METAIRIE, La. -- Five observations on the New Orleans Saints, based on the training camp practice of Aug. 12 and the preseason game of Aug. 13:
1. Several weeks ago in a story about which teams possessed the deepest units at various positions, we opined that the Saints had the league's best numbers on the defensive line, and that New Orleans ranked near the top of the NFL in offensive line depth as well. This visit has done nothing to challenge that opinion. Unlike too many franchises, the football people here, general manager Mickey Loomis and coach Jim Haslett, have consciously sought over the years to build up solid numbers on both line units and the efforts are paying off nicely. The lines feature, quality, depth, competition and a pretty nice mix of mid-career veterans. On defense the Saints arguably have six ends who can play in the league and, assuming second-year pro Johnathan Sullivan ever gets his weight under some semblance of control, four tackles. Sullivan is currently running with the second unit and, while the Saints need him to step up, his demotion has provided the staff an opportunity to take a look at Howard Green, a big slug of a runner stuffer. The guy who figures to make the biggest difference inside, though, is veteran free agent Brian Young, signed from the St. Louis Rams. The Saints targeted Young right after the season as a guy they wanted to pursue. The reason: Besides being a productive player, Young plays with a big motor, and New Orleans officials hope his fire will rub off on some of their younger players (hint: Sullivan). In addition, Young is a stabilizing presence in the locker room. The newcomer to really watch, though, is first-round defensive end Will Smith. How other teams that needed an end in general and a pass rusher specifically ever let Smith drop to the 18th overall spot in the first round is puzzling. The Saints feel that, in time, Smith will be their best lineman. He'll get a chance to play in the "sub" pass rush schemes immediately, because he can play all over the place, including some snaps as a stand-up linebacker. On Friday night, he used a forearm shiver to knock Jets rookie tackle Adrian Jones on his heels, then burst inside of him to complete a two-yard sack. Starters Charles Grant, who still has to control his emotions, and "franchise" player Darren Howard, aren't exactly chopped liver, either. Grant notched double-digit sacks for the first time in 2003 and should annually be in that category. Howard is coming off a broken wrist but still had five sacks in only eight games. New Orleans showed some foresight in drafting Smith because Howard, who signed only the one-year franchise qualifying offer, could depart after this season. One of the surprises of camp, to this point, has been former Raiders defensive end Tony Bryant, a 40-game starter who is making a comeback after neck surgery and an idle 2003 season.
The offensive line isn't far behind in terms of impressive numbers. After two seasons at right guard, LeCharles Bentley slides over to center, and he has been a monster there. We're betting Bentley becomes a Pro Bowl player in fairly quick order. Second-year pro Montrae Holland, another masher, takes over the right guard spot. While right tackle Victor Riley could still stand to lose some weight, Saints officials are raving about him, and he appeared in Friday night's game to be motivated again. Riley very quietly had a solid season in '03, allowing just two sacks by unofficial count, and seems ready to flourish. Suffice it to say, it's going to be a tough numbers game come cutdown time for the Saints. Guys like defensive tackle Kenny Smith and longtime starting center Jerry Fontenot, both of whom could play somewhere in the league, may have a difficult time making this roster.
2. It's obvious that, in part, the Saints are modifying some of their up-front schemes in an effort to better stop the run in 2004. New Orleans ranked 27th versus the rush in 2003, and that simply isn't good enough. The average ranking of the dozen playoff teams against the run last season was 12th, so the Saints definitely need some improvement in that key area. While no one showed much in the opening preseason contest, it was obvious Friday night against the Jets that the Saints have tightened up the front four alignment, and are playing far less one-gap, but not quite a pure two-gap technique. In fact, Howard called it the team's "one-and-a-half-gap" look. Haslett apparently got tired of having his defensive linemen run up the field, then watching opposing tailbacks run past them in the other direction. In terms of stopping the run, Young will help because, while he is very active, he is also a disciplined defender. The Saints are stressing gap control to their linemen, staying in your own lane and not overextending, and also the necessity to keep blockers off the linebackers. They're also asking their linebackers to step up now into the hole and make more plays at the line of scrimmage. That should be easier if the defensive linemen maintain gaps and eat up blockers. Watch for rookie Courtney Watson, a second-round pick from Notre Dame, to win the starting middle linebacker job. Camp opened with a three-way competition among Watson, Cie Grant and Orlando Ruff. But Watson was by far the steadiest of the three, very savvy already in alignment and assignment, and simply doesn't make mistakes. He isn't as big a hitter as the pulverizing Grant, but the latter always seems to be laid up with some nagging injury. Watson is a sure, if not very physical tackler, and the coaches feel he'll help make the run defense much better.
3. As good as the front four can be, there remain questions about the Saints secondary, which has good numbers but lacks a consistent playmaker. You don't want to criticize the unit too much, since there are seven players with at least 10 starts each, but there is a reason that New Orleans officials continue dialogue with their Green Bay counterparts about a potential trade for holdout cornerback Mike McKenzie. The Packers still want a high-round draft pick and a player, preferably veteran Willie Whitehead, but the versatile defensive lineman hasn't practiced yet in camp because of a knee injury. The odds of the Saints landing McKenzie are remote and so that means playing pretty much with the same group from a year ago. Fred Thomas is a far better corner than people realize and he literally had to escape the Philadelphia Eagles complex this spring to re-sign a deal with the Saints. It appears for now that 13th-year veteran Ashley Ambrose will start on the other side. At age 33, Ambrose relies more on instinct now than skills. And speaking of instinct, it remains the biggest shortcoming for free safety Tebucky Jones, who may never play up to his remarkable physical potential. Strong safety Jay Bellamy is coming off a splendid '03 campaign and is solid. Overall, this is a unit that will have to be protected and which will need a solid pass rush in front of it.
4. Although an injury kept Aaron Brooks out of practice on Thursday and the Friday night game, we may have to re-think our opinion on the Saints quarterback. Our perception has been, for the last several seasons, that Brooks made plays and put up pretty good numbers, but never made plays to win games. But in speaking with New Orleans officials, and looking over some documentation, Brooks has engineered 11 game-winning fourth-quarter drives in his three seasons as the starter. There aren't many coaches in the league who would pass on a guy who has averaged nearly four fourth-quarter comebacks per season, right? And at least, when the ball is in the air, Brooks takes good care of it. Last season, he had three times as many touchdown passes as interceptions (24-8), and his three-season mark in that key area is an excellent plus-35. Where he has problems is protecting the ball in the pocket. Brooks fumbled 13 times last season, in part because he doesn't protect the ball well enough, in part because he holds onto the thing too long. Brooks definitely needs to get rid of the ball, to make better and faster decisions, and to be more aware of ball security. He also needs to develop more consistency in general. Brooks can look great one week, mediocre the next, and has to avoid such disparity. He is a bit thin-skinned and doesn't handle criticism very well and, in fact, the coaches sometimes have to psychologically play a little good cop-bad cop with him. He's also not a guy who seems to inspire confidence in teammates and who is a tad shy on leadership skills. But the people here who count feel he is more than good enough to be a playoff quarterback. Is he good enough to take the Saints to a Super Bowl someday? First he's got to shepherd them back to postseason play and then we'll find out.
5. Is this the season in which 2002 first-round wide receiver Donté Stallworth moves beyond all those nagging injuries of his first two years and becomes the explosive playmaker everyone figured the former Tennessee star to be? Fantasy alert here: To this point, at least, it certainly looks that way. Stallworth has stayed healthy and, while some Saints people pretend he is still in competition with Jerome Pathon for the starting job, that is just rhetoric. Unless he pulls up lame again, Stallworth will start opposite the loquacious Joe Horn, with Pathon probably in the slot. We say "probably" because a couple young wideouts, second-year pro Talman Gardner and second-round rookie Devery Henderson, are starting to consistently make plays in practice. Henderson was a bit of a bust in the spring, during mini-camps, but the light is starting to go on and the guy has freaky-type skills. Pathon did, though, have a terrific game Friday night, making three first-down catches in the first half and finding openings in the New York secondary. But back to Stallworth: The guy has enough long speed to run past anyone in the league. Last year, he averaged 19.4 yards per catch. Unfortunately, he had just 25 receptions, 17 fewer than in his rookie season, because of injuries. If the hamstring injuries are behind him, there are going to be a lot of cornerbacks behind him, too, during the season.
Senior writer Len Pasquarelli covers the NFL for ESPN.com.