These Saints May Have Answers
Ten burning questions the Saints must answer during training camp at Millsaps:
1) Have the Saints significantly improved themselves in the secondary, where they were most vulnerable late last season?
The Saints benefited from the league's most explosive offense and still lost six games. Obviously, it's the defense that needs the most improvement, and it was leaky pass coverage that hurt the Saints most late in the season and in the playoffs.
The New Orlean Saints used both the draft and free agency to try to address the situation, signing cornerback Jason David away from the Super Bowl champion Indianapolis Colts and drafting Usama Young out of Kent State in the second round. David will have to do much more man-to-man coverage in the Saints' system than he did with the Colts.
If nothing else, the competition should help. So should getting safety Roman Harper back from an injury that curtailed his promising rookie season.
2) Will off-season acquisitions at linebacker make the Saints significantly better at that position?
The Saints clearly have tried to upgrade a position where they were better than anybody expected them to be last year.
Veteran Scott Fujita was outstanding. The Saints added Brian Simmons, a 10-year pro and former first-round draft choice, who has been a steady contributor for the Cincinnati Bengals. Simmons is versatile, having started in the middle and on the outside.
Just recently, the Saints signed Dhani Jones, a seven-year player, who they expect to help on the outside after starting 76 NFL games for the Giants and Eagles. The Saints also signed free agent Troy Evans away from the Houston Texans and took Tennessee linebacker Marvin Mitchell in the seventh round of the draft. Again, increased competition, alone, should make the Saints better.
3) Can quarterback Drew Brees make it through another season healthy? If not, is Jamie Martin an adequate backup?
Huge questions, but not as big as the one Brees answered last year. This time last year, everyone wondered whether he could come back from the shoulder injury that scared off other NFL teams. Brees was sensational and he did stay healthy, thanks to a quick release and a better-than-expected offensive line.
It also helps when Deuce McAllister picks up blitzes like with the strength of a guard. If Brees goes down, 13-year journeyman Martin is the backup. That's a big drop-off, but most NFL teams would be stuck in a similar situation if they lost the starting QB. Look for Martin to get lots and lots of playing time in the preseason.
4) Michael Lewis (a.k.a., Beer Man) is no longer a Saint. How much of that kick returning load will Reggie Bush assume? If not him, then whom?
There probably wasn't a single Saints fan who was glad to see Lewis, one of the team's most popular players, go.
The Saints will use Bush more on kick returns but will look for another return man, as well. They won't use Bush all the time for kick and punt returns. Aaron Stecker, Lance Moore and Terrance Copper are all possibilities.
5) Have the Saints made themselves better at tight end?
It's a shame Ernie Conwell, released in February, couldn't stay healthy. He was a good one. Mark Campbell, a rugged blocker, filled in admirably last season, but the Saints upgraded by signing Eric Johnson away from the San Francisco 49ers.
Brees used his tight end, Antonio Gates, as one of his most effective weapons when he was with the Chargers. Johnson isn't Gates, but he has caught as many as 82 passes in an NFL season and is much more of a receiving threat than the Saints have had lately at the position.
6) Is there a Jahri Evans or Marques Colston among this year's draft choices?
Would that be unbelievable or what? Where would the Saints have been last year without seventh-round choice Colston (Hofstra) or fourth-round choice Evans (Bloomsburg)? Both became rookie starters and standouts.
The Saints went mining for unknown talent again this year and the most likely hits are second-round choice Usama Young (Kent State) at corner or Andy Alleman (Akron) at guard. Frankly, it would be expecting too much to find two more gems like Evans and Colston.
7) Joe Horn is gone. Who will step up at wide receiver?
The Saints obviously believe first-round choice Robert Meachem (Tennessee) has all the tools to be a big-time NFL player.
Meachem got off to a slow, injury-plagued start in the off-season, but Tennessee offensive coordinator and former Ole Miss head coach David Cutcliffe loves the guy and expects him to contribute immediately in New Orleans. Devery Henderson, the former LSU star, has shown flashes. WIth more consistency, he would be hard to supplant as the No. 2 threat behind Colston. In fact, he could be a co-No. 1 threat.
8) The Saints' offensive line was remarkably injury-free in 2006. Is there depth there if injuries do occur?
Last year, at this time, depth wasn't the issue. We all wondered if the Saints could block anyone, period.
Offensive line coach (and offensive coordinator) Doug Marrone did one of the most remarkable jobs of any coach in the league last year or any year, putting together a line that more than held its own. That line should be even more effective after having played together for a season. Again, the added competition should make them better still. Keeping free agent right tackle Jon Stinchcomb is a huge plus.
9) Will new kicking specialist Olindo Mare adequately replace the departed Jon Carney?
There's no reason why he shouldn't be more than adequate. Mare has more range and has been just as accurate as Carney (who earned his pay and then some).
Mare, like any kicker, should benefit from kicking mostly in a domed stadium.
10) How will the Saints handle success?
That may be the most important question of all.
Because of last year's success, they will play a more difficult schedule. There will be no surprise factor. Everyone knows the Saints are a good team. This time last year, the question was whether the Saints could beat anybody. The question this year: Can they take it another step, to the Super Bowl?
At least on paper, they are better than they were a year ago. Strange as it sounds, the Saints have as good a chance as anybody to represent the NFC in the Super Bowl.
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