Postcard from camp: Saints
SI.com has dispatched 10 writers to report on the 32 NFL training camps across the country. For the complete schedule of postcards, click here.
Setting the Scene
Loosely translated, the word "swelter'' means football practice in Jackson, Miss., in early August. But hey, if Sean Payton's Saints can stand the heat, how can the rest of us dare complain? This is the third consecutive summer the Saints have held training camp at Millsaps College in Jackson, and it's a nice, quiet southern setting for a team that means even more to this part of the country since the unforgettable destruction of Hurricane Katrina in 2005. Plus, every time I visit Saints camp I get to announce to my wife -- a'la Johnny Cash's classic -- "I'm going to Jackson. And that's a fact.''
1. Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. You want to know a team that could emulate the success the Giants had on their defensive line last season? I give you the new and improved New Orleans Saints. Write that one down and let's see how it turns out, but the Saints should now be able to create some real pressure on opposing passing games with the additions of free-agent defensive end Bobby McCray (from Jacksonville) and first-round defensive tackle Sedrick Ellis (USC). Both greatly enhance the line's speed, athleticism and ability to collapse the pocket.
Imitating the Giants is all about having lots of options, and fresh legs late in the game to bring the heat. In their nickel package, the Saints plan on using the quick and athletic McCray at left end, and shifting starting left end Charles Grant inside to tackle, alongside Ellis. Pro Bowl pick Will Smith will stay on the field at all times at right end. Veteran defensive tackles Hollis Thomas and Brian Young will see plenty of work on first and second down, in a rotation with Ellis. Throw in a reserve tackle like Kendrick Clancy, and the Saints have a chance to go seven deep up front. A better pass rush is also going to help the Saints linebackers and defensive backs handle their jobs more efficiently.
2. The Deuce is not loose ... yet. After missing all but three games of 2007 due to his second ACL injury of the past three seasons, Deuce McAllister has to rate as something of a question mark these days. The Saints are going a bit slowly with their lead running back -- he won't play in their exhibition opener at Arizona Thursday night -- but there are also some encouraging signs. For one, McAllister appears to be in great shape, checking in at 226 pounds this camp, almost 10 pounds lighter than he has been in the past. The new playing weight has made a noticeable difference, Saints quarterback Drew Brees told me.
"I've even seen what I've never seen from Deuce,'' Brees said. "Some top-end speed, some explosion. I think he looks great.''
3. No more expectations. The Saints had the bar of raised expectations fall on their head last season, when they entered camp as an NFC Super Bowl favorite, and then saw an 0-4 start to the regular season set off a rollercoaster ride to 7-9. "We didn't play well enough to be a playoff team last year, in a lot of areas,'' Payton told me. "That's the bottom line.''
I'm among those who think the adversity the Saints went through last season will serve them well this season. They're hungry again, and they've got something to prove to themselves, just like they did entering their magic carpet ride of a 2006 season. New Orleans didn't deal well with playing the front-runner last year, but its losing record, in reality, wasn't an indication that there were widespread problems that needed fixing. My bet is that last season was the aberration, not 2006.
New Face, New Place
Folks might not think of Saints defensive line coach Ed Orgeron as the team's most impact-laden offseason acquisition, but if the New Orleans D-line makes as much improvement as I expect in 2008, we might be revisiting that question after the season. Although I can't go into the full blow-by-blow here of how the Saints hired the ex-Ole Miss head coach -- and Southern Cal and University of Miami assistant -- at this year's Senior Bowl, it's a great tale that was related to me by Saints head coach Sean Payton after practice on Tuesday.
Suffice to say the Saints thought they had Orgeron all but locked up in Mobile, and then Cowboys owner Jerry Jones swooped in after deciding he wanted to hire Orgeron as well. After having lunch with Payton and the Saints, Orgeron was whisked away to have dinner with Jones and the Cowboys. Payton, the ex-Cowboys assistant who knows how Jones can close a deal, thought Orgeron was gone, gone, gone. But some how, some way, Payton talked Orgeron into coming to New Orleans late that night while standing and schmoozing in a hotel lobby.
"We just put on our recruiting shoes and basically spent two and a half hours talking him into it,'' Payton told me. "Best recruiting job I ever did.''
Looking at the Schedule
The Saints open the season at home against Tampa Bay, and close it at home against Carolina -- their two most talented division rivals. But unlike last year, a fast start seems in the offing. New Orleans has four of its first six games at home, including a three-game homestand against '07 non-playoff teams San Francisco, Minnesota and Oakland in Weeks 4-5-6. The Saints' December isn't so tough either, with their last four games all coming against teams that finished below .500 in 2007 -- Atlanta, at Chicago, at Detroit and Carolina.
Memorable Image from Camp
I guess it's a rite of passage that's been happening to NFL rookies almost as long as there's been training camps, but there was the Saints' No. 1 pick, Sedrick Ellis, early Tuesday evening, lugging four helmets and a couple sets of shoulder pads off the practice field at Millsaps.
You know the drill. The rookies, especially the high-priced variety, are made to carry the equipment of the veterans at their positions. That's why Ellis had his own helmet and shoulder pads, as well as the helmets of defensive tackles Hollis Thomas and Antwan Lake, plus the helmet and shoulder pads of Pro Bowl defensive end Will Smith.
I saw the same basic scene at Falcons camp Monday, with first-round quarterback Matt Ryan toting the helmets and shoulder pads of fellow quarterbacks Chris Redman and D.J. Shockley. I wonder if the practice will ever be passť, going the way of rookies no longer being made to sing for their suppers during training camp.
"They didn't tell me about this part before I got to the NFL,'' Ellis said, smiling. "That's OK, though. I'm only a rookie this year.''
Though he's not practicing right now, I saw new Saints tight end Jeremy Shockey walk through the team's cafeteria, and I almost didn't recognize him. Talk about a guy trying hard to blend into his surroundings. The short haircut and his playing down of those tattooed-covered arms reminded me of nothing as much as how Jason Giambi cleaned up his look and went all Steinbrenner-pleasing company man upon leaving Oakland and signing with New York.
The 37-year-old Mark Brunell is in camp with the Saints and is in line to serve as Drew Brees' very veteran backup. I guess I should have asked Brunell what he thinks about Brett Favre, his onetime Green Bay teammate, but I couldn't really bear the thought of even one more conversation about the story that just won't go away.
It's too early to make predictions, but Saints 2007 first-round pick Robert Meachem is quietly inspiring some confidence these days. After suffering a leg injury in training camp last year and being inactive for all 16 of New Orleans' games, the ex-Tennessee Vol receiver has matured and seems poised to show the Saints some return on making him the 27th pick last year.
The Saints sure don't mind pulling the trigger on a big trade, do they? They dealt for Vilma this spring with the Jets, swapped top 10 draft picks with the Patriots in order to move up to No. 8 and take Ellis, and finally consummated the deal that brought Shockey to town just before camp opened. I like the chances of all three of those moves to pay off in '08.