||07-26-2005 08:53 AM
Mike D. Camp Battles
MIKE DETILLIER'S FOOTBALL WORLD
Saints training-camp battles, players to watch
By MIKE DETILLIER
Special to The Courier
The New Orleans Saints will open training camp later this week.
Here are a few observations on the key battles, players who need to further develop their skills and depth issues on this yearÃƒÂ¢Ã¢Â‚Â¬Ã¢Â„Â¢s team.
WHO HAS A.B.ÃƒÂ¢Ã¢Â‚Â¬Ã¢Â„Â¢S BACK?
Like it or not, Saints fans, barring injury, Aaron Brooks will be the starting quarterback this season.
While Brooks has been extremely durable -- he has started every regular-season game the past four years -- the question is who would replace Brooks if he went down with an injury for any length of time?
The teamÃƒÂ¢Ã¢Â‚Â¬Ã¢Â„Â¢s first option is veteran Todd Bouman.
While Bouman has a strong arm and above-average mobility skills, he lacks the accuracy and touch to be a regular at quarterback in the NFL. The former St. Cloud State standout struggled in preseason games the past couple of seasons and, in my opinion, is on the bubble to make the team.
The Saints love the raw physical gifts of fifth-round choice Adrian McPherson, but he is still a rookie, and was a part-time starter at Florida State and spent one season in the Arena Football League.
McPherson looks like he could be a starting NFL quarterback, but it will take a little time for him to hone his passing skills and techniques.
This season, McPherson will be the project player in the Mike Sheppard/Turk Schonert quarterback laboratory.
One player who could push Bouman for the No. 2 spot is former Texas Tech standout Kliff Kingsbury.
Kingsbury, who spent some time with the New England Patriots, has the accuracy and touch you seek in an NFL quarterback, but lacks great arm strength and seemed to be a bit shaky in the pocket when pressure arrived during his preseason outings.
He has worked hard to get stronger physically and, with a strong preseason showing, has a legitimate shot to make the final cut.
DEVERY, DEVERY, DEVERY
Unless a major injury happens to Joe Horn, DontÃƒÂƒÃ‚Â© Stallworth or Az-Zahir Hakim, they will be the SaintsÃƒÂ¢Ã¢Â‚Â¬Ã¢Â„Â¢ top three receivers. But many eyes will be focused on former LSU player and 2004 second-round pick Devery Henderson.
Henderson has great speed and outstanding open-field running skills, but he has made little progress convincing the coaches he is ready for prime time NFL work.
The former Opelousas High School star running back is still struggling to develop into a solid route-runner, and Saints coaches have openly criticized him for his lack of toughness out on the practice field. Henderson was worthy of being a second-round choice, but now is the time for him to step up his play and become a tougher player in a much rougher league.
WILL THE REAL BOO WILLIAMS PLEASE STAND UP?
Veteran Ernie Conwell is entrenched as the SaintsÃƒÂ¢Ã¢Â‚Â¬Ã¢Â„Â¢ starting tight end, but beyond being a blocker and a red-zone receiver, nothing is clear about his role.
Former Tennessee Titans tight end Shad Meier has looked just like he did in Nashville. The 6-foot-4, 255-pounder has been an inconsistent receiver and blocker in practice and looks far better coming off the team bus than out on the field.
Former North Carolina standout Zach Hilton is an intriguing prospect with his great size and sure hands, but he is not a powerful blocking force.
The most gifted athlete at tight end for the Saints is Boo Williams.
Williams had a tremendous late finish to the 2003 season, catching 41 passes and scoring five touchdowns, but his play regressed last season. The former Arkansas wide receiver has excellent speed and big-play ability, but he has also driven coach Jim Haslett up a wall with his tendency to blow one mental assignment after another. Williams must now prove to this coaching staff that he can concentrate on his overall game and put together consistent efforts from week to week.
If not, he could well be sent packing.
ANOTHER SECOND-ROUND QUESTION MARK
When the Saints spent a second-round choice in 2003 on offensive lineman Jon Stinchcomb out of Georgia, they hoped he would be their starting left tackle of the future. At this point in time, itÃƒÂ¢Ã¢Â‚Â¬Ã¢Â„Â¢s still hard to tell if he is that type of player because he has rarely seen the field the past two seasons.
Stinchcomb will be given every opportunity to unseat veteran Wayne Gandy at left tackle, but I just donÃƒÂ¢Ã¢Â‚Â¬Ã¢Â„Â¢t see it happening.
The former Bulldogs standout has good size, has really upgraded his overall strength and is a very intelligent young man. But I have always felt as though his best position is left guard because he does not have the elite body balance and speed needed to play left tackle.
Stinchcomb will never be given a better chance than this season to prove he can actually play left tackle in the NFL.
JACOX VS. HOLLAND
If there is a real battle to watch for on offense in training camp, itÃƒÂ¢Ã¢Â‚Â¬Ã¢Â„Â¢s at left guard between Kendyl Jacox and Montrae Holland.
Jacox had been a solid NFL starting guard until he let his weight and conditioning slip last season, and his play suffered. The Kansas State product has in much better shape and looks like a much more focused player than last season.
Holland will move from right guard to the left side this season, and Saints coaches have always liked his run-blocking and leverage skills.
The former Florida State standout still needs to upgrade his overall pass-blocking skills, but is a very competitive individual. This should be quite a battle to keep an eye on.
WHO STARTS ALONGSIDE BRIAN YOUNG?
The big question mark on defense going into training camp: Who starts alongside Brian Young at defensive tackle?
Last season former LSU standout Howard Green started 12 games for the Saints and seems to be the odds-on favorite to win that spot again. But the Saints want to take a close look at a couple of youngsters that show some promise.
Rodney Leisle, who the Saints took out of UCLA in the fifth round of the 2004 draft, has added about 20 pounds of muscle to his frame, and the SaintsÃƒÂ¢Ã¢Â‚Â¬Ã¢Â„Â¢ coaching staff loves his desire and tough-guy personality.
Now, letÃƒÂ¢Ã¢Â‚Â¬Ã¢Â„Â¢s see if he can play in the NFL.
This yearÃƒÂ¢Ã¢Â‚Â¬Ã¢Â„Â¢s sixth-round choice was Wisconsin defensive tackle Jason Jefferson.
Jefferson was one of the most underrated players in the nation the past couple of seasons because he really wasnÃƒÂ¢Ã¢Â‚Â¬Ã¢Â„Â¢t a great pass-rusher and just did his job as a top-flight run stuffer.
Jefferson is a well-built and very strong inside performer who has the tools to play in the NFL if he can upgrade his ability to shed off blockers in a quicker fashion.
Johnathan Sullivan, the No. 1 choice in 2003, is quickly running out of time to develop into much of a factor.
Sullivan, who has excellent athletic skills, has been a major disappointment because he is consistently out of shape and his attitude is much worse than his conditioning skills, and thatÃƒÂ¢Ã¢Â‚Â¬Ã¢Â„Â¢s really saying a mouthful. The word out of Saintsville is that he weighs around 345 pounds, well over the 310-pound weight ceiling the Saints gave him this spring.
While there is no doubt he has talent, he has the looks of being one of the all-time biggest draft busts in Saints history.
One thing to keep in mind is that veterans like Darren Howard, Willie Whitehead and Tony Bryant will all see time at defensive tackle in different situations this season.
THE FINCHER FACTOR
Unless the Saints add a veteran linebacker to the mix, the starting threesome of late last season -- James Allen, Courtney Watson and Colby Bockwoldt -- look to be the starting linebacking corps for 2005.
If there is one player who could reshuffle the cards at linebacker it would be rookie middle Alfred Fincher.
Fincher has impressed the coaching staff with his athletic ability and his quick diagnostic skills, but the middle linebacking post is a hard one for rookies to grasp.
It will be interesting to see just how quickly the former University of Connecticut star linebacker catches on to the speed of the NFL and the proper angles to get to the ballcarrier.
GOOD DEPTH AT DB
The Saints have a good starting tandem at cornerback with Mike McKenzie and Fakhir Brown, provided both are in camp and at ease with their current contracts.
But for the first time in my memory, the Saints also have good depth behind their starting duo at cornerback and at both safety positions.
The Saints signed veteran Fred Thomas to a lucrative multi-year contract last spring, but he had a very poor season in 2004. Thomas says injuries undermined his starting status at cornerback last season. But he will also turn 32 in September, and Father Time is not on his side.
While Thomas was never one to post big numbers from an interception standpoint, he was always a solid one-on-one cover man and was the perfect third cornerback, whose responsibility is covering the slot receiver.
Watch and see if opposing NFL teams donÃƒÂ¢Ã¢Â‚Â¬Ã¢Â„Â¢t try and test him early and throw a few deep passes in his direction.
If Thomas continues to trail off like he did last season, his No. 3 slot will be filled by veteran Jason Craft.
Craft saw considerable starting time with the Jacksonville Jaguars before coming to New Orleans last spring, but seemed to sulk a bit when he did not win a starting job at corner last summer.
The former Colorado State standout worked his way back into the coachesÃƒÂ¢Ã¢Â‚Â¬Ã¢Â„Â¢ good graces with strong efforts on special teams and saw quite a bit of work in the teamÃƒÂ¢Ã¢Â‚Â¬Ã¢Â„Â¢s nickel and dime packages down the stretch.
Former San Francisco 49ers nickel-back Jimmy Williams is also a player who has seen quite a bit of playing time in the NFL, and the Baton Rouge native and Episcopal High School alum could well be a major factor in the cornerback derby.
The most interesting player in the defensive back mix is Nebraska rookie free safety Josh Bullocks.
Bullocks, who is second all-time in interceptions in Cornhusker history with 13, was the "buzz" player at the early minicamp sessions.
Saints coaches feel as though the teamÃƒÂ¢Ã¢Â‚Â¬Ã¢Â„Â¢s second-round draft choice in April has grasped the mental part of the NFL very well and love his quick reaction skills and football instincts against the pass. While Saints coaches like the starting safety tandem of Dwight Smith and Jay Bellamy, it may be hard to keep Bullocks off the field.
The Saints also hope Mel Mitchell is fully recovered from the major knee injury he suffered in the 2003 preseason and is ready to push Bellamy for his starting strong safety spot.