TRAINING CAMP REPORT: Part Two (Defense)
By TCU Dan - SaintsReport.com Staff Writer - 2:32 pm CST
For the past two seasons, the New Orleans SaintsÃƒÂ¢Ã¢Â‚Â¬Ã¢Â„Â¢ defense has entered the season not only as a question mark but as an exclamation point of inconsistency that has continued to mar the success off a young team. This year the outlook has upgraded slightly from question mark to enigma. And while it is no comfort to possess a defense surrounded in mystery rather than mystique, there are many reasons for excitement to contrast and hopefully prevail over the few glaring concerns.
LetÃƒÂ¢Ã¢Â‚Â¬Ã¢Â„Â¢s waste no time cutting straight to the 2004 training camp controversy. After coming in overweight and out of shape, Johnathon Sullivan quietly earned himself a demotion from the starting unit on the first day of training camp. The Saints made no explicit effort to keep SullivanÃƒÂ¢Ã¢Â‚Â¬Ã¢Â„Â¢s status under wraps, and it did not take long for the media pundits to spout their speculations. Though most initial reports were exaggerated, the issues of SullivanÃƒÂ¢Ã¢Â‚Â¬Ã¢Â„Â¢s work ethic and maturity came under immediate scrutiny from the SaintsÃƒÂ¢Ã¢Â‚Â¬Ã¢Â„Â¢ faithful. But that comes with the territory of being a high first round selection.
The truth of the matter remains that Sullivan is not in dire need of the late Dr. Atkins, as anyone who has been to training camp can realize with their own eyes. The concern among the coaching staff is not so much SullivanÃƒÂ¢Ã¢Â‚Â¬Ã¢Â„Â¢s physical condition as it is his mental development. Sullivan is not as far along on the learning curve Haslett, Pease, and others would like. However, they have pledged that if Sullivan cannot shift his own gears they will operate the transmission for him. The fact remains that Sullivan is by far the most talented interior lineman on the roster, possessing explosion and power that seem reminiscent of his successful UGA counterparts Marcus Stroud and Richard Seymour. One can only hope that Sullivan will develop the maturity and discipline that has become a testament of the two aforementioned veterans.
The interim starter at the nose tackle position is former sixth round pick (Texans) and LSU alum Howard Green. Green has performed admirably in SullivanÃƒÂ¢Ã¢Â‚Â¬Ã¢Â„Â¢s stead, having dropped excess weight this offseason and impressing the coaching staff with his mental grasp of the position. Green is no superstar, but he is a very serviceable body on running downs and will serve well in the rotation or in the event that Sullivan only regresses, which is highly unlikely. GreenÃƒÂ¢Ã¢Â‚Â¬Ã¢Â„Â¢s emergence will also make the task of second-year man Kendrick Allen that much more difficult as he fights for his place on the 53-man roster. Allen is a physically impressive specimen at 6ÃƒÂ¢Ã¢Â‚Â¬Ã¢Â„Â¢6 and can be hard to move when he maintains leverage. Rookie fifth round pick Rodney Leisle shows promise but has fallen behind as a result of NCAA rules regarding players being unable to participate in practice sessions until they have finished their college classes.
At the three technique, Brian Young has been everything the coaching staff has expected. The free agent acquisition from St. Louis embodies just about every ideal defensive cliche, from his high motor to his nasty on-field demeanor. Young regularly handled linemen who outweighed him by 50 pounds in individual and team drills. He has good technique and is a scrappy disrupter at the interior of the line. The fifth-year veteranÃƒÂ¢Ã¢Â‚Â¬Ã¢Â„Â¢s playing style is reminiscent of ex-Saint LÃƒÂ¢Ã¢Â‚Â¬Ã¢Â„Â¢Roi Glover, minus the pass rush prowess.
Behind Young is versatile defensive lineman Willie WhiteheadÃƒÂ¢Ã¢Â‚Â¬Ã¢Â€Âcapable of playing end or tackleÃƒÂ¢Ã¢Â‚Â¬Ã¢Â€Âand fourth year veteran Kenny Smith. Smith, another one of the more talented but inconsistent members of the Saints interior defensive line, has been the subject of mild speculation this offseason involving trades. The prospects of such an occurrence appear to be lessening as WhiteheadÃƒÂ¢Ã¢Â‚Â¬Ã¢Â„Â¢s status remains uncertain. The uncertainty surrounding WhiteheadÃƒÂ¢Ã¢Â‚Â¬Ã¢Â„Â¢s health could very well land him on the Physically Unable to Perform (PUP) list, which would cause the veteran to be inactive for the first six games of the season and open an extra roster spot at either the DT or DE position, if not both. Smith has performed admirably in camp, but the question surrounding him remains whether or not he is ready to turn potential into production.
The DE position remains the strength of the SaintsÃƒÂ¢Ã¢Â‚Â¬Ã¢Â„Â¢ defense with regard to both depth and talent. Fifth-year man Darren Howard signed a one-year Franchise tender which immediately aids in stabilizing this young and talented defensive line. Howard is in good health aside from a nagging but mild knee injury and precautionary rest. He looks to regain the form he possessed in being the Saints sack leader for the two years prior to the 2003 season. Howard is a consistent force against both the run and pass and his presence alone should affect how teams gameplan for the Saints.
Manning the position across from Howard will be former first round pick Charles Grant. Grant has been the talk of the defense as of late and looks primed for a breakout season. He possesses not only immense physical talent but also a great knowledge of the game and the way things work, as well as a comfort within the scheme. Grant and new defensive line coach John Pease have taken an early liking to each other and it shows on the practice field. The third-year manÃƒÂ¢Ã¢Â‚Â¬Ã¢Â„Â¢s play has been inspired and he does not shy away from extra repetitions following practice. Grant is definitely a player to watch throughout the preseason and regular season games.
Backing up Grant and Howard and figuring into the situational line rotation is rookie first round pick Will Smith. After struggling to adjust to the Louisiana heat and humidity in minicamps, Smith appears to be having a quiet but strong training camp. One of the most polished rookie pass rushers to ever come into the league, Smith also possesses the athleticism and intelligence to make use of such refined technique. The rookie should see around 20 snaps per game early on and will help the Saints by keeping the rotation fresh in the fourth quarter when quarterback sacks and pressures become critical.
Rounding out the depth chart are former fifth round pick Melvin Williams and fifth year veteran Tony Bryant. Both of these players could likely become casualties of a numbers game, and while Williams is practice squad eligible his pass rushing potential makes him a target of teams depleted at the ends. Bryant is an impressive physical specimen at 6ÃƒÂ¢Ã¢Â‚Â¬Ã¢Â„Â¢6 and 290 pounds. He has experience in the league but could suffer the same fate as Williams. Again, such outcome will predicate on the health of Willie Whitehead, who was a key contributor last year at the end postion.
The talk of camp and the entire offseason has been the fate of the middle linebacker position. Usually a position of centrality and prominence on a defense, the Saints have lacked stability at the MIKE position throughout the entire tenure of the Haslett regime. Such uncertainty has contributed to the inconsistency of the defense as a whole.
Things look to change this season as the Saints are in search of their middle linebacker of the present and future years to come. Rookie second round pick Courtney Watson and second-year man Cie Grant have bucked their way to the top of the depth chart, leaving veteran run-stopper Orlando Ruff vying for a roster spot. While no position is secure, Ruff should not lose any sleep over the prospects of making the team as it is likely that whoever comes in second place in the Grant/Watson battle will slide over to the weakside behind eighth-year veteran Derrick Rodgers.
On the outside, Rodgers looks to build off of the 2003 season in which he was the most, if not only, consistent presence in the Saints linebacking corps. With a year under his belt and improved D-line production in front of him, Rodgers should continue to produce in his regular role as the SaintsÃƒÂ¢Ã¢Â‚Â¬Ã¢Â„Â¢ weakside linebacker. He should also see an expanded role as a pass-rusher in nickel and dime situations. Third-year man James Allen is in contention with the physically impressive Sedrick Hodge for the starting SAM (strongside) position. Allen has been working almost exclusively with the first unit in training camp and has impressed with his tenacity against the run. If he can continue to overcome the mental strains of defensive schematics, it is only a matter of time before he secures a starting role. If he does, it is likely Hodge will still see time on third downs and in passing situations.
Rounding out the position are heady veteran Darrin Smith, third year man Roger Knight, rookie seventh round pick Colby Bockwoldt and former UDFA and TCU alum LaMarcus McDonald. After taking a pay cut, Smith looks to provide a steadying veteran presence and the versatility to backup all three linebacking positions, as well as contributions in passing situations. His knowledge of VenturiÃƒÂ¢Ã¢Â‚Â¬Ã¢Â„Â¢s scheme and football in general will provide insurance across the board. Knight appears to be lost in the numbers, while Bockwoldt will have to prove his worth on special teams and McDonald seems destined for the practice squad.
The Safety position looks promising and to be the strength of the SaintsÃƒÂ¢Ã¢Â‚Â¬Ã¢Â„Â¢ secondary once again this season. 11th year veteran Jay Bellamy looks to build off of a strong 2003 campaign in which he surpassed expectations and overcame criticism from SaintsÃƒÂ¢Ã¢Â‚Â¬Ã¢Â„Â¢ fans and the media. He should continue to provide a tenacious and savvy presence at the strong safety position. Across from Bellamy, free safety Tebucky Jones has spent the offseason focusing on his body composition and working his way down to a more ideal weight for his body. Jones is also focusing on improving his quickness and change of direction skills, and more importantly, tackling. Jones was an unguided missile most of last season and while he came on strong toward the end, he still failed to wrap up and use proper technique when tackling. Former fifth round pick and special teams standout Mel Mitchell is having a strong camp and looks to be fully recovered from the torn ACL that ended his season before it even started. He should see an expanded role within the defense this year.
Rounding out the position are the versatile Deveron Harper, UDFA Brent Hafford and special teams captain Steve Gleason. Harper has impressed the coaching staff in training camp with his coverage skills and instincts when the ball is in the air. Though slight in build, Harper is not shy in run support and possesses the versatility to back up both the safety and cornerback positions. Hafford appears to be vying for a spot on the practice squad while Gleason looks to ease the loss of former special teams captain Fred McAfee.
All in observance of the New Orleans Saints seem concerned with the state of the SaintsÃƒÂ¢Ã¢Â‚Â¬Ã¢Â„Â¢ cornerbacks, except Jim Haslett. While the unit possesses no marquee names and hardly any legitimate size to speak of, the SaintsÃƒÂ¢Ã¢Â‚Â¬Ã¢Â„Â¢ cornerbacks appear to be in good condition. Ninth-year veteran Fred Thomas looks to build off of two successful seasons in which he has led the SaintsÃƒÂ¢Ã¢Â‚Â¬Ã¢Â„Â¢ defense in interceptions (nine total). Across from Thomas, the starting position is up for contention among veterans Ashley Ambrose, Fakhir Brown, and newly acquired Jason Craft.
Ambrose appears to have the endorsement of the coaching staff. While he is almost painful to watch in individual drills, Ambrose always seems to be in the right place at the right time once scrimmages start. His comfort within the scheme and veteran savvy make up for the toll the years have taken. Ambrose does not necessarily have an edge as it is no hyperbole to anoint fifth-year veteran Fakhir Brown the most improved player in camp. BrownÃƒÂ¢Ã¢Â‚Â¬Ã¢Â„Â¢s comfort and familiarity within the scheme has improved every aspect of his game. His technique and knowledge have allowed him to maximize his speed. It is rare to see Brown make a false step or experience any wasted motion in coverage.
While Jason Craft has seen little time with the first unit, he has excelled in individual drills. Craft is arguably the best man-to-man cover corner on the team and onlookers rarely see him get beat during individual drills. The only possible explanation for CraftÃƒÂ¢Ã¢Â‚Â¬Ã¢Â„Â¢s inferior position on the depth chart is that he is not as far along mentally as his counterparts. However, his quickness, technique, and ball skills bring a lot to the table and it would be no surprise to see the former Jacksonville Jaguar crack the starting lineup early in the regular season.
Rounding out the position are young veterans Maurice Tucker, Ahmad Brooks, Keyou Craver and New Orleans Voodoo standout Monty Montgomery. And while Tucker and Brooks inherently do not excite much promise, Monty Montgomery has been a disappointment. That said, he joined the Saints late thanks to NFL rules that require AFL players to clear waivers before they can be signed by their home NFL team. There is likely a warm spot waiting for Montgomery on the practice squad.
The real surprise of camp has been Keyou Craver. Shunned by Coach Haslett in minicamps after maintaining a weight close to 220 pounds throughout the offseason, Craver has shown up in shape physically and mentally. A once promising draft prospect, Craver hopes to regain his 2002 form that had fans so excited about his future. If the former Nebraska Cornhusker is truly as committed as he appears to be, Saints fans could see Keyou Craver working his way up the New Orleans depth chart in the near future.
While there are no guarantees when it comes to the Saints defense, the prospects are promising. Training camp has become the battleground for the key competitions at linebacker and cornerback, and the outcomes will go a long way to determining the success of the unit. On the middle linebacker front, not much separates Courtney Watson and Cie Grant at this point. Watson is more decisive and clearly has the superior diagnostic skills. Grant is, however, the bigger hitter while not necessarily the better tackler. At this point I give the edge to Watson and believe the real excitement will begin once these two athletes are capable of manning the field simultaneously at their respective positions.
At cornerback, Ashley Ambrose appears to be the early leader with Fakhir Brown nipping at his heels. I am still confident that Jason Craft will emerge early in the season as the starter as I found him to be perhaps the most impressive of the entire group. This is, of course, barring any pre-season trade agreements (no specifics here!).
Overall, the Saints look to have a much-improved defensive unit in 2004. There are still key factors that must fall into place and the unit must fight through any early-season holdups and injuries in an effort to stay out of an early season hole and ensure team-wide success and playoff contention.
GREAT CAMP MOMENTS
During individual drills, CB Jason Craft recovered from a well-executed push-off by WR Jerome Pathon on a comeback route to wrap Pathon up from behind and break up the pass. Craft was infallible in individual drills and drew cheers from the crowd as he matched WR Donte Stallworth stride for stride on a stop-n-go, even after sitting on DonteÃƒÂ¢Ã¢Â‚Â¬Ã¢Â„Â¢s well-executed stop.
In a physical matchup during individual drills, CB Fakhir Brown successful jammed WR Talman Gardner off the line. The two boxed hands for eight yards before Gardner forcefully broke into a well-timed out route. Brown recovered and broke up the pass just it connected with Gardner.
During scrimmages, LB Cie GrantÃƒÂ¢Ã¢Â‚Â¬Ã¢Â€Âworking with the first team in WatsonÃƒÂ¢Ã¢Â‚Â¬Ã¢Â„Â¢s steadÃƒÂ¢Ã¢Â‚Â¬Ã¢Â€Âwas caught taking a couple of false steps at the onset of a trap play. GrantÃƒÂ¢Ã¢Â‚Â¬Ã¢Â„Â¢s speed was showcased as he quickly overcame his mistake and flowed to the hole, slipped a block and laid a bludgeoning blow on RB Lamar Smith in the backfield.
During individual drills, a long and repeated battle waged between DT Johnathon Sullivan and the tandem of guards Kendyl Jacox and Montrae Holland. On one occasion, Sullivan stood Jacox upright and then used a well-timed rip move to knife through the double-team, thereby drawing the praise of John Pease.
During individual drills, DE Melvin Williams was humiliated when G Montrae Holland countered his second-year counterpartÃƒÂ¢Ã¢Â‚Â¬Ã¢Â„Â¢s dip-n-rip move by shoving him face down onto the grass. Williams regained his dignity on the last repetition of the drill when he displayed his quickness, transitioning from a bull rush to a rip move and then breaking free on a beautiful spin move, all in rapid succession. While Williams shows flashes, he may ultimately be too much of a finesse player at this time to make the 53-man roster.
CB Keyou Craver drew the wrath of defensive coordinator Rick Venturi on a particular play when he lost zone integrity, allowing WR Kerwin Cook to pull in a 15 yard reception. Craver responded strongly on the next play, coming up in run support and laying a strong hit on RB Ki-jana Carter. The POP of the hit enticed quite an ovation from the audience. Keyou Craver has been one of the more physical corners in run support.
CB Fred Thomas displayed his hands, or lack thereof, on a passing play in which he broke up a pass from QB Todd Bouman to WR Talman Gardner on a slant route. The pass hit Thomas squarely in the hands. After the play, Thomas received a good ribbing from his teamates, as one veteran player reverberated ÃƒÂ¢Ã¢Â‚Â¬Ã…Â“Someone needs to hit the JUGs machines!ÃƒÂ¢Ã¢Â‚Â¬?
During third-down drills, the Saints displayed a sub-package of the new Delta package they will utilize on passing downs in effort to have DEs Darren Howard, Charles Grant, and Will Smith all on the field at one time. This particular sub-package involves a three-man front with two linebackers, Derrick Rodgers acting as a roaming blitzer. The wrinkle comes in the secondary, where the Saints implement three cornerbacks as well as their top three safeties Tebucky Jones, Jay Bellamy, and Mel Mitchell all on the field at the same time. I am interested to see how creative the Saints can get with their personnel packaging in the upcoming season.
This was probably the best report I\'ve read about this team all off-season and what do I get?
You guys are starting to disappoint me.
I guess I\'ll have to liven it up a bit.
Brooks is a leaderless hack
Deuce is a late season slacker
Horn is a me-me blowhard
Tebuckey Jones will have a pro-bowl type year
Orlando Ruff will start opening day, and play well
Jason Craft and Fakhir Brown are our best two CB\'s
Will Smith is already as good as Darren Howard
Chales Grant is our best DE
Devron Harper will make this team
Kenny Smith will, Willie Whitehead won\'t
Karney will shut-up ALL the T-rex worshippers
Ki-Jana will beat out Lamar
Gardner will make the team, Crowell won\'t
With the emergence of Gardner and this new kid Nathan Black who doesn\'t know what it feels like to drop a pass yet, a WR trade for another CB looks 50-50.
[Edited on 11/8/2004 by Danno]
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