Saints reinforce sagging defense in hopes of returning to NFC's elite
With the temperature and humidity rising to uncomfortable levels last Friday on the opening afternoon of the New Orleans Saints' rookie minicamp, several players went to the sideline because of dehydration and others appeared heavy-legged from fatigue.
There was no such lethargy in coach Sean Payton, who bounded around as if breathing carbonated air. At one point he grabbed a towel and wiped a waterfall of sweat from his face, but there was no erasing the excitement from his eyes as he looked ahead to the coming season.
"I like where this team's at," he would say. "The locker room, the environment here, they're both real solid. I like the guys that we've got on this team. The season can't come quick enough. I'm looking forward to it. I like the way it's shaping up."
Perhaps it's because the Saints may once again have a defense to complement their potent offense. Such was the case two seasons ago, when New Orleans advanced to the NFC Championship game in Payton's first season; the offense ranked first overall and fifth in scoring, and the defense finished 11th overall and 13th in points allowed.
However the scales were out of balance last year during a 7-9 finish. The offense remained strong, ranking fourth overall. But the defense slipped to 26th overall and 30th against the pass. Worse, the unit forced just 23 turnovers while surrendering a league-high 68 plays of 20 or more yards.
When Payton and general manager Mickey Loomis met after the season, there was no need to discuss which direction the team needed to go to return to prominence. "We needed to make a dramatic improvement on our defense," says Loomis, adding: "We've got some good defensive players -- Will Smith is a good player, Charles Grant is a good player, Brian Young is a good player, Scott Fujita has been a good player for us. Mike McKenzie was having one of the better years of any corner in the league before he got hurt, and we've got two young safeties that we're excited about in Josh Bullocks and Roman Harper. There are some elements there, but clearly we had to add to that."
They did so by trading a fourth-round draft choice to the Jets for middle linebacker Jonathan Vilma, signing end Bobby McCray and cornerbacks Randall Gay and Aaron Glenn in free agency, then spending their first three draft choices on defensive tackle Sedrick Ellis (first round), cornerback Tracy Porter (second) and defensive tackle DeMario Pressley (fifth).
Now, it's not a reach to say that the Saints should be mentioned among the NFC contenders to reach the Super Bowl. They were a popular preseason pick last year, after going 10-6 and advancing to the NFC championship, where they lost at Chicago. But the hype died quickly when they lost their first four games and failed to ever get above .500.
Their offseason moves this year were made with specific objectives. Vilma is viewed as a sideline-to-sideline tackler; McCray as a situational pass rusher; Gay as a nickel back and potential starter; Glenn as an experienced backup; Ellis as a disruptive force on the interior after recording 8.5 sacks as a senior; and Porter, who had 16 career interceptions, as a possible starter or nickel back. Pressley also should provide depth.
All Payton will say with regard to his roster is that nothing is promised. He says he will send out his best players, regardless of name, contract or draft status. He wants production.