NFC South: Thomas Morestead
METAIRIE, La. -- As the New Orleans Saints finished their first camp practice Friday morning, defensive coordinator Gregg Williams, a man known for holding back nothing on or off the field, unloaded. He wanted to get something off his chest. Heck, out of his body, out of his mouth and out into the open.
Without ever really being asked anything that would prompt the issue, Williams started talking about why the Saints can repeat as Super Bowl champions. He’s tired of hearing the reasons they can’t and the repeated reminders that the follow-up season hasn’t been good to many Super Bowl teams in recent history.
“I keep on hearing you guys talk about this Super Bowl hangover and it’s starting to chafe me a little bit,’’ Williams said. “It really is and I’m being real honest. The reason being is, if you could see behind the scenes of our offseason program from April 19 and to see every single practice we’ve had, I don’t have any qualms about the way our defense is because all they did was show up with more hunger, more fire, wanted me to be a bigger jerk and get on their (butt) more. They begged for me to get on their (butt) more. So far, I’ve seen nothing that would indicate that we can’t make another run at this.’’
Williams may be one of the organization’s more vocal figures, but you quickly get the feeling he’s not alone on this idea. Sure, the Saints spent a good portion of the offseason celebrating the first Super Bowl title in franchise history. Sure, recent history is stacked against them. No team has repeated since the 2004 Patriots.
Confidence -- some even have suggested arrogance -- was a big part of the reason the Saints won the Super Bowl last season. That hasn’t changed. Unlike a lot of recent Super Bowl teams, the Saints really didn’t lose much in free agency and they didn’t have their coaching staff picked apart. There really hasn’t been much turnover of faces or attitude.
“There was a really good locker room here before I got here,’’ Williams said. “There’s a better locker room now. The guys that we brought in this year, they fit into that locker room because Jon Vilma and Drew Brees aren’t going to let the wrong kind of people be in that locker room. They’re just not going to do that.’’
THREE HOT ISSUES
Doug Benc/Getty ImagesA healthy Jabari Greer could help the defense be more consistent.
The Saints really should be much better on defense this season. All they really lost was linebacker Scott Fujita and defensive end Charles Grant. They showed Grant the door and probably upgraded the position by signing veterans Alex Brown and Jimmy Wilkerson. They’ll line up on the other side from Will Smith. Brown and Wilkerson aren’t dominant pass-rushers, but they’re consistent in that area and play the run very well. Fujita was a key contributor, but the Saints believe they have a group of promising linebackers (Troy Evans, Jo-Lonn Dunbar and Stanley Arnoux) and believe one of them will rise up.
Plug in a healthy Sedrick Ellis in the middle of the defensive line and the Saints should have a solid front seven. But the defensive backfield is where the Saints really could be outstanding. They’ve assembled one of the best collections of secondary talent in the league. Jabari Greer and Tracy Porter might be the best cornerbacks no one outside of New Orleans has heard of. When healthy, they both can be shut-down guys. Both were banged up last season, and that’s one of the reasons the Saints drafted cornerback Patrick Robinson. That move also has allowed them to move last year’s first-round pick, Malcolm Jenkins, to free safety, where he might get the chance to beat out Darren Sharper. If you can put Sharper, a possible future Hall of Famer on the bench, that’s a pretty big statement. People talk about New Orleans’ offense being explosive, but the defense has a chance to be every bit as dynamic.
2. Can the offense live up to last year’s standards? Brees remains the quarterback and, as long as that’s the case, this offense is going to be great. Brees clearly is in his prime and his pairing with head coach/offensive genius Sean Payton makes magic possible on every play.
This is an offense that can hit you from every angle -- Brees throwing short or long, Pierre Thomas running inside and Reggie Bush outside and an offensive line filled with Pro Bowlers. Keep in mind that the Saints had some injuries at the skill positions last year, but they still were phenomenal on offense. If they can keep Bush, Thomas, Marques Colston, Heath Evans and Jeremy Shockey healthy, last year’s production could be eclipsed.
Larry French/Getty ImagesJahri Evans is part of a dominant offensive line that makes up for any weakness at left tackle.
The Saints aren’t touting Bushrod as a franchise left tackle, although he’s the favorite to be the starter. They also drafted Charles Brown, and Zach Strief, who filled in when Bushrod slumped a bit last season, also is in the mix. The Saints gave Bushrod plenty of help last season and they’re prepared to do it again for him -- or for Brown or Streif. But the lesson that came out of last year is, in this offense, it’s not a necessity to have a dominant left tackle.
But that’s partly because the Saints have the league’s best guard tandem (Jahri Evans and Carl Nicks), a Pro Bowl right tackle (Jonathan Stinchcomb) and an excellent center (Jonathan Goodwin). Throw anyone out there at left tackle and the rest of the line and Brees will make him look good.
Jimmy Graham. The Saints took what seemed like a bit of a leap when they drafted the tight end in the third round. He played basketball at the University of Miami before deciding to switch to football in his final year. The conventional wisdom was that Graham would be a bit of a project and would take a year or two to really have an impact. But there already is a buzz among the coaching staff and other offensive players about Graham. Everyone knew he had great athletic ability coming in, but he’s picked up things faster than anyone expected and he got some first-team work with Brees in June workouts. He might play a bigger role faster than anyone expected.
Clint Ingram. When the Saints signed Ingram, a lot of fans instantly thought he would be the automatic replacement for Fujita. Ingram had been a starter in Jacksonville, so the logic was solid. But Ingram was injured when the Saints signed him and he still hasn’t been on the practice field, except while riding a stationary bike. That has allowed Troy Evans, Dunbar and Arnoux time to make a good impression. Unless Ingram gets healthy very soon and makes a huge impression on the field, he might not even get a roster spot.
- I know this might sound like blasphemy to Saints fans because Sharper is very popular and had a huge impact last year. But the fact is he’s 34 and coming off micro-fracture knee surgery. I’ve suggested before I think there’s a good chance Jenkins takes his place in the starting lineup. But I’ll take it one step further here and say -- I’m not promising this will happen -- I can see a scenario where Sharper doesn’t even stay on the active roster. The Saints are high on Jenkins. They also like Usama Young and are hopeful about Chip Vaughn, who missed his rookie year with an injury. Ideally, the Saints would like to keep Sharper around for his leadership. But if his knee doesn’t come along, he could spend part of the season on the physically-unable-to-perform list, the injured-reserve list or maybe even be released or retired. Even with all his credentials, Sharper can’t contribute if his knee isn’t right. The Saints have a lot of other safeties with young legs.James Lang/US PresswireDarren Sharper wore down toward the end of last season and had offseason microfracture surgery.
- The Saints used a three-headed backfield with Bush, Thomas and Mike Bell last season. Bell is gone, but the playing time division should be pretty similar this year. Just plug Lynell Hamilton into Bell’s place. The Saints wouldn’t have let Bell go if they didn’t think Hamilton was ready. I don’t want to tease you and say this is the year Bush shows he can run between the tackles. But remember how well he ran in the playoffs and how he was more physical than at any time in his career? That was because he was completely healthy. That seems to still be the case, so don’t be surprised if you see Bush’s numbers go up a bit. This guy can do a little bit of everything.
- Shockey’s always been an easy target and there’s no doubt he’s brought some of that on himself. But he appears to be in very good physical shape. Shockey hasn’t really been a distraction in New Orleans like many thought he was when he was with the Giants. He’s just been banged up for much of his time with the Saints. Maybe –- and I’m just saying maybe -- Shockey might have matured and might be taking better care of himself in an effort to stay on the field.
- It really didn’t get much attention, but the best move the Saints made in the offseason might have been signing Patrick Ramsey to serve as Brees’ backup. Veteran Mark Brunell was a good fit in that role for a couple of years, but the Saints needed to get a little younger. The Saints hope and pray nothing ever happens to Brees. But, if he were to miss some time, the New Orleans offense might not suddenly fall apart. Ramsey’s a guy who has bounced around the league. He got messed up by Steve Spurrier early in his career in Washington, but he still has some talent. This is a quarterback-friendly offense with all sorts of weapons and Ramsey could win games for the Saints -- if that ever becomes necessary.
- For a couple years, special teams were a bit of a question. That has changed. Kicker Garrett Hartley and punter Thomas Morstead were heroes in the Super Bowl. They’re still young and should only continue to get better.
- It’s very early in camp, but one player who has intrigued the coaching staff is defensive end Junior Galette. He’s an undrafted rookie and very undersized at 258 pounds. But this guy is showing great speed and there’s a chance he could land a job as a pass-rush specialist. Yeah, Bobby McCray also is supposed to fit that description. But McCray had 1.5 sacks last season and actually was cut because of a high salary before he basically begged his way back (at a reduced salary). If the Saints cut McCray once, there’s no reason why they couldn’t do it again.
» Draft Watch: Biggest needs (2/17) | Busts/gems (2/24) | Schemes, themes (3/3) | Recent history (3/10) | Needs revisited (3/17) | Under-the-radar needs (3/26) | History in that spot (3/31) | Draft approach (4/7) | Decision-makers (4/14) | Dream scenario/Plan B (4/21)
Each Wednesday leading up to the NFL draft (April 22-24), the ESPN.com blog network will take a division-by-division look at key aspects of the draft. Today’s topic: Draft approach.
General manager Thomas Dimitroff is one of the few executives in the league who won’t give the tired answer about drafting the “best athlete available." He freely admits the Falcons draft mainly on need, although ability is certainly a factor. The Falcons are extremely committed to building the core of their team through the draft and they’ll look to continue that this year. Dimitroff is particularly looking forward to this draft because he has flexibility that hasn’t been there before. The Falcons went almost all offense in the first year Dimitroff and coach Mike Smith were together and focused heavily on defense last year. While defensive end and outside linebacker top the list of needs, the Falcons won’t be limited to one side of the ball in this draft.
There’s always a lot of talk about how conservative general manager Marty Hurney and coach John Fox are. That’s true in a lot of ways, but it’s misleading when talking about their recent drafts. Hurney’s done more wheeling and dealing than a lot of general managers and made big trades to get Everette Brown and Jeff Otah in the last two drafts. Getting Brown last year cost the Panthers their first-round pick this year. The Panthers aren’t slated to pick until the middle of the second round, but don’t rule anything out. They might not have a lot of currency, but you might see them package a few later picks to try to move up if a player they really want is available late in the first round or early in the second.
New Orleans Saints
General manager Mickey Loomis has final say with lots of input from coach Sean Payton and the scouting department. You can’t question their success since this group came together. The 2006 draft by New Orleans -- which included Reggie Bush, Roman Harper, Jahri Evans and Marques Colston -- is shaping up as one of the most outstanding classes in recent history. Loomis isn’t afraid to go against popular opinion. He traded up to get Thomas Morstead in the fifth round last year. The move outraged some fans, but Morestead ended up being an important part of the Saints’ march to the Super Bowl title. Loomis is in a different situation this year because the Saints have the last pick in the first round and don’t have a lot of glaring needs other than depth. The Saints haven’t been players in free agency, so don’t be surprised if Loomis tries to add some picks during the draft to get more depth.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Rip on general manager Mark Dominik and coach Raheem Morris for a turbulent first year in power, but you can’t really criticize their first draft. They got a franchise quarterback in Josh Freeman, a surprise seventh-round contributor in receiver Sammie Stroughter and a few other players who showed some promise. Dominik is quite proud of the fact he’s stockpiled 11 draft picks and he could look to add more. This whole youth movement the Bucs are going through hasn’t been very popular with the fans, but the team remains very committed to building through the draft. The failure to do that caused the downfall of Jon Gruden and Bruce Allen and it has been a painful process to watch their collection of veterans getting cut and busted draft picks over the last year or two. But this draft is a chance for the Bucs to put some life back into the franchise.
Posted by ESPN.com's Pat Yasinskas
Some interesting developments in New Orleans on Saturday night. The Saints signed John Carney, a kicker they have regretted letting go previously.
Hartley is just the latest in a revolving series of kickers the Saints have gone through since letting Carney go after the 2006 season. Hartley had been inconsistent in training camp and he missed a 20-yard field-goal attempt in Friday's preseason opener.
Carney is known as one of the league's most reliable kickers, but doesn't have a particularly strong leg. Carney spent last season with the Giants and made 35 of 38 field goal attempts. Carney's return means the Saints are continuing to shuffle their special teams.
They have a new long-snapper in Jason Kyle. Rookie Thomas Morstead is battling with Glenn Pakulak for the punting job and the Saints have been using backup quarterbacks Joey Harrington and Mark Brunell as holders, instead of letting the punter handle that role.
|AP Photo/Bill Haber|
|Jonathan Vilma is excited about playing for new coordinator Gregg Williams.|
Posted by ESPN.com's Pat Yasinskas
METAIRIE, La. -- By all accounts, Jonathan Vilma resurrected his career with the New Orleans Saints last season. After clashing with coach Eric Mangini with the Jets and enduring an injury, Vilma found a home in the middle of New Orleans' 4-3 defense.
He got back to playing middle linebacker the way he was used to playing it and instantly became the leader of the defense. By Vilma's account, that wasn't nearly good enough.
Personal satisfaction has a way of getting watered down when you're playing on a defense that's not very good. Vilma might have been a bright spot, but the rest of the defense was a dark hole. Nine different times the Saints allowed opponents to score at least 27 points and they lost seven of those games.
In the process, the defense helped squander a brilliant season by quarterback Drew Brees and the offense. Brees threw for more than 5,000 yards, but it didn't mean much because the defense didn't stop anyone and the Saints finished out of the playoffs for the second straight year.
It's critical the streak doesn't reach three seasons because that would put coach Sean Payton very much on the hot seat. That's why Payton brought in coordinator Gregg Williams to run the defense and encouraged general manager Mickey Loomis to reshuffle the defensive personnel.
Williams' impact has been felt from the first moment he entered the building and it's been obvious out on the practice field.
"The X's and O's are pretty much the same," Vilma said. "But it's a different mindset. It's about letting us play. Coach Williams lets us know it's all right to go out there and make mistakes. It's all right to go out there and be wrong. As long as you're doing it 100 miles per hour, as long as you're hitting somebody, it's all right. We'll go into the meetings and make our corrections there."
"Everybody's playing with swagger," defensive end Bobby McCray said. "We've got 160-pound cornerbacks looking to knock your head off."
That should be a welcome sight in New Orleans, where there wasn't a lot of hitting last season, and cornerbacks (and safeties) spent most of their time chasing receivers who already had caught the ball. The roles will be different this season.
"It's a lot more man-on-man," said veteran safety Darren Sharper, who was brought in as a free agent to help stabilize the secondary. "You're doing some zone. You're blitzing guys from different directions. That shouldn't be a problem for us. We have no excuses as far as getting to the quarterback. It's a state of mind. You attack the ball. You have 11 guys being aggressive and you make aggressive calls. We're going to be an aggressive, attacking defense."
It's been said that even an average defense might be good enough to get the Saints to the playoffs. But the Saints aren't looking for an average defense. They want more.
"We can be as good as we want to be," Vilma said. "We have the talent. We had the talent last year, but we just didn't make plays. This year, we're focusing on making those plays. The talent is there. It's just a matter of going out and doing it."
It's never good to be without your starting defensive ends. But the Saints have had the entire offseason to prepare for this situation.
They brought in veterans Paul Spicer and Anthony Hargrove, and they still have McCray, who might have outplayed the underachieving Grant and Smith last season. The Saints would like to use McCray as a pass-rush specialist once Grant and Smith return, but they believe he can fill a starting role in the short term. They're also very fired up about Hargrove, who appears very focused after having some problems that interrupted his career.
There's even hope that Grant and Smith might be better off in the long run because of the suspensions. Both are very talented, but haven't played up to their ability the past couple of years. The Saints are hoping they'll come back from the suspensions with more motivation than ever.
Can the No. 1 offense be as good as last year?
|Al Messerschmidt/Getty Images|
|Quarterback Drew Brees threw for more than 5,000 yards for the Saints last season.|
Heck, it could be even better. Brees' season was remarkable under any circumstances. But a lot of people tend to forget he did all of that with the top three offensive weapons banged up for most of the year. Brees threw for more than 5,000 yards, but didn't have a 1,000-yard receiver or any consistency in the running game.
The 1,000-yard receiver shouldn't be an issue this year. Marques Colston is back at full health and looking absolutely spectacular in training camp. He's the kind of big receiver who should be good for somewhere around 1,200 yards and 10 touchdowns. Throw in tight end Jeremy Shockey, who never was at full strength last year, but is healthy now.
Shockey and Brees look to be developing a strong chemistry in camp. When healthy, Shockey can be one of the league's best tight ends. He didn't catch a touchdown pass last year. He's painfully aware of that and wants to prove he still can find the end zone.
Then there's Reggie Bush. He was off to a very good start as a multi-purpose running back last year, but he got sidetracked by injuries and missed six games.
Can Bush ever live up to the hype he carried coming out of college?
If he stays healthy, yes. Bush will never be the kind of back who runs between the tackles 25 times a game. But that's not what the Saints are looking for. They'll let Pierre Thomas handle most of the carries between the tackles. Bush is a threat to score any time he touches the ball and the Saints will look to get him the ball in space as a runner, receiver and a return man.
The Saints really were hoping that Dan Morgan or Stanley Arnoux could take over as the starter at weakside linebacker. But Morgan retired in June and Arnoux tore his Achilles tendon in offseason workouts and will miss the season. That means the Saints appear destined to stick with veteran Scott Shanle in a linebacking corps with Vilma and Scott Fujita. Shanle's experienced, but he doesn't make any big plays and lacks great speed. The Saints have been very impressed with young linebackers Anthony Waters and Jonathan Casillas so far in camp. They're raw, but Williams wants aggressiveness and he may take a chance on one of these guys.
Receiver Devery Henderson, who struggled with drops through much of his career, suddenly started catching the ball last season. But the drops have resurfaced during camp and that's not a good sign. With Colston healthy and third-year pro Robert Meachem showing some signs he might live up to his status as a first-round pick in 2007, Henderson could end up as the fourth receiver.
Former Pro Bowl defensive tackle Rod Coleman ended a one-year retirement to make a comeback with the Saints. Coleman hasn't stood out in camp so far, but the Saints will use the preseason games to determine if Coleman has anything left. They'd like to use him as a part-time player on passing downs because he used to be one of the league's top interior rushers.
Newcomer to watch
|Crystal LoGiudice/US Presswire|
|Rookie Malcolm Jenkins has to make up for lost time now that he has agreed to terms on a contract.|
Top draft pick Malcolm Jenkins ended his holdout late Sunday night. Jenkins is a unique talent, but the holdout could have cost him a shot at a starting cornerback spot. The Saints paid big money to Jabari Greer in free agency and he's set at one starting spot. Tracy Porter has picked up where he left off when an injury ended a promising rookie season and has the edge for the other starting role. Jenkins isn't even guaranteed to land as the nickelback because veterans Randall Gay and Jason David have been playing well in camp.
There still are a lot of fans calling for the Saints to bring in veteran Edgerrin James to be the short-yardage running back, but that doesn't appear likely. First off, James isn't the prototypical short-yardage runner. Second, the Saints might already have their answer. They've been letting undrafted free agents P.J. Hill and Herb Donaldson compete with Mike Bell for this role. All three are true power backs and all three have looked good at times. ... Defensive tackle Sedrick Ellis showed some promise as a rookie, but injuries kept him from being on the field all the time. Ellis is quietly having a very nice camp and the Saints believe he's ready to really become a force in the middle. ... The Saints used a fifth-round draft pick on punter Thomas Morstead, but there's no guarantee he'll win the job. He's in a battle with Glenn Pakulak and, so far, it's a dead heat. ... Williams' base defense is the 4-3, but he started installing a 3-4 package last week. Don't look for the Saints to use the 3-4 a lot. But you could see a fair amount of it early in the season when Smith and Grant are out and the Saints will deal with a shortage of quality defensive linemen.
Posted by ESPN.com's Pat Yasinskas
We're down to the punters in our series of NFC South position rankings. The return men will come Wednesday before we move on to coaches and the front office.
But let's not sell the punters short. This spot might be one of the division's strongest areas. The first three guys in the rankings each drew serious consideration for the top spot. Here they are:
1. Michael Koenen, Atlanta. His coverage unit helped a lot, but opponents had only 49 return yards on Koenen last season. No wonder the Falcons used the franchise tag on their punter.
2. Josh Bidwell, Tampa Bay. Has the strongest leg in the division. Would be in the top spot if Koenen and the Falcons had given up more in returns.
3. Jason Baker, Carolina. The division's most consistent punter. Baker's averaged over 44 yards a punt each of the last three seasons and, mercifully, has helped the world forget Todd Sauerbrun ever was in Carolina.
4. Glenn Pakulak. The guy is only eight games into his NFL career, but he did average 47.7 yards a punt last year. The Saints like his leg strength, but used a fifth-round pick on Thomas Morestead because they aren't sure about Pakulak's consistency.