ESPN.com on Saints.
By Len Pasquarelli
METAIRIE, La.-- Five observations on the 2003 New Orleans Saints, gleaned from the training camp practices of Aug. 5:
Deuce McAllister rushed for 1,388 yards and scored 17 TDs last season.
1. Assuming that quarterback Aaron Brooks is recovered from his offseason shoulder surgery, and every indication in practices has been positive, the Saints should possess one of the league's most explosive offenses. The line is very good and every one of the skill-position guys has playmaking skills. Put down loquacious wide receiver Joe Horn for his usual 85-90 catches, 1,200 yards and eight touchdowns, which is about what he has averaged the past three seasons. Unlike the last couple years, however, Horn might get some help from the No. 2 wideout position. Sprinter Donte' Stallworth, who averaged a touchdown catch every 5.3 receptions as a rookie but struggled through the same kind of persistent hamstring injuries he experienced in college, worked harder in the spring on his conditioning. In terms of pure hyper-speed, the kind of explosiveness that can get him vertical separation from any corner in the NFL, few players can rate with the second-year burner. Given the camp performance of Jerome Pathon, a fluid wide receiver who has deceptive deep speed, the Saints might have a top three as good as any in the NFL. A five-year veteran, Pathon has been on a roller coaster much of his career but there has always been underlying promise. He wasn't especially impressive in a Tuesday night practice, dropping some catchable balls, but, as usual, running precise routes. Maybe this is the season he finally puts in all together. Don't undervalue the free agency addition of tight end Ernie Conwell, the former St. Louis starter. Conwell is an insightful guy, a terrific intermediate range pass catcher and, while this has nothing to do with physical prowess, is a great presence in the locker room. Tailback Deuce McAllister, who rushed for an NFC-high 1,388 yards in his first season as a starter, is a tough matchup for most defenses. McAllister is a lot stronger than some people perceive him to be and, when the Saints motion him to an "open" look, your defense better have more than just a safety trying to check him. This cautionary note, though, on the New Orleans offense: When the Saints slumped at the end of the season for a second year in a row in '02, the unit was equally culpable for the plummet. Only once in the final four games did the New Orleans offense register more than 300 yards. In the final three outings, the unit averaged a measly 203.3 yards. Mike McCarthy is a very good coordinator, one who will probably be a head coach someday, but his unit needs more consistency.
2. You can never have enough big guys and the Saints, on both sides of the ball, certainly possess ample depth. Give credit to head coach Jim Haslett and general manager Mickey Loomis for loading up, each of the past two seasons actually, on linemen. There are some teams (hint: like the Washington Redskins) who will be scrutinizing New Orleans' cuts closely, hoping the Saints dump one of their defensive tackles, a spot at which the team has five guys who can line up and play. Grady Jackson is out of the dog house, at least for now, with his weight at what one coach termed "the manageable stage." Jackson, who had a superb first half of the '02 season before his tonnage went up and his production waned, figures to start at the nose-tackle spot. First-round pick Johnathan Sullivan, thrown immediately into the fire, will start at the "three technique" position. He appears far more comfortable, and natural, there than at the "one technique" spot. Sullivan had an uneven performance in practice the other night, looking pretty ordinary at times, but seems to be a kid who is willing to be pushed. Few teams can match the depth at tackle, with veterans Kenny Smith, Martin Chase and recently-acquired Henry Ford as the backup. Ford rolled an ankle and hasn't practiced much but, if healthy, was a terrific pickup, a versatile guy who can give you some snaps at end as well. Just a hunch, but look for the Saints to trade one of their veterans and, through no fault of his own, the smart money is on Chase as the guy other teams might want in a deal. New Orleans would prefer to deal Smith, who seems to need a fresh start in a different uniform. On the offensive side, the depth might not be quite as good as a year ago, because the Saints cut guard Wally Williams, who was going to face a one-year league suspension anyway, in the spring. But the loser of the Spencer Folau-Victor Riley competition at right tackle -- the former is a better pass blocker and the latter superior as a road grader -- automatically becomes one of the best No. 6 linemen in the league. A guess: Folau, who has always been an underrated but stout enough player, will win the starting job. The Saints will have to rely a bit more this year on rookies, particularly tackle Jon Stinchcomb (No. 2) and guard Montrae Holland (No. 4), but each comes with solid college credentials. With starting right guard LeCharles Bentley out the past week with an injury, Holland has logged a lot of time with the first unit. The former Florida State star isn't especially pretty, but he's a "baller," a guy who just loves to play. At this early juncture, even though he will be hard-pressed to get much playing time, Holland is one of the team's best rookies. When the Saints move one of their two guards, Bentley or Kendyl Jacox, to center next year, Holland will be a starter. Since the coaches have held back left tackle Wayne Gandy, it has permitted the brainy Stinchcomb to get extended action, too.
3. For the Saints to get better defensively, they had to get quicker across the board, but particularly up the middle: at the two tackle spots, middle linebacker and at both of the safety positions. Ranked statistically at No. 27 a year ago, this was a team that needed to overhaul and get players who could chase the ball. They seem to have accomplished that feat, although one could argue that Grady Jackson wouldn't be quick if he were playing in a wind tunnel. New Orleans got a great athlete in strong safety Tebucky Jones, acquired from New England in a trade. Now, whether or not the five-year veteran and former first-round draft choice is a great safety or not remains to be seen, although he will be placed in more advantageous situations. Jones certainly appears more comfortable, knows he won't be bounced over to cornerback, and likely will see his special teams duties reduced. Free safety Mel Mitchell, a youngster who mostly played on special teams in his 2002 rookie season, also runs well and, like Jones, has prototype size. The pursuit abilities of both safeties was evident on Tuesday night. The middle 'backer spot remains up for grabs. The candidates for now are Darrin Smith, who started at the weakside spot in 2002, and free agent addition Orlando Ruff, a onetime starter in San Diego (2000-2001). Ruff is the better hitter but, since speed has become the imperative, the quicker and savvier Smith, for years one of the NFL's best cover linebackers will probably get the nod. Down the road a bit, look for Cie Grant to become a factor in the middle. The third-round draft pick and former Ohio State star has limited exposure at linebacker, having played much of his college career at cornerback and safety, and didn't move full-time to the position until his senior season. But the coaching staff gushes about Grant, a squat player who has missed valuable time with injuries in camp, and he's the long-term solution in the middle. If you're looking for a sleeper-type defender who might help the Saints in the stretch run this year, Cie Grant might be the guy.
4. OK, so here's the sobering downside to all the defensive moves: It usually takes time to incorporate so many new starters into any lineup. The way things shake out for now, the Saints could have as many as seven starters who didn't open the '02 season for them, at least in the same spots they will play in '03. No doubt, given the way the last couple seasons have ended, there had to be change, and wholesale change at that. But if you call, say, New York Jets defensive coordinator Ted Cottrell, he'll tell you how long it took for him to assimilate six newcomers in 2002. Like, oh, half a season. Ol' friend Rick Venturi is a creative, emotional defensive coordinator, but he's going to have to be a heck of a teacher as well. Venturi is a stickler for technique work and he and his staff are drumming home lesions that will, in time, make better players of guys like Tebucky Jones. But this is a team with playoff-caliber talent, albeit it in a very difficult division, and the Saints can't afford to wait much longer for results. There are bound to be some breakdowns, not a good thing against a pretty challenging schedule, but the Saints can't afford to allow as many big plays as they did the last two years. The reality is that, for a while, it's likely not everyone will be on the same page. But at least if they're all reading from the Venturi defensive battle, the new starters will have a chance to be better than the old ones.
5. Here are two words that give the Saints a field position edge going into every game: Michael Lewis. In a division that really emphasizes special teams play, the New Orleans star return ace is never much more than a lightning- quick step away, it seems, from just popping through a seam, out the other side, and sprinting into the end zone. Lewis didn't even make an NFL roster until he was 29 years old. I mean, how can you not pull for this guy! He had 2,432 combined return yards in '02, averaged 25.8 yards per kickoff return, 14.2 yards per punt runback, and scored three touchdowns. In all, he handled the ball 123 times, counting receptions and runs in addition to returns, and averaged 21.5 yards per "touch." The man, even in practices, defines the term electrifying. The Saints will try to develop Lewis further as a wideout but, if he never catches another pass in his life, it won't matter. Lewis returns kicks the way they were supposed to be run back, with an aggressive mindset, attacking the coverage units. Obviously, when you wait 11 years to finally cash an NFL paycheck, you are hungry for success. He is, indeed, a difference maker. Oh, yeah, just for good measure, Lewis chipped in with 18 special teams tackles in 2002, a year in which he went to the Pro Bowl game. ;)
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