Saints need Brooks to go to next level

Editor's note: These previews were last updated Sept. 2 and don't reflect any moves made by the team after that.

Unlike the past two offseasons, when the comings and goings resembled a busy
bus station, Saints general manager Mickey Loomis and head coach Jim Haslett
decided to make only a few key changes and coach up the players on hand.

Haslett brought in two veteran NFL assistants, Jimmy Robinson and John Pease,
to instill more discipline and improve the work ethic for some of the
younger wide receivers and defensive linemen, respectively.

Key additions include free agents DT Brian Young (from St. Louis) and RB-KR
Aaron Stecker (Tampa Bay) and first- and second-round draft picks DE Will
Smith and MLB Courtney Watson, respectively.

In order for the Saints to be successful, QB Aaron Brooks needs to take his
game to the next level. He posted Pro Bowl-caliber numbers in '03 (24
touchdowns, eight interceptions), but they seemed insignificant next to his
11 lost fumbles. RB Deuce McAllister is poised for another banner season.
Haslett (34-30 overall, 24-24 since '02) has missed the playoffs the past
three seasons, suggesting the heat is on. But his current contract runs
through 2006 at an average of $3 million annually, and he appears to have
the full support of owner Tom Benson.

This might be Haslett's deepest and most talented team since he arrived in
2000. Time will tell.

Quarterbacks: Brooks had the kind of season most quarterbacks would be
proud to have - 24-8 TD-interception ratio, 3,546 passing yards. But fans
only remember his mistakes - fumbling 14 times and losing 11 of them. He has
been bothered by a nagging right quad injury in the preseason but should be
ready for the season opener against Seattle. Brooks has all the intangibles
but has yet to fulfill the Saints' high expectations. Backup Todd Bouman
struggled early in the preseason after coming off a solid offseason. Haslett
hinted Brooks' job might be in jeopardy, but Bouman did nothing to close the
gap in camp. Third-stringer J.T. O'Sullivan has shown flashes that he might
surpass Bouman, but the depth chart isn't expected to change going into the
season. Grade: B.

Running backs: McAllister is coming off a Pro Bowl season in which he rushed
351 times for 1,641 yards and eight touchdowns and caught 69 passes for 516
yards. He also posted a franchise-best nine consecutive 100-yard rushing
games. Offensive coordinator Mike McCarthy plans to employ McAllister in
more one-RB sets and passing situations to take advantage of his hands and
open-field speed against linebackers and safeties. Although Stecker is not
considered an every-down back, he should spell McAllister enough and can be
used in third-down situations. The No. 3 running back becomes important if
McAllister would go down because Stecker is not seen as a featured back. At
presstime, the No. 3 job was between veterans Ki-Jana Carter, Lamar Smith
and Ronney Jenkins. Rookie FB Mike Karney was drafted to replace free-agent
departure Terrelle Smith, who took his ample blocking skills to the Browns.
But don't look for Karney to get on the field much in McCarthy's master
plan. Grade: A-minus.

Receivers: Perhaps, this will be the year Donté Stallworth fulfills those
high expectations placed on him by Saints officials and fans when he was
drafted in the first round in 2002. He has provided glimpses of that talent,
catching 11 touchdowns while missing eight games in two seasons with
hamstring and ankle injuries. Stallworth has gamebreaking speed and, when
healthy, can complement three-time Pro Bowl WR Joe Horn. Horn fought through
injuries last season to post solid numbers - 78 catches, 973 yards and 10
touchdowns. But an in-season tiff with Brooks seemed to affect their
chemistry on and off the field. Stallworth moves into the No. 2 slot, ahead
of dependable Jerome Pathon, who still possesses good hands but lacks the
gamebreaking speed of Horn and Stallworth. RS Michael Lewis and second-round
draft pick Devery Henderson round out the team's top five wide receivers.
Henderson, a raw but talented prospect, missed the first 10 practices of
training camp in a contract dispute. TE Boo Williams is the wild card in the
passing game. He emerged as a reliable playmaker last season, catching 41
balls for 436 yards and five touchdowns. A former college wide receiver,
Williams is at his best against linebackers and safeties up the seam and
downfield. Veteran TE Ernie Conwell has recovered from a season-ending ankle
and leg injury in '03 and gives the Saints a good one-two punch at tight
end. Grade: B.

Offensive linemen: The Saints appear to have a deep and talented front five:
OTs Wayne Gandy and Victor Riley, OGs Kendyl Jacox and either Montrae
Holland or Jamar Nesbit and C LeCharles Bentley. Bentley, who's coming off
reconstructive knee surgery last season and played center at Ohio State, has
the agility and quickness to make a smooth transition from right guard,
where he has started the past two seasons. Bentley had difficulty in the
preseason making consistently accurate snaps in the shotgun formation. He
replaces veteran C Jerry Fontenot, a 16-year veteran. Saints officials see
Bentley as a mauler-type to go along with the equally physical Jacox and
either Holland or Nesbit in the interior. Gandy and Riley are considered to
be excellent run and pass blockers. Gandy, 33, is still agile enough to
protect Brooks' blind side. Fontenot, 37, is in a battle to hold on to a
roster spot. Haslett is expected to keep eight linemen. At presstime, the
loser of the Holland-Nesbit battle and OTs Jon Stinchcomb and Spencer Folau
were considered to be among the top eight. Jacox and Nesbit also can play
center. Grade: B.

Defensive linemen: If the players realize their potential, this position
could be the strongest on the team. The projected front four consists of DRE
Darren Howard, DT Brian Young, NT Johnathan Sullivan and DLE Charles Grant.
Sullivan and Young are No. 1 draft picks. Howard was the first player taken
(33rd overall) by the Randy Mueller regime in 2000. Young comes to the
Saints from the Rams, where he was drafted in the fifth round. The top
reserve is this year's No. 1 draft pick, DE Will Smith of Ohio State, a
pass-rushing specialist who will spell both Grant and Howard. Howard, who
missed half of last season with a broken wrist, and Grant combined to post
15 sacks in '03. Howard is working under the one-year franchise offer this
season and would like a banner season to increase his value. Sullivan lost
his starting job after reporting to training camp more than 25 pounds
overweight. But he likely will open the season with the first unit. Young
hopes to provide the Saints with the run stopper in the middle that they
missed last year. Former LSU DT Howard Green worked with the first unit in
Sullivan's absence and likely won a roster spot because of his performance.
Other key reserves include DE Mel Williams, DE Tony Bryant, DL Kendrick
Allen and rookie DT Rodney Leisle. DL Kenny Smith went on injured reserve
after tearing his right rotator cuff in camp. DL Willie Whitehead had
projected to be on the 53-man roster but likely will enter the season on the
physically-unable-to-perform list with an injured right knee. Grade: B.

Linebackers: Overall, the linebackers are a very ordinary lot. Third-round
pick Courtney Watson was expected to battle second-year pro Cie Grant for
the starting MLB job. But Grant, a promising third-round pick in '03 from
Ohio State, dropped out of the competition early in camp after injuring his
left knee. Watson doesn't have Grant's athleticism but possesses decent
speed and has good football instincts. He needs to do a better job of taking
on the initial block. Derrick Rodgers and James Allen are expected to open
the season as the weak-side and strong-side linebackers, respectively. Each
is quick and willing to hit. Key reserves are MLB Orlando Ruff, LB Darrin
Smith, rookie SLB Colby Bockwaldt and WLB Roger Knight. Projected starting
SLB Sedrick Hodge was suspended for the first four games of the regular
season after violating the league's substance-abuse policy. Grant's status
is uncertain, and Hodge is expected to rejoin the team vs. Tampa Bay on Oct.
10. Grade: C.

Defensive backs: This position took a lot of heat during the offseason. But
barring a late acquisition, Haslett is expected to enter the regular season
with the same starting secondary as last season - RCB Fred Thomas, LCB
Ashley Ambrose, SS Jay Bellamy and FS Tebucky Jones. Thomas clearly is the
No. 1 cornerback, possessing good coverage and ball skills. He gives up size
to bigger receivers but won't back down from a fight. Ambrose is called "The
Technician'' because of his attention to details and fundamentals, but he
has lost a step. Jones is trying to make up for numerous missed tackles in
'03 and should be better after a year in the system. Bellamy, who had a
banner season in '03, fended off a challenge from Mel Mitchell at strong
safety. The team strengthened its CB depth by acquiring veteran Jason Craft
from the Jaguars for a fifth-round pick in April's draft. Craft and Fahkir
Brown are battling for the nickel CB position. Other key reserves are
safeties Deveron Harper and special-teams standout Steve Gleason. Haslett
talked about keeping 10 defensive backs, but there aren't 10 worth keeping.
Look for Haslett to bolster the position through the waiver wire. Grade:

Special teams: Lewis is hoping to revert back to the form that made him one
of the most feared return specialists in the NFL in 2002. Opponents adjusted
nicely in '03, keeping Lewis out of the endzone and on his side of the field
most of the time. Lewis, who went to the Pro Bowl in '02, is determined to
prove it was no fluke. Stecker is a proven kick returner and special-teams
player. PK John Carney is trying to make fans forget his botched extra point
as time expired against Jacksonville last season; the miss allowed
Jacksonville to win 20-19. Carney struggled from 40 yards and beyond last
season, converting just 6-of-12 attempts. P Mitch Berger led the league in
net average last season and had 28 punts inside the 20. Two key changes:
Bouman replaces Berger as the holder, and Gleason and Stecker have replaced
veteran special-teams standout Fred McAfee as leaders on the special teams. McAfee was not re-signed. Grade: B.

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