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tiggerpolice 08-18-2005 07:36 AM

New Orleans Saints 2005 Season Preview
 
New Orleans Saints 2005 Season Preview
08/17/2005

(Sports Network) - You can't call them the "ain'ts" anymore.



Recent editions of the New Orleans Saints have been a far cry from those dismal teams of the 1970's and early 80's that filled up enough blooper reels to keep NFL Films in the black. But the fact of the matter is, they still "ain't" been to the playoffs in a half-decade, and while far from embarrassing, the last four New Orleans teams have confounded loyal Saints supporters with their maddening inconsistency. Jim Haslett's team has an even-steven mark of 32-32 over the past four years, never finishing worse than 7-9 or better than 9-7 over that stretch. Last season offered more of the same mediocrity. The Saints looked fairly strong while starting 2-1, hit a hideous midseason tailspin that dropped them to 4-8, and then, when all looked lost and Haslett seemed destined for a spot on the unemployment line, rallied to win their final four games and missed the postseason by the slimmest of margins in the top-heavy NFC. However inspiring the late-season run, it was indeed too little, too late. Haslett, who was invited to return but not offered a contract extension beyond this season, has to oversee the kind of improvement that would place the franchise back in the playoff bracket for the first time since 2000. Absent that progress, it is safe to assume that Saints owner Tom Benson "ain't" going to hesitate in ending the Haslett era in New Orleans. Below we take a capsule look at the 2005 edition of the New Orleans Saints, with a personnel evaluation and prognosis included therein: 2004 RECORD: 8-8 (2nd, NFC South) LAST PLAYOFF APPEARANCE: 2000, lost to Minnesota, 34-16, in NFC Divisional Playoff COACH (RECORD): Jim Haslett (42-38 in five seasons with Saints, 42-38 overall) OFFENSIVE COORDINATOR: Mike Sheppard DEFENSIVE COORDINATOR: Rick Venturi OFFENSIVE STAR: Joe Horn, WR (94 receptions, 1399 yards, 11 TD) DEFENSIVE STAR: Darren Howard, DE (46 tackles, 11 sacks) OFFENSIVE TEAM RANKS: 27th rushing, 12th passing, 14th scoring DEFENSIVE TEAM RANKS: 30th rushing, 27th passing, t27th scoring FIVE KEY GAMES: at Carolina (9/11), Atlanta (10/16), at St. Louis (10/23), Carolina (12/18), at Tampa Bay (1/1) KEY ADDITIONS: RB Antowain Smith (from Titans), WR Az-Zahir Hakim (Lions), TE Shad Meier (Titans), G/T Jermane Mayberry (Eagles), T Jammal Brown (1st Round, Oklahoma), LB Albert Fincher (3rd Round, Connecticut), LB Ronald McKinnon (Cardinals), LB Levar Fisher (Cardinals), S Dwight Smith (Buccaneers), S Josh Bullocks (2nd Round, Nebraska), CB Jimmy Williams (49ers) KEY DEPARTURES: WR Jerome Pathon (released), T Victor Riley (to Texans), DT Kenny Smith (to Raiders), LB Derrick Rodgers (released), LB Orlando Ruff (released), LB Darrin Smith (not tendered), S Tebucky Jones (released), CB Monty Montgomery (not tendered), CB Ashley Ambrose (released) QB: Aaron Brooks (3810 passing yards, 21 TD, 16 INT, 173 rushing yards, 4 TD) returns for his fifth full season as the Saints' starter, and despite his overall inconsistency (35-34 as a regular season starter), there is little indication that the team is looking to go in a different direction any time soon. Todd Bouman, who did not throw a pass as Brooks' backup last season, could have some competition for the No. 2 job this season. The Saints used a fifth-round draft choice on former Florida State and Arena League quarterback Adrian McPherson, and though raw (just 30 career appearances between Florida State and the Indiana Firebirds) and skinny (6-4 and just 218 pounds), McPherson has undeniable talent. If something goes awry with those three players, 2003 Patriots sixth-round draft choice Kliff Kingsbury should get a shot. RB: Deuce McAllister (1074 rushing yards, 9 TD, 34 receptions) struggled with a bum ankle in 2004, and the Saints need him to revert to his previous Pro Bowl form in order to have a chance this season. McAllister posted just five 100-yard games last season after putting up nine during the 2004 campaign, and his 4.0 yards per rush was the lowest average of his career. Aaron Stecker (244 rushing yards, 2 TD, 29 receptions) started three games in place of McAllister last season and performed admirably, but wouldn't be a long-term answer in the event of injury to the All-Pro. To that end, the Saints signed veteran Antowain Smith (509 rushing yards, 4 TD, 22 receptions) as insurance should McAllister go down. At fullback, Mike Karney (6 receptions) will see situational time, and Nate Schurman is attempting to make the club as his backup. Thirty-seven-year-old Fred McAfee will likely serve as a special teams ace yet again. WR/TE: Joe Horn (94 receptions, 11 TD) rebounded from a relatively weak 2003 to earn his fourth career Pro Bowl citation last season. Horn was the Saints' most consistent player, putting up five 100-yard receiving games and tying for the NFC lead in catches. Donte' Stallworth (58 receptions, 5 TD) established career highs in catches and yards (767) last year, and should play an even more prominent role with Jerome Pathon (34 receptions, 1 TD) having been released. The team hopes that 2004 second-round pick Devery Henderson can rebound from a poor rookie season in which he was active for just one game and claim Pathon's former spot as the No. 3 wideout. Henderson gained an advantage early in camp when free agent pickup Az-Zahir Hakim (31 receptions, 3 TD with the Lions) was slowed by a hamstring injury. Special teams contributors Michael Lewis (8 receptions) and Talman Gardner (1 receptions) will try to crack the wideout rotation, and their odds got better when fourth-round draft choice Chase Lyman (California) went down with a torn ACL in mini-camp. The Saints are not counting on Lyman helping them in 2005. At tight end, New Orleans needs someone to step up in the battle among Ernie Conwell (10 receptions, 1 TD), Shad Meier (25 receptions, 2 TD with the Titans) and Boo Williams (33 receptions, 2 TD). Williams has the biggest upside of the three but was slowed by hamstring problems in training camp. OL: The Saints are counting on a couple of new faces - guard Jermane Mayberry and tackle Jammal Brown - to prop up the right side of their line in 2005. Mayberry started 96 games at both guard and tackle in nine seasons with the Eagles, and earned a trip to the Pro Bowl in 2002. Brown, a 6-6, 316-pounder out of Oklahoma, was selected with the 13th pick of the 2005 draft. At left guard, Kendyl Jacox started 13 games last season, but Mayberry's presence has pushed former right guard Montrae Holland into a competition for that spot as well. The known quantities are at left tackle and center, where Wayne Gandy and LeCharles Bentley were both 16-game starters a year ago. The loser of the left guard battle will stick as a backup, and the team is hoping that tackle Spencer Folau, who comes off shoulder surgery, can recover in time for the regular season opener. Jamar Nesbit, who has started 51 games in six NFL seasons, can back up any of the offensive line slots. DL: New Orleans has a glut of talented players at the end position, with Darren Howard (46 tackles, 11 sacks), Charles Grant (78 tackles, 10.5 sacks) and Will Smith (40 tackles, 7.5 sacks) giving the Saints one of the top-pass rushing trios in the league. In certain situations, the three will appear on the field at the same time as part of defensive coordinator Rick Venturi's "fast dime" alignment. Backup end Tony Bryant (11 tackles, 2 sacks) is also part of that rotation, and rookie Jimmy Verdon (Arizona State) could appear in the event of injury to the top four. The starters at defensive tackle should again be Howard Green (27 tackles) and Brian Young (59 tackles, 2.5 sacks), a duo that must work to turn around the league's 30th-ranked rushing defense of a year ago. The team is hopeful that former first-round draft choice Johnathan Sullivan (15 tackles, 0.5 sacks), who has been a disappointment during his first two years in the league, can step up and unseat Green. Former starter Willie Whitehead (10 tackles), 2004 fifth-round draft pick Rodney Leisle (1 tackle), and sixth-round draft choice Jason Jefferson (Wisconsin) will compete for backup jobs as well. LB: The Saints laid a number of their defensive deficiencies in 2004 at the feet of their linebackers, and took some small steps to improve that unit in time for this season. New Orleans waved goodbye to former starters Derrick Rodgers (54 tackles), Orlando Ruff (79 tackles, 1 INT) and Darrin Smith, promoting James Allen (49 tackles), Colby Bockwoldt (46 tackles, 1 sack) and Courtney Watson (57 tackles, 2 sacks), all of whom will be 25 or younger when the season begins, to full-time starting jobs. Third-round draft choice Albert Fincher (Connecticut) will get an immediate chance to contribute, as will free agent pickup Ronald McKinnon (74 tackles with the Cardinals) and holdover Sedrick Hodge (25 tackles). Levar Fisher and Cie Grant, neither of whom played in 2004, could fall victim to a numbers crunch in their push to make the roster. DB: The biggest upgrade to the defense has been made here, where the team parted ways with Tebucky Jones (101 tackles, 1 INT) after two inconsistent seasons with the Saints and signed former Buccaneer Dwight Smith (83 tackles, 3 INT with Tampa Bay) to replace him at free safety. The rest of the secondary will remain largely intact, with Jay Bellamy (90 tackles) back at strong safety and Mike McKenzie (33 tackles, 5 INT) and Fakhir Brown (54 tackles, 2 INT) holding down the corners. The reserves at safety figure to be holdover Steve Gleason (9 tackles) and second-round draft choice Josh Bullocks (Nebraska), with the versatile Mel Mitchell (24 tackles) also trying to hang onto a backup job. Jason Craft (22 tackles) and Fred Thomas (48 tackles) were listed as the top backups at corner as camp began, but the declining Thomas could lose out to free agent pickup and local favorite Jimmy Williams (43 tackles, 1 sack) in his quest for a roster spot. SPECIAL TEAMS: There will be no changes in the kicking game, with John Carney (22-27 FG, 38-38 XP) continuing to handle placements and Mitch Berger (43.6 avg.) looking for a repeat of his 2004 Pro Bowl season at punter. Berger also takes care of kickoffs. Michael Lewis (23.8 kickoff return avg., 1 TD, 11.2 punt return avg.) had a strong 2004 on special teams, and will probably hold off Az-Zahir Hakim and Aaron Stecker (26.1 kickoff return avg.) in keeping both jobs. PROGNOSIS: The Saints didn't drastically change the makeup of their team, with the club's quality play in the final month of 2004 leading them to tweak rather than overhaul. They addressed a few concerns along the offensive line, at linebacker, and in the secondary, but didn't grab any headlines by bringing in a marquee free agent or trading up for a skill position player. Like in the last four non-playoff seasons, New Orleans has talent. Whether Haslett can get all of that talent to show up on the same day will be the determining factor in the Saints' 2005 record, but anyone that has watched this team underachieve lately has to be pessimistic about that prospect. It is hard to imagine New Orleans outplaying both Atlanta and Carolina over the course of a 16-game season, and Tampa Bay isn't going to lay down for the Saints either. That means a third- or fourth-place finish appears imminent, and probably also means all that talent will be coached by someone else in 2006.


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