New Orleans Saints: What Each New Acquisition's Role Will Be in 2012
We’ve hit the part of the offseason where little is happening. OTAs are done with. Mini-camps too. Players are getting their last little R&R before the grind of training camp and the regular season. Coaches, believe it or not, will also take a couple weeks off very soon.
In other words, even in a busy, seemingly never-ending offseason for the New Orleans Saints, there should not be much to report on, much to talk about or even speculate upon. Yes, there is still much ado about nothing in the bountygate scandal. And there’s still that contract for that one guy (what’s his name?) that needs to get done.
Aside from those two stories, though, the middle of the summer is a time to get reacquainted with some of the old faces and formally introduced to the new faces. Today, we will take a look at the newest Saints and try to figure out just exactly what role they will play in the 2012 drama known as the New Orleans Saints’ football season.
MLB Curtis Lofton
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There have already been thousands of words spewed about the former Oklahoma Sooner and Atlanta Falcon. His role has been discussed briefly, but here’s the most succinct and comprehensive preview of his role for the 2012 Saints.
Without Jonathan Vilma for the entire year (suspended one whole season due to his role in the bounty scandal), Curtis Lofton’s first year in New Orleans will feature him more than he expected when he first signed up to join the NFC South champions.
He will now be the middle linebacker—the quarterback of the defense—and its most important player. He will call the defensive snaps, make adjustments before the snap and work with defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo to ensure the defensive game plan is executed on game day.
The good news for Lofton and the Saints is that Steve Spagnuolo’s defense is eerily similar to the one Lofton left in Atlanta. There, he was asked to cover the middle of the field in pass coverage, and on running plays, come up and hit someone. He performed those two roles almost to perfection.
Critics have barked that he’s not Brian Urlacher in coverage. The truth is two-fold: First, there’s only one Brian Urlacher in coverage—the man is bound for the Hall of Fame almost exclusively because of his coverage abilities in the Tampa Two defense. Second, Lofton is so much better than anything the Saints had a year ago, other than Jonathan Casillas.
Lofton figures to stay on the field in just about every defensive package the Saints present because he will be their most valuable defender—especially among the linebackers. His ability to help create turnovers will make this defense better than it was the past two years.
OLB David Hawthorne
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David Hawthorne came over from the Seattle Seahawks after a successful four-year start to his NFL career. The former TCU Horned Frog is a very intelligent player who has experience roaming the middle of the field in another defense similar to the one brought to New Orleans this offseason.
Hawthorne will play outside in this Saints defense not because Lofton is the better player, but because Hawthorne is a little lighter and quicker on his feet. While Lofton is a thumper, Hawthorne is an athlete who excels in space. That is not to say Hawthorne won’t hit you, he just doesn’t compare in that area to Lofton.
Where Hawthorne figures to lend a hand is also in his ability to cover receivers, running backs and tight ends in space. Of course, the Saints struggled horribly in 2011 in that area and put a premium this offseason on linebackers who could cover. The new zone scheme will help, but so will having an excellent athlete such as Hawthorne.
He isn’t necessarily as likely to create turnovers as Lofton, but his lockdown coverage abilities will aid the rest of the defense to make plays. Still, don’t be surprised to see Hawthorne register a sack, strip or pick-six throughout the course of the year. He is certainly capable of such things.
OLB Chris Chamberlain
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Chris Chamberlain made the move to New Orleans from St. Louis alongside coach Spagnuolo. Obviously, Chamberlain knows Spags and his defensive philosophy. The two seem to be somewhat kindred spirits, which also had to make a huge difference.
At this moment, it’s impossible to say for sure if Chamberlain will be listed as a starter at outside linebacker, but fans should understand Spagnuolo is just as much, if not more, in love with defensive sub-packages as former defensive coordinator Gregg Williams was. For that reason, Chamberlain will get plenty of playing time regardless of how he is listed on the depth chart.
His abilities are not tremendously different than Scott Shanle’s, but his knowledge of the defensive scheme, familiarity with Spagnuolo and the fresh start he has in New Orleans should all lend themselves to a large role for Chamberlain in the Saints’ 2012 defense.
CB Elbert Mack
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Elbert Mack was recently signed in the midst of the team’s OTAs. At the end of the spring sessions, most observers still considered second-year corner Johnny Patrick the likely incumbent for the nickel corner spot. But with Mack’s experience, he promises to challenge for that spot during training camp.
Mack brings a great deal of experience, having played the nickel in Tampa Bay the last four years. Though his size has never been something that separated him in a positive way, it is good enough for the nickel especially in a zone defensive scheme.
That is the scheme he learned in Tampa, though the team also flirted with more man-based coverage schemes the past couple years under Raheem Morris, and even with the inventor of the Tampa Two defense, Monty Kiffin, in his final season.
Mack’s signing continued the pattern the team began early in the offseason by taking good players and core contributors away from rivals and fellow playoff contenders. Having Mack join this side of the Tampa-New Orleans rivalry will be the best career decision Mack ever made, if for no other reason than he is likely to win more football games and make the playoffs.
DT Brodrick Bunkley
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Much like with Curtis Lofton, many words have been hiccupped and thrown up onto pages for the psychotically obsessed Saints fan to digest on the Saints’ free-agent signing of defensive tackle Brodrick Bunkley. Few of those have spoken intelligently and with regard for the true nature of what Bunkley brings to this New Orleans defense.
In NFL circles, Bunkley is known as a player limited in his football IQ. That factor helps explain why it took him a long time to excel at the NFL level despite tremendous physical gifts.
Having worked with him in Philadelphia, Spagnuolo understands his limitations and should be able to tailor Bunkley’s responsibilities to his understanding level. Doing this will allow Bunkley to do what he does best, which is simply play football.
Because of the mental limitations, Bunkley will likely only be asked to master one defensive sub-package—likely the base defensive alignment. In said defense, Bunkley will be asked to clog up space while also using his athleticism to get into the backfield and make plays behind the line of scrimmage.
That may sound like the job of every defensive tackle—and to some degree, that is true. The reality, though, is that it is a little more complicated than that. For Bunkley, the Saints will literally keep it that simple—expanding only slightly beyond what I’ve just said.
Spagnuolo is giving Bunkley a simple charge: Go play ball! And let Cal graduates like Cameron Jordan worry about the finer intricacies of the position and the defense.
RG Ben Grubbs
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Ben Grubbs is the lone veteran of any significance who was added to the offense this offseason. That fact is pretty amazing given the conundrum Mickey Loomis and the Saints franchise faced heading into his mess of a 2012 offseason.
Grubbs was signed the day after Tampa added Carl Nicks in their free-agent spend-a-thon. There’s a theory in football circles that says “continuity breeds production." That theory is thought to be no more true than along the offensive line.
For New Orleans, four of the five starters along the line are likely to reprise their role in 2012. And it helps the team is avenging its free-agent loss with a player of similar talent and skillset. Grubbs’ role in the Saints’ offense will be relatively similar to Nicks’.
Grubbs comes from an offense that lived primarily by pounding the football effectively to open up play-action. Only when the team became pass-happy did the offense flounder. Of course, the same cannot be said of the Saints’ offensive unit.
They are great running football, but even better when they take to the air. Similarly, though, it is an offense that excels in play-action passing (as does seemingly any good offense in the history of football).
Grubbs’ presence would also seem to garner more running calls to the left side of the line, where the former Auburn Tiger is a mauler who opens up holes like he is Moses’ rod and the football field is the Red Sea.
All in all, with Grubbs, the offensive line doesn’t figure to drop off much, if any, without Nicks. That’s because Grubbs may actually be better than the recently-departed Nicks.
QB Luke McCown
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Much like Elbert Mack, Luke McCown is a player the Saints were familiar with from his time in Tampa (he actually single-handedly won a game for Tampa in the Superdome on my birthday weekend in 2007). McCown has jumped around the NFL and is legitimately no more than a backup quarterback at this point.
That said, his knowledge of the Saints’ West Coast offense and better-than-average arm strength allow him to come in and quickly compete for Chase Daniel for No. 1 QB positioning in the unlikely event that Drew Brees never signs a long-term deal with the Saints in 2012.
If Brees does re-sign, McCown and Daniel figure to have a battle royale in training camp for the No. 2 position on the QB depth chart. Because of the new roster rules, the loser figures to still remain on the roster—especially if it’s Daniel.
If McCown were to lose that battle, he could be cut since a veteran backup provides less future prospective than a young, improving player (in this case, we’re actually talking about previous third string Trevor Canfield).
With these seven players taking on key roles for the New Orleans Saints in 2012, a Super Bowl appearance and victory in the Mercedes Benz Superdome is well within reach.
Without Sean Payton, and a still unsure Drew Brees situation, there are certainly tons of question marks. But there is little doubt the Saints added some really good pieces in the offseason through free agency.
Mickey Loomis and Co. did a great job of adding the right pieces to the puzzle, improving necessary areas and finding guys who fit what the team is going to do from a scheme perspective.
With Drew Brees, this is a Super Bowl team. Eliminating the distractions surrounding the team and just playing football would seem to be the biggest hurdle for this team.
But it is clear they are the most talented team in the NFC.