Sports Network's Saints preview
New Orleans Saints 2003 Season Preview
By Bryan McGovern, NFL Editor
(Sports Network) - The New Orleans Saints have a bad habit that must be broken if the club is going to take that next step. For the second consecutive year, Jim HaslettÃƒÂ¢Ã¢Â‚Â¬Ã¢Â„Â¢s team finished a season in a nosedive. The Saints lost their last three games of the 2002 season to blow a potential playoff berth.
New Orleans, the highest-scoring team in the NFC last year, has plenty of offense. It was tweaked in the offseason with the addition of offensive tackle Wayne Gandy, who replaces firecracker left tackle Kyle Turley. The teamÃƒÂ¢Ã¢Â‚Â¬Ã¢Â„Â¢s main focus since its late-season collapse was improving the defense. The Saints traded up in AprilÃƒÂ¢Ã¢Â‚Â¬Ã¢Â„Â¢s draft to get defensive tackle Johnathan Sullivan and bolstered the secondary with the additions of Tebucky Jones and Ashley Ambrose. Derrick Rodgers, who comes over from Miami, should help the linebacking corps.
Haslett has compiled a winning record in his first three years with New Orleans, but time could be running out for the fiery head coach. Team management and the loyal fans must see results. Anything less than a playoff appearance would be considered a disappointment in the Bayou.
The good news is that Aaron Brooks seems to have recovered from last seasonÃƒÂ¢Ã¢Â‚Â¬Ã¢Â„Â¢s shoulder injury. The ultra-athletic quarterback had surgery in January to repair his throwing arm and appears ready to enjoy another big campaign. Despite playing the last five games of the 2002 season with a bum shoulder, Brooks passed for a career-best 27 touchdowns. His plus-12 TD-to-INT ratio was the best of his young career. ThereÃƒÂ¢Ã¢Â‚Â¬Ã¢Â„Â¢s not much the 6-foot-4, 205-pound Brooks canÃƒÂ¢Ã¢Â‚Â¬Ã¢Â„Â¢t do on the football field. He possesses great athleticism, quick feet and a cannon for an arm. Brooks has also improved his ability to read defenses.
Of course, the best aspect of BrooksÃƒÂ¢Ã¢Â‚Â¬Ã¢Â„Â¢ game is his running ability. He has made a better effort to stay in the pocket recently, which enables the receivers to get open downfield. But when plays break down, Brooks is a magician with his feet. He can turn a dead play into something big thanks to his halfback-like running skills.
The Saints replaced backup QB Jake Delhomme (Carolina) with ex-Viking Todd Bouman. The coaching staff loves BoumanÃƒÂ¢Ã¢Â‚Â¬Ã¢Â„Â¢s athletic ability and strong passing arm. HeÃƒÂ¢Ã¢Â‚Â¬Ã¢Â„Â¢s only thrown 95 passes over the past two seasons, but his presence has the team feeling better about its overall depth at a key position.
New Orleans felt it could trade Ricky Williams last year because of the presence of Deuce McAllister. It turned out to be a wise move. McAllister went on to lead the NFC in rushing with 1,388 yards in his first full season as a starter.
Scouts questioned McAllisterÃƒÂ¢Ã¢Â‚Â¬Ã¢Â„Â¢s durability and receiving ability coming out of Mississippi in 2001, but he put those fears to rest by carrying the ball 325 times last year. He also went on to catch 47 passes for 352 yards and three touchdowns.
McAllister should remain as one of the NFCÃƒÂ¢Ã¢Â‚Â¬Ã¢Â„Â¢s elite backs for many years to come. The teamÃƒÂ¢Ã¢Â‚Â¬Ã¢Â„Â¢s biggest concern, however, is its depth at the position. Curtis Keaton and James Fenderson are the top reserves. The 5-foot-10, 222- pound Keaton has some good moves; putting it all together on a consistent basis has been his problem. Fenderson, who averaged 5.0 yards per carry in limited time, runs tough between the tackles. Ki-Jana Carter was signed to help this group, but he's hit or miss.
FB Terrelle Smith, a 2000 fourth-round pick out of Arizona State, has been a solid battering ram in the teamÃƒÂ¢Ã¢Â‚Â¬Ã¢Â„Â¢s offense. He really uses his bulk and lower- body strength to his advantage as a lead blocker. Smith lacks speed and doesnÃƒÂ¢Ã¢Â‚Â¬Ã¢Â„Â¢t carry the ball much, but he can help out in a limited receiving role.
The Saints have a terrific pair of starting wide receivers. Joe Horn has turned into a Pro Bowl receiver since his arrival in New Orleans in 2000. Over the past three seasons, Horn has averaged 88 receptions for 1,306 yards. The former junior college player has 24 TD catches over that span. HeÃƒÂ¢Ã¢Â‚Â¬Ã¢Â„Â¢s a legitimate No. 1 wideout with big-play ability. DonteÃƒÂ¢Ã¢Â‚Â¬Ã¢Â„Â¢ Stallworth, the 13th overall pick in last yearÃƒÂ¢Ã¢Â‚Â¬Ã¢Â„Â¢s draft, has emerged as one of the best young receivers in the league. Hamstring problems might always plague this speed demon, but Stallworth has the game-breaking ability to post huge numbers in the SaintsÃƒÂ¢Ã¢Â‚Â¬Ã¢Â„Â¢ offense. Eight of his 42 receptions went for touchdowns last season.
Jerome Pathon isnÃƒÂ¢Ã¢Â‚Â¬Ã¢Â„Â¢t much more than an average No. 3 receiver. It will be interesting to see if return man Michael Lewis can further develop his receiving skills. Kareem Kelly and Talman Gardner are intriguing rookies.
The tight end position was bolstered by the addition of ex-Ram Ernie Conwell. The eight-year veteran has a ton of experience to go along with a Super Bowl ring. HeÃƒÂ¢Ã¢Â‚Â¬Ã¢Â„Â¢s an extremely physical blocker and can be a decent red-zone target. David Sloan (6-6/260) is a better downfield option. He has decent speed for a big tight end and does a nice job of finding soft spots in the defense.
The Saints have a decent offensive line. The unit doesnÃƒÂ¢Ã¢Â‚Â¬Ã¢Â„Â¢t have to dominate in the passing or running games because Brooks is an escape artist and McAllister can run over tacklers. Gandy takes over TurleyÃƒÂ¢Ã¢Â‚Â¬Ã¢Â„Â¢s old LT spot. The ex-Steeler is an extremely sound tackle. He will provide excellent protection for BrooksÃƒÂ¢Ã¢Â‚Â¬Ã¢Â„Â¢ blind side. The RT position comes down to Spencer Folau and Victor Riley. Folau has the edge as a pass blocker, though Riley is an excellent run blocker. ConwellÃƒÂ¢Ã¢Â‚Â¬Ã¢Â„Â¢s strong blocking ability could allow the Saints to go with the better pass-blocking right tackle -- Folau.
Jerry Fontenot is expected to start at center, though RG LeCharles Bentley and LG Kendyl Jacox can also play the middle. The 36-year-old Fontenot is a crafty pivot with good intensity. The club will probably get another decent season out of him. The 6-foot-2, 300-pound Bentley, a second-round pick last year, will improve with experience. He has very good upper-body strength and generates a solid drive with his powerful legs. His mobility was limited by an ankle injury last year, but Bentley has a good upside. Jacox, a very versatile lineman, excels as a run blocker. Jon Stinchcomb, a second-rounder out of Georgia, could overtake Jacox in time. He also has the ability to play left tackle.
How bad was the SaintsÃƒÂ¢Ã¢Â‚Â¬Ã¢Â„Â¢ defense last season? New Orleans allowed 20 or more points in each of its first 15 games last season. That dubious feat was a mark previously held by the 1980 Saints, who went 1-15 en route to surrendering at least 20 points in every game.
The improvements began with the defensive line. LDT Sullivan (6-3/315) was the sixth overall pick in AprilÃƒÂ¢Ã¢Â‚Â¬Ã¢Â„Â¢s draft. The mammoth Georgia product has good quickness and should help fill the gaps. He needs to prove heÃƒÂ¢Ã¢Â‚Â¬Ã¢Â„Â¢s a consistent performer, but Sullivan has a great upside and could be the best DT to come out of the 2003 draft. Kenny Smith and Grady Jackson will fill the RDT spot. Smith is another active tackle with solid quickness and lateral movement. He can also slide out to end and help against the run. JacksonÃƒÂ¢Ã¢Â‚Â¬Ã¢Â„Â¢s conditioning is always a question mark. HeÃƒÂ¢Ã¢Â‚Â¬Ã¢Â„Â¢s an excellent run stuffer and does a nice job of occupying blockers, but his lack of stamina could relegate him to first and second downs. Martin Chase was traded to Washington for a conditional draft pick.
New Orleans has a pair of terrific defensive ends in the form of Charles Grant and Darren Howard. Grant, a first-round pick in 2002, burst onto the scene with seven sacks as a rookie. HeÃƒÂ¢Ã¢Â‚Â¬Ã¢Â„Â¢s a very disruptive force and chases down plays from the back side. ThereÃƒÂ¢Ã¢Â‚Â¬Ã¢Â„Â¢s no telling how good he can be with more experience. Howard has registered 25.0 sacks over his first three NFL seasons. While heÃƒÂ¢Ã¢Â‚Â¬Ã¢Â„Â¢s not a great sun stopper, Howard has proved to be a durable player. Veteran Willie Whitehead is a valuable backup because heÃƒÂ¢Ã¢Â‚Â¬Ã¢Â„Â¢s strong against the run and can also play tackle.
The club has a decent set of linebackers. The ex-Dolphin Rodgers should provide stability on the weak side. He has good speed and could make a big impact this season. SLB Sedrick Hodge is one of the fastest players on the team. His speed and agility allows him to drop into coverage or rush the passer. Hodge is better as a freelancer rather than having to stand in and take on the run. Darrin Smith and ex-Charger Orlando Ruff supply good depth in the middle. Smith is more of a playmaker, but heÃƒÂ¢Ã¢Â‚Â¬Ã¢Â„Â¢s lost a step or two at age 33. James Allen, a third-round pick in 2002, is a solid backup on the outside. He has good speed and athleticism. Cie Grant, a third-round pick from Ohio State, should make an immediate impact on special teams.
The Saints have decided to go with speed rather than power in their secondary. Sammy Knight, a former Pro Bowler, was let go in order to get Mel Mitchell into the lineup. A trade with New England brought in free safety Tebucky Jones, who won a Super Bowl ring with the Pats in 2001. SS Mitchell, who impressed the coaching staff with his size, speed and overall ability last year, must prove that he can start on a full-time basis. Playing next to a solid veteran like Jones will help him make the transition. Jones will get to show his wares in New Orleans after a successful run with the Patriots. HeÃƒÂ¢Ã¢Â‚Â¬Ã¢Â„Â¢s a center fielder-type free safety with a penchant for making big plays with his great athleticism. Jay Bellamy, who is entering his 10th season, provides excellent depth at both safety spots.
Dale Carter is slated to start at left cornerback over Keyuo Craver. Carter isnÃƒÂ¢Ã¢Â‚Â¬Ã¢Â„Â¢t quite the player he was but can still contribute in man coverage. His speed has dipped a bit and heÃƒÂ¢Ã¢Â‚Â¬Ã¢Â„Â¢s never been an overly physical CB. Fred Thomas and Ashley Ambrose are both solid on the right side. Thomas is a more physical player and better tackler than Ambrose at this stage. Ambrose might be better suited as the teamÃƒÂ¢Ã¢Â‚Â¬Ã¢Â„Â¢s No. 3 CB. He can still make big plays at age 33.
Michael Lewis is an All-Pro kick returner. The former beer truck driver has put together a phenomenal NFL career. HeÃƒÂ¢Ã¢Â‚Â¬Ã¢Â„Â¢s a threat to score every time he touches the ball. Lewis averaged nearly 26 yards per kickoff return and 14.2 yards on punts with three touchdowns. Kicker John Carney connected on 31-of-35 FG attempts en route to a team-record 130 points last season. He really benefits from kicking at home in the dome. Veteran punter Toby Gowin was replaced by Mitch Berger.
Haslett seems to have all the tools to be a top head coach for years to come. But he might not get that opportunity in New Orleans unless he turns things around in December. The Saints are 0-7 in games after December 9 in the last two seasons. The offense is in great hands with Mike McCarthy, who could be in line for a head-coaching job in the near future. Defensive coordinator Rick Venturi has some new players on his side that should help improve the lackluster unit.
The Saints are anything but consistent. The last thing the team needs is the reputation as a bad late-season ball club, but thatÃƒÂ¢Ã¢Â‚Â¬Ã¢Â„Â¢s exactly what it has earned over the past two years. It doesnÃƒÂ¢Ã¢Â‚Â¬Ã¢Â„Â¢t help much that New Orleans plays in the NFC South, one of the toughest divisions in the league. That means six dates with Tampa Bay, Atlanta and Carolina. The Saints donÃƒÂ¢Ã¢Â‚Â¬Ã¢Â„Â¢t play Atlanta until Week 7, so they wonÃƒÂ¢Ã¢Â‚Â¬Ã¢Â„Â¢t be able to take advantage of Michael VickÃƒÂ¢Ã¢Â‚Â¬Ã¢Â„Â¢s early- season absence. The month of December begins with home games against Tampa Bay and the New York Giants followed by a road date with Jacksonville before ending the season at home versus Dallas. The Bucs won the Super Bowl last year and the Giants made the playoffs. The Jags and Cowboys should be improved, making the final month of the season another crapshoot. New Orleans has too much offensive talent to win less than seven games, but a 10-win season will be tough to accomplish unless the December woes go away.
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