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New Orleans Saints Team Needs

this is a discussion within the Saints Community Forum; 2003 FINISH: 8-8 (2nd Place), Non-Playoff Team. 2004 DRAFT PICK: 18th Overall Pick KEY POSITION NEEDS: Backup RB, FB, OL, DE, LB, CB FREE AGENTS: QB Todd Bouman (Re-signed), RB Ki-Jana Carter (UFA), RB Fred McAfee (UFA), RB Lamar Smith ...

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Old 03-17-2004, 07:44 PM   #1
The Dark Overlord
 
Join Date: Oct 2002
Location: dirty south
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New Orleans Saints Team Needs

2003 FINISH: 8-8 (2nd Place), Non-Playoff Team.

2004 DRAFT PICK: 18th Overall Pick

KEY POSITION NEEDS: Backup RB, FB, OL, DE, LB, CB

FREE AGENTS: QB Todd Bouman (Re-signed), RB Ki-Jana Carter (UFA), RB Fred McAfee (UFA), RB Lamar Smith (UFA), FB Terrelle Smith (UFA), TE Boo Williams (Re-signed), TE Walter Rasby (UFA), TE David Sloan (UFA), OG Spencer Folau (UFA), C Jerry Fontenot (UFA), DE Darren Howard (UFA), DT Kenny Smith (RFA), LB Sedrick Hodge (RFA), LB Derrick Rodgers (Re-signed), CB Fakhir Brown (Re-signed), CB Fred Thomas (Re-signed), FS Steve Gleason (RFA) and SS Victor Green (UFA)

2003 POSITIVES

Offensively, the Saints showed some firepower at times. They scored at least 21 points on offense six times during the season, and RB Deuce McAllister was nothing short of impressive by piling up 2,157 offensive yards and eight touchdowns on the season. While his touchdowns weren’t incredibly high – the lowest amongst backs that went for over 2,000 offensive yards last year – he was averaging 135 offensive yards per game. He also had nine straight games of rushing for at least 100-yards, including three games in a row with more than 150 yards rushing per game. After struggling to find a capable tight end in recent years, the team saw a nice surprise out of Boo Williams, who had 41 receptions, 436 yards and five touchdowns. It appears he only needed time to develop as well actual playing time.

2003 NEGATIVES

The biggest negative for the Saints last year was the fact that a team with this much individual talent simply failed to make the playoffs once again. Furthermore, they tossed away a great opportunity to succeed while the Tampa Bay Buccaneers (7-9) were having a down season. On the personnel side, QB Aaron Brooks may have improved in some statistics from his previous years but he still seemed to lack the ability to take over/lead the team when they needed him to most. When you have a RB like McAllister going for over 2,000 total yards, the quarterback position receives no pass when it has a supporting running game to help him out. WR Donte Stallworth regressed in his second year and battled through injuries most of the way. Injury problems kicked in on defense throughout the year, with probably the most worrisome being that to CB Dale Carter (knee). It was the second year in a row Carter failed to live up to high expectations and a huge salary. Turnovers were also an issue for the Saints, as they managed just 14 interceptions after massive changes in the secondary with the additions of CB Ashley Ambrose and S Tebucky Jones.

POSITION ANALYSIS - OFFENSEQUARTERBACKS

QB Aaron Brooks didn’t have a bad season, but he also didn’t have a great one, either, despite his 3,546 yards passing and 24 TDs. In the first five games of the season, Brooks started relatively slowly compared to what many expected him to do. After all, this was his third year leading a power West Coast offense and he had plenty of weapons to work with. Averaging just over 250 yards passing per game, 1.25 TDs and one interception per game during that stretch, the Saints looked like they lacked a killer instinct as they stumbled out to a 1-4 record. Brooks went on to average 1.7 passing TDs per game over the next 11 games, while also averaging 231 passing yards per game. Brooks went on to also score two touchdowns rushing on the season (183 rushing yards) and kept his interceptions to just eight on the season – seven less than his previous season. His 59.1 completion percentage was also the highest of his career, so some growth in him as a player can be seen in the statistics. Brooks is under contract through 2007 and his base salary remains reasonable this year at $2.75 million. Next year, however, it takes a hefty jump to $5.5 million and continues to grow: $6.25 million (2006) and $7.25 million (2007). Entering his fourth year as a full-time starter, Brooks will now have to take his level of play to yet another level if he hopes to lead the Saints to the Promised Land – or even the playoffs for that matter.

Last year, the team let Jake Delhomme depart and he went on to lead the Carolina Panthers to the Super Bowl. Not bad for a former backup to Brooks (who himself was a backup to Green Bay Packers, QB Brett Favre). The team will continue to depend on Todd Bouman, a former Minnesota Viking, again this year. Bouman could have hit the free-agent market this year, but the team gave him a new deal previously to keep him under contract through 2006. With base salaries of $725,000 (2004), $750,000 (2005) and $700,000 (2006) he is relatively inexpensive for the team over the next three seasons and barring a major change of heart the team should be content with him as No. 2.

J.T. O'Sullivan was a sixth-round draft choice in 2002, and he comes in as the team’s third quarterback. This is his final year under contract with the team, so they may look to draft or sign an undrafted rookie free agent as a project quarterback in the later rounds to compete with him and give them another option for down the road.

Overall, the quarterback position is not one the Saints have to invest a lot of time or energy into during the offseason as they’re pretty content sticking with their top two QBs in 2004.

RUNNING BACKS

The Deuce was loose in 2003, as Saints RB Deuce McAllister improved his production across the board en route to a 1,641-yard rushing season in his second season as a full-time back. Clicking along at 4.7 yards per attempt, McAllister also found the end zone eight times and was no stranger to helping the passing game by contributing 69 receptions for an additional 516 yards. At times, he showed the ability to take over games and his game-breaking speed was shown in his 16 rushing plays over 20 yards from scrimmage. He also went on to start all 16 games for the Saints, giving them a solid player to count on. In terms of his contract, McAllister is under contract through 2006 but many more seasons like last year could force the team to revisit that. McAllister’s contract is still very cap-friendly, too. He has base salaries of $470,000 (2004), $550,000 (2005) and $665,000 (2006) so it’s almost safe to say he’ll be looking for a new deal not too long from now. If Clinton Portis can become the highest paid RB after two years in the league, clearly McAllister has an argument to make in his defense.

McAllister did appear to run out of gas in the last month of the season, as he posted nine straight 100-yard games prior to the month of December but could not crack the century mark during December - a month that saw his yards per carry fall below 3.2 yards in three out of four games. Having a reliable backup to take some of the load off of him in the future could help change that.

Behind McAllister, the Saints had a hodge-podge going most of the year. To make matters worse, three tailbacks and one fullback are unrestricted free agents this spring so the Saints could find themselves in need of several new faces via free agency or the draft to help provide depth this year.

Ki-Jana Carter was back and forth on the team’s roster, often being released when the team needed to bolster depth at another position only to find his way back onto the team. He ended up being with the team for eight games when all was said and done, but he rushed just 19 times for 72 yards and one touchdown. Carter was eventually placed on Injured Reserve due to a left foot problem. Carter had surgery to repair a fracture and ligament damage in his left toe. Clearly foot problems for a running back are never a good thing, so this adds future questions to his career with the Saints; plus he’s an unrestricted free agent and may no longer be in the Saints’ plans.

RB James Fenderson also served as a backup to McAllister from time to time, but his season was also cut short when he was placed on Injured Reserve with a foot injury. He was utilized in just five plays all year, while posting just 14 yards rushing.

When the team found themselves awfully thin at running back late in the year, they re-signed RB Lamar Smith. This is the same Smith they once brought on to be their RB of the future. Smith was utilized in 12 plays with the team, finishing the year with 11 carries for 61 yards and no scores. Smith is also an unrestricted free agent so his return to the team is by no means a lock.

Special teams ace and Pro Bowl alternate, Fred McAfee is also a running back by trade, but he hasn’t posted more than 37 yards rushing in a season since 1998 when he was a member of the Pittsburgh Steelers. Counting on him in the running game would simply be out of the question and he’ll be 36 years old when the 2004 season begins. McAfee is an unrestricted free agent, but his talents on special teams may have the team look to re-sign him.

RB Tavian Banks hadn’t played since suffering a severe injury in 1999 when he was with the Jacksonville Jaguars, but he caught the eye of the Saints last summer and was with the team on-and-off during the year. He was signed to their practice squad late in the year and was re-signed by the team in January. He may pan out to be nothing more than training camp fodder when all is said and done.

RB Ronney Jenkins, a former standout on special teams with the San Diego Chargers, rounds out the depth at tailback. He’s a speedy player, but has seemed to fall out of favor quickly the last few years. He was with the Oakland Raiders until November last season and the Saints signed him at the end of January. If anything, he may be able to contribute on special teams. With a career rushing total of just five yards, it’s not safe to assume he brings anything to the Saints’ running back depth.

As mentioned, the Saints may have to explore the NFL Draft in the later rounds for additional depth at this position. Or, of course, they could look towards the free-agent market but that isn’t an incredibly deep position this year. Either way, insurance for McAllister must be considered.

At fullback, Terrelle Smith is the main back the Saints have opening holes for McAllister. Unfortunately, he’s also an unrestricted free agent that may fly the coup. The Saints have spoke with him about a long-term deal, but once free agency opens (March 3) anything can happen. Smith didn’t have any rushing attempts last year, starting 10 games and being active for 15. He also contributed just six receptions for 28 yards and no touchdowns, so it’s clear to see his main purpose is for blocking.

Behind Smith, the Saints have Spencer Frederick (6-2, 250) on roster. He has yet to take part in any action in the NFL, so the team could be forced to address the fullback position via free agency or the NFL Draft if Smith departs.

WIDE RECEIVERS/TIGHT ENDS

The Saints have plenty of talent at the receiver position and they’re spearheaded by WR Joe Horn (6-1, 206), who turned from his quiet, solid play to a more vocal media-hound at times last year. Nobody will forget his planted cell phone escapade during the season, which he in turn was fined heavily for. However, while Horn became more vocal his production on the field slid last year. It was the first time in his four-year stint with the Saints that he failed to reach 1,000 yards receiving on the season. He finished the season with 78 receptions for 973 yards and 10 touchdowns. While the touchdowns were the most of his career, both his receptions and yardage were below what he’s done on average since he joined New Orleans in 2000. Could this be the sign of Horn at 32, declining? Only time will tell, but depth at the receiver position is definitely something New Orleans should consider. Plus, Horn has just two years remaining on his contract. He has a small base salary of $700,000 in 2004, but that jumps to a hefty $3.8 million in 2005 – the last year of his current contract.

As previously mentioned, Saints WR Donte Stallworth (6-0, 197) was a horrible disappointment last season. After starting seven games in his rookie year and scoring eight touchdowns along the way, Stallworth managed just three starts (11 total games) in 2003. While he found the end zone three times and had 25 receptions for 485 yards, his production was far below what the Saints were anticipating in his second season. Stallworth’s future still appears bright, but he needs to prove his sophomore season wasn’t a true indication of what the Saints can expect from him in the future. Staying healthy will be critical in that happening, as ankle, quadriceps and thigh problems bothered him through out the 2003 season.

WR Jerome Pathon (6-0, 182) was active for 16 games – for just the third time in his six-year career – and ended up starting 12 games for the team. They had previously hoped Stallworth would slide him out of the starting lineup, but his issues prevented that from happening. On the year, Pathon posted 44 receptions, 578 yards and four touchdowns. That’s basically identical to his production during his 2002 season (43-523-4) with the team. Pathon remains under contract through 2005, with base salaries of $1.5 million this year and $2.5 million in 2005.

With all of the team’s top three receivers under contract this year, there doesn’t appear to be much of a shake-up ready to happen with the starters. However, the Saints could use a bigger receiver as Horn, Stallworth and Pathon are all close in size with Horn being the biggest of the lot at 6-foot-1 and 206 pounds. Having a bigger wideout in the West Coast offense could be beneficial when it comes to gaining some extra tough yardage out of a possession receiver.

Behind the starters, the team has a variety of players that can – and have – contributed. Michael Lewis (5-8, 165) leads off that group, but he’s more of a special teams return man than he is a third or fourth receiver. His size of 5-foot-8 and 165 pounds also works against him, as he’s simply not big enough to see ample playing time at receiver. Lewis chipped in some offensive production last year, catching 12 passes for 226 yards and one score. More importantly he added a spark as a big-play receiver, averaging 18.8 yards per catch and having four receptions over 20-yards.

WR Derrick Lewis (6-2, 185) was allocated to NFL Europe for additional experience this spring. He was active for just three games last year, his second season with the Saints, and had just one catch for seven yards. He, too, is mostly a project for the team at this time but he’s hitting that important third year in his career with the team.

WR Talman Gardner (6-1, 205), a second-year player, is basically a project for the team. He was taken in the seventh round last year and was active for just 10 games – with one start. He finished the season with three receptions for 29 yards.

WR Phil McGeoghan (6-2, 200) was a late-season signing for the team last year and he never touched the field for them. In fact, he hasn’t been active for a game since 2001 when he was a member of the Denver Broncos.

The Saints have signed former Detroit Lions standout WR Germane Crowell (6-3, 222), who was out of football in 2003 to a one-year deal. His once promising – and potentially dominating – career was cut short by a series of knee injuries. If the year out of football allowed Crowell to return close to form, the Saints may have found a steal in him.

At the tight end position, the Saints were delighted with the play of Boo Williams. Williams took over as the starter late in the year and put together a very nice season, posting career bests in receptions (41), yardage (436) and touchdowns (5). In his third season, he really came into his own and the Saints rewarded him with a new three-year pact during the offseason to keep him off the free-agent market. The Saints appear to have landed a solid deal with him, too, as his base salaries along the line are all very friendly to the team. Williams has base salaries of $455,000 (2004), $850,000 (2005) and $945,000 (2006).

Ernie Conwell (6-2, 265), who is able to play TE, FB and H-back, joined the team last summer and his season was cut short to just 10 games due to an ankle injury. The team put him on Injured Reserve in late November, which officially ended his season. Conwell underwent surgery in November to repair a fractured right ankle and torn ligament. His status health-wise for the upcoming season remains up in the air. Before he was injured, Conwell put together a decent season – catching 26 passes for 290 yards and two touchdowns. If he comes back at full-strength, the Saints will be able to be quite flexible with their tight ends having both Conwell and Williams at their disposal.

TE David Sloan (6-6, 260) is an unrestricted free agent. The team had originally signed him away from the Detroit Lions to be their answer to TE issues, but Sloan was a major flop and was released in August. When injuries kicked in at tight end, they re-signed him for depth purposes. Should Conwell return at full-strength, it’s tough to see the Saints signing Sloan a third time.

TE Walter Rasby (6-3, 252) just finished his first season with New Orleans and is an unrestricted free agent this spring. Known for his strong blocking talents, Rasby was a starter for seven games last year and works his way into the offense in double tight end sets. He’s never had more than 15 receptions in a season during his 10-year career and last year was no different, as he posted just six receptions for 55 yards and no touchdowns. Whether or not the team brings him back as a third tight end remains to be seen.

TE Zach Hilton (6-8, 262) has to be considered for a roster spot just based off his size alone. Who couldn’t see a 6-foot-8 target moving across the field? He was a surprise for the team during training camp last year and that earned him a spot on the team’s roster. They felt having him on the active roster would help his long-term growth and he was given just that, but a strained knee slowed him a good portion of the second half of the year.

TE Danny Curley (6-4, 254) rounds out the team’s tight ends and was signed by the team in January. He may simply turn out to be no more than training camp fodder, as the Saints already appear quite set at the tight end position. In turn, this is not a position they need to spend a lot of time addressing during either the NFL Draft or the free-agent market provided Conwell doesn’t have any setbacks in his recovery.

OFFENSIVE LINE

The Saints gave up 37 sacks a year ago, good for 2.3 per game and tied for 17th most in the league. As a team, the Saints ran for 2,008 yards (125.5 yards per game; 10th in the NFL). They have a relatively decent front of hogs on the offensive line, but depth is an issue due to the lack of experienced talent behind the starters and it doesn’t help that their top backup (Spencer Folau) is an unrestricted free agent, as is their starting center Jerry Fontenot.

It all starts in the middle, and that’s where Fontenot (6-3, 300) lines up. He was a Pro Bowl alternate in 2003 and is now up for a new contract. Whether or not he is able to return has yet to be determined, but the Saints didn’t appear to make a big effort to re-sign him before free agency opened, either.

Losing him could hurt, and badly, as Terence Wagner (6-2, 290) is his only backup currently on roster and he spent time on and off the Saints’ practice squad last season.

On the left side of the line, starting with the tackle position, Wayne Gandy (6-4, 308) returns as a starter. He’s backed up by Jon Stinchcomb (6-5, 302) and Ben Archibald (6-4, 322). Stinchcomb is a second-year player, who landed a four-year contract as a rookie. He spent the first half of the season as inactive, but he was pressed into active status later in the year when injuries forced some issues up front. Archibald spent time on the Saints’ practice squad but was signed to the active roster in January. He spent some time with the 49ers last summer after being signed as an undrafted rookie free agent out of BYU.

At left guard, Kendyl Jacox (6-2, 330) returns to make a solid pairing with Gandy. He’s backed up by Chad Setterstrom (6-3, 309) and Shawn Draper (6-3, 295). Jacox was given a three-year contract extension worth $6.925 million at the end of the 2003 season, keeping him on roster for several years to come. He received a signing bonus of $2.5 million and base salaries of $750,000 (2004), $1.325 million (2005) and $1.825 million (2006).

Setterstrom had a hamstring problem that forced the team to put him on Injured Reserve last year, but he appears to be beyond it and the team allocated him to NFL Europe for additional experience.

On the right side of the line, LeCharles Bentley (6-2, 299) takes control of the right guard position and he’s backed up by Montrae Holland (6-1, 333). Bentley suffered a torn ACL late in the season and was put on Injured Reserve in December. He was selected to the Pro Bowl, but had to miss it because of the injury. He’ll need a speedy recovery, too, or the team could be thin on the offensive line. Holland, a rookie last year, played at both right guard and left guard due to injuries on the offensive line. Active for 16 games, it gave him some valuable playing experience that may be called upon this year if Bentley is slowed with his aforementioned knee injury.

At right tackle, Victor Riley (6-4, 328) leads the way but his top backup, Spencer Folau, is an unrestricted free agent. Folau found his way onto the Injured Reserve list at the end of the 2003 season with a dislocated kneecap. He’s valuable to the team because he can play various positions, as shown by him starting at right guard when Bentley was injured last year. Plus he started at right tackle for the team in 14 games in the 2002 season so he definitely can step in when needed. However, if he departs via free agency that leaves the team thin when it comes to experienced depth.

Seeing Bentley (ACL) is coming off an injury and Folau may be ready to depart the team, the Saints may look to address their offensive line – at least from a depth perspective – during the second day of the NFL Draft or through free agency. They don’t have any real pressing needs up front, but additional depth would be a positive to help solidify them from the injury bug this year.

POSITION ANALYSIS – DEFENSEDEFENSIVE LINE

The Saints seem to have the talent – at least on paper – up front to get the job done on defense, but yet they still ranked 27th in the league in rushing yards allowed last year by giving up 140 rushing yards per game. They were also 22nd in the league in total defensive sacks (32), which is a number they clearly need to improve on considering 23 of those came from the defensive line.

DE Darren Howard is clearly the Saints’ best defensive lineman (at least for now) and to make sure he didn’t simply walk away as an unrestricted free agent, the Saints slapped their franchise tag on him. The franchise tag basically secures the Saints that he’ll either be with them in 2004 or they’ll be compensated handsomely by another team. Howard was hampered with injury problems last year, as wrist and knee issues kept him off the field too often. He played in just eight games, the fewest of his career. Whether or not he’s worth the franchise tag price - $6.503 million for one year – after not matching his rookie sack totals (11) the past three years can be questioned. Either way, the Saints are expecting him to be a vital part of their defense this year and welcome him back on the field healthy.

At the left defensive end, Charles Grant is coming off of an impressive season, one that saw him record 10.5 sacks to go along with 61 total tackles (48 solo). Even more importantly, he was the only one of the Saints’ defensive linemen to be active for 16 games last season! Grant made a huge leap in his second year, bouncing from just one sack the year before. He also had some lingering calf problems that troubled him early in the year, but he appeared to move beyond them.

Inside, the Saints drafted Johnathan Sullivan in the first round last year. This marked the second year in a row the Saints invested a first-round draft choice on a defensive lineman. Sullivan, active for 14 games, didn’t quite apply the pressure inside that the team was hoping for and he only finished the year with one sack. He did pile up 34 total tackles (26 solo) and, with a year under his belt, should be ready to improve in his second season. His play in the middle is critical to helping the linebackers make plays on would-be ball carriers.

DT Willie Whitehead filled in as the other starter inside and was second amongst the defensive linemen on the Saints in sacks (6). On the year, he piled up 40 tackles (34 solo), but played in just 11 games. A knee injury took him down for the good part of December, which surely didn’t help the Saints’ cause on defense down the stretch.

DT Kenny Smith, a reserve, is a restricted free agent and the team has already given him a one-year qualifying tender. Thus, they can match any offer given to him by another team or receive compensation should they elect not to.

Beyond Smith on the inside, the team has Kendrick Allen, Kevin Watson and Howard Green on the roster. Allen started the year on the team’s practice squad, but was later called up due to injuries on the defensive line.

Watson was signed in January this year and the team apparently views him as a project player, as they allocated him to NFL Europe to work on his skills.

Green, meanwhile, was added last year after being waived by the Houston Texans. The Saints promoted him to their active roster from their practice squad in December, but he did not register any statistics in four games with them.

Further depth at defensive end can be found in Tony Bryant and Melvin Williams, who was limited last year due to knee problems that required surgery. Williams should be fine for this year, barring any setbacks. The positive here is the initial thought last summer was he’d be sent to Injured Reserve, but he was able to play in 10 games and posted 11 tackles (9 solo). Bryant, on the flip side, basically remains a question mark. He didn’t play last year and was released by the Oakland Raiders in July due to failing a physical. He’s had problems with his neck/spine, and ended up being inactive for the Saints the final week of the regular season. It’s likely that they’ll keep a close eye on him this summer. If he has any juice left – and his health holds up – he could provide some solid insurance outside.

Beyond the Saints’ starters, where they have potentially solid impact players, the team could use an upgrade up front. Having another speedy pass-rusher from the defensive end position would be ideal, as that could help improve their pass rush when used in a rotation to keep their starters fresh. Depth wise, as you can quickly see, the Saints do not have any proven depth and that could force them to address this position – both DE and DT – via free agency or the NFL Draft.

LINEBACKERS

OLB Sedrick Hodge, who was limited to just nine games last year, is a restricted free agent and the team has already given him a one-year qualifying tender. Thus, they can match any offer given to him by another team or receive compensation should they elect not to. He suffered a fractured bone in his right leg last year, which was supposed to knock him out of action six-to-eight weeks. After returning to action in Week 11, Hodge finished the year with 34 total tackles (29 solo) and one sack.

MLB Orlando Ruff came over from the San Diego Chargers last summer, signing a three-year deal with the Saints. Ruff recorded 66 total tackles (47 solo), one fumble recovery and an interception. The team likes using Ruff on running downs, where he plays well in run support and the initial plan last year was to have him split time with Darrin Smith but injuries forced the Saints to use Smith elsewhere.

OLB Derrick Rodgers came over from the Miami Dolphins last year, but came only with one year remaining on his contract; he was set to be an unrestricted free agent. However, the team did re-sign him to a three year deal. Losing Rodgers would have hurt, as he had 74 tackles (56 solo) and led the Saints’ linebackers in that category last year.

In terms of backups, the Saints have some talent to work with so they’re not in rough shape here in terms of depth.

On the outside, LB Roger Knight is a restricted free agent and the team has already given him a one-year qualifying tender. Thus, they can match any offer given to him by another team or receive compensation should they elect not to. Active for 16 games last year, Knight posted 19 total tackles and one fumble recovery. Barring some other team swooping in and stealing him, he’ll be with the Saints again next season.

LB James Allen, also a reserve on the outside, missed one game last year and it was due to disciplinary reasons (late for meetings) rather than injury. He wasn’t really missed, though, as he posted just 11 tackles on the season.

Rounding out the depth on the outside is LeMarcus McDonald. He was signed earlier this year and appears to be a project player for the team, as he was immediately allocated to NFL Europe. How he fares there will go a long way in dictating whether or not he makes the team later this year.

In the middle at backup, Darrin Smith, 34, is a nice backup to have. Groin and hamstring problems cost him two games last year, but Smith is that player that usually seems to get no respect but produces year after year when given the chance. Last year was no different, as he kicked in 60 tackles while serving as a strong-side linebacker after the team initially planned him to split reps at MLB. When Hodge went down, Smith stepped right in and didn’t miss a beat. He also kicked in one sack and one interception. While Smith is still a solid fill-in, his age is starting to get up there.

One could say LB Cie Grant, the team’s third middle linebacker, is somewhat of a project for the team. Drafted last year, he remains under contract for two more years. He played safety, linebacker and defensive end in college and the Saints’ initial plan for him was MLB, where he was slated last year. Knee and calf problems kept him on the sidelines most of his rookie year; he was active for just seven games and recorded just one tackle.

With only Rodgers a potential starter that could depart via free agency, the Saints find themselves in relatively good position at the linebacker position. Re-signing Rodgers was a major plus, and if they had not been able to, they would have had to have looked towards the free-agent market or draft to bolster their depth.

SECONDARY

The Saints have plenty of big names in the secondary, but yet this defense managed just 14 interceptions last year – tied for 20th in the league. To make matters even worse, their secondary contributed just 11 of those picks.

At cornerback, Fred Thomas was an unrestricted free agent and had an opportunity to depart via free agency. Last year, Thomas led the secondary in interceptions (4) and kicked in 86 total tackles (75 solo) from the corner position. Losing that type of production would have definitely hurt the Saints’ secondary, which allowed 198 passing yards (eighth best) in the league. His re-signing helps keep a solid starter in place as the team did not have great results with the other corner position due to injuries.

At the other corner position, Ashley Ambrose joined the team last year and contributed three interceptions and 47 total tackles (41 solo). He’s under contract through 2006 and has a relatively reasonable price tag of $760,000 in base salary this year so he should be safe. He was supposed to enter the year as their third corner, but Dale Carter’s injury problems forced him to play more. He ended up starting 12 games when all was said and done.

CB Dale Carter rounds out the corners in terms of name players, but he carries a contract that’s more than hefty. Under contract through 2008, Carter has a $2.95 million base salary this year and that jumps to $3.4 million in 2005. Seeing he was able to play in just eight games last year and posted only 24 tackles, one has to question if he’s worth his price tag. Also when you figure he hasn’t played a full 16 games since 1997 and has off-the-field baggage that always surrounds him, it’s a legitimate concern and the team may be able to use that money elsewhere. Plus, Carter is also 34 and will be 35 at the tail end of the season; let’s also not forget he suffered a knee injury last year that forced the team to put him on Injured Reserve.

With Carter’s issues (injuries and high cost), re-signing Thomas may have been considered a “mustâ⠬? for the Saints at this point in time. With his re-signing, Carter’s future must be questioned.

CB Fakhir Brown is the team’s fourth corner, was re-signed. The team was negotiating a long-term deal, but only ended up with a two-year deal, and he contributed 22 total tackles last year.

Further depth at corner is provided in several players, whom may mostly prove to be nothing more than training camp fodder when all is said and done.

CB Keyuo Craver was suspended for four games last year for violating the league’s substance abuse policy, and he ended up contributing just two tackles when all was said and done.

CB Fred Booker, a former member of the Washington Redskins, was signed in January. He may simply end up being a body in camp later this year.

CB Ahmad Brooks was signed earlier this year and allocated to NFL Europe, which may dictate how far he makes it with the team depending on how he progresses over there.

CB Maurice Tucker, a former member of the Cincinnati Bengals, was signed earlier this year. He may prove to be simply a body during camp later this year.

CB Shawn Byrdsong was signed earlier this year and allocated to NFL Europe for experience purposes.

SS Jay Bellamy, who started all 16 games last year, kicked in 94 total tackles (77 solo) and also added three interceptions to go along with one sack. He’s entering the final year of his contract, with a base salary set at $1 million.

FS Tebucky Jones was added last year in a trade with the New England Patriots and the Saints have him under contract through 2009. His salary is $1 million this year and remains relatively controllable through 2006, when it bounces up to $2.95 million in base salary. In 15 games last year, he contributed 69 total tackles and one interception. That production was basically on par with what he accomplished during his final years with New England.

SS Victor Green is an unrestricted free agent. Seeing him return may be 50/50 and highly dependent upon how well SS Mel Mitchell recovers from a torn ACL. The third-year safety was expected to make big contributions last year, but ended up missing the whole season when he was put on Injured Reserve in August. Green only contributed 16 total tackles, so seeing him depart wouldn’t be that big of a loss but his veteran leadership can never be discounted.

Mitchell will be a year removed from a torn ACL in August, so having him back at 100 percent for the start of the season may not be possible. ACL injuries simply take about two years for a player to completely recover from, but he should be able to contribute barring a setback.

FS Steve Gleason is a restricted free agent and the team has already given him a one-year qualifying tender. Thus, they can match any offer given to him by another team or receive compensation should they elect not to. He didn’t pile on any tackles last year, but did have a fumble recovery.

Overall, the secondary would have become a concern if the Saints lost Thomas via free agency. However, there are still questions concerning Mitchell and if he isn’t able to recover from his previous ACL tear. Depending on what happens with Thomas could help dictate which direction the team goes in the secondary during either free agency or the draft, as the need for another cornerback due to the inability to rely on Carter would become a must for the team. Landing a solid corner that can be groomed long-term would be a smart move by the team, and could be a direction they take early in the draft.

SPECIAL TEAMS

PK John Carney landed a five-year contract worth $4.4 million in March last year and he will continue to be the team’s kicker this year. Carney hit 22-of-30 FGAs last year, good for 73.3 percent of his kicks. He was 36-of-37 on extra points, with his one miss coming late in the year against the Jacksonville Jaguars that officially dropped the Saints out of the playoff race after they had an incredible “throw it all around the field� play that covered 75 yards for a touchdown. The would-be kick would have tied the game and kept the Saints’ playoff hopes alive. Nonetheless, Carney has been relatively golden during his 14-year career, hitting 81.5 percent of his field goals (343-421) and 98.5 percent of his PATs (404-410). His leg strength may not be what it used to be, but the team is depending on him and kicking in a dome for at least half his games doesn’t hurt his cause.

P Mitch Berger was a Pro Bowl alternate for the NFC Squad this past year, and also handles kickoffs for the Saints. The team gave him a five-year, $4.2 million deal in March of 2003 so he remains on roster for this season and many to come. Last year he averaged 44.3 yards per punt on 71 punting attempts, which was above his career average of 43.2. In nine years, he has yet to have a punt blocked, too. On kickoffs, he had two touchbacks last year on 53 kickoff attempts.

WR/KR/PR Michael Lewis is a jack of all trades for the Saints. However, as mentioned when we earlier talked about him, one has to wonder if his size (5-8, 165) makes him more susceptible to injury problems. He had groin, ankle and shoulder injuries last year and there was talk at the end of the year that he may need offseason surgery on his ankle. Nonetheless, Lewis does a lot for the Saints’ special teams on both punt and kickoff returns. After having two kickoff returns for touchdowns in 2002, Lewis never found the end zone on kick returns in 2003. He did return 45 kicks for 1,068 yards (23.7 ypr), with two returns going beyond 40-yards (four fewer than the previous year).

On punt returns, Lewis also failed to find the end zone after doing so once in 2002. His yards per punt return decreased from 14.2 in 2002 to just 9.2 in 2003 and he had only two returns of 20 yards or more compared to seven the year before. Clearly injury problems during the year may have helped slow him on returns. But, barring a drastic turn of events, he’s likely to handle return duties again this year.

Keep an eye on Ronney Jenkins here, too, if he makes the team he could provide the team with another speedy option to use on kickoffs if he’s able to reclaim some of the magic he had during his early years with the San Diego Chargers.

Overall, the Saints’ special teams are in good shape and this isn’t an area the team has to focus on via free agency or the NFL Draft. They have capable veterans in both Carney and Berger on the kicking teams, plus we’ve seen Lewis be a special player in the past on returns. If healthy, he may be able to return to that type of player.

KFFL Note: With the advent of free agency, some items in this report may be out of date as quickly as hours within completion.





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