The off-season of optimism has quickly turned to football reality for all New Orleans Saints fans.Despite the Saints picking up an All-Pro quarterback in Drew Brees and the team drafting the most dynamic player in college football in former USC Heisman trophy winner halfback Reggie Bush, this football club is not close to being a top flight team in the NFL.
That is the bad news.
The good news is that I have been extremely impressed with the coaching tactics and blue-collar work ethic of first year head coach Sean Payton and his staff. There is no doubt there has been more coaching and attention to detail in this off-season and training camp than I have seen in the previous six seasons under Jim Haslett.
The problem is that Haslett and company have left this football team’s cupboard pretty bare and there is much repair to be done on this roster to upgrade the team’s personnel, most notably on the defensive side of the ball.
As of Sunday night, less than a full week from the season opener against the Cleveland Browns, the Saints have 24 new faces on their 53-man roster. Even in the commuter fashion of the NFL, those type numbers indicate just how poor the personnel was on this team when Payton inherited it and I suspect more personnel changes will occur.
The Saints do have some real playmakers on offense with the likes of Brees, Bush, veteran wide-out Joe Horn and the healthy return of Deuce McAllister, but even those top flight performers will not be enough to off-set the talent void on defense.
Over the past two weeks of the pre-season I have seem two major upgrades on this club, the overall play of the offensive line and the talent the Saints picked in the 2006 college draft.
After suffering through some mediocre efforts early on in training camp and in the opening weeks of the pre-season, you can see the progress former starting right tackle Jammal Brown has made playing on the left side. The book is yet to be finished on how well his move to the left side will be, but there has been major improvement with his overall play over the last few weeks and this team seems to have formed a solid front unit of Brown, Jon Stinchcomb, Jeff Faine, Jamar Nesbit and Jahri Evans.
Keeping Brees healthy and opening up some running lanes for the Bush/McAllister team will be paramount for this team to be competitive in 2006.
The April draft has also been a very good personnel shot in the arm to the Saints.
Reggie Bush has been everything advertised, but what has been surprising is that the Saints may have also selected additional first year starters in safety Roman Harper, offensive guard Jahri Evans, wide receiver Marques Colston and a quality reserve pass rush specialist in Rob Ninkovich.
Those players will make rookie mistakes, but they are also the building blocks of the future and players that give excellent effort on each and every snap.
The main problem with this team lies on the defensive side of the ball. Yes, the Saints have a gold chip defensive end in Will Smith, a potential really good defensive end in Charles Grant and a first-rate young safety tandem in Josh Bullocks and Roman Harper, but other than that the other starters would have a very hard time seeing extensive playing time on other clubs.
The Saints need to add quality defensive players at defensive tackle, outside linebacker, middle linebacker and at cornerback. Right now you can not expect those needs to be filled on waiver wire pickups or even in possible trades.
The major work in the off-season of 2007 will be to upgrade the defense at those spots either via the draft or veteran free agency.
The Saints will have an exciting and at times a very explosive offensive club in 2006, but they just will not be able to overcome the personnel mistakes of the past to be a really good defensive club. Teams that run the ball effectively, play strong on defense and are solid on special teams get to the playoffs. That is not this version of the New Orleans Saints.
Look for the Saints to finish up at 5-11 in 2006 and while that is certainly not what most Saints fans want to see, you have to face football reality.