8 Things We Learned About the New Orleans Saints During Preseason
With the much-anticipated 2013 preseason now a thing of the past, Saints faithful undoubtedly have a lot to look forward to. Fans have to be giddy at the thought of the "Black & Gold" returning to the upper echelon of the NFL.
The Saints seem poised to take back their position as the kings of the NFC South, and look to do so after a relatively quiet offseason, by Saints standards.
From the return of head coach Sean Payton to the debut of the new defense, the topics still remain plentiful. Let's take a look at eight things that stood out in the Saints' sea of offseason material.
Coach Payton's Butterfly Effect
I'll be the first to admit that I thought Sean Payton's absence would have very little effect on the 2012 season. My reason being, quarterback Drew Brees is such a student of the game, he would be able to put the franchise on his back whenever called upon. That theory couldn't have been further from the truth.
Payton brings a unique calmness to the program. He's that father figure that you need to tell the family to relax during the most strenuous of times. His confidence, serenity and swagger are a tough combination to beat. His team may very well go back to being the same.
Don't get me wrong; Brees and the offense were pretty much business as usual. When you're third in points (28.8), second in total yards (6,574) and first in passing, you're doing something right.
Yet there were plenty of moments where the team folded down the stretch where Payton's moxie would've come into play. I have a strong feeling that will no longer be a point of contention.
GM Mickey Loomis and the Scouting Department Are Phenomenal
Mickey Loomis continues to amaze me. While most teams are reliant upon high draft picks to succeed in the NFL (e.g. Atlanta Falcons, San Francisco 49ers), the Saints continue to get it done with late-round picks and undrafted free agents alike.
Now don't get me wrong—if you need mostly first-round draft picks to win, by all means proceed with that theory. The pressure to win means "win at all costs" in my book. But the efficiency with which the Saints operate is beyond admirable. It's a theory that more teams should attempt to adhere to.
Constructing a roster this way builds quality depth first and foremost. When most of the top players aren't as highly touted, there's not as much pressure to play said players. When most players are reporting to a team, they know that the chances of them unseating that highly touted draft pick are slim to none.
Not in New Orleans.
Marques Colston (seventh round), Lance Moore (undrafted), Joseph Morgan (undrafted), Pierre Thomas (undrafted), Jimmy Graham (third round) and Chris Ivory (undrafted) are players who are—or were—significant players for the Saints in recent memory.
As a matter of fact, it can be said that recent first-round draft picks Reggie Bush, Sedrick Ellis, Robert Meachem and Mark Ingram are some of the more disappointing picks from Loomis. But due to the success of the rest of the roster, these players aren't held on to as long as most franchises do.
With the play of Kenny Stills (fifth round), Glenn Foster (undrafted), Nick Toon (fourth round), Akiem Hicks (third round), Junior Galette (undrafted) and Martez Wilson (third round), the "Mickey Loomis way" is in full effect.
Now that's a recipe for success.
In Dire Need of an Edge Rush
As the preseason wore on, it became very apparent that the Saints were lacking pressure off the edges. Each game, it seemed as though the opposing QB was working from a clean pocket with plenty of time to get rid of the pass.
The original season-ending injury to prized free agent Victor Butler got the proverbial ball rolling. Subsequent injuries to Martez Wilson and Junior Galette continued the trend.
Defensive end Jay Richardson got the start at OLB along with converted end Will Smith. Richardson proved athletic enough to handle the base downs portion of the scheme.
Will Smith looked like a fish out of water during the conversion process. Much too large to work in space, Smith was the square peg in a round hole that you usually find in defensive conversions. Unfortunately for Smith, the football gods put an end to the experiment when Smith tore his ACL in the third game against the Texans. Richardson was a surprise 53-man cut.
However, the Saints did trade for veteran OLB Parys Haralson from the San Francisco 49ers. Haralson is not known for his pass-rush prowess, but I expect Rob Ryan to get the best out of him in that category. With the return of Galette and Wilson the Saints could actually end up having a formidable pass rush...now that's scary!
One of the key positions in the Saints' offensive scheme is that of the field-stretcher. This guy may be the least-targeted but most impactful player in the NFL. The Saints have had a great lineage of deep threats during the Sean Payton regime.
Donte' Stallworth, Devery Henderson, Robert Meachem and Joseph Morgan have all terrorized secondaries from within the Saints' vertical attack. The ability to be efficient—and content—with three or four targets per game is the key here.
Joseph Morgan was thought to be the breakout star of this coming season after catching 10 passes, but managing to generate an astounding 379 yards (almost 38 yards per reception) last season in a reserve role. Unfortunately, Morgan tore his ACL prior to the first preseason game.
I honestly don't see anyone on the roster with Morgan's skill set. Kenny Stills, the rookie out of Oklahoma, is the closest. He has speed, but is best in the short-to-intermediate game, where his route-running and agility make him a nightmare.
Stills had two opportunities to catch a deep pass during the preseason. The first one was a complete drop as he had trouble locating the ball on a perfectly thrown pass. The second one was a fantastic catch over Texans corner Kareem Jackson, who initially made the play. Stills essentially took it away from him after Jackson tipped it.
While this play was great, you can't expect something like that to happen every time. It also highlighted the fact that Stills didn't generate any separation like Morgan would've done.
Ultimately, I have confidence in the offensive coaching staff. If they think Stills is the man for the job, I'm rolling with it!
Will Smith at OLB Was Going to Be Problematic
Before the season-ending injury to outside linebacker Will Smith, a major point of contention was his misfit in the Saints' new 3-4-based defense. Smith was making the move from being a 4-3 hand-in-the-dirt defensive end to playing out in space as a standup outside linebacker. To say he looked bad would've been putting it mildly.
An honest scouting assessment on Smith would've had him as maybe even being too big—and too nonathletic—to be a 4-3 end at this point in his career. Playing him on the inside may have extended his career and rendered him unstoppable.
This was a project that was doomed from the start, and unfortunately was ended in a way no Saints fan wanted it to. Will Smith is one of the greatest players in the history of the franchise.
Here's to hoping he comes back stronger than ever...as an interior lineman.
Stopping the Tight End Will Be Problematic
Despite having both Malcolm Jenkins (a former corner) and Kenny Vaccaro, the Saints continue to deploy veteran safety Roman Harper at the strong safety position in sub-packages. This means Harper is one-on-one with some of the best tight ends in the business.
And as most fans know...Harper can't cover.
I admire the tenacity, intensity and physicality with which Harper plays. He's a major tone-setter for the Saints defense as a whole. But he has no business trying to cover the opponents' tight ends.
Saints defensive coordinator Rob Ryan loves safeties. He plays them four at a time in nickel situations. The Saints roster is full of very capable safeties, such as the aforementioned Jenkins and Vaccaro, Rafael Bush and Isa Abdul-Quddus. Any four of these guys would be a better option at strong safety.
There is most certainly a position for Harper in the lineup because he is a ferocious hitter. Ryan needs to scheme him up in a blitz linebacker role. I trust Harper the most when he's closest to the line of scrimmage looking to stop the run. But anything beyond that, and his position should be handing out Gatorade from the bench.
Kenny Vaccaro Is as Advertised
If you were going to construct the perfect defensive back for the Rob Ryan scheme, he'd be physical, versatile and intelligent.
Well Rob Ryan, meet Kenny Vaccaro.
Vaccaro's ability to cover slot receivers, play the deep safety and punish ball-carriers must have Ryan frothing at the mouth. As the 14th overall pick in the 2013 NFL draft, the 6'0", 214 pound dynamo has flashed in just about every way this offseason.
He first started out tormenting his teammates with his physical play in training camp, and then transferred that energy to opposing teams in preseason play. Right now he's playing behind Roman Harper in the base defense, but will see plenty of time in sub-packages in the Ryan scheme.
There's no doubt in my mind that Vaccaro was the perfect pick for the Saints and the city of New Orleans alike.
The Saints Aren't in the Power-Run Game Business
The next time Saints running back Mark Ingram carries the ball twice in a row, it may be the first.
It seems as though I'm in the minority when talking positively about the oft-critiqued Ingram. As one of the best players in the history of college football, Ingram punished defenses with a steady diet of between-the-tackles runs. Ingram would sometimes get the ball four or five times in a row...multiple times a game.
He's the epitome of a workhorse back (5'9", 215 pounds) for a power-run scheme, which happens to be the opposite of what the Saints employ.
The Saints are a finesse scheme that likes to move its backs around the formations. They value versatility over physicality. To be effective in that scheme, you would have to make the most of a few carries and always be in rhythm even if you had sat out a few series. That's not Ingram's style.
Veteran running backs Pierre Thomas and Darren Sproles exemplify that theory. Give them five carries and three passes and watch them come up with multiple explosive plays.
Ingram needs a steady diet of carries, a diet he will never be provided.
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