2011 team previews
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Recent posts by Dan Parr
After finishing last season on the losing end of a stunning upset, the Saints enter 2011 looking to shake off a first-round exit from the playoffs. The franchise had its sights set on another title run following its Super Bowl win at the conclusion of the '09 campaign. The Saints, who were hit hard by injuries in '10, have not altered the trajectory of their gaze, despite last season's disappointment.
With a little more luck in terms of health and improved play, particularly from the front seven on defense, the Saints could find themselves in a familiar spot — battling for first place in the NFC South.
They will attempt to reach that goal without some familiar faces. TE Jeremy Shockey was released after the season, and RB Reggie Bush was dealt to the Dolphins. Younger contributors like Jimmy Graham, a playmaking tight end, and first-round RB Mark Ingram will have to step up for the team to get back into the late stages of the postseason.
With Drew Brees leading the way on the field and Sean Payton calling the plays, it's a safe bet that the offense will be potent again. In order to recapture the magic of the '09 team, coordinator Gregg Williams' defense will have to be more opportunistic than it was last season.
The Saints know just how dominant they can be when they're forcing turnovers and maintaining a balanced, well-executed attack on offense. Getting back to the top will be a major challenge, however, with the division-rival Falcons on the rise.
New Orleans scored almost eight points per game fewer in 2010 than it did in '09. Much of the decline had to with the lack of balance on offense and injuries to the running backs. The Saints know that a more even approach between the pass and the run is key, which is why they traded a second-round pick and a first-round pick next year to draft Mark Ingram 28th overall. Sean Payton is one of the sharper offensive minds around, and he's an aggressive play-caller, willing to take risks in big moments. The Saints run a hybrid version of the West Coast offense. Payton uses many different formations and personnel groupings. He's very good at setting up mismatches and exploiting them.
Quarterbacks: Drew Brees is one of the league's more valuable players. He has been prolific, throwing at least 33 touchdown passes in each of the past three seasons, and he also has been the league's most accurate passer in each of the past two seasons. Though he lacks great height and suffered a career-threatening shoulder injury during the 2005 season, Brees has overcome obstacles, and his resiliency is part of what makes him great. He's very smart and a natural leader. Brees is precise, gets rid of the ball quickly, fits it into tight windows and has quick feet to elude pass rushers. The 11th-year veteran has the arm strength to make all the throws, and he manipulates safeties with his eyes. However, he will make a bad decision with the ball on occasion and threw a career-high 22 interceptions in '10. The Saints are developing Chase Daniel and Sean Canfield behind Brees. Like Brees, Daniel doesn't have prototypical height, but he is athletic enough to move around in the pocket and has been a winner throughout his playing career. Arm strength is an issue for Canfield, but he's accurate on shorter throws.
Running backs: The Saints were aggressive in this year's draft, trading back into the first round to select Mark Ingram, the most complete back available. He lacks the top-end speed of the league's elite backs but is well-built and has the stamina and toughness to handle 20 carries per game. The Saints signed Darren Sproles, an elusive rusher, to help fill the void left by Reggie Bush's departure. The diminutive Sproles is very quick. He's a skilled receiver and return man, too. Pierre Thomas has proven he can be the featured back, but it appears that he will be in a timeshare situation, with Ingram expected to carry a decent load and Sproles serving as the change-of-pace back. Thomas doesn't have great size, speed or power, but he can fight for tough yards inside or outside and is a solid pass catcher. While Thomas and Bush were banged up last season, Chris Ivory, an undrafted rookie in 2010, made the most of his opportunity. Ivory, a powerful between-the-tackles banger, is recovering from foot and hernia surgery and could start the season on the PUP list. Former Packer Korey Hall is the top fullback on the roster. He has the hard-nosed temperament the position calls for and has good hands to contribute as a receiver.
Receivers: The Saints spread the ball around to get all their receivers involved, but Marques Colston is considered the No. 1 in the group. He's a big target with good strength, and he has been highly productive, gaining more than 1,000 yards and scoring at least seven touchdowns in four of his five seasons. He's elusively quick and has the suddenness to shake corners. Colston, who is tough and willing to play through pain, has undergone several surgeries in recent years, including a knee surgery this offseason that sidelined him for a chunk of training camp. Devery Henderson has great straight-line speed and maintains good body control, but he will struggle to catch the ball cleanly at times. His numbers dipped significantly last season. After a breakout year in 2009, Robert Meachem looked less explosive last season, and it might have had something to do with an ankle that he said nagged him the whole season. He underwent surgery on it in the offseason — his third surgery since entering the league — but he appears to have recovered from his latest procedure. When healthy, Meachem has the speed to separate and boasts good size. Drew Brees is a big supporter of Lance Moore, and it was no surprise the Saints re-signed him this offseason. Moore runs precise routes, has good hands and will play in the slot. TE Jimmy Graham was very effective when used in the red zone last season and will be the primary target at tight end. He has strong hands and can beat the jam. Graham was raw entering the league after having played only one year of college football, but he's developing quickly and has great upside. TE David Thomas is an effective but not dominant blocker and a good pass catcher. He will split time with Graham.
Offensive linemen: The front five boasts an elite tandem at guard. Jahri Evans, a two-time All-Pro right guard, can get to the second level in the running game and block a linebacker in space. He has started every game since he entered the league. OLG Carl Nicks, a Pro Bowler last season, has more size than Evans, is very athletic and has quick feet. He's a dominant run blocker. Both set quickly in pass protection and don't get beat often. Each of them, however, had bad moments last season, and Evans drew an uncharacteristically high number of penalties (a career-high 10, according to STATS LLC). The Saints re-signed OLT Jermon Bushrod to a two-year deal this offseason after he did a solid job as a starter the previous two seasons. He's not elite, but he has good size, strength and is light enough on his feet to slide and seal off the edge. Longtime ORT Jon Stinchcomb, the senior member of the O-line, underwent arthroscopic knee surgery after last season, and the Saints made the tough decision to part ways with him in camp, leaving Zach Strief and OT Charles Brown, a 2010 second-round pick, to battle to replace him. Strief is smart, reliable, knows the system and is the favorite to start at right tackle. Brown needs time to work on technique. He has the measurables, but he's likely to get at least another season to back up and develop. Durable former Bear Olin Kreutz was signed to take over at center. Kreutz, a six-time Pro Bowler, is on the decline, but he should benefit from playing between two of the league's top guards. The Saints decided OG-C Matt Tennant wasn't ready for a starting job, but he could be the top center in a year.
The Saints' defense gave up 41 points in the playoff loss to a Seahawks team that scored fewer than 20 points per game in the regular season. It was a performance that overshadowed an otherwise solid year for the defense, which ranked fourth in the league, and aggressive coordinator Gregg Williams is no doubt eager to change the story line for his group. The Saints run a 4-3 base and have relied on a wide variety of blitz packages to get heat on quarterbacks. New Orleans has done more than get by without many playmakers in the front seven in recent seasons, but the team used the draft and free agency to restock that area.
Defensive linemen: DE Will Smith's production dipped significantly last season — he had only 5½ sacks — but he is still a complete player. He's quick, powerful and has a collection of pass-rush moves. Smith can stack the point against the run, he pursues down the line when the ball is run away from him and then he is fast enough to catch runners. The Saints are awaiting word on whether Smith will serve a long-delayed suspension to open the season for taking a banned substance. Alex Brown always has been considered more of a run-stuffing end, but his two sacks in 2010 were a career low. He could cede snaps to rookie Cameron Jordan. Jordan is versatile and can play inside or outside. He moves well for his size but lacks strength to anchor. Turk McBride, a free-agent acquisition, is coming off the best season of his career and also can line up at tackle or end. Rookie Greg Romeus looks the part. He's rehabbing an injured knee and is a candidate to start the season on the PUP list. On the interior, the Saints are bullish on the massive trio of Shaun Rogers, Sedrick Ellis and Aubrayo Franklin. Rogers, who can be dominant when healthy, signed with New Orleans after being released by the Browns. Size, power and quickness — Rogers has a unique blend of all three. Ellis is coming off the healthiest and most productive season of his career. He has a thick trunk and is very strong. Franklin, a standout nose tackle the past four seasons with the 49ers, has the size and strength to take on a double-team and can help keep blockers away from the second level. He suffered a sprained medial collateral ligament in the preseason, but it shouldn't keep him sidelined for too long.
Linebackers: A leader on defense, veteran MLB Jonathan Vilma has been highly productive throughout his career, and he has made his share of big plays since joining the Saints in 2008. Although he doesn't have great size and will get caught in the wash at times, Vilma is tough and instinctive and doesn't miss many tackles. He is usually excellent in coverage and reads and reacts quickly. While Vilma is a staple in the middle, there is heated competition to fill out the rest of the LB corps. Jonathan Casillas won the starting job on the weak side in camp last year, but he suffered a foot injury shortly after the promotion and landed on injured reserve. Casillas could eventually beat out longtime Saint Scott Shanle to start on the weak side. Casillas lacks great size, and his durability is a concern, but he can cover a lot of ground. Free-agent addition Will Herring is leading the competition to start on the strong side. Rookie Martez Wilson is raw and could use some seasoning, but he'll likely be used in certain packages.
Defensive backs: Coming off one of the more impressive performances by a Saint last season, Malcolm Jenkins heads into his second year as the team's starting free safety. Jenkins transitioned to the position after playing corner as a rookie, and he proved to be a quick study. Jenkins has good length, knows how to read a quarterback's eyes and is willing to mix it up inside the box. He can be beaten deep, however. SS Roman Harper had a nightmarish game in the playoff loss to Seattle, but he has played at a Pro Bowl level. He's vulnerable to getting exploited in coverage, but he's an asset inside the box. At left corner, Jabari Greer has struggled to stay healthy the past few seasons. He has great speed and a quick twitch, but bigger receivers will win battles against him. RCB Tracy Porter also has been nagged by injuries. Tackling isn't one of his strengths, as he avoids contact at times. Porter is dependable in coverage and has good speed. Loose-hipped and fluid, Patrick Robinson had some ups and downs in his first season, but the Saints spent a 2010 first-round pick on him, and he'll be expected to improve and challenge for playing time in sub packages, as will rookie Johnny Patrick. Patrick is willing to support against the run, but he doesn't have elite speed or explosion.
The Saints have stuck with PK Garrett Hartley through some rocky times, including the early part of last season, and they made a long-term commitment to him in the offseason, signing him to a five-year deal. Hartley's issues have been more mental than physical, but he has made clutch kicks for New Orleans. He has a powerful leg and split kickoff duties with P Thomas Morstead last season. Morstead, who is strong-legged, gets good hang time on his punts, giving the coverage time to get downfield. He's not intimidated by the big moment. Lance Moore, Devery Henderson and Darren Sproles are expected to handle most of the return duties, although rookie Joseph Morgan is pushing for a job after an impressive training camp.
While younger players are being added to the mix, this is mostly a veteran team that has experienced the highs and lows of the postseason. They know the pitfalls that can creep up on a club that has had success. Still, the Saints play in a challenging division, and the Falcons and Buccaneers will not be intimidated. New Orleans has the potential to be dominant on offense, and if the defense does its part, the Saints will contend again.
To order the digital edition of Pro Football Weekly's 2011 NFL Preview magazine, visit the PFW Store. The publication contains scouting reports on all 32 teams, rosters, depth charts, positional grades and 2010 week-by-week stats. Also, the magazine includes PFW's exclusive player rankings feature, ranking the top players in the league by position and overall.