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Danno 03-11-2004 11:02 AM

'Small ball' just fine for Saints (Sully to the nose?)

'Small ball' just fine for Saints

Free agency strategy a hit for New Orleans

Thursday March 11, 2004

By Jeff Duncan
Staff writer

Sometimes a single does the job. Sometimes the plate assignment doesn't call for a home run. Sometimes a crisp line drive is all that's needed to win the game.

The Saints entered the free-agent signing period with a single-hitter's mentality. In their minds, the situation didn't call for a homer. Boasting a roster laden with good, young talent -- thanks to two consecutive years of aggressive drafting, trading and free-agent acquisition -- the Saints believe they already are in position to score. They didn't need a big inning. They needed a couple of strategic hits.

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And that's exactly what they achieved during an efficient and successful first week.

The Saints didn't dole out $58 million in signing bonuses like the Washington Redskins. They didn't snare any headline-grabbing stars, as did the Philadelphia Eagles and Seattle Seahawks. And they didn't overhaul the roster with new faces like the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, which signed eight players during the first eight days.

But the Saints' brain trust of General Manager Mickey Loomis, Director of Player Personnel Rick Mueller and Coach Jim Haslett is no less pleased with the performance one week into the free-agent signing period.

"We're off to a good start," Loomis said. "I wouldn't say we're done yet, but we like our start so far."

Loomis started his offseason plan with an 18-point "things to do" checklist. In eight days, he checked off six of his most important items:

-- Retain Darren Howard. This was by far the top priority. Howard is the Saints' best defender. He's entering his prime and is one of coordinator Rick Venturi's cornerstones. The club couldn't risk letting a player of his caliber hit the open market, and was wise to designate him as the franchise player. The eight-year, $62.6 million contract Philadelphia gave the Tennessee Titans defensive end Jevon Kearse could easily have been used to land Howard.

-- Re-sign cornerbacks Fred Thomas and Fakhir Brown. Thomas was priority No. 2. While Saints fans longed to sign a big-name like Charles Woodson, Shawn Springs or Antoine Winfield, Thomas is a better bargain.

In the past three seasons, Thomas' statistics compare favorably with two other top free agent corners who signed more expensive deals: Ahmed Plummer and Winfield.

Starting 45 games, Plummer had 195 tackles, 12 interceptions and 39 pass break-ups; Winfield had 243 tackles, three interceptions and 27 pass break-ups; and Thomas had 234 tackles, 10 interceptions and 37 pass break-ups.

Thomas, 30, is four years older than Winfield and three years older than Plummer. Still, when you consider the five-year, $25 million deal Plummer got with the San Francisco 49ers and the six-year, $35 million deal Winfield received from the Minnesota Vikings, Thomas' four-year, $14 million contract is a steal.

Brown adds depth and maintains continuity. He's also a quality special teamer.

-- Re-sign Derrick Rodgers. Rodgers was the second-leading tackler on the defense last season. He should be primed for a good season with a year of experience in the system.

-- Sign a backup running back. The Saints targeted Aaron Stecker during the regular season. Haslett made a point of greeting Stecker before the Saints' Dec. 7 meeting against Tampa Bay at the Superdome.

A collection of castoffs and broken-down aging veterans have manned this spot since Haslett took control in 2000. The ball has been handed from Chad Morton to Jerald Moore to Terry Allen to Curtis Keaton to Ki-Jana Carter to Lamar Smith. None has been the answer.

While Stecker won't remind anyone of Walter Payton, he's a quality veteran with enough running skills and play-making ability to keep defenses honest if Deuce McAllister goes down. He's also an outstanding player on special teams. Teams that tried to kick away from Michael Lewis on kickoffs last season will have to worry about Stecker next season.

-- Sign a defensive tackle. This was the primary need on the open market. The postseason evaluation of the defense revealed a huge hole at defensive tackle next to rookie Johnathan Sullivan.

Brian Young isn't going to make the Pro Bowl next season, but he'll play a critical, complementary role. He'll play the three-technique position and be the attacking, penetrating presence the line has lacked since La'Roi Glover left in 2002.
Contracts for the six signees account for half of the $22 million in cap room the Saints had when they entered free agency. They have $11 million remaining.

With some of that money, they'd like to sign a veteran cornerback, perhaps Juran Bolden, and perhaps another defensive lineman and offensive lineman to bolster depth.

"We're at the point now where we're talking about adding depth at good value," Loomis said. "The other things we really would like to do, we can do in the draft."

Of course, not everything went as planned. Fullback Terrelle Smith and tight end Walter Rasby are headed elsewhere.

Rasby was the third tight end who played mainly as a blocker. His loss is inconsequential in the grand scheme. But Smith, who was close to signing with the Cleveland Browns on Wednesday night, was the biggest blow. The Saints wanted the physical four-year veteran back, but they weren't about to break the bank for a player who played on 38 percent of the offensive snaps last season and does not contribute on special teams.

"It's a blow," Loomis said. "We would have liked to have kept Terrelle, but he got a better deal. That's why it's called free agency."

Otherwise, though, Loomis had few complaints. And he should be content. The Saints played "small ball" and did it effectively.

. . . . . . .

Jeff Duncan can be reached at or (504) 826-3405

Danno 03-11-2004 09:43 PM

'Small ball' just fine for Saints (Sully to the nose?)

Brian Young isn\'t going to make the Pro Bowl next season, but he\'ll play a critical, complementary role. He\'ll play the three-technique position and be the attacking, penetrating presence the line has lacked since La\'Roi Glover left in 2002.
C\'mon guys, I think this is big.
No comments?
Sullivan becomes our \"run stuffer\", and no comments?
Are ya\'ll drunk?
Put the bong down, this is newsworthy.

whowatches 03-12-2004 04:04 PM

'Small ball' just fine for Saints (Sully to the nose?)
I\'ve been thinking about this signing quite a bit, too, Danno. My only conclusion is that Pease had a great deal of influence over the decision to change d-line philosophy again.

The negative side of me wants to say, \"Here we go again.\" More circles, ya know?

The positive side of me wants to think that Pease may bring some stability to our defensive strategy. I also remember that our defense was very successful back when we had Glover. I wouldn\'t mind if Young started reminding us of one of my favorite (ex)Saints.

The big question for me is whether or not Sullivan can handle the role of run-stuffer. We\'ll find out pretty soon.


WhoDat 03-12-2004 06:19 PM

'Small ball' just fine for Saints (Sully to the nose?)
Sully is Hand\'s size, no? We had a pretty good front four with Johson, Glover, Hand, and Howard. Grant is as good as Johnson - not the pass rusher but more of a run stuffer, and Sully can certainly be better than Hand. I like it. Now we need three linebackers who can play the run, rush the passer, or God forbid, do both. ;)

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