Last season the Giants won the Super Bowl behind the strength of an overpowering defensive line.
Michael Strahan, Osi Umenyiora, and Justin Tuck joined forces to create the most feared front line in the playoffs. After holding perhaps the greatest offense in the history of the league to 14 points in the Super Bowl, the Giants reestablished the age-old NFL axiom that says a good defense will always beat a good offense.
This season the Saints will look to follow that blueprint after spending nearly all of their offseason attention on defensive improvement. In addition, much like the Giants, the Saints will lean heavily on a stacked defensive line to set the tone.
It all starts with Will Smith. Smith has been the best player on the Saints' defense for the past two seasons. He’s the quickest, fastest and strongest defensive lineman in Black-and-Gold, and when he plays well, the defense feeds off him.
Contractually speaking, the fifth year pro is set for a payday. He’s been playing under his rookie contract since, well, his rookie year.
The Saints understand that Smith is worth more than $1 million a year—which he would receive this season under his current deal. A contract extension is in the works and should be done by training camp.
After Smith’s deal is complete, the Saints will have heavy money invested in the bookends of their defensive line, which leads me to the next most important player on the line: Charles Grant.
Grant had a disappointing 2007 season. He battled nagging foot and leg injuries throughout the whole year, which robbed him of his explosiveness coming off the ball. This is a new year, though, and come training camp, Grant should be healthy, ripping, and rearing to go.
The Georgia native is an emotional force for the Saints. Following the departure of Joe Horn a year ago, Grant immediately assumed the role of locker room loudmouth, but in a good way. It seems like he is always upbeat and optimistic, no matter how badly the club may be struggling.
Last season as the Saints were toiling in the negativity of an 0-4 start, Grant made it a point to declare that the team would rally back and win their remaining 12 games. “12-0,” he said when asked what his prediction for the rest of the year was. “We are winning the rest of our games.” His prediction was a bit off, but it’s his positively that counts.
In addition, for those worried about whether or not legal troubles will plague Grant this season, don’t be. If you read the details of the case, you’ll understand that Grant is only being targeted because of his wealth and fame. The charges being brought against him are thoroughly bogus and he should be exonerated fairly quickly and easily.
I expect a bounce back year from the bug-eyed, dread locked No. 94.
If the strength of the defensive line starts with Smith and Grant, then it ends with newcomers Sedrick Ellis and Bobby McCray. These guys are your two wild cards going into this season. The success of the Saints' defense could very well be contingent upon how well Ellis and McCray perform.
Will Ellis instantly seize the starting job in training camp and begin his quest to become Warren Sapp-like dominant? Or will it take a while for him to adjust to the speed of the game?
Should Ellis adapt quickly, the Saints will have the luxury of combining power (Ellis) and speed (Brian Young) together at the two tackle positions.
If he’s slower on the uptake, New Orleans might choose to employ a different strategy, which again provides me with a beautiful segue into my next point pertaining to Bobby McCray (got to love that flow).
McCray’s addition to the team went relatively unnoticed this offseason, perhaps being overshadowed by the acquisitions of Jonathan Vilma and Randall Gay. What won’t go unnoticed though is if he can help bolster the Saints' pass rush. McCray is a speed guy who plays best coming off the edge.
If he can put consistent pressure on the quarterback from the outside, the Saints can then think about moving Grant towards the interior at times. That would give Gary Gibbs a world of stunt and blitz packages to play with.
To sum it all up, the Saints are somewhat stacked along the front line heading into the upcoming season. The infusion of talent in Ellis and McCray coupled with the veteran leadership of Grant and Smith gives New Orleans a lot to look forward to.
They may not be at a Super Bowl level yet, but the Strahan, Umenyiora, Tuck potential is certainly there.