NFL Nation: Dan Morgan

Luke KuechlyAP Photo/Rainier EhrhardtRookie linebacker Luke Kuechly has a league-best three games with 15 or more tackles.


There’s a lot of talk out there about who should be the NFL’s Offensive Rookie of the Year.

Andrew Luck? Robert Griffin III? Russell Wilson? Doug Martin?

You could go on for days with that one. But there's another, less-talked-about question out there.

Who should be the Defensive Rookie of the Year?

I say that one’s much clearer than the offensive award. Carolina middle linebacker Luke Kuechly is the best defensive rookie in the NFL.

Think about it for a second and see if you can come up with someone better than Kuechly, who has flown under the radar, mainly because Carolina’s season has left the Panthers largely ignored.

I look at players such as Seattle’s Bobby Wagner, Denver’s Derek Wolfe, Green Bay’s Casey Hayward, Minnesota’s Harrison Smith, Tampa Bay’s Lavonte David and Mark Barron, New England’s Chandler Jones, St. Louis’ Janoris Jenkins and Cincinnati’s Vontaze Burfict and nobody blows me away.

Kuechly does.

Amid the rubble that has been Carolina’s disappointing season, Kuechly has been a huge bright spot -- and he seems to be getting better as the season goes on. He had a career-high 16 tackles in Sunday’s victory against Atlanta.

His 130 tackles (we’re using press-box stats, not revised numbers from coaches) lead the league. Kuechly has a shot to be the first rookie since Patrick Willis in 2007 to lead the league in tackles and to at least challenge Willis’ record for tackles by a rookie (174).

Not bad for a guy who freely admits he’s still getting used to his new job.

“The theme of what I’ve learned from the older guys since I’ve been here is that it’s a job now and you have to treat it like one," Kuechly said in a telephone interview Wednesday afternoon. “You’re not in college anymore. You don’t leave practice and go back to the dorm and hang with your buds. You put in a full day here and you go home and rest. You have to take care of yourself mentally and physically because, at this level, you have to stay on top of everything."

He's always around the ball somehow, some way. When he gets a little bit more wisdom, it's going to be amazing what he's going to do.

-- Steve Smith, on Luke Kuechly
The main thing Kuechly has been staying on top of has been whomever has the ball. He leads the league with three games recording at least 15 tackles. No other player has more than one such game. Go back and watch any Carolina game and Kuechly always seems to be around the ball.

“The guy he reminds me of -- that's had this much success so quickly -- would be Dan Morgan," veteran receiver Steve Smith said. “Very smart. He's always around the ball somehow, some way. When he gets a little bit more wisdom, it's going to be amazing what he's going to do."

I like Smith’s comparison of Kuechly to Morgan a lot. That’s mainly because that’s the first thing I thought of when I first watched Kuechly go through a workout and interviewed him at IMG Academy as he was preparing for the scouting combine last February.

After the interview, I talked to IMG Academy director of football operations Chris Weinke, who came in the same 2001 Carolina draft class as Morgan and Smith. When I mentioned the comparison, Weinke nodded in agreement and said, “They’re both all about football."

Carolina fans might not like the comparison of Kuechly to Morgan, but it’s meant as a huge compliment. Morgan is a bit of a tragic figure because persistent injuries prevented his career from truly blossoming and cut it way too short. But when he was on the field, Morgan was as good as any linebacker.

I look at Kuechly and I see what Morgan could have been.

Apparently, so does Smith.

“He just makes plays," Smith said. “He's a young guy that came in, didn't come in entitled, real eager to learn."

Much like Morgan, Kuechly has a low-key personality. He is quiet and exceedingly polite -- until you put him in pads and have people run at him. That’s when Kuechly tackles anything that moves.

That shouldn’t come as a surprise. Kuechly led the nation in tackles in two of his three seasons at Boston College and finished second in the other season. That’s why the Panthers used the ninth overall pick in the draft on him.

The Panthers opened the season with Jon Beason in the middle and Kuechly on the weak side. That lasted four games before Beason went down with an injury and Kuechly shifted to the middle, the position he played in college, and took over the role of the leader of the defense.

Carolina’s defense has drawn a lot of criticism this season. But there has been a noticeable difference since Kuechly moved to the middle. In the first four games, the Panthers allowed an average of 393.8 yards. In the past nine games, the average has dropped to 328.9 yards, which ranks eighth in the league during that span.

“You see his leadership,’’ coach Ron Rivera said. “You see his maturity as far as leading the defense. You see how he rallies his teammates, how he handles his teammates. How his teammates work with him, how he works with them.’’

If it continues, you could see a Defensive Rookie of the Year in Carolina.
In its infancy, the NFC South was a division filled with defensive superstars.

In the division's first year of existence (2002), Derrick Brooks, Warren Sapp, John Lynch and Simeon Rice led Tampa Bay to a Super Bowl title. The Bucs were so good on defense that they won it all with Brad Johnson, an average quarterback at best.

In 2003, Carolina defensive linemen Julius Peppers and Kris Jenkins emerged as the second coming of Rice and Sapp. With a little help from linebacker Dan Morgan, who was relatively healthy that season, they carried the Panthers all the way to the Super Bowl -- and that came with Jake Delhomme in his first full season as a starting quarterback.

But Sapp, Lynch and Rice eventually left the Bucs. Jenkins was dominant for a bit, but his career flamed out after a couple of knee injuries. The last true defensive superstars disappeared from the NFC South when the Bucs unceremoniously released Brooks after the 2008 season and Peppers signed with the Chicago Bears after the 2009 season. There hasn’t been anything close to a dominant defensive player in the division since. The Saints won their Super Bowl in 2009 with defensive standouts Jonathan Vilma, Will Smith and Darren Sharper having nice seasons, but quarterback Drew Brees was the reason for that title.

Could this be the year the NFC South returns to its roots and a dominant defensive player emerges? Of course, the NFL is a quarterback-driven league and rules favor offense. But there are several prospects in the division who could turn out to be the NFC South’s next defensive superstar. Here's a rundown:

[+] EnlargeSean Weatherspoon
Scott Cunningham/Getty ImagesWith his athleticism and leadership skills, Sean Weatherspoon has become the focal point of Atlanta's defense.
Sean Weatherspoon, linebacker, Falcons. Based on what the Falcons have said about Weatherspoon this offseason, you would think he already is a Pro Bowl regular. He has had two promising seasons but really hasn’t done anything special, so maybe the Falcons are getting ahead of themselves here.

Weatherspoon is a very athletic outside linebacker. His potential and leadership skills were partially why Atlanta was willing to part with Curtis Lofton, even though that probably means a dropoff at middle linebacker. New coordinator Mike Nolan apparently wants to build his defense around Weatherspoon. That might not be a bad idea. The great Tampa Bay defenses were built around Brooks, not the guy in the middle. Of course, that concept only works if Weatherspoon turns out to be the next Brooks.

Luke Kuechly, linebacker, Panthers. Carolina didn’t have a desperate need at linebacker with Jon Beason and Thomas Davis returning from injuries and James Anderson already in place. There were more obvious needs elsewhere. But the Panthers locked in on Kuechly with the No. 9 overall pick in this year’s draft.

The Panthers have yet to declare if Kuechly or Beason will open the season in the middle. But it’s clear the Panthers have huge plans for Kuechly. Coach Ron Rivera comes from a defensive background and he needed to reload his defense. He drafted Kuechly to build a defense around him.

Don’t underestimate the influence of general manager Marty Hurney on this pick. Hurney was around during the Morgan days, and he’s one of many people in Carolina’s building who believe Morgan would be headed for the Pro Football Hall of Fame if he had been able to stay healthy. In Kuechly, the Panthers envision a healthy and young Morgan.

Mark Barron, safety, Buccaneers. Rivera didn’t get to use his first draft pick on a defensive player because the Panthers had to take quarterback Cam Newton with the No. 1 overall pick in 2011. But Greg Schiano already had Josh Freeman at QB when he took over in Tampa Bay, allowing Schiano to focus on defense. He selected Barron with the No. 7 pick.

Conventional wisdom says that might be a little high to draft a safety. But with passing games dominating, maybe conventional wisdom must change. We don’t know exactly what Schiano’s defense will look like, but investing so much in Barron is a pretty strong clue that safety will be a very important position.

Malcolm Jenkins, safety, Saints. Scouts and coaches have predicted greatness from Jenkins since he came into the league. Entering his fourth season, he did not have an interception last season. But Jenkins has physical talent and a great work ethic, and I think this season he will put everything together. In former coordinator Gregg Williams’ system, Jenkins often had to blitz or cover for other defensive backs who blitzed. In Steve Spagnuolo’s defense, Jenkins will be allowed to simply play center field, which is what he does best.

Adrian Clayborn, defensive end, Buccaneers. In a rookie year in which everything around him went wrong, Clayborn put together a nice season in 2011. He had 7.5 sacks and forced three fumbles. If he was able to do that amid chaos, he should be able to do much more in Schiano’s new world. Of course, it would help if Gerald McCoy and Brian Price could stay healthy and provide some help at defensive tackle.

Charles Johnson, defensive end, Panthers. He just turned 26 and, of all the players on this list, he has done the most so far. Johnson had 20.5 sacks the past two seasons for a team that often played from behind. Carolina has a good offense now, and the addition of Kuechly and the return of injured players should help the defense. If Johnson's sack total reaches the high double digits, he could become what Peppers once was -- a dominant NFC South defensive player.
As I drove down to Bradenton, Fla., back in February to interview some draft prospects at IMG Football Academy, I thought a lot about Carolina’s 2001 draft class. That’s because I was about to see a member of that class -- Chris Weinke, who now is IMG’s director of football operations.

[+] EnlargeLuke Kuechly
Brian Spurlock/US PresswireLuke Kuechly possesses many of the same on-field qualities as former Panthers LB Dan Morgan.
I also was about to meet Boston College linebacker Luke Kuechly, who was preparing for the scouting combine under Weinke’s guidance. The Panthers used their first-round pick on Kuechly on Thursday night, but we’ll get back to Kuechly in just a minute. Let’s stick to the 2001 class for now.

As I drove, I thought about how that class might have been the best in franchise history (although the 2007 class that included Jon Beason, Ryan Kalil and Charles Johnson certainly is in the argument). But the 2001 draft is different in one regard. If not for a few twists of fate, it could have gone down as one of the greatest draft classes in NFL history.

Let’s start with the Panthers' third-round choice of Steve Smith, a wide receiver who is still with the Panthers and is still going strong. He at least has a shot at the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Weinke was the fourth-round choice. He got thrown into a bad situation as a rookie starter and never was “the guy’’ once John Fox took over the next year.

Safety Jarrod Cooper (a fifth-round choice) and running back Dee Brown (sixth round) also contributed as special-teams players and offensive lineman Louis Williams (seventh round) hung around for a bit, even though his claim to fame was his willingness to pick up a couple hundred bucks from teammates for practicing in shorts and a t-shirt on one of the coldest and snowiest days in Charlotte history.

Then, there was second-round choice Kris Jenkins. For a brief period, he was the best defensive tackle in the game. He was a major reason the Panthers went to the Super Bowl in the 2003 season. Jenkins’ career got sidetracked by two major knee injuries and he grew unhappy in Charlotte. He later went to the New York Jets and, for a short time, looked like the best defensive tackle in the game again. Then, he got hit with more injuries.

Had Jenkins been able to stay healthy and happy, he might be in Hall of Fame discussions with Smith. Then, there’s the star-crossed case of Dan Morgan, the linebacker Carolina took in the first round of that draft.

“The best football player I’ve ever played with,’’ Jenkins told me last summer, soon after he announced his retirement.

People tend to forget how great Morgan was. That’s because his career was overshadowed by injuries, mostly concussions. Morgan spent seven seasons with Carolina, but never was able to play in more than 13 games in a season. In his last two years, he played in only four games.

But, in the few moments he was healthy, Morgan might have been the best player in this class. Remember Super Bowl XXXVIII? Morgan officially was in on 18 tackles in that game, but Carolina coaches put the number at 25. When Morgan was healthy, he was spectacular. Without all the injuries, Morgan might still be playing and he easily could be ahead of Smith and Jenkins in that hypothetical Hall of Fame conversation.

Through the years, I’ve discussed Morgan many times with Carolina general manager Marty Hurney. Coach George Seifert had the general-manager powers in that draft, but Hurney was part of the Carolina brain trust and moved into his current role the next year. When Hurney talks about Morgan, you hear bittersweet tones. Like everyone else in Carolina’s building that spent time around Morgan, Hurney talks glowingly about Morgan’s talent and how he was a true pro’s pro. Then, the injuries come up and that’s when the tone becomes sad. Hurney saw Morgan as a player that could have been truly special.

That’s why I have to wonder if Hurney was thinking about Morgan (and what he could have been) as he went through the draft process with Kuechly. I sure was. When Carolina’s pick was announced, my first thought was “Hurney just drafted a healthy Dan Morgan."

Kuechly is like Morgan in so many ways – a sideline-to-sideline linebacker who lives for football. Like Morgan, Kuechly had a highly-productive career from a strong college program.

Kuechly is coming in young, fresh and healthy. If he can stay that way, he could end up being the player Morgan never quite was able to become. That would make Hurney and a lot of Carolina fans very happy.

Keep Kuechly on the field for a decade and he could become a Pro Bowl regular. Maybe even, someday, a Hall of Famer.

The scouting report on Greg Schiano

January, 26, 2012
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As I’ve been reading up on new Tampa Bay Buccaneers coach Greg Schiano, I’ve been paying close attention to coaches that have worked with him and players that have played with him.

There was one name that jumped out at me because he’s one of the people I respect most in the entire NFL world. Besides, he’s now a scout, so who is better than a scout to provide a scouting report on Schiano.

I called Dan Morgan, who now is a scout with the Seattle Seahawks. I had the pleasure of covering Morgan during his career as a linebacker with the Carolina Panthers. Morgan also played linebacker for the University of Miami when Schiano was the defensive coordinator there for two years. Schiano was there for Morgan’s junior and senior seasons.

“Greg was my coach, but, in later years, he’s become a very good friend,’’ Morgan said. “We’ve stayed in touch through the years and I couldn’t be happier for him. The fans in Tampa Bay might not fully realize it just yet, but they just got themselves a heck of a coach.’’

Morgan credits Schiano for helping make him an All-American and a first-round pick by the Panthers in 2001.

“Playing under him, I learned a ton,’’ Morgan said. “I give him most of the credit for really developing my football intelligence. From my junior year to my senior year, I started really seeing the game and anticipating things and that’s all due to Greg’s influence.’’

I know a lot of fans are questioning Schiano because he has spent most of his time as a college coach, aside from a three-year stint with the Chicago Bears. That’s why I asked Morgan if he thinks Schiano can make a successful transition to the NFL.

“A good football coach is a good football coach,’’ Morgan said. “Sure, there may be some minor adjustments to the NFL, but Greg’s a smart guy and he’ll make those without any problem. The biggest thing is that he’s a great leader of men. He has the football knowledge and he knows how to bring the whole locker room together and get people on the same page and buying in.’’

Morgan said Schiano doesn’t fit any certain stereotype and flexibility is one of his strengths.

“He’s very intense and he’s great with Xs and Os," Morgan said. “But he also makes the game fun. He’s one of those guys that will yell when the situation calls for it. But he also can be a real encouraging guy when the situation calls for that.

“He’s going to bring discipline on and off the field,’’ Morgan said. “He’s not a true drill-sergeant type. But he knows how to handle players and people. He’ll respect his players and he’ll expect it back from them. He’ll get it, too, because he’s just a guy that kind of commands respect and you want to play hard for him and you never want to let him down."

Dan Morgan scouting Panthers, Bears

October, 10, 2010
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CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Julius Peppers isn’t the only prominent former Panther in Bank of America Stadium today.

Former Carolina linebacker Dan Morgan walked into the press box a little bit ago. Morgan still lives in Charlotte, but he’ll be scouting today’s game for the Seattle Seahawks. Morgan served an internship in Seattle’s player personnel department during the preseason and is doing some part-time scouting for Seattle.

Morgan said he eventually hopes to work full time in an NFL personnel department.
SPARTANBURG, S.C. -- One of the things I like about coming to see the Carolina Panthers is that I get to catch up with -- and on -- a lot of people I covered back in my newspaper days.

Most of what I write usually is focused on current players. But we’re going to go in another direction for just a moment here because I picked up a couple of interesting tidbits on two former Carolina players that are making moves that might lead them back to football.

Former linebacker Dan Morgan is doing an internship with the Seattle Seahawks in the personnel department. Current Carolina linebacker Jon Beason told me that news. Morgan had to stop playing a bit prematurely because of repeated injuries and that was unfortunate. Morgan has had some success in the restaurant business, but, as Beason reminded me, Morgan has a deep love for football. This might be a way for him to get back into the game.

Another player I covered back in the day was defensive tackle Brentson Buckner. He’s been doing some radio work in Charlotte and certainly could have a career in broadcasting because he’s a very smart and talkative guy. But Buckner is at least testing the waters in the field of coaching. He’s doing a coaching internship with the Pittsburgh Steelers.

Best Panthers Team Ever: 2003

June, 28, 2010
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Notable players: RB Stephen Davis, QB Jake Delhomme, WR Steve Smith, WR Muhsin Muhammad, DE Julius Peppers, DT Kris Jenkins, LB Dan Morgan.

Analysis: When owner Jerry Richardson talked about how the life had been drained from his franchise during a disastrous 1-15 season in 2001 under coach George Seifert, he couldn’t have expected how dramatic the turnaround would be. Nobody saw the Panthers going to the Super Bowl within two years, but that’s exactly what happened with first-time head coach John Fox.

[+] EnlargeStephen Davis
Craig Jones/Getty ImagesStephen Davis rushed for a career-high 1,444 yards in 2003.
In 2002, Fox’s team showed some promise, but there was no real reason to think the Panthers were ready for an incredible run. They had the makings of a very good defensive line, but nobody really knew how much Davis had left when the Panthers brought him in and nobody had a clue what Delhomme, who had spent his career on the bench in New Orleans, might bring.

Rodney Peete opened the season as the starting quarterback and that lasted all of two quarters before Delhomme came on to rally the Panthers and take over the job. With Davis carrying the offense and the defensive line dominating, Delhomme continued to show a knack for leading comebacks.

The Panthers caught lightning in a bottle and also rode the emotion of preseason news that linebackers coach and former team captain Sam Mills and starting linebacker Mark Fields each had cancer. Carolina finished the regular season 11-5 and won its first NFC South championship.

A playoff victory at home against Dallas wasn’t a big surprise, but the Panthers stunned just about everyone by going on the road and winning at St. Louis (in double overtime) and completely dominating the Eagles on a frigid night in Philadelphia.

That put the Panthers into the Super Bowl against New England. A touchdown pass to Ricky Proehl with one minute, eight seconds remaining tied the score. But Carolina’s chances of pulling the upset faded as John Kasay followed up by kicking the ball out of bounds to give New England good field position. The Patriots kicked the game-winning field goal with four seconds remaining.

Most impressive win: It’s tough to top the image of Steve Smith scoring a touchdown on the first play of the second overtime in St. Louis, but players and coaches will tell you the key moment of the season came in Week 2 at Tampa against the defending Super Bowl champions. The Bucs scored a late touchdown and needed only to kick the extra point to win the game. The Panthers blocked the kick, forced overtime and won 12-9.

Research room: This team was known as the “Cardiac Cats." The reason was simple. The Panthers won seven games in the last two minutes or in overtime.

Honorable mention

1996: In only the second year of the franchise’s existence, coach Dom Capers, quarterback Kerry Collins and a great defense took the Panthers all the way to the NFC Championship Game in Green Bay. A home playoff victory against Dallas provided a truly monumental moment for an expansion team and the city of Charlotte.

2005: Fox’s 2004 team underachieved, but the 2005 team overachieved more than any in franchise history. Give the credit to Smith for carrying the Panthers all the way to the NFC Championship Game in Seattle. Injuries to the running backs kept the Panthers from running like Fox wanted to, but Smith and Delhomme had a special chemistry that year.

2008: A 12-4 record, an NFC South crown and a first-round bye added up to absolutely nothing. In what easily is the most disappointing game in franchise history, Arizona came into Bank of America Stadium and routed the Panthers 33-13. Starting with that game, the normally reliable Delhomme began turning the ball over so frequently that he played his way out of Charlotte.
Jon Beason, Drew Brees and Thomas MorsteadGetty Images/AP PhotoJon Beason, Drew Brees and Thomas Morstead headline the list of NFC South players receiving end-of-the-year honors.
We’ve rolled out the All-NFC South offense and defense for the 2009 season already and we’ll get to the special teams, coaches and front offices very soon. But with the Saints on a bye for the first round of the playoffs and the rest of the NFC South done for the season, it’s time for our annual awards.

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.

(Read full post)

 
  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.

Camp Confidential: NFC South
Panthers: Thurs., Aug. 6
Saints: Mon., Aug. 10
Falcons: Sat., Aug. 15
Buccaneers: Tues., Aug. 18
Training camp index

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."

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Basically, what the Saints are doing is trading a cautious defensive approach for an aggressive one.

"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."

Key Questions

Even with all of the defensive changes, isn't the expected loss of starting defensive ends Charles Grant and Will Smith to suspensions for the first four games going to be very difficult to overcome?

 Grant
 Smith

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.

Market watch

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.

 Henderson
 Meachem

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.

Observation deck

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

As I headed to New Orleans Saints minicamp last week, the guy I looked most forward to seeing was linebacker Dan Morgan.

I had the luxury of covering Morgan for his first seven NFL seasons when he played for the Carolina Panthers and truly believe he's one of the most genuine people I've ever met.

That's why I put in a request to interview him Friday. Truth is, I didn't really want to interview him. I just wanted to say hello and catch up on old times. I never got the chance.

By Friday afternoon, coach Sean Payton announced that Morgan, who uncharacteristically never showed in the locker room, had strained a calf muscle and I just rolled my eyes and thought, "Here we go again.'' But, thankfully, Morgan put a stop to it Monday afternoon.

Agent Drew Rosenahus announced Morgan's retirement via his Twitter account.

I'm going to say the exact same thing I said just about a year ago when Morgan announced his retirement the first time. This is the best day of the offseason.

I say that because, despite all of Morgan's previous talk about how healthy he was and how much he wanted to return to football, this is best for him. And his family.

Yeah, Morgan had a right to play football if he wanted and he was the only one who could really make that decision. From a distance, it was easy to sit back and think about the fact he's had at least five concussions. And think about his long-term health, his wife and children. It was easy to think it was crazy for him to even step on a football field.

But none of that mattered as long as Morgan thought he should be playing football. Now, he sees it differently and that's a wonderful thing. It's always sad to see a great player walk away.

But, in this case, there's joy because Morgan was able to walk away before it was too late.

Posted by ESPN.com's Pat Yasinskas

METAIRIE, La. -- Saints tight end Dan Campbell will have knee surgery Monday, but is expected to be back in time for the start of training camp.

Coach Sean Payton said Campbell will have arthroscopic surgery to repair damage to his medial collateral ligament. Campbell will miss the rest of the team's organized activities. Campbell wasn't the only tight end injured in Friday's minicamp. Darnell Dinkins sprained his ankle. Payton said he wasn't aware of the severity of Dinkins' injury.

In other injury news, linebacker Dan Morgan, who's coming out of retirement, strained a calf muscle early in the afternoon session and left practice. That might not come as a surprise to those who have followed Morgan's star-crossed career.

 
  Chris Graythen/Getty Images
  Led by Drew Brees and Reggie Bush, the Saints have plenty of firepower on offense.

Posted by ESPN.com's Pat Yasinskas

METAIRIE, La. -- To understand why the New Orleans Saints have a chance to do great things this season, you have to go back to the lowest moment of last season.

Believe it or not, there was some beauty in early October's 30-27 loss to the Minnesota Vikings in the Superdome. Do you need a reminder of the ugliness? Think of the Saints making Gus Frerotte and Bernard Berrian seem like Joe Montana and Dwight Clark just moments after Reggie Bush had made two miraculous punt returns for touchdowns in a "Monday Night Football" game.

As the Vikings kicked the winning field goal with 13 seconds remaining, defensive back Darren Sharper stood on the Minnesota sidelines. In hindsight, he glimpsed something special in the Saints.

"I think the main thing was I saw this team as being on the cusp of not only making the playoffs, but of making a championship run,'' Sharper said.

Cusp of the playoffs? Coach Sean Payton's Saints finished the 2008 campaign 8-8, and that came on the heels of a 7-9 season.

"Three or four games, they let big plays happen,'' Sharper said. "That's the difference between 11-5 and 8-8.''

As crazy as it might sound, Sharper's precisely right. The Saints might be the league's biggest disappointment the last two seasons, but that's also part of the reason they might be this year's most promising team.

They're loaded with names -- Drew Brees, Bush, Jeremy Shockey, Marques Colston and Jonathan Vilma. The flashy marquee has not yielded dramatic results. The Saints were the trendy pick by a lot of media outlets to make the Super Bowl last season, but didn't even come close.

Blame it on bad luck, a rash of injuries or whatever. No matter how you look at it, the Saints underachieved. They're out to make sure it doesn't happen again. Maybe it's better that they're coming into this season without high expectations from the outside, because, on the inside, the Saints are expecting a lot more.

That's part of the reason Sharper decided to sign with the Saints as a free agent. That's part of the reason the Saints brought in defensive coordinator Gregg Williams, cornerback Jabari Greer, defensive end Paul Spicer and cornerback Malcolm Jenkins.

"I wanted to go with the team that has the best chance of winning a ring,'' Sharper said. "I think New Orleans has that.''

On paper, the Saints do have that.

 
  Chris Graythen/Getty Images
  The Saints will need Jonathan Vilma and the defense to improve this season.

They've got the league's top-ranked offense from last season. Keep in mind, all that happened with Shockey, Colston and Bush each missing significant playing time. Brees threw for more than 5,000 yards in a season when the Saints had little consistency in the running game and didn't get Shockey into the end zone.

"As good as it was last year, No. 1, that's our goal,'' Shockey said. "I think our goal again is to be No. 1.''

How much better than No. 1 can the offense be?

Actually, a lot. If Shockey and Colston can return to anything like they were earlier in their careers and Bush can play like he did in the first half of last season, Brees could end up shattering records. The Saints also are hoping to do a better job controlling the running game with some sort of combination of Bush, Pierre Thomas and a short-yardage back to be named later.

But, more than anything, they need to improve defensively. Funny, but that sounds like the same story from the past two offseasons. The Saints made moves such as bringing in Jason David and Randall Gay to solidify the secondary. They signed defensive line coach Ed Orgeron to get more out of the unit.

Those moves never brought the desired results. The Saints overhauled their defense again this offseason. They spent a small fortune on Greer and still drafted Jenkins in the first round to beef up the cornerback position. They got linebacker Dan Morgan out of retirement and plan to play him on the weak side.

They signed Spicer and Anthony Hargrove to push starting defensive ends Charles Grant and Will Smith. Orgeron left. Defensive coordinator Gary Gibbs was fired and replaced by Williams, who has a reputation as one of the league's best defensive minds.

They're plugging Sharper in as the free safety and trying to build around Vilma and defensive tackle Sedrick Ellis, the only two bright spots from the 2008 defense. They're also getting cornerback Tracy Porter, who showed some promise early last season, back from a broken wrist.

Maybe, like Sharper said, there will be even more big plays on offense and fewer big plays allowed on defense. That formula probably would be enough to put the Saints into the playoffs.

"It's an offense that's been at the top of the league the last couple of years and a defense that can b
e a ball-hawking defense and the special teams are explosive when you can put a guy like Reggie out there,'' Sharper said.

"And the camaraderie that guys have. Guys like each other and want to play for each other. That goes for the coaches, too. Whenever you have that great chemistry, that goes a long way. Last year [the] Arizona [Cardinals], nobody expected they would be there at the end. When you have all the pieces in place, you know you have a shot.''

Maybe, with all the new pieces, the Saints will have a shot at more than they've accomplished the last two years.

 
  AP Photo/Mike McCarn; AP Photo/Don Heupel; Crystal LoGiudice/US PRESSWIRE
  Dan Morgan, Jabari Greer and Malcolm Jenkins are among the new faces in New Orleans trying to turn around what has been a lackluster defense the past few years.

Posted by ESPN.com's Pat Yasinskas

For the early scouting report on Gregg Williams' defense, let's turn to the guy who has the best view.

That's New Orleans quarterback Drew Brees.

"I think his style of football is one that breeds confidence and almost borderline arrogance out there that 'We're going to come after you and get you'," Brees said. "I love that attitude."

Brees, and anyone who plays or roots for the Saints, should love that attitude. It's a sharp departure from the past when the prevailing attitude seemed to be something more like "we're not coming after you."

That's a big part of the reason why the Saints missed the playoffs the last two seasons. They've had one of the league's best offenses, but it hasn't really mattered because the defense hasn't been able to stop anybody.

Blame it on former coordinator Gary Gibbs, injuries and personnel. That's what the Saints did, judging by what they've done in the offseason. They've got a bunch of injured guys back and healthy as they work their way through organized team activities (OTAs). They've got a slew of new faces all over the defense after focusing almost exclusively on that side of the ball in free agency and the draft.

But, most of all, they've got Williams.

(Read full post)

 
  US PRESSWIRE
  How will NFC South defensive backs fare against the bevy of tight ends including Tony Gozalez, Kellen Winslow and Jeremy Shockey?

Posted by ESPN.com's Pat Yasinskas

With the NFC South suddenly becoming a hub for tight ends, a very big question rises.

Who's going to cover all these guys?

Presumably, the outside linebackers and safeties. Does the NFC South have enough talent at those positions to keep up with Tony Gonzalez, Kellen Winslow and Jeremy Shockey? We'll find out in the fall, but I'm thinking linebackers and safeties could have a lot more value in the NFC South in this weekend's draft.

Think about it a bit.

Let's say you're the Saints and you're sitting there at No. 14. There's been lots of talk about taking running back Chris "Beanie'' Wells, defensive back Malcolm Jenkins or maybe even a defensive tackle. But, after Thursday's trade of Gonzalez to Atlanta, you're suddenly faced with the prospect of facing him and Winslow in four games.

You've got experience at outside linebacker in Dan Morgan, Scott Fujita and Scott Shanle, but do any of those guys have the legs to run with Gonzalez or Winslow? If you're the Saints, you suddenly might want to slide Brian Cushing and Clay Matthews, the two USC linebackers who could be available when you pick, up a few spots on your draft board.

Same story for the Bucs, who are sitting at No. 19. They've already overhauled their linebacker corps by signing Angelo Crowell and moving safety Jermaine Phillips to weak-side linebacker. But the thought of facing Shockey and Gonzalez on a regular basis might make it difficult to pass on Matthews or Cushing. For that matter, the Bucs would have to think hard about Jenkins, if he's available.

Part of the reason for moving Phillips to linebacker was a desire to get Sabby Piscitelli into the starting lineup at strong safety. But is Piscitelli ready to line up against Shockey and Gonzalez?

The Falcons, who hold the No. 24 pick, have needs at defensive tackle, defensive end and cornerback. But they might have to put more emphasis on their needs at safety because of changing landscape of tight ends in the NFC South. Matthews, Cushing and Western Michigan safety Louis Delmas might have jumped up Atlanta's board in recent days.

Carolina doesn't pick until the second round (No. 59 overall) and the Panthers are in good shape at outside linebacker. They've got some big needs on the defensive line, but they might not be able to sit still at safety in the second or third round. Strong safety Chris Harris isn't known for his coverage skills and second-year pro Charles Godfrey still is trying to grow into the free safety job.

How NFC South defenses try to counter the upgrades at tight end is one story line to follow throughout the draft. Here are four more NFC South story lines to follow.

What happens with Julius Peppers? This situation has been simmering in Carolina for months and it could be ready to boil over. Peppers has said he wants out of Carolina and the Panthers have said they want him back.

But Peppers has strapped Carolina's cap situation with his $17 million franchise tag. If some other team steps forward with a deal that includes a first-round pick, the Panthers almost have to take it. The alternative is to hang on to Peppers at his current price and the Panthers are ready to do that.

In that situation, the common assumption is that Peppers has no choice but to put in another season with the Panthers. But don't assume anything with Peppers. This thing has never been about money and Peppers is a very unique individual. It's not out of the realm of possibility that he would hold out and pass on the $17 million.

Will Sean Payton be able to keep his hands off the offense? That's not going to be easy for the New Orleans coach. Payton's background and passion is on the offensive side, but his future is on the defensive side. As tempting as it may be to draft Wells to give the Saints a power back, Payton may have to go outside his comfort zone.

The defense is the reason the Saints haven't made the playoffs the last two seasons. They've spent the offseason overhauling the defense. Now, it's time to finish the job. Payton has switched defensive coordinators and that pulls away a layer of insulation on his own job security. If defense keeps this team out of the playoffs again, it might be Payton's turn to take the fall.

Are the Bucs really content with their quarterback situation? Kansas State's Josh Freeman is at least a consideration in the first round. But Tampa Bay has so many other needs that it might not make a lot of sense to take a quarterback who might not be ready to play right away.

The Bucs signed Byron Leftwich and he certainly is a candidate to start. But think back to one of the first moves coach Raheem Morris and general manager Mark Dominik made when they took over. They re-signed Luke McCown and paid him pretty good money. There was a reason for that. Morris and Dominik want McCown to be their starter.

Can Atlanta rebuild its defense in one draft? That's pretty much what the Falcons have to do after parting ways with Keith Brooking, Lawyer Milloy, Grady Jackson, Domonique Foxworth and Michael Boley. The Gonzalez move means that the Falcons will focus almost their entire draft on defense, except for possibly adding a little depth on the offensive line.

Atlanta's only addition on defense was adding linebacker Mike Peterson. There's some good, young talent in place with defensive tackle Jonathan Babineaux, middle linebacker Curtis Lofton and cornerback Chris Houston.

But the Falcons need some more young talent on this defense. They need to walk out of this draft with at least two defensive starters.

 
  US Presswire
  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.

  2008: Best of Drew Brees
  NFL.com Video
  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.

THE SCHEDULE

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.

YOUTH MOVEMENT

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.

STAR POWER

 
  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.

MOMENTUM

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.

CONCLUSION

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.

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