NFC South: Hollis Thomas
Pat Yasinskas: We all know John Fox isn’t going to reveal anything about strategy before he has to, so we won’t really know until we see the Panthers in training camp. But I wouldn’t be at all surprised to see Goodson get some time in the slot. I think we’re going to see more use of the slot receiver by the Carolina Panthers than we have in recent years. The Panthers are aware they need more production from receivers other than Steve Smith and using the slot guy more would be one way to achieve that.
Ray in Norfolk, Va., writes: All the talk about Brandon Marshall being available for a trade; the Bucs have 11 picks in the draft. Couldn't they package something together for Marshall? One of our 2nd rounders and a future pick? A 2nd rounder and a 5th rounder and a future pick or player? I just don't hear anyone talking about the Bucs as an option that needs a receiver.
Pat Yasinskas: I think it’s painfully obvious the Tampa Bay Buccaneers need help at receiver. But, you are right that their name hasn’t come up in connection with any of the Marshall stuff. Maybe that will change as we get closer to the draft. But, so far, there are no indications the Bucs are interested. Why not? I can only guess that the cost (both salary and what they’d have to give up in a trade) is more than the Bucs want to give and they may be hesitant to take on the baggage that comes with Marshall.
Micky in Leitchfield, Ky., writes: Love your coverage of the NFC South. I have a question- what is the deal with Atlanta pampering Jamaal Anderson? The guy has 2.5 sacks in three seasons and anyone else would have cut him long ago.
Pat Yasinskas: A very valid question. If the salary cap was in place this year, Anderson might be gone. But the uncapped season might be a big reason why the Atlanta Falcons are keeping around a former first-round pick that never really has produced. There still is talent there, but I don’t think the Falcons are counting on the light suddenly going on. In fact, I think there’s a chance they might be giving Anderson one last training camp to show something. If he doesn’t, he could be gone.
Jane in Chapel Hill, N.C., writes: There was a lot of talk at the end of the season about the Saints losing Gregg Williams in the offseason. Is that still a threat?
Pat Yasinskas: Not right now. The talk was about Williams possibly getting a head coaching job. That didn’t happen, so it looks like he’ll be with the New Orleans Saints for at least another year.
Nathan in Cary, N.C., writes: I see that there have been Panthers fans pulling for a switch to the 3-4, but I could not disagree more. First off, the defense was actually pretty good last year after they brought in Hollis Thomas, who is far from a stud DT. Secondly, their personnel is not geared for a 3-4. At all. Both Jon Beason and Thomas Davis - now the 2 best defensive players - are too small to play in a 3-4, and would not be able to separate well from offensive guards. Or gain 15-20 pounds. Most of their ends are way to small to play the 3-4 as an end, and Brown was ruled as too stiff to play the rush OLB in the 3-4 (he cannot drop into coverage, ever). I know the grass is always greener, but a switch to the 3-4 would be an absolute disaster for the Panthers.
Pat Yasinskas: I’m with you on that. It would be a disaster for all the reasons you state. Plus, why would anyone think John Fox, who is a total creature of habit, would make a dramatic move like this?
Russell in Spartanburg, S.C., writes: Can you please give me some explanation as to why Carolina is so apparently disinterested in free agency when the team has so many obvious holes? It seems like every time a legitimate free agent appears on the radar it is reported that the Panthers are not interested. It’s frustrating. (Examples: DE Alex Brown, QB Jason Campbell, QB Derek Anderson, the list goes on).
Pat Yasinskas: This year, in particular, it’s money. Owner Jerry Richardson is very concerned about the labor uncertainty and he’s not giving out big contracts. But this course of action really isn’t anything new in Carolina. The Panthers didn’t sign a single unrestricted free agent last year. They haven’t been major players in free agency for quite some time. They’ve been a team that believes in building through the draft. Their last major plunge into free agency came the year they signed cornerback Ken Lucas and guard Mike Wahle. Those moves gave them a short-term boost, but neither player stayed with the Panthers for very long. Part of the reason for that was there were a lot of unhappy players in the locker room who wondered where their money was when Lucas and Wahle were getting so much.
They signed street free agent Ed Johnson on Wednesday, according to our John Clayton. Johnson is just a guy and there’s no guarantee he’ll even make the team. He started 16 games for the Colts as an undrafted rookie in 2007. After that, he became a part-time player and bounced off and on the Indianapolis roster the last two seasons. He also spent his first two seasons with Carolina defensive coordinator Ron Meeks.
Not exactly a fancy résumé, but it gives the Panthers some potential depth at defensive tackle. That’s a good thing because a lack of depth at that position was a major reason why the Panthers went 8-8 last season.
On the first day of training camp, it became painfully obvious they had no depth there once Maake Kemoeatu went down with a season-ending injury. They tried plugging in a whole bunch of different guys next to Damione Lewis before arranging a work-release deal with a nursing home to get the ancient Hollis Thomas, who actually came in and played pretty well.
Kemoeatu appears to be progressing with his recovery and that’s good news. Kemoeatu is a very average player, but the Panthers need his size in the middle. And they need depth behind him. At least this year, they’re starting to build it.
Some are pretty conventional and some are not, but put them all together and, hopefully, you’ll have a comprehensive review of the season.
Most Valuable Player: Drew Brees, Saints. Do I really have to explain? Let’s save time and move on.
Most Valuable Player not named Brees and not with the Saints: Jon Beason, Panthers. Consistently excellent. Should have been named to the Pro Bowl. Best player on the division’s best defense.
Rookie of the Year: Thomas Morstead, Saints. Yes, I’m going with a punter and it’s not because the pickings are slim. There were some other decent options. But Morstead was so good punting and on kickoffs that he earned this award.
Best win: The Saints steamrolling the Patriots on Monday night. If the Saints play like that in the postseason, they’ll win the Super Bowl. That said, I’m a little concerned that the Saints might already have played their best game.
Worst loss: Carolina’s 20-9 home loss to Buffalo. The Panthers had a chance to get to 3-3 after an 0-3 start. They had one of the worst teams in the league coming into Bank of America Stadium. They didn’t just lose. They got embarrassed. Think about what might have happened if they just had been able to win that game?
Worst injury: You could see right away that Atlanta rookie defensive tackle Peria Jerry was going to be an impact player. He was making everybody around him look better. Problem is, Jerry went down with a knee injury on Sept. 20 and missed the rest of the season. You instantly could see the rest of Atlanta’s defensive line start to slide.
Best injury: The leg injury that New Orleans linebacker Dan Morgan suffered in minicamp. It wasn’t major, but it was enough to prompt the star-crossed Morgan to retire for the second time. Sure, it’s a shame that he missed out on being part of what became a very fun season in New Orleans and a healthy Morgan truly might have prospered on that defense. But Morgan made the right call in walking away. The guy put his body through too much and had some concussion issues in his Carolina days. He’s got a family and his health is more important than football.
Posted by ESPN.com’s Pat Yasinskas
Power Rankings: Preseason: 14. This week: 21.
|AP Photo/Donna McWilliam|
|Losing linebacker Thomas Davis was a huge blow to the Carolina defense.|
Disappointments: You have to start with Delhomme, but don’t put the blame entirely on him. He gave off warning signs late last season and in a disastrous playoff loss to Arizona. Carolina fans saw there was a need to do something at quarterback. But the coaching staff and the front office didn’t and they’re paying for it now. Delhomme’s been a turnover machine, but some of the blame should go to the coaching staff for asking him to go out and win games on his own after he’s been nothing more than a game-manager his entire career. Delhomme’s struggles have taken a massive toll on wide receiver Steve Smith. I still say Smith is more talented than any receiver in the NFC South, but his numbers don’t show it because the Panthers haven’t been able to get him the ball consistently. Then there’s fellow receiver Dwayne Jarrett. This was supposed to be the year he finally emerged as the second coming of Muhsin Muhammad. Instead, he’s proved he’s the second coming of Keary Colbert. Oh, and that offensive line, which was supposed to be a strong point, hasn’t been.
Surprises: Safety/return man Captain Munnerlyn has shown much more than a seventh-round draft pick should. After going through about 35 defensive tackles after Kemoeatu’s injury, the Panthers finally found a suitable replacement when they picked up veteran Hollis Thomas a few weeks back. Carolina’s pass defense has carried a top-10 ranking all season. That’s great. But I can’t help but wonder if that has more to do with other teams getting ahead and running on them than it does with anything the secondary has done.
Outlook: There’s still time to climb back into this race, and the Panthers have a lot of individual talent. Also, you should never count out a team coached by John Fox. But an improvement is unlikely if there aren’t some dramatic changes in the second half. They haven’t shown many signs they’re improving and the schedule isn’t easy. Unless the running game can get back to being dominant, Delhomme can get back to being competent, Smith can get back to being one of the league’s most explosive players and the defense gets back to looking like a Fox-coached defense, this team might not be coached by Fox anymore. This season began with playoff expectations. Anything less probably won’t be good enough.
The Carolina Panthers, a team usually very hesitant to make trades, has made one. It’s a desperation effort to solidify the middle of their patchwork defensive line and, by extension, help the rest of a struggling defense.
Carolina’s deal with Kansas City for defensive tackle Tank Tyler, comes before tomorrow’s trading deadline. Tyler, a North Carolina State product, was in his third season with the Chiefs. Not known as a pass-rusher (Tyler doesn’t have a career sack), he has played the run well. The Panthers parted with a fifth-round draft pick in 2010 to get Tyler.
He had 41 tackles while starting all 16 games last season and has 22 tackles so far this season.
The Panthers have struggled to find a decent replacement since Maake Kemoeatu went down with a season-ending injury on the first day of training camp. They’ve gone through other injuries at the position and tried several candidates that haven’t worked out.
Nick Hayden has been starting in Kemoeatu’s place next to Damione Lewis. It’s likely Tyler will step right in as no worse than the third member of the rotation and could challenge for a starting job before long. The Panthers also have recently added veteran Hollis Thomas, another run-stuffer.
The Carolina Panthers are the final stop in our Saturday series of team-by-team mailbags.
JP in Yadkinville, N.C., writes: Pat, I need some hope as a Panthers fan ... Can Hollis Thomas catch lighting in a bottle and stop the run? One more... do you think Ron Meeks gets more aggressive with the safeties assuming Chris Harris plays?
Pat Yasinskas: I thought the pickup of defensive tackle Hollis Thomas was a good move. This guy was a quality player before running into injury problems with the Saints last year. I’m not saying he’s going to come in and carry the Panthers to a Super Bowl. Fact is, he’s 35 and isn’t an every-down player. But he can at least help the run defense just by taking up space on the field. That’s something the Panthers have lacked since Maake Kemoeatu went down with an injury on the first day of training camp.
John in Spartanburg, SC writes: What do you think will happen to this team if by some chance the Fox pulls this out (8-8 or better)? Will he still be booted due to his inability to post consecutive winning seasons?
Pat Yasinskas: My personal opinion is that John Fox needs a winning season and a playoff berth to keep his job. I think there’s a growing impatience with ownership. Fox got a free pass in 2007 when quarterback Jake Delhomme went down with an injury. You don’t get a free pass just because Kemoeatu went down this year. This team still has tons of talent and it’s not showing up right now.
Kevin in Durham writes: Do you think Beason "calling out" Peppers will have a positive or negative effect on the team?
Pat Yasinskas: Can’t hurt. My first reaction was that Julius Peppers would disappear because that’s what he did after Jerry Richardson called him out in 2007. But then I thought about it and decided Peppers can’t really disappear much more than he has so far this season. Jon Beason’s comments might spark him. Beason’s probably the only guy in the locker room with the respect and influence to do this and make it work.
Greg in South Riding, Va., writes: Tell it to me straight so that if my worst fears are valid I can begin the grieving process. Do you think that it is a real possibility that some of Carolina's best players, like Jon Beason or Steve Smith, could be so fed up after this season that they would leave?
Pat Yasinskas: Well, a lot’s going to depend on how the rest of the year plays out. Beason and Smith are both proud and they’re competitors. I don’t imagine either will be happy if things continue the way they are. But they both remain under contract to the team. They could always ask out, but the Panthers -- no matter who’s running the show -- would be very hesitant to let their two best players go. If things continue to go downhill, I think that would lead to a coaching change and the Panthers would look to bring in someone who would inspire Smith, Beason and the rest of the roster.
Posted by ESPN.com staff
- As the Falcons returned from their bye week Monday, one of their top priorities was improving their disappointing running game.
- Jerious Norwood, who has suffered three concussions in his four years in the league -- including two this year -- said possible future concerns are "something to think about, but I'm playing ball right now."
- Off to a o-3 start and coming off of their bye week, the Panthers are ready to start their season afresh.
- Carolina hopes that newly signed Hollis Thomas can man the nose tackle position, which the team has struggled to fill since losing Maake Kemoeatu for the season in training camp.
- The defense's dramatic turnaround under Gregg Williams is drawing accolades.
- Some observers may be surprised by the Saints' fast start, but the players say they expected it.
Posted by ESPN.com’s Pat Yasinskas
A look at the Carolina Panthers in their bye week:
What they’ve accomplished: Not very much. They’re 0-3 and everyone from coach John Fox to quarterback Jake Delhomme is on the hot seat. The Panthers spent all offseason talking about how they had 21 of 22 starters back from a playoff team. They haven’t looked anything like last year’s team. Linebacker Thomas Davis has been a bright spot, but that’s it. Delhomme got off to a horrible start, the offense has been non-functional and new defensive coordinator Ron Meeks hasn’t brought any improvement.
What’s ahead: On talent alone, it’s hard to write this team off after just three losses. And a rebound seems very possible with home games against Washington and Buffalo and a road trip to Tampa Bay after the bye. The Panthers are using their bye to try to get their defense healthy, and they finally added a wide-body defensive tackle in Hollis Thomas. Delhomme has been better the past two games than in the opener, so it’s not impossible for this team to suddenly catch its footing.
Realistic outcome: As easy as the next three games may look, don’t get too carried away with hopes for recovery because the Panthers have dug a deep hole. There’s not much margin for error and there’s little reason from what we’ve seen so far to think the Panthers can even get back to where a margin for error would matter. The offense can’t move the ball on the ground and the defense can’t stop anybody. Those are the two things a Fox team is supposed to be able to do with ease. If this continues, this won’t be Fox’s team much longer.
Posted by ESPN.com’s Pat Yasinskas
It’s coming about two months too late, but the Panthers finally have added the wide body they’ve been missing since Maake Kemoeatu went down with an injury on the first day of training camp.
Charles Chandler reports the Panthers have signed veteran defensive tackle Hollis Thomas and have release Ra’Shon Harris. At 340 pounds, Thomas gives the Panthers the run-stuffing presence they’ve been missing since Kemoeatu went down.
Thomas is nearing the end of his career and won’t be able to play every down, but he’s about 40 pounds heavier than the rest of Carolina’s defensive tackles. The Panthers should have found someone of Thomas’ size as soon as Kemoeatu was injured. Instead, they’ve been starting Nick Hayden and Damione Lewis at defensive tackle and that’s left them susceptible to the run.
Posted by ESPN.com's Pat Yasinskas
The release comes a day after the Saints let Brian Young go. This could just be a routine post-draft cleaning process because Young and Thomas were aging and have had some injury problems. They've got plenty at defensive tackle with Sedrick Ellis, Kendrick Clancy, Rod Coleman and DeMario Pressley.
But it also makes you wonder if the Saints, who no longer have to pay Thomas the $1.4 million he was supposed to make this season, are up to something? Edgerrin James is out there and the Saints still could use a power runner.
Posted by ESPN.com's Pat Yasinskas
Rather quietly, the Saints have parted ways with veteran defensive tackle Brian Young. The team hasn't announced the move, but it passed through the league office Monday afternoon.
Young's release saves the Saints a little more than $3 million in salary-cap room. Young, who like the rest of the team's defensive tackles had injury problems last year, was expendable because the team previously signed veteran Rod Coleman and has a bunch of young defensive tackles.
Second-year pro Sedrick Ellis is the guy the Saints want to build their defensive line around and the other starting spot will be determined in camp. Coleman is likely to be a situational player and the Saints will let Kendrick Clancy, Hollis Thomas and DeMario Pressley compete for the other starting job.
Posted by ESPN.com's Pat Yasinskas
Despite limited salary-cap space, the Saints continue to be active in free agency.
Mike Triplett reports the Saints are interested in defensive lineman Paul Spicer and center Nick Lickey. They also had defensive lineman Shaun Cody in for a visit last week. Spicer can play end or tackle and Cody is an interior lineman. Pursuing them shows the Saints are looking for insurance in case starting ends Charles Grant and Will Smith have to serve suspensions at the start of the season, after reportedly testing positive for a banned substance last year. Spicer also has a history with new defensive coordinator Gregg Williams. The two were together in Jacksonville last season.
Third end Bobby McCray and Spicer could be suitable starters for a four-game stint and Spicer's versatility could help the rest of the line the rest of the season. Cody could be viewed as an upgrade over Antwan Lake, who is a free agent and the Saints could consider releasing Hollis Thomas or Brian Young if they sign Cody.
It looks like the Saints are working to shore up their needs before the draft. If they make moves on the defensive line before then, it appears there would be only one glaring need to address with the 14th overall pick. That's the defensive backfield, where Malcolm Jenkins could be a prime target. Jenkins is a cornerback, who some project as a safety.
New Orleans' biggest need is at free safety and the Saints could consider moving Jenkins or cornerbacks Usama Young or Mike McKenzie there. They've also visited with free-agent safety Darren Sharper. He remains a possibility, but no deal appears imminent.
|Can Drew Brees or Matt Schaub take the next step and lead his team to the playoffs?|
Posted by ESPN.com's Pat Yasinskas and Paul Kuharsky
The New Orleans Saints and Houston Texans each finished 8-8 in 2008. Looking back, breaking even was a remarkable accomplishment given the extreme circumstances each team endured.
After Oct. 12, 2008, the Saints did not play another game in the Superdome until Nov. 24, thanks in part to their international game in London and a bye week. They somehow managed to split the four games during that span.
The Texans began last season 0-4, including a devastating Week 5 home loss to the Indianapolis Colts that featured Houston squandering a 17-point fourth-quarter lead.
Each team produced a great salvage job. Which is primed to take the next step to being a contender?
In this edition of Double Coverage, NFC South blogger Pat Yasinskas and AFC South blogger Paul Kuharsky discuss what each team needs to do to break the .500 barrier and make a run to the playoffs.
|Check out highlights of the best moments from Drew Brees in 2008.|
THE QUARTERBACK FACTOR
Kuharsky: Well, Pat, topflight quarterback play is always a good first ingredient in a big jump for a team. I'm not going to suggest Matt Schaub is going to be better than Drew Brees in 2009. But if he cuts down on turnovers, Schaub can make a major leap and the Texans can be a playoff-caliber team. He's got one of the NFL's best receivers in Andre Johnson and they've established one of those special relationships. His offense ran the ball far better last season thanks to the new scheme of offensive line coach Alex Gibbs and the emergence of running back Steve Slaton. The offseason focus is on improving the defense -- which already has added free-agent end Antonio Smith. If Houston plays more aggressively and better defense under new coordinator Richard Bush, Schaub and the Texans' offense could feel less pressure. All those circumstances suggest to me, if he can stay healthy, Schaub is in prime position to help the Texans score more points per game. And if they tack some onto the 22.9 points per game they averaged in 2008, they've got an excellent shot at improving on 8-8 and making the playoffs.
Yasinskas: Paul, I like Matt Schaub, too, and I think the Texans can win with him. But Brees was the best quarterback in the league last season. He threw for more than 5,000 yards even though top receiver Marques Colston missed a big chunk of time with an injury and tight end Jeremy Shockey was banged up most of the season. Brees was spectacular with a very ordinary supporting cast around him and not much of a running game. He made receiver Lance Moore into a star and made former disappointment Devery Henderson into a respectable receiver. Brees is an absolutely perfect fit in Sean Payton's offense and I expect him to be even better in 2009. With a healthy Colston and Shockey, Brees could put up astronomical numbers. There's also a sense of urgency within the organization because the coaches and front office realize Brees is in the prime of his career and the Saints don't want to waste that with another mediocre season. Brees single-handedly carried the Saints to eight wins last year. With just a little more help around him, he should be able to lead the Saints to double-digit wins.
Kuharsky: Two seasons ago, the AFC South sent three teams into the AFC playoff field. For the Texans to make their first postseason appearance, the division might have to send three again, because the Titans and Colts are going to have a lot of the same ingredients they had last season. What suggests the Texans can join those teams or pass one? Well, the AFC South plays the NFC West in 2009. While Arizona was a great story last season and one can never accurately predict teams' success from one year to the next anymore, I think if every team in the league could pick one division to play this fall, it would love to have the Cards, 49ers, Seahawks and Rams on its schedule. Say the Texans go 3-1 against those teams, manage 2-2 against the AFC East and sweep the two games assigned based on their third-place division finish in 2009, Oakland and Cincinnati. That's seven wins. If they could pull off just 3-3 in their division, where they have historically done great against Jacksonville but horribly against Indianapolis and Tennessee, they're 10-6 and in range of a playoff berth, I think. Last season's late win over the Titans could serve as a catapult for them in divisional play.
Yasinskas: The most certain thing I can say about the Saints right now is that their 2009 schedule won't be anywhere near as difficult as it was in 2008. That's when the Saints drew the most brutal schedule any NFL team has had in recent memory. The Saints had to spend much of the year on the road, practicing for a week in Indianapolis to avoid an approaching hurricane. But that was the easy part. The Saints had a stretch where they went 42 days without playing in the Superdome as a "home" game in London and a bye week were surrounded by road games. To their credit, the Saints never pointed to the schedule as an excuse. But the fact is they were at a competitive disadvantage that no other team had to deal with. We haven't seen the exact schedule yet, but the Saints don't have an international game this year and it's safe to assume they won't have any stretch that compares to last year. But the Saints have to play better against the rest of the NFC South. They were 2-4 in division play last year and were the only NFC South team with a losing record against division foes.
|Paul Spinelli/Getty Images|
|Mario Williams is just one of many young, up-and-coming defenders on the Texans.|
Kuharsky: The nicest NFL breakout stories are about teams that pieced themselves together relying largely on the draft. It's great to see a young group mature together, gaining confidence and feeding off it. The Texans have the right sort of characters to fit that script. They traded for Schaub, of course, but he'll be just 28 when camp opens. He's throwing to Johnson (also 28) and tight end Owen Daniels (26), handing off to Slaton (23), and enjoying protection on the edges from Duane Brown (23) and Eric Winston (25). The defense is built around Mario Williams, DeMeco Ryans, Smith, Dunta Robinson and Amobi Okoye. Robinson and Smith are currently the old men of that group at 27. It's possible all 11 guys of that core have not yet played their best football -- a great reason to be encouraged. And they've got draft help coming on defense.
Yasinskas: The Saints aren't a team you usually think of as being young. But, in a unique way, they've got a youth movement going on. They have only four picks in the 2009 draft at the moment, but it's almost like they've got another rookie class. Several rookies missed all or most of last season because of injuries. In particular, the Saints believe cornerback Tracy Porter and receiver Adrian Arrington can be very valuable players. Throw in the fact that Reggie Bush, Colston, Pierre Thomas and Sedrick Ellis are still young and the Saints have some youthful players who should continue to get better. But they've also got a nice mix of veterans. They've got guys like Brees, Jonathan Vilma and Dan Morgan as leaders who have won some big games in their careers. The Saints aren't relying heavily on many old guys -- defensive tackle Hollis Thomas and cornerback Mike McKenzie might be just role players. This is a team made up mostly of guys who are young or are in their prime and that's a nice combination to have.
THE CHANGES IN DEFENSIVE COORDINATORS
Yasinskas: I sincerely believe the best and most important move the Saints made this offseason was the hiring of defensive coordinator Gregg Williams. Gary Gibbs took the fall for last season and was fired. You can't put all the blame on Gibbs because the defense was decimated by injuries. But the defense was nothing short of horrible and it was the main reason the Saints didn't make the playoffs. Payton recognized that and went out and got the best defensive coordinator available. Williams likes to play very aggressive defense and that's something the Saints haven't done in a long time. Williams is intense and he might be able to light a fire under defensive ends Charles Grant and Will Smith. The return of a lot of injured players also should help and the Saints got linebacker Morgan back from retirement and signed cornerback Jabari Greer. This defense doesn't have to be great because the offense is. Williams just needs to get this defense to be average and the Saints will have a shot to go deep into the playoffs.
Kuharsky: Compared to Williams, we know nothing about Frank Bush, the Texans' new defensive coordinator. He's been part of Gary Kubiak's staff since 2007 and a lot of Texans faithful, fairly or not, really like one thing about him already: He's not Richard Smith. Though Houston made some progress in the latter part of the season when it turned more aggressive, the defense didn't come close to matching the offense in 2008. That needs to change in 2009 and it can if Bush can stamp the group with a defensive identity. Indications are the Texans will move toward making that late-season aggression more permanent. The big addition in free agency came on defense, and Antonio Smith can be a load to handle playing end opposite Mario Williams. Bush is going to get a personnel boost from the draft to help him try -- likely in the form of a linebacker, a tackle and a safety. Can Bush get the group believing and producing? Much like you say, Pat, with the Saints -- the Texans don't have to be one of the league's top defenses. If they move from 22nd to the mid or early teens and if they can knock some points off the average of 25 they allowed last year, that should be a sufficient boost for a team that should be offense-driven.
|Matt Stamey/US Presswire|
|The Saints haven't been able to figure out exactly how to use Reggie Bush's unique talents.|
Yasinskas: For a small-market team, the Saints have an awful lot of star power. But it would help if all those stars played up to their ability level on a consistent basis. Brees was outstanding all last season and Vilma was very solid. But Shockey, Reggie Bush and Colston weren't able to match their hype for various reasons. The Saints have to get their stars playing like stars again. For Colston, that's just a matter of being healthy. Shockey was banged up almost all of last year, but still has the talent to be one of the league's best tight ends. Then, there's the curious case of Reggie Bush. If he hadn't been such a great college player and such a high draft pick, he'd be considered a decent player. But decent doesn't cut it for him. He's supposed to be spectacular all the time and the Saints haven't done him a lot of favors. They've never been able to figure out exactly how to use his unique talents. Payton is
widely credited with being a brilliant offensive mind. But he needs to focus all his thoughts on getting more out of Reggie Bush. If he ever comes close to being what he was in college, he'll be the biggest star New Orleans ever has seen.
Kuharsky: The Texans are a young team, but several of their guys have been around long enough to establish themselves as premier talents. Andre Johnson doesn't do popcorn stunts and doesn't make brash demands about how often the ball needs to come his direction. But he sets a standard for the franchise and everyone knows they can look to him to see how things should be done. Mario Williams is quiet, too, and he's won over all the Houstonians who wanted Reggie Bush or Vince Young at the top of the 2006 draft. With those two cornerstones, the Texans have the kind of star power a team needs -- not for a fancy marketing campaign or happy stories on "SportsCenter," but as tone-setters who show the other 52 guys that the work ethic, tone and philosophy of the organization can produce names that rank with the best in the league at their positions.
Yasinskas: The Saints didn't come close to ending last season on a high note, mainly because they finished with almost 20 guys on the injured reserve list. They never were able to build any momentum. They'd play well one game and horribly the next. That's a problem that has to be fixed next season. What the Saints need more than anything is a fresh start. They need to forget last season's brutal travel schedule and welcome back all the injured guys who are healthy now. Just getting the bulk of those guys back should be a nice shot in the arm.
Kuharsky: The Texans excel at winning at the end of the season. In 2007 they finished 3-1 to get to 8-8 and last year it was a big 5-1 push that got them to .500. That's nice momentum to carry into an offseason. But the team knows the question that now comes attached: Those good finishes are nice, but they came once it was apparent the team wasn't going to the postseason. Now Houston has to fare well enough in the first couple months of a season to earn a chance to show it can win late games that are more meaningful.
Kuharsky: Are the Texans better suited to build on 8-8 and be a playoff team in 2009 than the Saints, who are only two years removed from the conference championship game? It's too early to say. I picked the Saints to be in Super Bowl XXLIII, so I am wary of them. But I'd have to give them the edge right now based on two more proven commodities in Brees and Gregg Williams. I'd sure like to sit next to you at Reliant Stadium or in the Superdome to watch them play each other, though. It could well be a 38-37 game.
Yasinskas: Paul, I think the Texans have the potential for a breakthrough year. But I think the Saints will have a breakthrough year. They had an incredible run of bad luck last season, but they've got a ton of talent in place and they've made the moves they had to make to get their defense better. I'll go out on a limb and say the Saints make the playoffs in 2009.
|AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis|
|New Orleans Saints general manager Mickey Loomis, left, and coach Sean Payton are outperforming their NFC South counterparts this offseason.|
Posted by ESPN.com's Pat Yasinskas
Very quietly, the New Orleans Saints might be having the best offseason of any NFC South team.
A back-handed compliment? Maybe so, since Carolina and Atlanta have done virtually nothing and Tampa Bay might have taken a couple of steps back. But give the Saints, who finished last in the division in 2008, credit for one thing.
At this moment, the Saints are a better team than they were at the end of last season. That's more than you can say about the Falcons, Panthers and Buccaneers. Maybe that changes with the remainder of free agency and the April draft, but the Saints, who went 8-8 last season, clearly have taken a step forward.
They've made only a couple outside moves in free agency, but add in a stroke of luck, some time to heal and an overhaul of the defensive coaching staff and you've got a team that -- at least on paper -- is a serious playoff contender.
General manager Mickey Loomis and coach Sean Payton went for broke last year, trading for linebacker Jonathan Vilma and tight end Jeremy Shockey and it got them nowhere. This year, they're taking a slower approach -- mainly because of a shortage of salary-cap space -- and that might just be the formula to snap the Saints out of two years of mediocrity.
Start with the two free-agent signings the Saints have made. They brought in fullback Heath Evans from New England to replace Mike Karney. It may not seem like much, but it could make an offense that already was very good even better. Karney was the perfect fullback for a power-running game, but the Saints don't have a power-running game.
Evans can block a little bit, but he also can run the ball and catch some passes. Maybe he can pick up some of those short-yardage gains the Saints couldn't come up with last year. And there's still the possibility the Saints will add a bigger tailback to go with Pierre Thomas and Reggie Bush.
Other than that, the Saints are loaded on offense -- again. Offense has never been much of a problem since Payton and quarterback Drew Brees arrived in 2006.
But the defense has been a recurring problem and this may be the year the Saints finally fix that. This is where the other free-agent signing comes in. The Saints signed cornerback Jabari Greer on Thursday.
That might not sound like a big deal. Greer came into the league as an undrafted free agent, but there's a reason why he drew a lot of interest on the market (Tampa Bay also was very much in the running for Greer) and why the Saints are going to pay him $23 million over four years.
Greer has always had outstanding natural speed and he made himself into a legitimate player, holding down a starting spot in Buffalo much of the last two seasons. Greer is a player on the rise, which is more than can be said for veterans Mike McKenzie and Aaron Glenn, who the Saints had to rely on too much last season.
Pair Greer with Tracy Porter, who looked promising before suffering a season-ending injury midway through his rookie year, and the Saints suddenly could be set at cornerback. They're still looking for help at safety and have had Darren Sharper and Gerald Sensabaugh in for visits in recent days. Either or both could help solidify the secondary and the rest of the defense might not be as bad as you think.
Part of that could be because the Saints got lucky when linebacker Dan Morgan decided to end his one-season retirement and re-join the Saints. You have to cross your fingers here because Morgan's long history of injuries have plagued his career.
But Morgan says he's healthier now than at any point since he came to the NFL and that's a reason for hope. When Morgan's been healthy, he's been one of the best linebackers in the league. Put him on the weak side and you've suddenly got a play-maker to go with Vilma in the middle. Let veterans Scott Fujita and Scott Shanle handle the other side and -- knock on wood that Morgan stays healthy -- the Saints could have an above-average linebacker corps.
The same could be said for the defensive line.
Injuries were a huge problem here last season. Tackles Hollis Thomas, Sedrick Ellis and Antwan Lake and ends Charles Grant and Will Smith all were banged up at one time or another. But they're healthy now.
There's been plenty of talent on this defense the last couple years, but the unit underachieved under coordinator Gary Gibbs. That's why Gibbs was fired after last season and why the Saints went out and hired Gregg Williams, who was considered one of the game's best defensive minds a few years back.
Williams' reputation took a bit of a hit with stints in Washington and Jacksonville that didn't result in success. But coming to New Orleans might be a shot at redemption for Williams.
In a lot of ways, this might be a perfect fit. Williams is known as an old-school coach who likes to play very aggressive defense. The Saints haven't been very physical on defense in recent years.
But it's time for a change. Guys like Smith and Grant have been viewed as underachievers, but they're also guys with lots of talent. Maybe Williams can pull that out of them and pull this defense together.
There's no miracle needed here. The Saints already have a great offense and they're going to score plenty of points.
All they need is a defense that's somewhere around average and the Saints could be very good.
Posted by ESPN.com's Pat Yasinskas
When the Saints signed defensive end Bobby McCray in the offseason, they viewed him as a starter.
McCray didn't start any of the first eight games, but he's now a starter. With Charles Grant going on the injured reserve list with a triceps injury, McCray automatically becomes the starter opposite Will Smith.
McCray's played well as the third defensive end and has three sacks. But his playing time is going to increase and it should be interesting to see how he fares. McCray's strength is as a pass-rusher and he had 10 sacks for Jacksonville in 2006. McCray's not known as a run stopper, but he may generate more pressure on quarterbacks than Grant.
The Saints did make another move that could help their run defense, re-signing defensive tackle Hollis Thomas. He went down with an injury just before the start of the season and could immediately step into the defensive line rotation.