We will get our first look at the 2011 New Orleans Saints in game action on Friday night against the San Francisco 49ers in the Superdome.
While the Saints are a very good team as well as a genuine contender to win the NFC and return to a second Super Bowl in three seasons, there are legitimate, substantive questions to be answered. Here is a glimpse of keys to watch for, my top ten focal points in the preseason for the Black & Gold:
1) BREES KNEES
Entering his 11th NFL season, Drew Brees is healthy. That says it all. Coming off of a fabulous 2009 season, culminating in a Super Bowl MVP honor, the 32-year old Brees had a good but not great year in 2010, largely due to a knee injury which he played with for much of the season. In 2009, Brees competed a career-high 70.6 percent of his passes, throwing for 34 touchdowns with just 11 interceptions, second lowest in his career since becoming a starter in 2002. He put up a brilliant quarterback rating of 109.6, off the charts. In 2010, Brees completed 68.1 percent of his passes, passing for 33 touchdowns but throwing a career-high 22 interceptions. His quarterback rating was 90.9. Still, Brees became the first Saint since Joe Horn (2000-2002) to be named to his third consecutive Pro Bowl. Look for Brees to recapture the magic of 2009, barring injury, in 2011.
2) RACE FOR THE CHASE
The New Orleans coaches believe Chase Daniel can really play. He is athletic. He is smart and makes good decisions. He may be blossoming into a young Drew Brees. Of course, you will never know until he plays. The Saints are so confident in Daniel that they have not brought in a veteran to caddy Brees. Daniel turns 25 this season, his third in New Orleans. Patience is a great virtue. He will need it with Brees still playing at a very high level. Daniel excelled in the preseason last year and he will get a lion's share of the time this preseason to show his skill and progression as a quarterback. While this may not be a Steve Young-Joe Montana situation, Daniel has a future in the NFL and he hopes it is in New Orleans but the race for Chase to play is still under caution.
3) KREUTZ CRUCIAL TO SUCCESS
The acquisition of veteran Olin Kruetz was a stroke of brilliance by the Saints. Kruetz can still play. He is an upgrade over Jonathan Goodwin and a natural leader. He will solidify what was a pretty good offensive line, giving the Saints as strong of an inside presence (guard-to-guard) as any team in the league, crucial to the success of a potent offense. Kruetz allows Matt Tennant to learn and develop for another year. He will get lots of time in the preseason, along with Charles Brown behind Jermon Bushrod.
4) A HALL PASS/SPROLES SPRUCES IT UP
Korey Hall becomes the new battering ram to lead Mark Ingram, Pierre Thomas and Darren Sproles into holes. Chris Ivory could figure if and when he gets healthy. Hall replaces Heath Evans, who carried a strong presence in the locker room. The Saints feel he will help improve the running game, which was a big presence in the 2009 season before struggling in 2010. Ingram has been very impressive in camp. He has the look of a feature back. Darren Sproles appears to be all that. Remember Howard Stevens? This guy is perhaps faster, quicker than the previous version of the smallest running back/return man in Saints' history. He has impressed all who have watched him in training camp. Consider this--Sproles has two kickoff returns and two punt returns for scores in his five years in the league. He has rushed for 1,154 yards and six touchdowns while catching 146 passes for 1,400 yards and 11 scores. In his five NFL seasons, Reggie Bush returned four punts for touchdowns and no kickoffs for scores. He rushed for 2,090 yards and 17 touchdowns and caught 294 passes for 2,142 yards and 12 scores. While Bush has superior rushing and receiving numbers, Sproles can fill his shoes nicely. Incidentally, it appears Bush will not even return punts with Miami. With Ingram, Thomas and possibly Ivory on hand, he will not be needed to run much from scrimmage. Sproles' kick return ability will make it a challenge for Courtney Roby to make the team again.
5) CONSISTENCY AT WIDE RECEIVER
Marques Colston is a good NFL receiver. Ditto for Lance Moore, who was wisely re-signed. Robert Meachem has enjoyed good moments and games but must stay healthy and become more consistent to merit his first-round draft status. He makes the spectacular catch, at times. Devery Henderson must prove that he is still a consistent deep threat to stretch defenses. Can Adrian Arrington finally get on the field and show his potential? The Saints are solid but not outstanding at this position. Of course, Brees helps make them look good.
6) GRAHAM CRACKING
Jimmy Graham has a chance to be an elite tight end in the NFL. I loved his selection on draft night. He justified that in 2010. The guy has it all. If he can remain healthy, he will open things up for the wide receiving corps while making big plays. David Thomas is a solid veteran receiver as well.
7) ROGERS/FRANKLIN BRING THE BEEF/CAN CAM JAM EARLY?
The addition of Shaun Rogers and Aubrayo Franklin give the Saints the run-stuffing size the team has lacked in recent years. They will also make Sedrick Ellis a better player, freeing him up from double-teams. Alex Brown must play solid, especially with the likely four-game suspension of Will Smith. How soon will Cameron Jordan play or start? He will get the opportunity in the preseason and appears to have a maturity about himself. Can Junior Galette be the speed rushing specialist off the corner that the team needs? Watch him closely. Jeff Charleston is a good effort guy with a high motor.
8) WHO PLAYS AT OUTSIDE LINEBACKER?
Danny Clark is gone. As recently as earlier this week, he was listed as the starter at strong outside linebacker. Can Jo-Lonn Dunbar mature into being a full-time starter? Is he capable? What about Jonathan Casillas? Is he that guy? Is third-round pick Martez Wilson a future starter and star? He looks the part physically. Will Scott Shanle remain a starter once again or can Will Herring or Clint Ingram push to start? This may be the most interesting competition to watch in the preseason. The Saints must improve here. There is no such concern inside with Jonathan Vilma.
9) CAN THE SECONDARY STAY HEALTHY/HOW GOOD IS ROBINSON?
Jabari Greer has looked good in training camp. Tracy Porter has been watching. The Saints need their starting cornerbacks to stay healthy, get healthy and play 15 or 16 games each this season, unlike last year. Greer has missed nine of 32 games in his two seasons with the Saints while Porter has missed 19 of 48 games in his three years with the team. Can Patrick Robinson mature to become a good NFL corner? The Saints invested a first-round pick in him a year ago. We know Malcolm Jenkins will be good and that Roman Harper will be okay.
10) CAMP SLEEPERS
Before getting injured, wide receiver Jarred Fayson was making a splash in camp. If he can get back on the field soon, he will have a fighting chance. Running back Joique Bell has shown well, running hard in the mold of Ivory and former Saint Mike Bell. If Ivory is slow to heal, Bell could stick. Cornerback DeAndre McDaniel has the physical ability to stick around if he does not get caught up in a numbers game.
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