METAIRIE, La. -- As he prepares for his third NFL season, it sounds as if New Orleans tight end Jimmy Graham has figured out the secret to NFL success.
"I was told to never tug on Superman’s cape," Graham said.
He was talking about quarterback Drew Brees. Graham noted how the quarterback challenged him to a sprint race at the start of training camp and said he let Brees win. Graham was partly joking, but there was some deep wisdom in his words.
More than ever, the Saints are Brees’ team. They’ve been through an offseason unlike one any other team has faced. They’ve been through the painful drama of the bounty scandal and they’ll move forward without coach Sean Payton, who is suspended for the season, and general manager Mickey Loomis, who is suspended for the first eight games.
Brees, the league's highest-paid player, is coming off a season in which he set a NFL single-season record for most passing yards. No, let other teams try to tug on Brees’ cape. If the Saints really are going to endure all this adversity successfully, they need Brees’ skill and leadership more than ever. They need to ride the coattails of the most positive thing they have at the moment.
Brees knows this high-flying offense as well as anyone, including Payton. The Saints remain loaded at offensive skill positions. There’s little doubt this team still is going to score a lot, and that alone will keep it competitive.
But Brees can’t do everything by himself. Even before the word "bounty" started flying in March, the Saints knew they had to overhaul their defense. That became clear in last season’s playoff loss to San Francisco. That’s why defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo was hired. Predecessor Gregg Williams had a gambling philosophy, going all-out to produce turnovers. The negative side effect was that the Saints gave up too many big plays.
Spagnuolo brings a more balanced philosophy. Sure, he wants turnovers, but he also wants to be able to shut down offenses from time to time. A big theme of this camp is the installation of Spagnuolo’s defense. Even though that’s not his side of the ball, Brees shows a lot of interest in the defense. Even in camp, the Saints are implementing game plans.
“[Spagnuolo] is going to try to find every flaw, just like we are going to do to them,’’ Brees said. “Along the way, I am certainly going to be picking his brain as to what he is seeing with our offense, how we can improve. That is how you help one another. That is a habit that we got into, me talking to the defensive guys, even if it is just the secondary guys, saying, 'You give away that blitz whenever you do this.' We are competing against each other, but in the end we are on the same team. I want them to be able to go out and have as much success as possible, just like they want us, on game day, to have as much success as possible.”
Maybe that’s the best way to improve the New Orleans defense. Practice against Superman every day. After you’ve been through that, everything else should be easy.
THREE HOT ISSUES
1. Mark Ingram’s playing time. Fan expectations for Ingram might be significantly higher than the team's. That’s somewhat understandable, because the Saints traded back into the first round in 2011 to draft Ingram. He played at a college powerhouse (Alabama) and won a Heisman Trophy. Instant stardom was expected by fans, but it didn’t turn out that way in Ingram’s rookie season.
He finished with 122 carries for 474 yards and five touchdowns. Injuries were part of the reason his numbers weren’t bigger. But even before the injuries, Ingram shared playing time with Darren Sproles and Pierre Thomas, and Chris Ivory did a nice job joining the rotation after Ingram’s injury problems started. Ingram had a couple of offseason surgeries and said he’s completely healthy.
But that doesn’t mean Ingram suddenly is going to become a 300-carry guy. New Orleans’ offense is based on diversity, and that’s not going to change. The Saints aren’t going to take playing time away from Sproles, who set an NFL record for all-purpose yards last season, and Thomas is going to play because he has earned it with his performance.
Assuming Ingram stays healthy, I expect him to get more carries than last season, but a 200-carry season for about 800 yards is a reasonable expectation.
2. Will the linebackers be better than last season? I think they’ll be markedly better. Many believe the season-long suspension of Jonathan Vilma is going to hurt the Saints. If this were two or three years ago, I’d agree. But Vilma was bothered by knee problems last season, and his age seemed to be catching up to him. I think free-agent addition Curtis Lofton is an upgrade over Vilma in the middle. In fact, I think Lofton is pretty similar to what Vilma was two or three years ago. The Saints will be just fine in the middle.
Plus, the Saints didn’t sit still at outside linebacker. They signed free agents David Hawthorne and Chris Chamberlain. It looks as if Hawthorne is well on his way to winning a starting job. That leaves Chamberlain competing with Scott Shanle, Will Herring and Jonathan Casillas for the other starting job. There’s no true favorite here, and Shanle is the fallback option as the safe choice because he’s smart and dependable. But Chamberlain, Herring and Casillas are more athletic and at least come with the possibility of producing big plays. The hope is that one of those three can step forward to win the starting job.
3. Can the offensive line, minus Carl Nicks, be as good as last season? Nicks took the big money and left for Tampa Bay in free agency. Losing a player many scouts consider the best guard in the NFL must take a toll. But the Saints already had Jahri Evans, who might be the closest thing to Nicks. Loomis did a nice job getting Ben Grubbs to replace Nicks. Grubbs isn’t quite on the Nicks/Evans level, but he’s an above-average player and came at a much lower salary than Nicks. The Saints build their offensive line around the interior, and Evans and Grubbs will form a very strong guard tandem.
Brian de la Puente did a nice job taking over at center last year and should be fine with Grubbs and Evans surrounding him. The tackles are more of a question. The Saints are sticking with Jermon Bushrod on the left side and Zach Strief on the right. They’re serviceable, but Bushrod and Strief aren’t all-pros, and the presence of Evans and Grubbs should be enough to keep this offensive line among the better ones in the league.
REASON FOR OPTIMISM
Spagnuolo’s history. There is legitimate concern about the pass rush, because Spagnuolo likes it to come mostly from his front four. Aside from defensive end Will Smith, who will serve a four-game suspension at the start of the season, the Saints don’t have a proven pass-rusher. Many fans are worked up about the potential of Junior Galette and converted linebacker Martez Wilson. Those guys could turn into something, but maybe fans aren’t looking in the right direction.
Second-year pro Cameron Jordan might be a big factor. Yeah, I know that sounds like a stretch because Jordan had one sack as a rookie, but he was a first-round pick and still has plenty of untapped potential. There’s more than that, though. Look at Spagnuolo’s past. When he became defensive coordinator for the New York Giants in 2007, Justin Tuck had gone through two NFL seasons with one sack. In Spagnuolo’s first season, Tuck had 10. In 2008, Tuck recorded 12.
If Spagnuolo can get anything close to double-digit sacks from Jordan, he may have short- and long-term answers for his pass rush.
REASON FOR PESSIMISM
How much adversity can one team take? The Saints will use all that happened to them in the offseason as a rallying cry, providing strong motivation. But it’s tough for any team to ride one emotion (anger, in this case) for an entire season. This franchise has been through a lot, and you have to worry about that taking a toll at some point.
You also have to worry about the Saints being a target for opponents, especially those who spent the past few months hearing that the bounty program had targeted some of their own players. Then throw in the fact that assistant head coach Joe Vitt, who has run the team in Payton’s absence, must serve a six-game suspension at the start of the season. At that point, the Saints are expected to make another of their assistants the acting head coach. Yes, this is a veteran team with outstanding leadership, but it sure looks like a lot of things are stacked against the Saints.
There was a lot of buzz about cornerback Marquis Johnson in the first few days of camp. He made some nice plays and usually was around the ball. The Saints hope second-year pro Johnny Patrick can be their No. 3 cornerback after starters Jabari Greer and Patrick Robinson. But Johnson has a chance to compete with Patrick and may have one slight advantage. The third-year player spent his first two seasons in St. Louis, where Spagnuolo was the coach. Johnson knows the system, and that might be why he’s off to a fast start in camp. If he can sustain it, he’ll have a chance to move past Patrick. At worst, Johnson has a chance to be the fourth cornerback and a key player on special teams.
The Saints have almost an embarrassment of riches at kicker. They have Garrett Hartley back from an injury that kept him out last season and veteran John Kasay, who filled in nicely for Hartley. Hartley and Kasay each have made a lot of big kicks in their careers. Although Kasay is 42, he’s not showing signs of slowing. Hartley has the stronger leg, but Kasay has been a model of consistency throughout his career. The Saints will let this competition play throughout camp. If it ends in a dead heat, it might be the toughest call of all when it’s time to trim the roster. Brought in by Loomis, Hartley has earned a spot in franchise history with some clutch kicks. But Loomis and Kasay go all the way back to the early 1990s, when they were together in Seattle.
There’s been a lot of talk about New Orleans’ young wide receivers early in camp. Adrian Arrington, Nick Toon, Joe Morgan, Andy Tanner and Chris Givens have made spectacular catches. But let’s keep that in perspective. Those catches came before the Saints put pads on and before defenders could hit. The Saints are looking for fourth and fifth receivers, but let’s not anoint any of these guys yet. The preseason games will determine who wins the final roster spots at receiver. Arrington’s entering his third season, and it’s time for him to start showing something. Toon comes in after a solid career at Wisconsin. They probably are the favorites to make the roster at this point. But Morgan, Tanner and Givens might be able to change the pecking order if they can make catches in traffic in preseason games.
The Saints thought they might get an eventual starter when they drafted Charles Brown in 2010. There was even hope that he might turn into the long-range solution at left tackle. That hasn’t come close to happening. Bushrod has settled in nicely at left tackle. The Saints hoped Brown at least would be able to start at right tackle. But that hasn’t happened, either. Strief beat out Brown for the starting job last season. When Strief was injured, Brown got playing time, but his play wasn't pretty. (If you don’t believe me, look at the tape of the loss to the Rams.) The Saints still say that Strief and Brown are competing for the starting job this season, but Strief has received all of the first-team work, and I didn't hear any buzz at all about Brown from coaches. As a matter of fact, I’m not sure Brown even will be on the roster when the regular season starts.
Speaking of offensive linemen who could be on the bubble, don’t forget Matt Tennant. The Saints drafted Tennant in 2010, thinking he'd be the heir apparent to Jonathan Goodwin at center. It hasn’t worked out that way. When Goodwin left via free agency last year, the Saints took an early look at Tennant and quickly signed Olin Kruetz, the former Bears star. When Kruetz abruptly decided to retire, the Saints didn’t turn back to Tennant. They turned to de la Puente, who now has a strong grip on the starting job. Like Brown, Tennant could be fighting for a roster spot. The Saints used to have a good reputation for finding offensive linemen beyond the first round of the draft (Evans, Nicks and Bushrod), but Brown and Tennant may have eroded that trend.
The Saints appear set with Graham and David Thomas at tight end. Graham is a great pass-catcher, and Thomas is a jack of all trades. But keep an eye on Michael Higgins, who spent much of last year on the practice squad before getting promoted to the regular roster late in the season. Higgins already has demonstrated he can block, and showed signs of being a good receiver early in camp. Thomas has had injury problems, and the Saints may not want to overuse him. Higgins could provide another alternative.
There has been talk that strong safety Roman Harper might not be a great fit in Spagnuolo’s defense because he isn’t known for great coverage skills. But I believe Spagnuolo will find a way to make this defense work for Harper. There’s really not an alternative behind him. His backup is Jonathon Amaya, whose only claim to fame is that he was part of the Reggie Bush trade.