As we wait impatiently for football to kick in for 2011, it is time to take a preliminary look at the New Orleans Saints.
Assuming owners and players will find enough common ground to have a 2011 season, the Saints figure prominently in the discussion to win the NFC and reach the Super Bowl.
After winning the Super Bowl to cap the 2009 season, the Saints endured injuries and struggled through a typical post-Super Bowl syndrome as their quest to repeat ended on a cool day in Seattle against a subpar Seahawks team which sported a losing record.
Still, it was a good season for the Saints, who won 11 games and overcame many injuries. Drew Brees was less than 100 percent. The running back positioned was decimated by injuries. Not having Malcolm Jenkins, Jimmy Graham, Chris Ivory or Pierre Thomas at Seattle really hurt. Cornerbacks were banged up all season long. Scott Shanle missed some time.
With the work stoppage dominating the NFL landscape since the end of the 2010 season, the Saints are ready to get back to work. There is a sense of purpose, a hunger to win and win big once again. There is talent to accomplish the feat.
There is unity and leadership with a veteran team, led by Brees. The superb quarterback remains one of the league's elite players. He was a leader in representing the players in the dispute with owners while maintaining a cordial relationship with Tom Benson, walking a fine line.
He displayed his leadership in organizing workouts at Tulane which were well attended by his teammates.
The work stoppage will clearly have an impact on the 2011 season. The quality of play may suffer initially, depending on when players return. Not having a significant off-season will most definitely impact new, younger players and younger teams.
That is an advantage to a veteran team like the Saints. Learning playbooks and getting repetitions while getting to know each other is not as vital for a team with the makeup of the Saints, a team with an excellent, seasoned coaching staff which provides stability in uncertain times.
The season opener with the Green Bay Packers on Thursday, September 8 at Lambeau Field will be telling. The Packers are clearly the favorite to repeat as NFC, if not Super Bowl champions. Of course, that is very difficult to do. All they have to do is walk across the field and ask the Saints about it.
Other NFC contenders to reach the Super Bowl include Philadelphia, Atlanta, the New York Giants and Chicago. Dallas could return to the upper echelon with a healthy Tony Romo. Minnesota must solve its quarterback dilemma.
Detroit and St. Louis are improving teams. Seattle is not bad. Perhaps the most intriguing team to watch is Tampa Bay.
The Buccaneers were a salty 10-6 in 2010 with a good young coach in Raheem Morris and a fine young quarterback in Josh Freeman. They will continue to grow as a threat to the Saints in the NFC South.
Unfortunately, the work stoppage would seem to have hurt a young team such as Tampa Bay more than others. Young teams need the time to mesh.
With regard to the Saints, here are the early questions to answer surrounding the 2011 season:
**Will Reggie Bush be here and what role will he carry? The feeling is that Bush will be here and Sean Payton will use him appropriately, as a spot running back, a slot and split receiver and as a kick return specialist. His skills compliment those of Mark Ingram.
**How large of a role will Ingram play? The feeling here is that Ingram will become the Saints' feature back. He has the physical ability and durability to do so. He may give the Saints their first significant feature back since a healthy Deuce McAlister.
**What about Pierre Thomas and Chris Ivory? Thomas is coming off of a season in which he was out much of the year. The Saints re-signed him early on in the off season. That said, the drafting of Ingram could greatly curtail Thomas and his role with the team if Bush is here. As for Ivory, there is a role for him. He is young (23) and strong and will be a security policy for Ingram or any injury situation. As the Saints learned in 2009, you can never have enough solid running backs and the staff maintains that Thomas still has a place here.
**How good will Brees be? At 32 years of age and coming off of a knee injury, Brees is still in his prime. Though he was not as good in 2010 as he was in 2008 or 2009, (largely due to the injury), he was still good, completing 68 percent of his passes for 4,620 yards and 33 touchdowns. He will have to cut down on the 22 interceptions, a career high. Expect him to do so. Brees is on his way to a Hall of Fame career.
**Will the young offensive linemen become players? Center Matt Tennant could have used the off season work in his quest to show coaches that he may be able to take over the center spot from Jonathan Goodwin. Still, the Saints like Tennant and expect him to be a player. Charles Brown has a ways to go. He is more of a development project but he was a second-round investment and will be given every chance to make it. Tackles Jermon Bushrod and Jon Stinchcomb can play better than they did in 2010. Carl Nicks and Jahri Evans are set at guard, a major strength of the team. Nicks has received a first-round tender and is a priority to lock up on a long-term basis.
**The Saints must bring back Lance Moore. He is Brees' most dependable receiver, the guy who always runs precise routes and catches the football. He wants to return to the Saints and the Saints want him back and have tendered him.
**How good will Jimmy Graham be? When he was drafted in the third round in 2010, I stated that he was the best pick the Saints made and one of the steals in the entire NFL draft. We saw evidence of that in 2010. Graham had 31 catches for 356 yards and five touchdowns. He can run. He can jump. He can catch. He has merely scratched the surface of his enormous ability. He made Jeremy Shockey expendable, expediting the veteran's exit to Carolina. The sky is the limit for Graham, who will increase his productivity and create more opportunities for the likes of Marques Colston, Robert Meachem and Devery Henderson.
**Without an off season, how soon can Cameron Jordan and Martez Wilson help the Saints defense? Both are physically imposing and physically prepared to play immediately but the learning curve is steep and they are behind in that aspect. Both will be given every opportunity to earn playing time and both are good looking prospects.
**Can Scott Shanle remain viable and will Jonathan Casillas realize his potential? Shanle now has nine years in the league. He missed two games a year ago. Casillas missed the entire 2010 season with a foot injury and has the kind of speed the Saints covet at outside linebacker. It is time for Casillas to put up or for Jo-Lonn Dunbar to do so. Dunbar started eight games in 2010.
**Is it finally time for Will Smith to serve a four game suspension? It certainly appears that this is the case. The StarCaps saga has finally caught up with Smith following an April ruling by the Minnesota Supreme Court denying a review of the case which will affect Smith, along with Kevin Williams and Pat Williams of the Vikings. Smith saw his productivity decline in 2010, falling from 49 tackles in 2009 to 39 in 2010 and saw his sacks total decline from 13 in 2009 to just five in 2010. The Saints need Smith to perform at a high level.
**How good will Shaun Rogers be? The 6'4, 350-pound Rogers gives the Saints a presence not seen since the late Norman Hand--a block-consuming run-stopping big body. At 32 years of age, the question about Rogers is not his ability--it is still there. In Cleveland, he was an attitude problem. That does not figure to be the case in New Orleans. Rogers is surrounded by a group of good, veteran leaders whom he will respect. Sean Payton is sure that Rogers will be no problem and a very productive player. Payton and Gregg Williams are genuinely excited about Rogers, who will make Sedrick Ellis a better player, freeing him up from double team blocks to make plays.
**Can Jabari Greer and Tracy Porter stay healthy? When healthy, they are a good tandem at cornerback. Greer has missed nine games over the last two seasons while Porter has missed eight games over the same period of time with injuries.
**How good will Patrick Robinson be? The second-year player could have used organized team activities (OTA's) as much as anyone on the roster. He gained valuable experience as a rookie, playing in 11 games and pressed into a starting role on four occasions due to the injuries to Greer and Porter. Robinson has the speed and size to be a good cornerback. It is all about learning the game.
**Is Malcolm Jenkins ready to become an All-Pro caliber player? Jenkins can run, hit and is smart. He has very good size and instincts. Can he become a ball hawk? He has just three interceptions in two years but the guy has special ability. Speaking of ball hawks, is there a place for Darren Sharper on the 2011 Saints? The 15-year veteran declined last season, slowing down, slowed by injuries and wear and tear, playing in just eight games with no interceptions. Still, if healthy, Sharper can provide leadership and play-making ability. The guy has 63 career interceptions in his illustrious career.
**Can Garrett Hartley shake off his early season slump from 2010? Hartley's early season missed field goal against the Falcons played a significant role in costing the Saints a division title and bye. A bye would have given the Saints a chance to get injured players back. Who knows what would have happened? Still, Hartley recovered from early season struggles to close strong, He made 80 percent of his field goals (20-of-25) and all of his extra points (40-of-40).
**Will Courtney Roby remain on the roster? With the change in kickoff rules, Roby's future with the team becomes a huge question mark. He was not a difference maker as a return man in 2010. What could save him is his ability to cover kicks as a gunner. Can the Saints justify a roster spot for Roby?
Entering the 2011 season, the New Orleans Saints have more answers than questions. Brees is still brilliant. The running back situation has improved. The wide receivers are solid, though not spectacular. The guards are an elite tandem. Graham and Jenkins are budding stars. Rogers and Ellis will be a solid tandem. Thomas Morstead is a big asset in the kicking game.
The season opener at Green Bay could well be a preview of the NFC championship game. The Saints would much prefer for any title game to be played in the friendly confines of the Louisiana Superdome, rather than the cold of Green Bay in January. Barring significant injuries, the Saints should make a serious run at another Super Bowl, providing we have a 2011 season.
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