Vargas: Smith injury has Saints scrambling for solutions

by ramon antonio vargas

rvargas@theadvocate.com

Speaking at a Greater New Orleans Quarterback Club luncheon in Mid-City on Monday, Saints’ pro scouting director Terry Fontenot rattled off a few reasons his audience should be excited about the upcoming season.

There’s the big performances drafted rookies have delivered, and the fact that there are undrafted rookies and long-shot free agents who are making it difficult to deny them a spot on the 53-man roster.

But the fact Fontenot was talking at all was the first sign that not all was right at the Saints facility on Airline Drive. General Manager Mickey Loomis was supposed to be the speaker at the luncheon, but he asked Fontenot to fill in for him not long before the engagement started at The Cannery on Toulouse Street, according to Fontenot.

Around the time the luncheon wrapped up, news broke that linebacker Will Smith would miss the year after suffering a knee injury against the Houston Texans on Sunday. Smith became the second projected starting outside linebacker in the Saints’ new 3-4 alignment to suffer a season-ending knee injury since June, when Victor Butler tore an anterior cruciate ligament during organized team activities.

It later became clear the Saints weren’t thrilled with what remained at outside linebacker after they lost Smith. On Monday night, the San Jose Mercury News reported that the Saints made a trade to acquire outside linebacker Parys Haralson from the San Francisco 49ers, a transaction New Orleans had not immediately confirmed.

The Saints have shown this year that in the wake of an injury like Smith’s they are willing to give players lower on the depth chart the chance to prove they are capable of filling the void.

Stills, Andy Tanner and Preston Parker all caught two touchdown passes in the first three weeks of the preseason after the season-ending knee injury to No. 3 wide receiver candidate Joe Morgan on Aug. 3.

Meanwhile, undrafted rookie defensive end Glenn Foster has four sacks and one forced fumble in the first three weeks of the preseason after a torn pectoral muscle ended the year for Kenyon Coleman on Aug. 5.

Fontenot on Monday referred to Stills by name, and he seemed to be alluding to Foster, Parker and Tanner.

The ground at outside linebacker didn’t seem to be as fertile. Before the report of the Haralson trade, all eyes were going to first turn to Martez Wilson, a third-round pick in 2011, and Galette, who made the Saints as an undrafted rookie in 2010.

They both have the speed and tall, bulky frame to be outside pass-rushing threats. But so far, Wilson and Galette have missed all three preseason games with an elbow injury and a leg problem.

Wilson at least had been practicing with the team in the days before the Texans game, but Galette has been out since leaving a session early on Aug. 7.

Beyond those two, there’s outside linebacker Jay Richardson, who has had a good preseason, starting the three games so far opposite Smith. But Richardson hasn’t been able to make an NFL roster since spending 2007 to 2009 with Oakland and 2010 with Seattle.

For now, the rest of the outside linebackers on the roster — rookie Rufus Johnson, a sixth-round pick; undrafted rookie Eric Martin; and Baraka Atkins, who has three seasons of NFL experience but has not made a team since 2009 — seem to be viewed as backups at best by the Saints’ coaching staff.

Haralson, for his part, had been with the 49ers since his rookie year in 2006, and his résumé doesn’t rival Smith’s. His best year, 2008, saw him get eight sacks. He had 11 in the next three seasons before missing 2012 with a torn triceps tendon.

At the luncheon, Fontenot hinted something could be in the works to boost the linebacker positions. An audience member asked him whether the Saints were comfortable with the depth there; he said they were but would evaluate players around the league to see if “some holes could be filled.”

After all, there are less than two weeks to go before the Saints play the Atlanta Falcons at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome on Sept. 8 to open the regular season.

Fontenot recounted that he had been viewing game film of the Falcons before heading to the luncheon and judged that Atlanta is loaded at the skill positions on offense. He named tight end Tony Gonzalez and running back Steven Jackson, but he could’ve also mentioned wide receivers Julio Jones, Roddy White and Matt Ryan.

“I hate the Falcons,” he said, prompting agreement, laughter and applause in the room. “They’re good.”