth should improve considerably, especially considering the fact that he missed most of training camp with the hamstring injury. He has been working this off-season with a well-known exercise guru in an attempt to get his hamstrings in better shape.
WR Jerome Pathon was also brought in to bring another level of speed to the team and provide a compliment to Horn and Stallworth. He had a solid year, but it wasn't spectacular. He finished the season with 43 receptions for 523 yards and 4 touchdowns in 13 starts, not bad at all for a third receiver. He provides another threat and is ideal for the No. 3 receiver role in the offense. He has enough speed to stretch the defense much like Horn and Stallworth, but he can also be a solid possession receiver if a first down is needed. The disappointing part of Pathon's season was the fact that his 4 touchdowns came in the first five games. He became a lesser factor as the season proceeded, but this was partly due to Stallworth's emergence.
Michael Lewis will battle to be the No. 4 receiver, but his primary threat is as a kickoff and punt returner. He is as good as any on special teams, both returning kicks and covering them. He returned two kickoffs and one punt for touchdowns last year. He has progressed considerably from his first year in the league with his hands, route running, and reading of defenses. He could contribute as a receiver, but he will not be a primary threat.
With the Saints likely keeping six receivers, that leaves two spots. Those spots will be very competitive as the Saints have a glut of potential at receiver. The favorites to get the spots are Derrick Lewis, Nate Turner, and Talman Gardner with one of them being released/traded/put on the practice squad if eligible. The other two receivers are also second-year players or rookies like the aforementioned three. Kareem Kelly and Kerwin Cook are the underdogs to make the roster.
Before the 2002 draft, the Saints were debating whether they should draft a rookie tight end like Jeremy Shockey or go after one of the available free agent tight ends. They went the free agent route and signed David Sloan giving him the same grade as Shockey knowing they could address other needs in the draft. FYI, THAT WAS NOT THE RIGHT CHOICE. To say Sloan was a non-factor was an understatement, as 12 receptions for 127 yards is not what they expected at all. Neither were the six drops he had in the Saints' first loss of the season against Detroit. There are a limited number of receptions to go around among all of the weapons, but the tight end was going to be a more integral part in the Saints' offense than it ended up being. I am sure that Sloan's play throughout the year changed that strategy as the season progressed.
In an attempt to fix the Sloan inefficiency, the Saints signed Ernie Conwell from St. Louis to start this year. One thing is almost a lock, he can't be as bad as Sloan was last year. Basically, this gives the Saints two quality, experienced tight ends to help in the passing game either through blocking or receiving. It also gives them two quality blocking-tight ends for the running game also. In St. Louis, he had 34 receptions for 449 yards and 2 receiving touchdowns in an offense that is not geared towards the tight end. His production could increase in the New Orleans offense.
The No. 3 tight end position will be a battle between Boo Wiliams and Walter Rasby. Williams is more of a pass catching tight end. His blocking is poor and hasn't improved much. Rasby is another veteran signed as a free agent this off-season, and he is more polished in the blocking area. Basically, it will likely depend on what aspect the team wants to be better at, receiving or blocking.
THE RUNNING GAME
The essential cog in the offense is third year running back Deuce McAllister. The one game that he missed last year was against Cleveland, and the Saints weren't able to get the offense moving whatsoever against a Browns defense that was 27th against the run last year and 21st overall. McAllister was asked to step into big shoes that Ricky Williams left when he was traded to Miami. He responded by exceeding everyone's expectations. He finished first in the NFC in rushing with 1,388 yards. He was also fifth in the NFL with 16 total touchdowns. While he wasn't utilized as much as expected in the passing game, he still had 47 receptions for 352 yards. McAllister is a tough runner who can run between the tackles or can run around the corner. He also has the speed to break long runs once he gets through the line. Although his numbers were solid, he had 4 touchdown runs over 40 yards called back on holding calls, so he was actually much better than his numbers show.
McAllister chipped in with 47 receptions for 352 yards and 3 TDs, but he was really still limited in passing game due to one primary reason: The Saints could not run a screen pass to save their soul. More often than not, they would lose yardage due to a number of reasons including tipping off it was a screen too early, the blockers not picking up everyone on the defense (despite outnumbering them), and poor timing. This is an area of improvement for McAllister, the coaching staff, Aaron Brooks, and the offensive line. There have been peewee teams that could run the screen more effectively than the Saints did last year. They have reportedly stressed the screen pass in minicamps in an effort to improve the way they run it, but time will tell. If they are able to improve this area of their offense, watch out for McAllister, as he could very easily exceed 2,000 total yards and score quite a few TDs with all the touches he would be expected to get.
Another consideration when evaluating Deuce is the fact that the offensive line should be improved this year with the addition of Gandy, the maturation of LeCharles Bentley, and the fact that four starters from the 2002 line are returning. Add that on top of the fact that Stallowrth should be 100 percent healthy and a year older to help further spread the defense, and this could be a special year for Deuce. While the offense puts up some big numbers passing the ball, it is a run first offense. The pass is built off the run, and it is balanced in an attempt to keep the defense off balance.
McAllister has the tools to be a top running back for a long time to come in the NFL, but there is some risk associated with him. He got labeled as injury prone due to various injuries in college, but he played through them most of the time. The reality is that an injured running back isn't as effective as one that is healthy, and that should be a thought floating around in the back of your head when considering drafting him. Jacksonville Jaguars RB Fred Taylor excited people with his initial performance, and then he disappointed year after year due to various injuries except for 2002. Don't let this concern overwhelm you, though. The difference between Taylor and McAllister appears to be the willingness to play through pain.
Should McAllister go down with an injury, the Saints will be in a decent amount of trouble. The other tailbacks on the roster of note are Curtis Keaton, James Fenderson, and retread Tavian Banks.
Curtis Keaton was acquired before the season last year in a trade with the Cincinnatti Bengals. He never seemed to fully grasp the offense and never seemed comfortable whenever he ran. He is very fast and could be the primary runner in the event Deuce went down. With a fourth-round pick invested in him, he is the likely backup, and the coaching staff is pretty high on him. While he hits the hole fast, he didn't seem to have the force to get through it, but he does have the size. It may have been apprehension due to not feeling comfortable in the new offense, so this year will be a good judge to his talent.
James Fenderson will battle Keaton for the backup and would likely be a better third-down back if McAllister went down. Fenderson has been in the offense for a couple of years, so he is familiar with it. He is undersized at 200 pounds to carry the ball 25 times in a game, but he is ideal as a change of pace runner. He also has a role on special teams that he fills very well. He is currently listed as No. 2 on the depth chart, but that could change once training camp rolls through.
Tavian Banks is back after a few years out of sight. He is an unlikely candidate to make the team.
The fullback's primary role in this offense is as a blocker. They don't catch too many passes, and they will run the ball rarely. Terrell Smith is ideal for this role as he isn't the best runner and doesn't have the best hands. He does block very well and can clear a hole easily. He had neck problems a couple of years ago, but he doesn't appear to suffer any effects from it. His blocking is essential if McAllister is going to continue producing at a high rate.
Unless the Saints plan on keeping only one fullback, which they won't, the likely backup is Demerits Smith. This will be his second year learning the offense, so he should have a solid grasp of it. He is similar to Smith in the fact that he is a better blocker than he is a rusher, and he would step in if Smith went down. Otherwise, his contribution may be on special teams.
THE KICKING GAME
PK John Carney returns after being re-signed to a five-year contract. Carney was tied for third in the league with 141 points. He is extremely accurate, especially in the Superdome. He finished perfect on PATs on 37 attempts and was 31-for-35 on field goal attempts. If there is a place that Carney is lacking, it is in leg strength. He won't often make (and will rarely try) anything over 50 yards, which could limit bonus fantasy points.
P Mitch Berger should improve the punting game for the Saints. He had a lower net yardage than Toby Gowin, but the Saints coverage teams were much better than the Rams'. Berger was tied for ninth in the NFL with 26 punts inside the 20-yard line. He is also a likely candidate to serve on kickoffs due to Carney's limited leg strength.
The offensive line is one of the strongest spots on the team both in starters and in depth. It improved in the off-season with the departure of Turley and the additions of Wayne Gandy and Jon Stinchcomb. Gandy will anchor the left side of the line at tackle, and Kendyl Jacox will line up at left guard. Long time veteran Jerry Fontentot will return at center to lead the unit. Finally, the right side will consist of second-year player LeCharles Bentley at guard and Spencer Folau will return at right tackle. Outside of Gandy, the whole unit returns in the same place they played last year. Victor Riley will compete with Folau at right tackle, which could result in some shuffling, but the unit will remain solid.
There is significant depth with Riley, Scott Sanderson, and rookies Stinchcomb and Montrae Holland as four of the likely keepers on the lines. Some of the people battling for jobs include P.J. Alexander, Chad Setterstrom, Wagner Terence, Melvin Paige, and Jared Peck. None of them should make an impact this year even if they are kept on the team. Finally, Kevin Houser returns as the long snapper and is one of the better ones in the league.
While the Saints are very happy with the line, there are rooms for improvement. They were tied for 20th in the NFL last year, allowing 40 sacks. This number should decline with the addition of Gandy. They were tied for 11th in rushing touchdowns with 16, but this unit is better than the numbers suggest. Bentley is impressive and could finish as a Pro Bowl selection this year, but he hit the rookie wall near the end of last year. Ultimately, three of the players were new and one was playing a different position last year. This year, there is only one change, so the cohesion should improve dramatically.
[Edited on 7/29/2003 by saint5221]
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