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iceshack149 05-25-2003 01:12 AM

Friday, May 23
Saints believe key to defense is improving speed

By Len Pasquarelli
With an offense that has combined for 765 points over the past two seasons, and which features a plethora of exciting, young playmakers, the New Orleans Saints have offered their opponents and their fans a graphic illustration of the old notion that speed skills.

Unfortunately, a defense that permitted 797 points over the same period, and collapsed in the stretch run of both the 2001 and 2002 campaigns, has demonstrated that a lack of speed can be murderous to a franchise's playoff aspirations.

Little wonder that much of the offseason has been devoted to revamping a unit that could have been dubbed The Big Uneasy, given its performances the past two years. Or that the defense could conceivably have as many as eight new full-time starters from the unit that opened the 2002 season.

The addition of Tebucky Jones should improve the Saints speed on defense.
"Improving our speed, that's been the focus for the offseason, no doubt about it," allowed coordinator Rick Venturi, who prefers an aggressive and attacking unit. "And you can see just in the (mini-camp) workouts how much faster we are to the football. We can get off blocks quicker now. In the draft, in free agency, the trade for (free safety) Tebucky Jones, we wanted more speed. And we got it."

With the decision to not re-sign incumbent starters like linebacker Charlie Clemons and strong safety Sammy Knight, the demotion of free safety Jay Bellamy and tackle Grady Jackson, along with the trade of tackle Norman Hand to Seattle, coach Jim Haslett sent a pretty obvious message. A quick fix for the defense, he essentially decided, would come from fixing it with quickness.

Playing in the same division as the Super Bowl champion Tampa Bay Bucs, a team that the Saints defeated twice last season, NFC South teams are frequently reminded that you don't necessarily have to be the biggest defense to be the best defense. New Orleans will not too closely mirror the Tampa Bay philosophy in 2003 -- Venturi will adapt many of his own principles, and the newfound speed should enhance them.

The addition of Jones from New England, and the elevation of Mel Mitchell to the No. 1 spot at strong safety, should add playmaking potential to the interior secondary. Having cornerback Dale Carter from the outset of the season, and the competition that Ashley Ambrose will provide Fred Thomas for the other starting spot, ought to also precipitate an upgrade there. If Ambrose ousts Thomas, the Saints could start an entirely new unit in the backside, at least from the one that began the 2002 season.

Haslett and general manager Mickey Loomis opted to deal a pair of first-round choices to move up in the opening stanza and, after bamboozling most observers into believing they would take a cornerback, selected defensive tackle Jonathan Sullivan instead. The former University of Georgia standout, provided his motor is revving, can be a disruptive force on the inside. Young veteran Kenny Smith has replaced Jackson, at least until the massive run-stuffer gets to his prescribed weight, well below his current 366 pounds.

At linebacker, second-year veteran James Allen finally gets the chance to start and the club added Orlando Ruff, a free agent from San Diego, to vie for Clemons' old spot manning the middle. Charles Grant, a first-rounder in 2002, becomes the full-time starter at left end now, and should be a double-digit sack threat.

It is, to be sure, a lot of turnover in a short period. The New York Jets, who changed six defensive starters in '02, and didn't really become a cohesive unit until midseason, found that out. Haslett and Venturi might, as well, but they still agree that lineup alterations had to be made.

In a league where offenses are moving into roadrunner mode, no one wants to be Wyle E. Coyote anymore, and the Saints' upgrade in speed will eventually benefit the franchise.

Around the league

This was a week that once again reminded league and team officials that the most dangerous time of the year is the preseason, when players' activities aren't monitored as closely, and when you can't baby-sit everyone. One of the NFL's most respected players and role models, Tennessee quarterback Steve McNair, was arrested for DUI and on gun possession charges. Minnesota Vikings tailback Michael Bennett had shots fired at his car in a late-night incident. On Thursday, in separate incidents, New York Giants defensive tackle Keith Hamilton and Green Bay Packers defensive end Joe Johnson were arrested on drug charges. Hamilton is already a two-time offender in the NFL's substance abuse policy and could face stiff sanctions if convicted. It would not be surprising, given his repeat offenses and the fact he is coming off an Achilles injury in 2002, if Hamilton is not back with the Giants for the coming season. The week began, though, with the most tragic of incidents, the death of the young son of Green Bay assistant coach Ray Sherman. Condolences to Sherman, one of the classiest guys you'll ever meet, and his family on the passing of "Ray-Ray," who we met years ago as a youngster.

One of the potential ramifications of the league choosing a former dump in Carson, Calif., as the site of a new stadium for the Los Angeles market, and one that was not discussed publicly at the owners meeting earlier this week, was the lawsuit that such a move might precipitate. No, not the one certain to be brought by litigious Oakland Raiders owner Al Davis, who must have the phone number of every prominent attorney on speed-dial and who already has a pending action against the NFL for the rights to a lucrative Los Angeles market. Nah, we mean the one John Moag, the investment banker who was the moving force in securing a franchise for Baltimore in 1996, might consider. Moag is spearheading the efforts for the other potential stadium site, advising Rose Bowl officials and Pasadena city fathers, counseling them on how they might lure a franchise to the historic stadium. And who brought Moag, who certainly has both clout and familiarity in NFL circles, and the Rose Bowl people together? Well, NFL officials, of course. The Rose Bowl has been dealing with the league for nearly 10 months now and Moag acknowledged earlier this week he was "blindsided" by the sudden infatuation with the Carson site, and a proposal some NFL owners consider the best deal available. So just how blindsided was Moag, and how upset might he be, assuming the Rose Bowl is not the choice of league owners? Well, Moag has invested his own time and money into the project and he only collects, to the tune of $5 million, if the Rose Bowl secures a team. Uh, the sound you'll hear in the background, if the Carson site is selected, might be that of legal briefs being prepared. Actually, the Rose Bowl folks might have nudged the NFL a step closer toward Carson with a power play destined for failure. They now want the league to enter into an exclusive negotiating period with them and agree to consummate an agreement within 60 days. If such an accommodation is not granted by next Tuesday, they contend, their offer will be rescinded.

He is probably still two months removed from being able to fully participate in on-field drills, but Kansas City general manager Carl Peterson and the agent for Priest Holmes reiterated strongly again this week that the Chiefs tailback will be recovered from his hip surgery when training camp commences. "Our doctors continue to tell us that he is on, or perhaps even ahead, of schedule," Peterson said. "And we've got a lot of faith in what the doctors say. At this point, from all indications, things are going well." Of course, even if Holmes is fully rehabilitated, it doesn't guarantee that the star back will be in camp on time. Holmes and agent Todd France have hinted at various junctures this offseason that they would like to revisit a contract that still has two years remaining on it. We're picking the Chiefs as a potential contender in 2003, given their offensive firepower and the anticipated improvement on defense, but all bets are off if Holmes in absent or infirm.

In an effort to add speed and playmaking skills to the position, St. Louis coordinator Lovie Smith has shaken up the linebacker corps again, and it appears the Rams will have a different starter in the middle for the third consecutive year. At their mini-camp last week, the Rams lined up with Robert Thomas, the club's first-round choice in the '02 draft, at middle linebacker. The former UCLA star played principally on the weak side as a rookie. Tommy Polley, who had a brilliant rookie campaign in 2001 but slumped badly last season, was at the weakside spot. And rookie Pisa Tinoisamoa, a second-round pick who many scouts assessed as a weakside player, lined up on the strong side. If the Rams stick with that trio, it will mean that Polley, entering his third season, is senior member of the starting linebacker corps. It will also magnify the mistake St. Louis made in allowing London Fletcher to escape to Buffalo via unrestricted free agency after the 2001 season. In reaction to Fletcher's departure, the Rams signed Jamie Duncan, with whom Smith was familiar from their days together with the Tampa Bay Bucs. But Duncan was really a non-factor for the Rams in 2002, was eventually benched, and doesn't appear to figure very prominently into the team's plans for 2003.

San Francisco officials insist they are not overly concerned about a lingering ankle injury that has slowed Jason Webster in the offseason, and which might require at least minor surgery, but the 49ers are shopping around for a veteran cornerback as an insurance policy. The team is thin at the position anyway, didn't select a corner in this year's draft, and wouldn't mind adding another experienced body before camp. The top possibility at this point is Fred Weary, a five-year veteran who played in Atlanta in 2002, and who has been a productive "nickel" cornerback in the past. The 49ers spoke to Weary's agent this week and, while there was no offer, they did express an interest. Certainly the options are slim at this point. There are plenty of safeties still trolling for jobs but the corner market has been picked over.

There are no overt indications yet that the Cincinnati Bengals plan to release Akili Smith after June 1 but, with top overall draft selection Carson Palmer working at the No. 2 spot behind Jon Kitna and the team talking about signing free agent Greg Zolman, the four-year veteran could be entering his final full week in tiger stripes. If that's the case, the Bengals will have made one of the worst investments in recent league history, a disastrous choice in the 1999 draft even by their standards. The third overall player selected in '99, behind Tim Couch and Donovan McNabb in a first round that included five quarterbacks, Smith has earned $12.09 million in bonuses and base salaries in four seasons. And for that, the Bengals have reaped this return: 22 appearances and 17 starts, 215 completions in 461 attempts, for 2,212 yards, with five touchdown passes, 13 interceptions and an efficiency rating of just 52.8. If the Bengals release Smith after June 1, and there is virtually no way the ax will fall before that, he will count $1.85 million against the team's 2003 cap and $3.086 million on the cap for 2004.

Less than thrilled with the performance of their safeties during a recent mini-camp, the Denver Broncos visited on Thursday with unrestricted free agent Lee Flowers, and it will not be too surprising if they sign the eight-year veteran sometime next month. The former Pittsburgh Steelers star, one of several veteran safeties still seeking work, impressed the Broncos brass and he would provide much needed experience to the secondary. A deal won't come, though, until the Broncos clear salary cap space, in large part by releasing quarterback Brian Griese after June 1.

Negotiations for first-round choices are slow at this point but word is that Jeff Moorad, the agent for wide receiver Andre Johnson, has already floated a proposal to the Houston Texans. The former Miami star was the third overall player chosen in the draft. Also, the negotiations between the New York Jets and defensive tackle Dewayne Robertson, the fourth player selected, should move into the substantive stage next week. There have been some discussions between agent Hadley Engelhard and Jets assistant general manager Mike Tannebaum, but nothing very specific yet. The two may speak over the Memorial Day weekend and, if there is progress, face-to-face bargaining could come next week.

Not surprisingly, quarterbacks continue to command the largest salaries in the league, and a recent NFL Players Association survey graphically displayed that point. According to the report, the average compensation for a quarterback in 2003, counting all contract components, is $1.651 million. The average for the other positions: defensive end, $1.111 million; linebacker, $1.005 million; defensive tackle, $970,306; offensive line, $913,301; cornerback, $882,586; safety, $840,926; wide receiver, $737,240; tight end, $657,801; and punter/kicker, $584,313.

Wide receiver Matthew Hatchette, the former Minnesota Vikings and Jets player, might just earn himself another shot in the league with his strong performance for the Amsterdam Admirals in the NFL Europe League this spring. Hatchette, 29, is older than most of the players currently on European rosters, but seems to have been humbled a bit by having to go overseas to resurrect his career, and looks hungry again. Hatchette is going aggressively after the ball, making his trademark acrobatic grabs, and leads the NFL Europe League in every significant pass-catching category. Entering the weekend's games, he has 45 catches for 545 yards and five touchdowns. A few other free agents (non-allocated players) in Europe who might get into an NFL camp this summer: corner and return man Jordan Younger of Amsterdam, Rhein Fire offensive tackle Dave Pruce and Barcelona cornerback Antuan Simmons.

Punts: With the aforementioned off-field problems confronting Keith Hamilton, the Giants appear fortunate to have chosen University of Miami defensive tackle William Joseph in the first round of this year's draft. In fact, had Joseph not been on the board, New York would have seriously considered taking Clemson defensive tackle Nick Eason. … The Giants will also certainly release offensive lineman Dusty Zeigler, who has not recovered from "microfracture surgery on his right knee and cannot yet pass a team physical exam, after June 1. … Former player agent William "Tank" Black, alleged to have bilked players out of millions of dollars, has an appeal hearing coming in June, has confirmed. Several of the players who lost money in an automobile title business in which Black invested their money, are set to recoup 60-70 percent of their losses. … A few veteran offensive linemen are grumbling in Dallas that Bill Parcells has made it mandatory they wear knee braces. It is a longtime policy for Parcells, however, and he isn't going to alter it now. … Second-year quarterback David Garrard has opened some eyes in Jacksonville offseason workouts. A fourth-round choice in 2002, and a guy who struggled as a rookie, Garrard has thrown the ball well and demonstrated a much better mental feel for the game. … At this point of the offseason, Michael Wiley appears to be a more worthy successor to Emmitt Smith in Dallas than does Troy Hambrick. The latter is overweight and looks more like the heir unapparent.

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