Focused on football
An extremely long and trying offseason finally comes to an end on Tuesday when the New Orleans Saints report to the team’s Metairie training facility for training camp.
At last, the Saints will be able to focus on football and forget a bounty scandal that the NFL said members of the coaching staff and defensive team were involved in over three seasons from 2009 to 2011— casting a giant shadow over the organization.
When they take the practice field for the first time Thursday, the only goal will be the regular season and their bid to become the first team to play the Super Bowl in their own stadium in February when the league’s title game returns to the Mercedes-Benz Superdome for the first time since 2002.
OFFENSE BY POSITION
UFA — unrestricted free agent; FA — free agent
RETURNEES: Drew Brees, Chase Daniel, Sean Canfield (practice squad).
TOP NEWCOMER: Luke McCown (FA, Jacksonville).
PROJECTED STARTER: Brees.
OUTLOOK: With a new contract in his pocket, Brees will look to put up huge numbers for a seventh consecutive season — and there’s no reason to believe he won’t after shattering Dan Marino’s 27-year-old single-season passing record with 5,476 yards. Brees had 46 TDs, completed 71.2 percent of his passes and had a career-best 110.6 passer rating as he led the Saints to an NFL-record 7,474 total yards. Daniel, who got the first-team snaps when Brees missed offseason workouts, will be the backup again.
RETURNEES: RB Mark Ingram, RB Darren Sproles, RB Pierre Thomas, RB Chris Ivory, FB Jed Collins, FB Corey Hall.
TOP NEWCOMER: Joe Banyard (FA, Texas-El Paso).
PROJECTED STARTERS: Ingram (RB), Collins (FB).
OUTLOOK: After ranking 28th in the league in rushing in 2010, the Saints were determined to run the ball in 2011 the way they did in 2009 when they won the Super Bowl. They accomplished that when they finished sixth with 132.9 yards per game and 4.9 yards per carry. Sproles, Thomas, Ingram and Ivory combined for 2,013 yards and 13 TDs with Sproles, Thomas and Ingram all topping 450 yards. Sproles and Thomas were also capable receivers with 86 and 50 receptions, respectively, and combined for 1,135 yards and eight TDs. Collins, a former practice squad member, won the fullback job and scored four touchdowns.
RETURNEES: Marques Colston, Lance Moore, Devery Henderson, Courtney Roby, Adrian Arrington, Joseph Morgan (injured reserve), Andy Tanner (practice squad).
TOP NEWCOMERS: Nick Toon (D4, Wisconsin).
PROJECTED STARTERS: Colston, Henderson.
OUTLOOK: The Saints receiving corps again showed why it’s among the best in the NFL as Colston and Moore had big seasons with Colston leading the way with 80 catches for 1,143 yards and eight TDs despite missing two games with a collarbone injury. Moore also had eight scores on 52 catches, while Henderson was again a deep threat with 15.7 yards per catch. Brees’ top four wideouts combined for 204 receptions, 2,893 yards and 24 TDs although Robert Meachem left via free agency. Toon could be a capable replacement, however.
RETURNEES: Jimmy Graham, David Thomas, Michael Higgins.
TOP NEWCOMER: Jake Byrne (FA, Wisconsin).
PROJECTED STARTER: Graham.
OUTLOOK: In his third season of football, Graham had one of the best seasons for a tight end in NFL history with 99 receptions, 1,310 yards and 11 TDs en route to a Pro Bowl berth. The 6-foot-7 Graham quickly became a favorite of Brees and will be again in 2012 with his combination of size and speed. Thomas, a capable receiver and blocker, is trying to come back from two concussions, while Higgins is trying to make his name after being promoted from the practice squad last season.
RETURNEES: G Jahri Evans, T Jermon Bushrod, T Zach Strief, C Brian de la Puente, T Charles Brown, C/G Matt Tennant, G Eric Olsen, T Fenuki Tupou (practice squad).
TOP NEWCOMERS: G Ben Grubbs (UFA, Baltimore), G Andrew Tiller (D6, Syracuse), T Marcel Jones (D7, Nebraska).
PROJECTED STARTERS: Bushrod (LT), Grubbs (LG), de la Puente (C), Evans (RG), Strief (RT).
OUTLOOK: For the second straight year, the Saints will have a new look as Grubbs takes over for departed All-Pro Carl Nicks and de la Puente, a former practice squad player, starts the season after doing a solid job in the second half of 2011. They join Evans and Bushrod, who were voted to the Pro Bowl, and Strief, who were part of a unit that led the NFL in passing and finished sixth in rushing. Brown and Tennant should be the top backups even though Olsen could be in the mix as well along with Tiller and Jones.
DEFENSE BY POSITION
UFA — unrestricted free agent; FA — free agent
RETURNEES: DE Will Smith, DT Sedrick Ellis, DE Cameron Jordan, DE Junior Galette, DE Turk McBride, DT Tom Johnson, DE Martez Wilson.
TOP NEWCOMERS: DT Brodrick Bunkley (UFA, Denver), DT Akiem Hicks (D3, Regina), DT Remi Ayodele (FA, Minnesota), DT Swanson Miller (FA).
PROJECTED STARTERS: Jordan (LE), Ellis (DT), Bunkley (DT), Smith (RE).
OUTLOOK: The Saints will look for more of a pass rush this season after the front four combined for just 16.5 of the team’s 33 sacks. The numbers should go up under new defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo, who prefers to bring pressure from the edge with lean, speedy ends. The Saints will also try to improve against the run as they allowed 5.0 yards per carry. That’s why Bunkley, who’s considered to be an elite run-stopper, was brought in. Hicks could also help, too, while Galette, McBride and Wilson, a converted linebacker, could help with the pass rush.
RETURNEES: SLB Scott Shanle, WLB Jonathan Casillas, SLB Will Herring, WLB Nate Bussey (practice squad).
TOP NEWCOMERS: MLB Curtis Lofton (UFA, Atlanta), WLB David Hawthorne (UFA, Seattle), SLB Chris Chamberlain (UFA, St. Louis), MLB Ezra Butler (FA).
PROJECTED STARTERS: Lofton (MLB), Shanle (SLB), Hawthorne (WLB).
OUTLOOK: After not having enough playmakers here the past few years, the Saints went out in free agency and signed Lofton, who will replace the suspended Jonathan Vilma, and Hawthorne to help. With Vilma expected to be sidelined for the entire season, Lofton becomes the quarterback of the defense. Hawthorne, a former undrafted free agent, has blossomed into a solid player. The versatile Shanle moves over to the strong side, while Casillas and Chamberlain are expected to provide depth. Bussey, a special teams standout in training camp last year, could make the team that way.
RETURNEES: CB Jabari Greer, CB Patrick Robinson, S Malcolm Jenkins, S Roman Harper, S Isa Abdul-Quddus, CB Johnny Patrick, S Jonathon Amaya, CB Kamaal McIlwain (practice squad).
TOP NEWCOMERS: CB Elbert Mack (FA, Tampa Bay), CB Marquis Johnson (FA, St. Louis), CB Corey White (D5, Samford).
PROJECTED STARTERS: Greer (LCB), Robinson (RCB), Jenkins (FS), Harper (SS), Patrick (nickel).
OUTLOOK: One year after finishing fourth against the pass, the Saints struggled last season in ranking 30th at 259.8 yards a game and gave up way too many big plays. Greer had a nice season with 23 passes defensed, but the defensive backs had only seven picks. Robinson, who played the nickel spot most of the season, had four interceptions and should replace Tracy Porter in the starting lineup. Harper and Jenkins form a hard-hitting duo who ranked 1-2 on the team with 116 and 97 tackles. Patrick and Adbul-Quddus will be in the mix, along with Mack and White, for spots in the nickel and dime packages.
RETURNEES: K John Kasay, K Garrett Hartley (injured reserve), P Thomas Morstead, LS Justin Drescher, KOR/PR Darren Sproles.
TOP NEWCOMER: None.
PROJECTED STARTERS: Hartley (K), Morstead (P), Drescher (LS), Sproles (KOR/PR).
OUTLOOK: The 42-year-old Kasay, who hit on 28 of 34 field-goal attempts to finish with a club-record 147 points, will try to give Hartley, who missed all of last season with a hip injury, a run for his job. Morstead, a first alternate to the Pro Bowl, was a key weapon with a 48.3-yard gross average and net of 43.1 yards and also had a league-best 68 touchbacks on kickoffs. Sproles is a valuable weapon as a returner with averages of 10.1 yards per punt return and 27.2 yards per kickoff return after replacing Reggie Bush. Drescher is a solid snapper.