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Early Observations of Saints Training Camp Centered on Defense's Talent Level

How safety Roman Harper will fit into the new defensive scheme this season for the New Orleans Saints is just one of many questions on that side of the football (Photo: Parker Waters).How safety Roman Harper will fit into the new defensive scheme this season for the New Orleans Saints is just one of many questions on that side of the football (Photo: Parker Waters).

One week into training camp, here are some observations and questions concerning your 2012 New Orleans Saints.

The Saints defense is undergoing a rapid transformation. Gone are the bravado and blitzes of Gregg Williams. In its place, the zone dog 4-3 defense of new coordinator Steve Spagnuolo. The secondary now plays a lot of zone coverages, which is a good thing because they are thin at cornerback and at safety.

Jabari Greer and Patrick Robinson are very solid as starting cornerbacks, but when it comes to the nickel, the Saints better hope Johnny Patrick is the answer and that the unit stays away from injury.

Patrick may need to step up to an even bigger role with Greer likely out for at least the rest of training camp after sports hernia surgery. The team did many more good things than bad personnel-wise in the offseason, but I think not re-signing cornerback Tracy Porter was a mistake.

Strong safety Roman Harper, who thrived under Williams as a tackler in the box and a blitzer, has new responsibilities in the Spags scheme. Free safety Malcolm Jenkins has to prove that he can anticipate, break on the ball and make big plays. Those plays have been few since Darren Sharper's superb 2009 season.

In 2009 and 2010, Gregg Williams and his attacking scheme was all the rage. But in 2011, Williams was the goat as 49ers tight end Vernon Davis ran free down the middle to catch one of the biggest passes in 49ers history and help eliminate the Saints from the playoffs.

The problem the Saints have on defense is simple: Not enough good players. Tell me one elite player the Saints have on that side of the ball? When Williams arrived in 2009, he brought in Greer and Darren Sharper in free agency, pushed for the drafting of Jenkins, and enjoyed a big second year from Porter.

Suddenly, New Orleans was able to make a huge leap on defense.

The Saints' elite players are on offense. Quarterback Drew Brees has two top-rate targets, wide receiver Marques Colston and tight end Jimmy Graham. Right guard Jahri Evans is one of the best at his position in football.

Right now, veteran Adrian Arrington looks like the fourth receiver, ahead of draft choice Nick Toon and Joe Morgan. Courtney Roby, who doubles as a kickoff man, could be on the bubble. But the fact that Roby is low in the pecking order is no knock on his skills, but rather a testament to how good the depth is at that position.

This is also the year we find out about Mark Ingram. Last season, head coach Sean Payton said he was preventing the rookie back from being a Pro Bowl player because of so few carries. If the Saints ever get away from backfield by committee, it will be because Ingram is producing at a very high level.

The Saints will name a replacement for interim head coach Joe Vitt soon. Vitt is suspended for the first six games for his alleged role in the Saints bounty program. If I had to choose, the interim for the interim would be offensive line coach Aaron Kromer.

Kromer has some leadership skills, so elevating him would allow offensive coordinator Pete Carmichael to concentrate on play-calling duties. With Vitt absent, Spagnuolo would be allowed to concentrate all of his efforts on defense.

The Saints will kick off the preseason Sunday night in Canton, Ohio against the Arizona Cardinals. For the first time since the end of the 2005 season, Sean Payton won't be in the house. But he and general manager Mickey Loomis have built a solid organization that can weather this unprecedented storm.

I don't think the Saints will be a middling 9-7 team. They will either stay relatively healthy and ride the wave of anti-Roger Goodell emotion to a very big year or slip because of injuries and a defense that has many question marks.


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