With the preseason in full swing and the opening weekend less than a calendar month away, now is the perfect time to glance in at all 32 NFL franchises and get a scoop on what to expect this season. I will be grading every team on all three phases of the game: offense, defense, and special teams. I will also take a look at the coaching staffs of all 32 teams, including the 10 new Head Coaches and evaluate the impact they might have on their team’s success. Then I will outline some key position battles and some names you may or may not know about to watch for the upcoming season.
New Head Coach Sean Payton comes from the Cowboys with a very refined resume for being an offensive mind. Having most recently the Cowboys’ offense for the past three seasons, and having led the New York Giants’ offense prior to that, has given Payton an extreme understanding of what works and what doesn’t in the NFL. With the Saints, Payton expects quick results. He does not subscribe to the idea that rebuilding processes take years for teams. He want to see a turnaround and is expecting it for his team now. The Saints were the nomads of the NFL in 2005, having to hold half of their preseason in San Jose, CA after Hurricane Katrina and moving team headquarters to San Antonio. They will return to New Orleans with a new-look offense and new weapons to hopefully make 2006 a successful season.
Payton’s task is made easier in New Orleans because of a number of factors. The return of a former Pro-Bowl running back to the lineup after a ton of injuries problems is one key component. They also bring in a new quarterback, another former Pro-Bowler who is just entering the prime of his career, and an explosive athlete to complement the running game and to make contributions in other aspects of the offense and special teams. Payton, along with Offensive Coordinator Doug Marrone, will use the same system that Payton loved to run in his previous stops, and he’s got many similar types of players. A two-headed running attack that has two different style runners and a quarterback who can be successful and accurate with his passes, and receivers who are playmakers. Expect them to go for big plays and try to catch the opposing defenses off guard, something Payton was a master of in his previous stops as an Offensive Coordinator.
QB: With Drew Brees, the Saints know what their getting talent wise. Brees is a five-year NFL veteran who is an accurate passer and playmaker. He’s a strong leader and has already asserted his presence in New Orleans without stirring up ire from some of the team’s long standing veterans. Brees will make the throws he needs to and take appropriate chances, but will not over exert himself in times of pressure. Of course, health-wise, Brees is a main concern for the Saints this season. Brees, of course, injured his right shoulder during the final game of the 2005 season while with the San Diego Chargers. This is why they chose not to re-sign him and instead went with Phillip Rivers. Brees has looked healthy in practice and has expressed his comfort in getting past the injury, but the concerns are still there and they can only hope that Brees truly is 100 percent. If he is, they will be a better offense. Jamie Martin, who was a backup in St Louis, will be waiting in the wings should Brees not be ready to go in the regular season.
RB/FB: When you have a former All-Pro running back who is coming off injury, what do you do? If you’re like the Saints, you go out and use the second overall pick in the draft to take the most dynamic running back out of college in at least the last 10 years. They will be getting former Pro-Bowler Deuce McAllister back from a knee injury, but they will also be welcoming Heisman Trophy winner Reggis Bush into the picture. For his role, McAllister is a strong runner who is incredibly versatile. He’ll make the catches out of the backfield and run between the tackles for the tough yardage. He’s a workhorse when healthy. Bush, meanwhile, will give the Saints a change of pace. Incredibly agile and fast, Bush will make people miss with his electrifying moves. Look for him to contribute in the passing and return games as well. The more touches they get Bush, the better. Meanwhile, Mike Karney is quickly earning the reputation as blocking back extraordinare. He’s a viable receiving threat who Brees could use in the passing game.
WR/TE: The top two receivers are still Joe Horn and Dante Stallworth. Horn has been a consistent force for the Saints since signing as a free agent in 2000. He’s a great receiver who knows it, but has the skillset to back it all up, becoming a Pro-Bowler four times with the Saints. Horn had a down season in 2005 which could be partially attributed to the difficulties they suffered as a team last season and also to having missed time in the middle of the season with injury. But Horn will benefit from having a solid number one quarterback in Drew Brees. Donte Stallworth, meanwhile, is finally coming into his own and has developed as one of the premier deep threats in the NFL. He’s also making himself a good all-around NFL receiver, with 70 receptions last season and 7 touchdowns. Drew Brees might lessen his deep prospects a bit, though. Devery Henderson, Bethel Johnson, and Chris Horn will all be battling for playing time. Ernie Conwell and Mark Campbell will be vying for time at tight end. Conwell is a great blocker and one of the best route runners in the NFL, while Campbell comes over from Buffalo as a similar type of player. Early performance will be the best indicator of who will see more playing time.
OL: One of the biggest losses via free agency was of center LeCharles Bentley, who was a Pro-Bowler in 2005. Of course, this was made less painful with the acquisition of Jeff Faine from the Browns when they made a deal for second-round picks on draft day. Faine will add agility and athleticism to the offensive line and is excellent at pass protection. He is a solid run-blocker as well. Jamaal Brown started 13 games as a rookie last season and established himself as a force in the running game and a good pass-blocker on the right side, but will be moving to the left side this season. Inside of him is guard Montrae Holland, one of the Saints’ strongest players. The right side is less than set, with the right guard position in the air. Holland played some guard last season, but they can’t have him on both sides, obviously. Darnell Alford and Chad Setterstrom will battle it out there. The right tackle position, where Brown was last year, has Jamar Nesbit penciled in. Jon Stitchcomb is behind him though and we could see a struggle there.
Overall Grade: B
Sean Payton had Gary Gibbs pegged for the job of Defensive Coordinator as soon as he learned be would be the Head Coach of the Saints. A week later Gibbs had officially signed on. Gibbs has the task of working with a defense that allowed 25 points per game last season. He has no experience as an NFL Defensive Coordinator, his most recent post was with the Dallas Cowboys as their Linebackers Coach. Gibbs preaches aggresive defense, forcing the offense to make the first move and then being ready to react to it. He will have some personnel on the defense who has the potential to succeed in that kind of defensive scheme, but it will take some work. In a division with strong running attacks across the board, the Saints will definitely need to be better than last year, where they allowed 134 yards a game on the ground.
DL: They’ve got two great ends, Will Smith and Charles Grant, to provide a pass rush and solid play on the line. Both are former first round picks (Smith in ’04, Grant in ’02) who give the Saints one of the top young defensive end combos in the league. Grant has 30 sacks with the club since 2002, more than any other Saints player. Smith, meanwhile, was eighth in the NFC in sacks last season with 8.5 and is one of the most active players on th defensive side of the ball. Willie Whitehead and Rodney Liesle anchor the line. Whitehead is a veteran who is considered one of the toughest players in the organization and looked healthy in 2005 after suffering a serious knee injury on 2004. Liesle has the inside track for the other tackle position after performing well in his first two NFL seasons. The key that puts him over the top is his good run-stopping ability. Don’t count out Hollis Thomas, another draft day acquisition, as a veteran who can step in and make an impact as well.
LB: The Saints made some noise in the free agentt market at this position. They signed Scott Fujita and Tommy Polley, who have been solid performers for their former teams, the Ravens and Cowboys, respectively. Fujita was a solid defender who played in all 16 games for the Cowboys last season, starting in 8 contests. He’s a hard-nosed playmaker who positions himself well. Average in pursuit. Meanwhile, Polley went over to the Ravens last season and led their team in tackles and helped them get production from their defense with Ray Lewis missing extensive amounts of time last season. Polley is athletic, something that the Saints have lacked from the linebacker position for a while, and can provide them with help in a number of ways. He is a solid pass defender who makes plays against the run consistently. Alfred Pincher is for now the starting middle linebacker after being mostly a special teams player in 2005, his rookie season. A good combination fo size and speed allowed him to be punishing on special teams and the Saints hope he can do the same this year in the MLB spot.
DB: Corner will be an interesting position for the Saints in 2006. They were third in the NFL in pass defense last season and have some dynamic players out there in 2006. They will have Mike McKenzie, who will give the Saints a top corner who is capable of shadowing an opposing team’s top receiver. Veteran Fred Thomas on the other side doesn’t possess the athletic abilities of McKenzie, but is solid in his own right with his abilty to excel in zones while still being solid in man coverage. The interesting part of the secondary is at free safety. Veteran Jay Bellamy is returning from injury, but Josh Bullocks performed well in his place last season as a rookie and it will be tough for the Saints to take him out of the lineup. Omar Stoutmire, who was with Washington last season, is considered the starter at strong safety. He’s a productive player who will give the Saints stability.
Overall Grade: B
K: Veteran John Carney will be back with the team once again for 2006, but he won’t be without competition from undrafted rookie Connor Hughes from Virginia. Carney is a 17 year-vet who’s been one of the most consistent scorers for the Saints in the past five seasons, but Hughes is interesting. All-ACC as a senior, Hughes can provide them a young kicker for the future, since Carney is nearing the end of his career. Carney has been solid, though, and it will take a little extra for Hughes to supplant Carney as the placekicker.
P: Mitch Berger is a two-time Pro Bowler who is one of the most consistent punters in the league. He averaged the fourth-best net average in the NFL with 38.7 yards per punt. Although owed to the coverage as well, it shows that Berger makes good punts which allows the coverage units to get down the field and make plays. He will also have competition in the form of Steve Weatherford, another rookie. It looks as though it will be only to give Berger some rest this preseason.
Overall Grade: B
Sean Payton has had success in all of his stops as an Offensive Coordinator, but this will be his first experience as a head coach in charge of an entire team. I personally like his mindset in not accepting rebuilding as an excuse for a lack of rsults, but we’ll have to see exactly how realistic that can be for them in his first season. Payton is a gifted offensive mind and has adaquate weapons in the system to have a special season offensively. He’ll be supported by Doug Marrone, who was most recently the Offensive Line Coach in New York with the Jets. They will work to adjust the system to the new additions, namely Drew Brees and Reggie Bush. Meanwhile, Defensive Coordinator Gary Gibbs has a unit that is solid and can still get better. It will be upto the coaches to make sure the focus stays on the field this season, even though last season’s troubles were mostly off the field.
Overall Grade: B+
Position Battles to Watch
RB: I know it’s not a real battle, but there will be a battle in the mind of fans and media alike. Bush’s talent demands carries, but at the same time McAllister is a former Pro-Bowl running back who has been the workhorse for the Saints since he was drafted. It will be interesting to see how Payton gets Bush his touches without limiting McAllister’s workload.
RG: Darnell Alford and Chad Setterstrom will have a battle going on this preseason. With Montrae Holland only available on one side, these two will battle for the opposite guard spot. In fact, whoever wins this battle may define where exactly Holland will be better suited this season.
FS: Although Josh Bullocks did a great job filling in last season, the veteran Jay Bellamy is back, and the old addage says that you don’t lose your job to an injury. It will be interesting because Bullocks play as a rookie last season inspired the coaching staff to look further at him this season and his potential. Remember, with a new coaching staff it may be more acceptable to replace a veteran as this is a completely new regime.
Player to Watch
Connor Hughes, K: I already outlined him a bit, but I really like him as a kicker and believe that he could be a long-term answer for the Saints. They will be taking an extra long look at him because of his youth and collegiate pedigree, and also because John Carney is reaching the end of his career and could be ready for his pension fund.
Offensive MVP: Drew Brees
Defensive MVP: Mike McKenzie