While the New Orleans Saints have made very few changes on the offensive side of the ball, there are a few new faces on defense.
Gone are linebacker Scott Fujita (signed with Cleveland) and defensive end Charles Grant (released). To replace them the Saints signed linebacker Clint Ingram (Jacksonville) and defensive ends Alex Brown (Chicago) and Jimmy Wilkerson (Tampa Bay).
They also drafted Patrick Robinson (1st round) and Al Woods (4th round).
Starters: Will Smith (RDE), Alex Brown (LDE)
Backups: Bobby McCray, Jimmy Wilkerson
Overview: For six seasons the New Orleans Saints had the same starting tandem at defensive end. The Saints' brass shook things up in the offseason by releasing Charles Grant, whose career peaked in 2004.
Will Smith, who is coming off his best season, remains the starter on the right side. The Saints signed Alex Brown and Jimmy Wilkerson from the Bears and Buccaneers to challenge for the vacancy at left end.
Bobby McCray remains with the team but is coming off his worst season as a professional. He will be battling Jeff Charleston for a spot in the defensive line rotation and, perhaps, on the team.
Brown and Wilkerson are both upgrades over Grant so this unit should be better than last year. However, this unit appears to be just average as pass rushers and a little below average against the run.
Prediction: A combination of good health and Gregg Williams' influence proved to be very beneficial to Will Smith and I expect Williams to help the newcomers. Will Smith will get 10-12 sacks and the starter at left end will get 6-8.
Starters: Sedrick Ellis, Remi Ayodele
Backups: Anthony Hargrove, Al Woods
Overview: This has been a position of weakness for the Saints since the late Norman Hand anchored the middle from 2000-2002. Sedrick Ellis is the only definitive starter among this group but he has missed nine games in two seasons.
Ayodele made 13 starts next to Ellis last year after Kendrick Clancy went down with injury. Hargrove quickly became a fan favorite and made six starts in Ellis' place. He also led this unit with five sacks.
New Orleans drafted Al Woods in the fourth round. He will challenge Ayodele for a starting spot. The Saints need Woods to make a significant impact in the run defense in order to improve the quality of their line play.
Prediction: One the three unknowns in this group, second-year players Jermey Parnell and Earl Heyman and undrafted rookie Jay Ross, will make the team because the Saints are desperate to find someone to step up and stop the run.
Starter: Jonathan Vilma
Backup: Marvin Mitchell
Overview: Everything begins and ends with Vilma. He is the leader of the defense and he played every single defensive snap for the Saints two years ago. He is extremely productive and durable.
Mitchell is a serviceable backup but is not someone you want starting for an extended period of time if Vilma happens to go down.
Prediction: Vilma will lead the team in tackles for a third straight season and battle the likes of Patrick Willis, Jonathan Beason, and Barrett Ruud for a second straight pro bowl selection.
Starters: Scott Shanle, Clint Ingram
Backups: Jonathan Casillas, Stanley Arnoux
Overview: There are huge question marks surrounding this unit. For four straight years, Scott Fujita and Shanle were the starters at outside linebackers for the Saints. Now the Saints have parted ways with Fujita and have a huge hole at strongside linebacker.
Getting rid of Fujita was a smart move because of his age and decline in production. New Orleans needed to get younger and more athletic on the outside.
Based on his experience alone Shanle is the only certainty at outside linebacker. However, he does not make the game-changing plays that this defense needs from its outside linebackers.
I put Ingram as the other starter because he was a four-year starter at Jacksonville and has a year of experience in Gregg Williams' system.
Stanley Arnoux was a 4th round pick last year and ruptured his left Achilles in rookie minicamp. He is a fast linebacker who should at least have an impact on special teams.
This is a crowded group as there are at least nine players battling for a spot on the team. While the competition will be apparent in training camp, only time will tell how much talent there really is.
Prediction: Scott Fujita's departure will turn out to be a positive for this team because it will give the young linebackers a chance to emerge. One of them may leap Ingram on the depth chart because he wasn't exactly an All-Pro for Jacksonville.
Starters: Jabari Greer, Tracy Porter
Backups: Patrick Robinson, Randall Gay
Overview: It's amazing how far the Saints have come in terms of talent and depth at this position. Just a couple of years ago New Orleans had some of the worst cornerback plays in the NFL. Now they have a tandem that rivals any.
Greer may be the unsung hero of this group. Porter gets his deserved praise for the game-saving interception of Brett Favre in the NFC championship and his pick six in the Super Bowl, but Greer is as close to a shutdown corner as the Saints have. He had the second-lowest completion percentage against in the NFL (behind only D. Revis) and was the main defender on Terrell Owens when his 185-game catch streak came to an end.
New Orleans drafted Patrick Robinson out of Florida State with their first pick. The NFL is trending towards more three- and four-receiver sets so it is becoming necessary to have three starting-caliber corners, especially with the frequency with which the Saints blitz.
Prediction: Porter will build off his postseason success and will lead the team with six or seven interceptions. He will be voted to his first Pro Bowl now that the league knows his name. The move to draft Robinson will pay off as he will fill in for an injured starter four or five times in 2010.
Starter: Roman Harper
Backup: Chip Vaughn
Overview: Harper is a classic "in the box" safety. He ranks among the team leaders in tackles each year but is a huge liability in pass coverage. He has good straight-line speed but gets juked easily by shifty running backs and wide receivers and will miss tackles.
Like Stanley Arnoux, Vaughn was drafted last year in the 4th round and injuries did not allow him to make it to the regular season.
Prediction: Harper will go without an interception because he hasn't had one since 2007 and Williams knows to use him more in run support than in pass coverage. He will rack up a lot of tackles because teams would rather run on the Saints than pass over them.
Starter: Darren Sharper
Backup: Malcolm Jenkins
Overview: Sharper tied for the league lead in interceptions (nine) and defensive touchdowns (three). His age, 34, is a concern and so is the fact that he had microfracture surgery in the offseason.
It became apparent that the Saints were ready to move Jenkins to free safety when they drafted Robinson.
(UPDATE: Coach Sean Payton announced on the afternoon of May 27, 2010 in his OTA report on www.neworleanssaints.com that Malcolm Jenkins has officially moved to safety.)
Prediction: Jenkins will start for Sharper early in the season if he is not fully recovered from his surgery. Even when Sharper is fully healed, Jenkins will see a lot of playing time to allow Sharper to be fresh throughout the season.