2012 New Orleans Saints Training Camp: Positional Grades
With most of the heavy lifting from the draft and free agency over, it's time to take a look at what kind of team the New Orleans Saints will be fielding this upcoming season, as a whole.
Every healthy body on the roster has been on the field working out and getting better. Except the man who makes everything go: Drew Brees. But I'm not going to turn this into the Brees Show. (His positional group does take a hit without him there, though.)
I'll be grading each unit based on the depth at that particular position and the quality of that depth. Just because a position has a superstar atop the depth chart doesn't necessarily mean the unit as a whole is great.
Let's get to the grades, shall we.
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When you have the reigning NFL Offensive Player of the Year starting at quarterback, this unit is going to get an A+ every time. That's the issue.
The Saints have Brees, but they don't have him.
Yes, this is Brees' team, but right now Chase Daniel is taking all of the first-string snaps. With Daniel in, the Saints' defensive back seven is playing tip drill the entire time. (This was proven true in the first minicamp on Tuesday.)
Brees is in the peak of a Hall of Fame career, but his lack of presence isn't getting anyone better on the offensive side.
After Daniel, Sean Canfield is "technically" on the roster, but he's just lagniappe for the practice squad. Doesn't look he will be more than that.
Grade: A+ when Brees is signed, F if Daniel has to play significant time.
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This is the deepest unit on the Saints' squad. It has a mixture of everything you could want.
A couple of jack-of-all-trade backs in Pierre Thomas and Darren Sproles and a pair of workhorse backs in Mark Ingram and Chris Ivory.
All of the backs, with the exception of Ingram, are healthy this offseason, but the Heisman Trophy winner is on course to be all-systems-go by the time training camp rolls around.
That good health means bad things for the rest of the league.
The coaching staff can keep rotating backs in depending on the situation, and have their legs fresh at the end of games while the defenses are tired.
Jed Collins looks to be the only fullback that will make the roster this year with David Thomas healthy. Collins really came on toward the end of the year in his development in the run and pass game.
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If the running backs unit is the deepest unit, the receivers and tight ends group might be the most talented one.
Problem is, most of the talent has had a tough time staying healthy (even more so than the RBs).
Marques Colston, Lance Moore and Joesph Morgan all missed time last season. The "old man" of the group, Devery Henderson (30), hasn't missed a game, regular or postseason, in five years. That's amazing for the man who makes every hard catch look easy, but drops the open ones. (Saints fans, you know what I mean.)
Nick Toon was drafted to add a little youth to this group, and Adrian Arrington is probably on his last chance to show if he can contribute this team or not.
On the tight end side, Jimmy Graham is one of the best in the league. He has a great rapport with Brees and is one of his safety blankets when on the field (Darren Sproles being the other).
David Thomas is coming off an injury-shortened season, but has looked great in OTAs this year. He could be poised for a great year in 2012.
Behind Thomas is Michael Higgins and Jake Byrne, a couple of Graham and Thomas look-alikes, respectively. Higgins saw improvement in his game towards the end of the year and even had a catch in the Saints' last playoff game versus San Francisco. Byrne is more of the blocking tight end and a practice squad candidate.
Grade: A- (The minus is for the health factor.)
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As I wrote in a piece a couple of days ago, the New Orleans Saints offensive line unit has been one of the most consistent groups since Sean Payton's arrival in 2006.
Their level of play has risen significantly since the arrival of Aaron Kromer. He started working with the offensive line 2009, a year after working with the running backs for a season. Since being given the reins to the Saints line, he has coached five different players to eight Pro Bowl and five All-Pro teams. All within three years.
That bodes well for returnees: Jahri Evans, Jermon Bushrod, Zach Strief, Brian de la Puente and newcomer Ben Grubbs.
This unit's starters are good, but the depth isn't much to sneeze at. Charles Brown and Matt Tennant are busts. Eric Olsen is a former practice squad player, but the Saints did draft two young prospects who they hope will develop into the next great Saints linemen. Andrew Tiller and Marcel Jones won't be contributing this year, though, barring injury.
Grade: B- (The reserves will make this grade higher, just have to see how quality the new players are.)
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The linebackers unit might be the most talked about with their new additions, but the defensive line is going to be the one with the biggest spotlight on it. Maybe because this is new defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo's area of expertise.
He has his hands full with this unit, but he has tons of potential here with the right scheme.
Defensive end wasn't addressed in the draft, but the switch of Martez Wilson from outside linebacker to end will give Spags one more toy to use to generate pass rush. Wilson excelled rushing the passer in college, and he had a good end to the season when he caught up to the speed of the game.
Cameron Jordan will start at left defensive end but will flex inside on passing downs. His versatility is key to Spags' scheme.
Junior Galette will be the likely starter in place of Will Smith during his suspension. Galette, Greg Romeus and all of these young pass-rushers will shine in this new scheme, which puts more emphasis on getting a pass rush from the down linemen more than blitzing.
Defensive tackle was addressed in this draft with the Akiem Hicks pick. While he was chosen a bit high for my liking, he adds a pass-rushing element from the interior line and is solid against the run.
This is a make-or-break year for Sedrick Ellis, who, for a top-10 pick, has played pretty average during his Saints tenure. He is in the last year of his rookie contract, so look for him to have a very motivated season. Hicks and new addition Brodrick Bunkley should help out with that.
Bunkley could turn out to be the gem of this free-agent class. He is a run-stuffer who is just entering his prime on a team who is sorely in need of help against the run.
Veterans Remi Ayodele and Turk McBride also add depth along the defensive front.
Grade: C+ (This is a big boom-or-bust group. This could be an A if this group meshes well with Spags' scheme.)
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This group has had the most influx of new talent of any area on this team. Curtis Lofton, Chris Chamberlain and David Hawthorne were all acquired to improve an area that has so been lacking, as a whole, since the days of the Dome Patrol.
Lofton looks like he will be the starter in the middle, with Hawthorne getting one of the outside spots, either weak or strong. The other spot will be battle between Scott Shanle, who refuses to give up his roster spot despite addition after addition, and Chamberlain, Spags' guy from St. Louis, who is very familiar in this system.
This has the makings of a very strong group.
Lawrence Wilson, Jonathan Casillas and Will Herring are also in the mix for backup spots. As are Nate Bussey and Kadarron Anderson, an undrafted rookie free agent having a great camp.
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This group has quietly gotten better by adding role players and getting healthy.
Jabari Greer is continually underrated, but he has come up with clutch play after clutch play for New Orleans since coming over from Buffalo. He usually has the task of taking on the opposing team's primary wideout.
And he usually wins those battles; just ask Calvin Johnson after their regular-season matchup.
On the other side of Greer is going to be Patrick Robinson. It's going to be Robinson's first year starting from OTAs on. He played well in Tracy Porter's absence last season. The 2010 first-round pick had a career-high four interceptions and 15 passes defended despite only starting seven games last season.
After Robinson is a battle for the nickel spot between a few newbies and a first-year player coming off a injury-shortened season.
Johnny Patrick got hurt early on last season and was behind the eight ball for much of the year. He caught on late though and was also a presence on special teams. He has some competition for that nickel spot, though.
Marquis Johnson and Elbert Mack, just acquired Tuesday, were signed to add depth to a unit that needed it badly. Entering the draft, there were three players on the roster with playing experience. Picking up Corey White didn't add an experience to the team, but it did add a corner who plays with confidence and has raw, untapped ability.
Laron Scott is an undrafted free agent who could make the team based on his return ability, and he has decent corner skills.
Grade: C (Not a lot of experience in the NFL or in this defense. Potential is there, though.)
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Spagnuolo sometimes uses three safeties in a nickel set, and with the lack of quality depth at these positions, I don't see that happening very often. Unless some of the younger players step up in a big way.
Malcolm Jenkins and Roman Harper are your starters at free and strong safety, respectively. These two are good safeties who have shown flashes of being great, but just haven't been consistent enough. After that, though, there is a lot of youth.
Isa Abdul-Quddus was a nice surprise last year, making the team as an undrafted rookie free agent. He has a lot of promise and could be that third safety in Spags' D. Jonathan Amaya is not very good and could stand to be replaced.
The undrafted duo of Jose Gumbs and Destrehan, La., native Jerico Nelson could make a play for that backup role to Harper. Both of those guys would be upgrades over Amaya.