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JOESAM2002 08-31-2003 09:59 AM

Saints still have unanswered questions.....
 

Saints have unanswered questions

Brooks' arm, defense are among concerns


Sunday August 31, 2003


By Jeff Duncan
Staff writer

Thirty practices and four exhibition games have done little to help evaluate the strengths or weaknesses of the 2003 Saints.

Under Coach Jim Haslett, the Saints don't so much play the preseason as they endure it. Haslett reveals little on either side of the ball and cares about preseason outcomes even less. The Saints show no motion on offense, rarely blitz on defense and play with the enthusiasm of schoolmarms.


As a result, much as they were a year ago, the Saints enter the regular season as a mystery. The questions that existed when camp opened July 26 remain largely unanswered.

How good is Johnathan Sullivan?

Will Ernie Conwell make a difference at tight end?

Can Wayne Gandy replace Kyle Turley?

Has Aaron Brooks matured into a team leader?

Was Tebucky Jones worth it?

Can the team avoid another December debacle?

And finally, and most important, just how good are these guys?

"This is not even close to what we're going to be like," wide receiver Joe Horn said after the club's most recent exhibition, a mind-numbing 24-10 loss to Miami on Thursday night. "If you want to judge us, judge us after we play against Seattle Sept. 7."

Then, perhaps, Saints fans and the league will have a better gauge of where the Saints stand. Until then, a quick rundown of the best and worst of training camp as the Saints enter the regular season:

CAMP MVP: The indoor practice facility. The new $10 million facility was easily the most valuable addition to the team. The Saints spent almost half of their 30 practices in their cozy air-conditioning confines, and no doubt will spend more time there this fall. Even if it doesn't mean anything in the won-loss column, it will at least eliminate the excuse.


BEST OFFENSIVE PLAYER: Running back Deuce McAllister. It doesn't take Vince Lombardi to notice the difference when he's in the backfield. McAllister has told coaches he can gain 2,000 yards rushing and receiving if he stays healthy this season.


BEST DEFENSIVE PLAYER: Linebacker Darrin Smith. It's easy to overlook the 10-year veteran. He isn't flashy. He doesn't dazzle with size-speed variables. He just makes plays. When he isn't on the field, it shows in the performance of the defense.


BIGGEST SURPRISE: Tight end Zach Hilton. The towering rookie from North Carolina has played so well the Saints might release veteran David Sloan. Hilton led Saints tight ends with 91 receiving yards in the preseason.


BIGGEST DISAPPOINTMENT: Running back Curtis Keaton. In what might be a first, the Bengals actually beat someone in a trade. The Saints surrendered a fourth-round pick for the shifty runner from Cincinnati, but he never picked up the complex offense and was released this past week.


BEST ROOKIE: Defensive tackle Johnathan Sullivan, first round. The top pick from Georgia struggled early, but looks more instinctive and active each week. Moreover, he has shown a mean streak and refused to back down in confrontations with Jets tackle Jason Fabini and teammates Scott Sanderson and Victor Riley.


BEST DRAFT SURPRISE: Guard Montrae Holland, fourth round. When a torn pectoral muscle sidelined LeCharles Bentley for a couple of weeks, the road-grader from Florida State stepped into the starting lineup and didn't miss a beat. Pencil him in as the starting right guard in 2004.


BEST FREE AGENT: Tight end Ernie Conwell.


MOST UNHERALDED FREE AGENT: Defensive back Deveron Harper. The former Carolina Panther might have played his way into a roster spot with an impromptu appearance at free safety against Miami. Harper had the Saints lone interception of the preseason and has outplayed Keyuo Craver and Fakhir Brown.


BEST QUOTE: "At this stage, we're throwing paint against the wall. More of it stuck Saturday (against the Jets) than it did against Philadelphia. But in no way are we ready to paint the Sistine Chapel." -- defensive coordinator Rick Venturi.


Reasons for optimism

1. DEUCE MCALLISTER. The third-year speedster is bigger and stronger this season. He's has averaged 4.3 yards a carry in the preseason and is primed for a monster season. 2. AARON BROOKS' RIGHT SHOULDER. The most scrutinized joint in New Orleans has shown no ill effects from the offseason procedure to repair a torn tendon. If anything, Brooks' arm strength and the velocity on his throws are better than last season.

3. STELLAR SPECIAL TEAMS. Michael Lewis' returns keep the Saints offense within Arena League distance of the end zone. The coverage teams rank among the best in the league. And John Carney and Mitch Berger are solid in the kicking game.


4. CHEMISTRY. In direct contrast to previous offseasons, the Saints have enjoyed a seamless eight months leading up to the opener. The mood in the locker room is noticeably lighter and more positive. The offseason additions of reliable veterans Ernie Conwell, Wayne Gandy, Ashley Ambrose, Tebucky Jones and Orlando Ruff should help improve leadership down the stretch.


5. THE BANDWAGON IS EMPTY. ESPN doesn't know the Saints exist, and that's a good thing. The club is a near unanimous pick to finish third in the NFC South. Few "experts" predict they will make the playoffs, and we know how reliable the "experts" are.


Reasons for concern

1. DEFENSIVE INEXPERIENCE. When the Saints take the field against Seattle next week, the average age of the defensive starters will be 27 years. Four of the starters are new. Another is at a new position. There will be growing pains.


2. DARREN HOWARD'S HEALTH. Injuries have hounded the talented defensive end throughout his career. The defense has been built around his ability to pressure the quarterback and make plays. It was a bad sign when Howard went down with a bone bruise in preseason.


3. THE OFFENSIVE LINE. As much as anything, this unit's stellar play was responsible for the Saints' 6-1 start in 2002. But the group has not spent much time together this offseason, so it might take awhile for the front five to jell.


4. NO BACK-UP PLAN. The coaching staff has challenged Deuce McAllister to play 16 games healthy this season, but the reality is that NFL running backs get banged up. At some time, the No. 2 guy must carry the load. Curtis Keaton's gone. Ki-Jana Carter's unproven. The failure to address this position in the draft could come back to haunt the Saints.


5. DONTÉ STALLWORTH'S HAMSTRINGS. The second-year speedster was by most accounts the best receiver on the field during the preseason. He needs to stay healthy for the offense to operate on all cylinders. If his tight hamstrings don't hold up, the offense takes a decided step backward.


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