With all of the talent New Orleans has landed this year and last, it's no wonder there will be a lot of position battles upcoming for the Saints. With player suspensions looming, New Orleans decided to be proactive instead of reactive, and it has paid off.
The Saints have replaced Carl Nicks with former Ravens guard Ben Grubbs and added a young run-stuffer entering his prime in Brodrick Bunkley. They also brought in three linebackers who are young, talented tackling machines in Curtis Lofton, Chris Chamberlain and the newly acquired David Hawthorne. New Orleans accomplished all of that, despite limited cap space.
Those acquisitions, besides the linebackers, will have nothing to do with the incumbent battles that are left either through subpar play or players leaving in free agency. The holes left by Robert Meachem and Tracy Porter were not immediately filled through free agency. That leaves me to believe that the Saints will either draft their replacements or that they plan to let a couple of vets battle it out for the starting role.
For a 13-3 team, the Saints have a few positions more than they would like that are left unsettled. Hopefully by the end of August these spots are in very capable hands.
With the addition of a fifth preseason game, the Saints can take a better look at a lot of positions including the starting running back role. I know it's kind of a moot point because the Saints use backs like Bobby Petrino lies: consistently and often. It is still the position that sets the tone for Darren Sproles' "Jacker" role. (That's not what it's really called, but he is a JACK of all trades.) Mike Bell (w/PT) was it in 2009, but there hasn't been consistent one since.
At the moment, New Orleans has three capable running backs who can carry the starting load: Mark Ingram, Pierre Thomas and Chris Ivory. All of which have had injury issues in the past. Ivory started the year on the Physically Unable to Perform, PUP, list, but ended the season with some big, timely runs. Ingram was shut down during the year and put on IR with a nagging injury. (Like we didn't see Ingram's injury troubles before he was drafted.) Thomas' lasting image of 2011 was getting blown up by Donte' Whitner and leaving that 49er game with a concussion.
This offense needs that back than can handle an extra 10 carries a game and be just as productive as Sproles is with limited touches. Having a back like that would open up the field for a weakened wide receiving corps behind Marques Colston and Lance Moore.
I still think either Thomas or Ivory gets traded before the regular season starts. It's probably going to be Thomas with his $4 million a year contract. That leaves Ingram and Ivory. I give the nod to Ingram in the starting role with about a 70-30 split between carries for him and Ivory. That, combined with Sproles getting his 15 touches-a-game any which way, could make this offense even more lethal.
This position has been a sore spot since Jon Stinchcomb's knee starting giving way through the 2010 season. If any position is in need of an upgrade, it is this one. The Saints have fixed other holes on their team, and now it's the right tackle's turn.
There isn't much to be desired at this position around when New Orleans' number is going to be called late in the third round. That leaves this spot open to incumbents Zach Strief and Charles Brown.
Strief had a very solid season in 2011, but he will never be an elite tackle because he lacks the athleticism needed for the position. What he lacks for in athleticism, he more than makes up for in technique and work ethic. Brown is the complete opposite. A former top pick who has used his immense potential to either sit on the bench or sit on IR. When he has been asked to fill-in for Strief, he has been a turnstile for defensive ends.
It's Strief's job to lose, but the Saints need to get a long-term answer there soon. Brown isn't the answer and Strief is just a stop-gap reservist. Brown would need a huge camp and preseason to open the season as starter.
Tracy Porter has gone to the Mile High city, and the Super Bowl hero leaves a gap in the starting lineup to fill. Luckily, Mickey Loomis and co. have drafted cornerbacks high the past couple of seasons: Patrick Robinson in the first round in 2010 and Johnny Patrick in the third round of last year's draft.
It's between those two that the position opposite veteran Jabari Greer will be set. Greer is a very underrated corner who routinely locks up the opponent's best receiver. He causes the opposite to get thrown to more, which creates ample opportunities for a playmaker at that side. Both players have natural ball-hawking ability.
Robinson showcased his abilities last year in support of an injured Porter. He grabbed four interceptions and defended 15 passes while only starting seven games. Patrick was out most of the year with injuries that plagued him from a shortened offseason. He's better in zone than in man, and can get caught looking in the backfield.
Robinson is in the driver's seat, but with a full offseason under his belt, Patrick could make a case to start. Robinson has more star potential, however.
The last position that I am going to take a look at resides on the opposite side of Marques Colston at wide receiver. As inconsistent as Robert Meachem was, he teamed up with Devery Henderson to form a nice little one-two punch across from Colston. Their deep threat ability opened up lanes for Lance Moore and Jimmy Graham to operate in the middle.
The Saints attacked every need in free agency except for cornerback and wide receiver. While I think each could use quality depth through the draft, I also think each starter is already on the team. At receiver, it's going to come down to Henderson, Adrian Arrington and Joe Morgan.
Henderson, without a doubt, will get the first look because he has been a starter in the past. He has also been with the team since the 2004 season, so you wonder how much gas he has left in the tank. His career 18.2 yards per catch is second in the NFL among active players, only Mike Wallace's 18.7 is better.
Arrington has been sort of a mixed bag up until this point. He's always flashed great skills in preseason, but has been very injury-prone. He may have been given too many chances.
Then there is Morgan. Last year's preseason phenom had touchdowns in consecutive games before a knee injury landed him on IR. He has all the makings of being the next Victor Cruz-type big play receiver. Both of his touchdowns went for 50-plus yards, including a 78-yard punt return in his debut.
I think Henderson starts off the year, but is relegated to a backup role once Morgan starts getting hot.