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saintz08 01-11-2003 10:54 AM

Defense Revamp
Sheldon Mickles: Saints ready to revamp defense

Advocate sportswriter

It's been almost two weeks since the New Orleans Saints' 2002 season came to an abrupt and unexpected end, and the dust has finally settled.

Well, not quite.

It might be a while before disappointed fans stop talking about how the Saints didn't finish the job -- how a solid 6-1 start turned into a 9-7 finish and a nightmarish end to the season for a second straight year.

And it might be a little while longer before they stop talking about how the Saints blew an opportunity to make the playoffs -- by dropping their last three games to teams with losing records.

It'll surely be with the Saints' coaching and administrative staffs for a while, too, but only in the back of their minds. Which means the dust won't settle for quite some time.

A restless Jim Haslett began surveying the wreckage less than 12 hours after the 10-6 season-ending loss to the Carolina Panthers on Dec. 29, returning to his office at 2 a.m. to dissect the game film from the previous day.

While all the answers did not come right away, and may not for weeks to come, the obvious ones showed up -- as they did in the Saints' 3-6 slide over the final nine weeks of the season.

The evaluations that come before a housecleaning are ongoing, but it's no secret that the defense will be gutted once the free-agency signing period begins on Feb. 28.

The Saints had all kinds of trouble up the middle, which means Haslett and defensive coordinator Rick Venturi will be looking to add some players at safety, middle linebacker and tackle through free agency and the draft.

And with so many needs, the draft is as good a place to look. Barring any trades between now and April 26, the first day of the draft, the Saints will have five of the top 83 picks, with two No. 1s (Nos. 17 and 18), a No. 2 (No. 52) and a pair of No. 3s (Nos. 80 and 83).

As a result, as many as six new starters could line up on the defensive side of the ball when the Saints kick off the 2003 season on the first weekend of September.

So where do they begin? Because the Saints couldn't stop the run, you start with tackle and middle linebacker and go from there.

Tackle Norman Hand, who would count $5.475 million against the salary cap, will likely be one of the casualties, but that's just the tip of the iceberg.

Sidekick Grady Jackson has a more manageable cap figure at $2.375 million, but he'll certainly have to drop some weight if he returns.

Middle linebacker Charlie Clemons, who had a half-sack last season after getting 131/2 in 2001, is an unrestricted free agent and won't be offered a new deal.

The same goes for strong safety Sammy Knight, who, like Clemons, voided the final year of his contract, and will shop around for a new team with a big payday in mind.

Free safety Jay Bellamy won't cost nearly as much as Knight, but he also could be on his way out even though he has a year remaining on his contract.

Weakside linebacker Darrin Smith, who'll be 33 when the season begins, could also be replaced as a starter but would be invaluable as a role player.

They could use another young cornerback, but it's not nearly as high a priority as tackle, or middle linebacker and free safety -- where an upgrade in speed is desperately needed.

Third-round draft pick James Allen could replace Smith, while fifth-round draft choice Mel Mitchell is likely to be penciled in at Knight's old spot.

So don't be surprised to see the Saints target middle linebacker and free safety in free agency, simply because it's more difficult for rookies to play there. The other holes could be filled through the draft.

On top of that, linebacker Bryan Cox and cornerback Michael Hawthorne could also be on the way out -- so depth is also a consideration through free agency and the draft.

On offense, the wish list isn't nearly as long.

Depth at tight end is a concern and the line may get another makeover if the Saints decide to cut their ties with center Jerry Fontenot, who voided the final two years of his contract, and left tackle Kyle Turley, who continues to get under the skin of club officials. He could be on the trading block if the team can get a high draft pick in return.

All of which means the dust won't settle anytime soon.

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