2006 Saints, version 1.0--Part II (Defense & Special Teams)
Part II of Saturday's post. Now to look at the defense and special teams:
DEFENSIVE END: As far as starters go, this is the strongest part of the team, even with Darren Howard signing with the Eagles. The starters are Will Smith and Charles Grant. The team loses depth right now, considering that Howard is gone and the top backup (Willie Whitehead) may wind up starting at defensive tackle. This is where the "experts" say the Saints will go in the first round of the draft. They say the Saints are interested in Mario Williams.
DEFENSIVE TACKLE: The Saints will go with two defensive tackles for now, even though new Defensive Coordinator Gary Gibbs likes the 3-4. One starter is Brian Young. After that, it's anyone's guess. Jonathan Sullivan should be the other starter, but we've been burned before; let's assume he won't. If so, that leaves converted defensive end Willie Whitehead and former Seahawk Cedric Woodard competing for the other spot. Rodney Leisle hasn't let me forget that we could have had Chad Lavalais with his pick. I'd think the Saints will draft at least one more player at this position, or move Whitehead there full time.
LINEBACKERS: This is the other position (besides offensive line) that most people are afraid of. Former Cowboy Scott Fujita is okay and is familiar with Gary Gibbs' defense, so we'll put him in as one of the starters. Colby Bockwoldt will probably get one of the other spots. That leaves free agent Anthony Simmons and holdover Courtney Watson fighting for the last starting position. Alfred Fincher still has a chance to show something, and James Allen is still hanging on for now. Sedrick Hodge signed with the Dolphins.
CORNERBACKS: This is another easy one, and I wish we had more depth here too. Mike McKenzie and Fred Thomas are the probable starters. Jason Craft is still there and will probably still see a lot of action. Fakhir Brown is gone, joining Jim Haslett in St. Louis. Joey Thomas and Fred Booker are on the roster, but I'm not excited about them. Look for a cornerback to possibly be drafted or signed as a free agent too.
SAFETIES: This has not been a reliable position for the Saints since Sammy Knight left. But for some reason, the Saints finally have some depth at the position. Dwight Smith and Josh Bullocks will probably be the starters, but they have picked up two capable backups in Omar Stoutmire and Bryan Scott. The Saints still have Jay Bellamy too. Steve Gleason is special teams-only. Mel Mitchell is no longer with the team. It's a shame he suffered that freak injury a few years ago. I thought he was going to be a good player. Oh well.
KICKER/PUNTER: Mitch Berger is the punter, and that's fine with me. But it may be time to start looking for a replacement for John Carney. He's over 40, and just had his second-worst season as a Saint. Nate Fiske is the only other kicker on the roster, and I don't know anything about him.
SPECIAL TEAMS: Michael Lewis just re-signed with the Saints. That should solve the return game problem if he's healthy. Last year wasn't the same without him. Aaron Stecker, Chris Horn and Donte' Stallworth all have experience as backups. Steve Gleason and Fred McAfee are two of the team's top special teams defenders, but I don't think either guy has a guaranteed roster spot right now.
OVERALL: When did the Saints lose all their depth? Do you remember when the Saints had good players and decent backups at most positions? It wasn't that long ago. It's clear that the Saints are now paying for bad free agent and draft decisions during the Haslett era. Fortunately, the team has made some improvements in the off-season to get some NFL-caliber players in here. There are a lot of people who think that bringing in Drew Brees puts the Saints back in possible wildcard contention. I just don't see it yet right now. He could be running for his life if the offensive line doesn't get better. And the defense has to get a lot better up the middle and at cornerback. Stability should do a lot to improve the team, but I don't know how much. Maybe enough to double their win total? Unfortunately, that would still mean a 10-loss season.
I hope I'm wrong