Sporting News Saints camp report
The War Room, a team of football scouts headed by Gary Horton, analyzes NFL and college players, coaches and teams exclusively for Sporting News.
The Saints must avoid their late-season swoon of the last two years. They had a 3-7 record in December during the 2001 and 2002 seasons. They lost their final four games in 2001 and their final three games in 2002. Most of it was because of a sub-par defense, which is puzzling considering that head coach Jim Haslett has a defensive background and is a defense-oriented coach. Yet this team was 27th in the NFL in overall defense a year ago. Whether it's conditioning or attitude, the Saints must be more resilient at the end of the season if they expect to make the playoffs in '03. One bit of good news is that the Saints will really benefit from their new indoor practice facility. For the first time in several years, they are also conducting training camp at home after being in training camps in Wisconsin and all over Louisiana the last several seasons. As everybody knows, the heat and humidity in the Deep South is stifling in the summer and could have contributed to their late-season falloff. With their new indoor training facility, they will be able to stay fresh throughout the fall in perfect weather conditions, which will hopefully help them in December in terms of durability and even injuries. ...
The Saints have improved their overall speed on defense, which was really a weakness a year ago. They are a much better match-up group now, as their safeties are no longer liabilities against the pass and their defensive line is deeper and more athletic. A year ago the defense seemed to take a mentality that it wanted to be big and physical up the middle and it sacrificed athleticism and quickness for size. As a result it seemed to be a big, lethargic unit that had no ability to chase or make plays on the move. It was also a unit that seemed to wear down as the season and the game went on. The additions of DT Johnathan Sullivan, OLB Derrick Rodgers, FS Tebucky Jones and nickel DC Ashley Ambrose have made noticeable differences thus far. One of the biggest problems, that remains with this unit, however, is that it is one of the poorest tackling groups in the NFL. The Saints may be improved in terms of depth and speed, but if they don't start tackling better, their defense will remain a liability. ...
Rookie fifth-round pick DE Melvin Williams has recovered from a knee injury suffered last December and has been a real standout in camp so far. He has shown good quickness and has learned the Saints' defensive scheme quickly. If he continues to play at this level, he will give the Saints much more depth at the position than originally thought with Charles Grant, Darren Howard and Willie Whitehead in front of him. ...
Kareem Kelly has not helped himself when given the opportunity to return kicks. Kelly, who is in a battle for the No. 5 receiver position, has looked absolutely befuddled as a kick returner in the preseason, doing a poor job of reading his blocks and frequently running into the back of his blockers. He has also struggled to catch kicks without bobbling them. Derrick Lewis could wind up as the team's No. 5 receiver instead. With Michael Lewis being used as the No. 4 behind Joe Horn, Donte' Stallworth and Jerome Pathon, the team is looking for a young developmental receiver that can not only occasionally fill in on offense but also play a consistent role on special teams. So far, Derrick Lewis has been the most consistent receiver and special teams player of the trio of him, Kelly and Talman Gardner. ...
Curtis Keaton has handled a heavy load, especially early on in camp, in order to give him more experience and to take it easy on the legs of starter Deuce McAllister. Keaton has been adequate, but if something were to happen to McAllister, the Saints would be in enormous trouble because there is just too big of a drop-off between starter and backup. Keaton catches the ball well and runs hard, but he lacks a second gear as a runner; he is too small and lacks the power to make a difference as a short-yardage runner; and he's not a threat as a receiver after the catch. Because of the poor depth at this position, the Saints signed Ki-Jana Carter on Monday to a one-year, $530,000 contract. Eventually the team would like to find a younger, more talented backup, but Carter will fill the need for depth for the '03 season. Carter showed some flashes with 308 yards rushing on 63 carries with the Redskins, but he has not played since. Carter, a first-round draft pick of the Bengals in 1995, has suffered through an injury-riddled career -- he has never started more than 10 games in a season and he only played in all 16 games once (1996).
Training Camp Battle
Chase Martin and Grady Jackson have been battling it out in camp for the starting nose tackle position next to rookie first-round pick Johnathan Sullivan, who has been moved permanently to the team's "three-technique" in order to take advantage of Sullivan's quickness. From what we saw, this competition will simply turn into a rotation, because while Jackson is the more gifted player and is certainly a better fit at nose tackle to take up space with his 330-pound frame, he is simply too out of shape to play more than a limited role. Martin is in better shape, but he hasn't wowed anyone with his abilities in camp yet. The way we see it, Jackson and Martin will rotate in and out and will frequently give way to guys like Kenny Smith and Willie Whitehead in nickel and dime personnel packages, because Smith and Whitehead are much quicker and more effective rushing the passer.
Player on the Spot
Aaron Brooks has looked solid but unspectacular during the preseason. He was 9-of-16 against the Jets last weekend and continues to look more comfortable in the pocket. His shoulder is clearly better following the surgery and he has much more velocity on his throws than he had at the end of the '02 season, but we've spoken to people close to the organization who are very concerned about the long-term durability of that shoulder. With a healthy Brooks, the Saints have one of the most versatile and dynamic offenses in the NFL. Without him, the Saints' offense is one-dimensional and inconsistent with QB Todd Bouman at the controls.
Lynaris Elpheage is an undrafted rookie free agent the Saints have taken a long look at during the preseason. He saw significant playing time at cornerback in the team's first preseason game against the Eagles and held up well in coverage. He also turned heads with a 54-yard punt return against the Jets. He will obviously not be more than a backup return man behind Michael Lewis and a No. 5 cornerback behind Dale Carter, Fred Thomas, Ashley Ambrose and Keyuo Craver, but Elpheage has a good chance of making the Saints' roster after being overlooked in the '03 draft.
Key Free-Agent Acquisition
LOT Wayne Gandy and FS Tebucky Jones were bigger-name free-agency signings, but so far Derrick Rodgers has made the biggest impact. Rodgers is a seven-year veteran who was expected to compete with James Allen for a starting job but has taken over as the starter with Allen suffering a mild setback because of a sprained ankle. Rodgers (neck) has battled some bumps and bruises of his own, but his leadership and experience have been welcomed additions to a Saints front seven that yielded an average of 124.4 yards per game on the ground a season ago. Rodgers has lost a step over the years, but he is still very quick and active against the run and he has been tremendously productive in that phase of the game so far.
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