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2008 Season Preview: New Orleans SaintsJeff Risdon. 1st September, 2008 - 7:16 pm
Last Season: 7-9, T-2nd in NFC South, -9 point differential, -7 turnover ratio
Additions: CB Randall Gay, TE Jeremy Shockey, DE Bobby McCray, CB Aaron Glenn, LB Jonathan Vilma, C Matt Lehr, QB Mark Brunell
Subtractions: C Jeff Faine, CB Fred Thomas, K Olindo Mare, LB Brian Simmons, DE Renaldo Wynn, S Steve Gleason, QB Jamie Martin, S Jay Bellamy
Rookies of Note: DT Sedrick Ellis, CB Tracy Porter
What I like
Offense: Even with their slow start in 2007, the Saints finished in the upper echelon of the league nearly across the board offensively. It all starts with QB Drew Brees and his impeccable accuracy and touch. Brees answered all questions about his health with another strong season, where he finished second in passing yards and QB rating. How well Brees handled a slow start from his offensive linemen nearly salvaged a playoff berth for the Saints, and it speaks to how much the team believes in him and supports him. There is no reason to expect his outstanding finish to 2007 won?t carry over to 2008.
The recent addition of Jeremy Shockey adds another dimension that should play well in New Orleans. Shockey provides more of a downfield threat from the TE position than the Saints have had, and he also represents a major upgrade at blocking. He wore out his welcome in New York with his nonstop talking, complaining, and hyper-competitiveness, but the Saints might benefit from an infusion of nastiness and fire. One of the biggest issues facing them was an overall lack of veteran drive and a hatred of losing. With the controversial but talented Shockey on board, complacency should disappear from the huddle.
Adding Shockey should open things up even more for wideouts Marques Colston, David Patten, Robert Meacham, who should capture the #3 spot. Colston has been one of the most productive receivers over the last two seasons, and he understands how to use his size. Patten notched a career year at age 33, and his 14.7 YPC indicate he?s more than the possession receiver he?s often labeled. He is also a strong mentor and locker room presence. Robert Meacham can certainly benefit; his rookie year was a washout of inactivity spawned from showing up to camp fat and never grasping the offense. Multiple sources indicate Meacham got the message and looks very much like the 1st round pick the Saints thought they were getting last year. With Lance Moore and Devery Henderson, the team has an ample cadre of capable depth--Moore would likely start in Miami, Chicago or Kansas City but might be a weekly healthy scratch in New Orleans.
The front five lost chronically underrated C Jeff Faine, but the guards and tackles all return for a 3rd season together. After a sluggish start in 07, LT Jammal Brown rebounded into Pro Bowl form at about the same time Brees took off. That is not a coincidence. Brown and his mates allowed just 16 sacks and did a nice job moving the pocket around, as Brees likes to roll to a side and then throw. RG Jahri Evans is an elite run blocker who consistently seals open holes. It?s a unit that excels at pass blocking, but it?s also a better run blocking unit than the rushing stats would indicate. There is good depth, potentially anyways, as the team wisely added veteran utility man Matt Lehr to fill in new starting C Jonathan Goodwin?s old role. Youngsters Carl Nicks and Zach Strief are both potential future starters with size and attitude.
The Saints have an embarrassment of options in the return game although they didn?t get much help from some truly lousy blocking in 2007. Pierre Thomas, Reggie Bush, Aaron Stecker, Tracy Porter, and Lance Moore have all been exceptional return men at various points of their football careers. Expect a more productive special teams unit this season.
Defense: Even though they didn?t have the great 2007 many (including me) anticipated, the DE duo of Charles Grant and Will Smith remains fully capable of being the top pass-rushing duo in the league. Adding Bobby McCray brings fresh depth and another big end with the ability to get to the QB. That gives the Saints three different ends who have recorded double-digit sack seasons within the last 3 years, the only team in the league that can say that. The Saints drafted DT Sedrick Ellis with the 7th overall pick on the expectation that the former USC star can provide the inside pass rush that he used to terrorize the PAC 10. His package of size and quickness are impressive and he earned a starting job despite a small holdout. Ellis flat-out dominated the competition at the Senior Bowl and during workouts. New Orleans has nice depth along the front, with veteran hole plugger Hollis Thomas, Kendrick Clancy (who will start at RDT), Bryant Young, and Antwan Lake. Will Smith didn?t let his poor sack total impact his very strong edge run support, which allows the linebackers behind him to range unblocked more than usual.
After swinging and missing with now-retired Dan Morgan, the Saints found the impact MLB they?ve craved with former Jet star Jonathan Vilma. The 2004 Rookie of the Year earned that accolade playing in a very similar defense to this one, and he should bounce right back near the top of the league tackle tally. His athleticism and coverage ability are hue upgrades over Mark Simoneau, who now gets to provide depth. OLB Scott Fujita is a steady presence with a knack for stripping the ball, and he drops into coverage pretty well for a tall, relatively stiff guy.
What I dislike
Offense: My primary question revolves around the running game. The injury to Deuce McAllister devastated the rushing attack and fundamentally altered the offense. The run blocking strength is in the interior, but other than some nice flashes from 4th stringer Aaron Stecker, the interior run game vanished without Deuce. McAllister and the team both say his rehab is progressing nicely, but I?ll believe he?s back to his old reliable self when I see it. Reggie Bush is an intriguing weapon who is very nicely living up to the pre-draft Eric Metcalf comparison I pegged on him, but the one thing he is clearly not is a power runner. Much like the dreaded ?Metcalf up the Middle? during Belichick?s Cleveland reign, Bush isn?t so much not a good player but more a misused talent. He is not a feature back that a team can pound with 20+ carries and expect great things. Bush needs to be a change-of-pace back who gets the ball on toss sweeps, draws from the shotgun, and screens. When the Saints have used him in that role he?s been quite effective and impressive. Bush is also outstanding as a slot wideout. Hopefully Coach Payton took a step back and realized that how he used Bush in 2006 needs to be how Bush is used in 2008 and beyond. With the depth at RB even without a healthy McAllister return, the Saints should have little trouble making that work. Pierre Thomas was mighty impressive in late-season duty, and Stecker has always played well when given the opportunity. The potential for a very strong running game is certainly there, but how well Coach Payton manages it and how well either McAllister or Thomas can pound between the tackles remains an open question.
Defense: Watching the pass coverage in 2007 often caused me great physical pain and many a Saints fan to obscenely hurl projectiles at their televisions. The cornerback play was simply awful, and the safeties did not provide much help. The inability pressure the QB as expected was certainly a factor, and an improvement in that aspect will help, as will some personnel changes in the secondary. Randall Gay was brought in from New England to replace the truly dreadful Jason David at one corner spot. Gay is generally solid but unspectacular, which should be a monumental upgrade. If veteran Mike McKenzie is fully recovered from knee surgery, the other side will improve, but it?s hard to gauge how well the 32-year old will come back. 2nd round pick Tracy Porter has earned raves from many observers, and I favorably scouted him at Indiana. He lacks size, and tackling is not Porter?s forte, but his speed and unwavering confidence should help out in the nickel package. With Usama Young also showing improvement this offseason, the corners will be better. This group has to significantly improve just to be adequate, however.
New Orleans already has health concerns up front. Bryant Young has a foot injury that will certainly slow him, if not shut him down. Hollis Thomas is out until Halloween with a triceps tear. That is a lot of beef to replace up front. Vilma is trying to bounce back from a bum knee in addition to re-learning his position. Mark Simoneau is hurting with a bad back, the kind of injury that lingers. The depth in the front 7 will be tested early.
The Saints are still undecided on a placekicker as of this writing. Any time you have a battle that last deep into August, things rarely turn out well. Martin Gramatica is more accurate on FG's but has weak range,while rookie Taylor Melhoff has a huge leg but lacks control (Note: Melhoff was released, leaving the job to Gramatica). They are still smarting from the loss of John Carney before the 2007 season.
Best Case: Brees? hot finish carries over, and the Saints' passing game remains in the top 3; Coach Payton figures out how to use Reggie Bush, and the run game takes off around that; Sed Ellis is the force many expect him to be in the middle of the defense; the secondary stops giving up far more long passes than any other team; whoever wins the kicking gig turns out to be a pleasant surprise; Vilma proves Jets coach Eric Mangini is an idiot by having a strong rebound season back in his natural 4-3 MLB spot; the safeties and LBs force more turnovers, helped by strong bounceback years from Will Smith and Charles Grant at DE. On paper, this team is talented enough across the board to win the underrated NFC South and perhaps a playoff game or two. If the new additions in the secondary make a huge impact and the offense is hot, the Super Bowl is within reach.
Worst Case: Pass coverage remains a sick joke, and the pass rush doesn?t improve enough to consistently cover the secondary; no WR other than Colston plays to his expected level, giving Brees fewer options and making life easier on opposing defenses; the kicking game is subpar and the return game doesn?t improve; Reggie Bush remains an enigma, and McAllister fails to make a near-complete recovery; that turnover margin doesn?t improve to at least an even zero. Teams that have to outscore every opponent instead of being able to win games 17-13 typically have a real high risk of bellyflopping, and this team is no exception.
Bellwether Games: The Saints are one of the few teams where these games are not grouped together. The games that will show you the true colors of the black and gold are the opener at home against Tampa Bay, Week 3 at Denver, and hosting San Diego in Week 8. The Bucs' game provides an early measuring stick against the defending division champs while the AFC West foes are two teams that can really light up the scoreboard and have strong talent in pass defense.
Prediction: The Saints will bounce back from a disappointing 2007, thanks to improvement in both the pass rush and special teams return units. This group probably isn?t as dynamic as the 06 version that made it to the NFC title game, but the Saints drew a favorable schedule and have enough firepower to get back into the playoffs and pose a real threat once they get there. New Orleans finishes 10-6 and earns a playoff berth.