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Halo 07-04-2002 01:39 PM

Saints Team Report
 
Saints Team Report
By Jeff Duncan/New Orleans Times-Picayune


OFFSEASON EVALUATION

Former GM Randy Mueller did a remarkable job of reshaping the roster before his sudden firing in early May. He traded two of the team's most popular players -- running back Ricky Williams and left tackle Willie Roaf -- and made the tough decision to by-pass big-ticket free agents Joe Johnson and La'Roi Glover, whose leadership and work ethic will be missed.

In their place, the Saints have added 10 unrestricted free agents and a highly regarded nine-player draft class. The roster might lack star power, but it is younger, deeper and more explosive than a year ago. It also should be hungrier and more cohesive. Grade: B+

PRESEASON PRIORITIES

Develop an identity on offense. The offseason overhaul could lead to as many as seven new starters on offense. Counting Kyle Turley's move from right to left tackle, the line could have four players starting in new spots. And the entire perimeter corps is new with the exception of go-to receiver Joe Horn.

The new personnel has altered the philosophy, from a power running, play-action passing game to a more wide-open, finesse attack. The new faces must maximize their time in camp and preseason to jell into a cohesive attack. Roles must be identified, especially at receiver where newcomers Donte' Stallworth, Jerome Pathon and Jake Reed are being worked into the mix.

The key is Aaron Brooks. In his second season as a full-time starter, the gifted quarterback must assume command of the new-look unit and become the unquestioned leader. . . .

Get Norman Hand and Grady Jackson in shape. Twin tackles Hand and Jackson were tipping the scales at 340 and 335 pounds each during the offseason, about 20 pounds above their ideal playing weight. When in shape, both players have the ability to dominate against the run in the interior. The stifling Thibodaux, La., heat should help melt the pounds. . . .

Find a backup running back. Like quarterbacks, it takes two running backs to survive the rigors of an NFL season. The Saints are incredibly vulnerable behind starter Deuce McAllister. The plan is to wait until the late roster cuts to see what veterans come free. The roster is set, otherwise.

THE COMPETITION

Willie Whitehead and Charles Grant figure to go down to the wire for the starting left end spot that opened when Darren Howard switched to right end. Whitehead has the edge in experience. He's played two years in the system and has a decided advantage in strength. But the athletic Grant was gaining ground with each workout by the end of the second minicamp.

Whitehead is a pumped-up brawler in the Glover-mold. He makes his plays on effort, strength and determination. Grant has better pass-rush skills but is raw. He showed his toughness by taking on and getting the best of bad boy tackle Kyle Turley in a practice scuffle just before minicamp. Look for Whitehead to win the starting job early in the season, but Grant will be hard to hold off once he becomes comfortable in the system.

CAMP CONFIDENTIAL

If he can stay clean and keep his head on straight, Dale Carter will be the best cornerback to ever wear a Saints uniform. He has all the physical to go with a nasty, cocky demeanor. He will give the Saints the true shutdown corner they have lacked for years. At age 32, he shows no signs of slowing down. . . .

Stallworth has all the skills to become a big-time playmaker. His speed and strength are superior for a rookie. He should be an impact player if he can avoid the injury bug that plagued him in college. . . .

After years of inconsistency and disappointment with former second-round pick Cam Cleeland, the tight end position should be much improved with the addition of David Sloan. The towering free agent from Detroit isn't spectacular but he's solid in every department and a reliable, easy-to-find target over the middle. . . .

The Saints are using athletic tight ends Boo Williams and Johnny Mitchell in H-back roles out of the backfield, where they hope to get mismatched against linebackers in coverage. . . .

Howard will have a breakout year at right end in place of Johnson. Howard is a gifted athlete, who is more suited to the right side where he can use his natural speed and athletic ability to pressure the passer. . . .

It's just a matter of time until Kendyl Jacox will work his way into the starting lineup. He's smart, powerful and athletic, and could supplant either Wally Williams at left guard or Jerry Fontenot at center. . . .

The career of cornerback Kevin Mathis could be in jeopardy. He hasn't played since sustaining a severe neck injury against Washington last season and might be the victim of a roster cut if he doesn't receive medical clearance to play.



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