Postcard from camp: Saints
Saints offense has room to improve, says Drew Brees
Addition of Ladell Betts will help shore up Saints run game
Defensive coordinator Gregg Williams shows tough love to players
SI.com has dispatched writers to report on the 32 NFL training camps across the country. Here's what Andrew Lawrence had to say about the Saints camp in Metairie, La. For an archive of all camp postcards, click here.
The Saints hold camp at their headquarters in Metairie, La., which is about seven miles northwest of downtown New Orleans. Unsurprisingly, their immediate environs reflect the joie de vie of team and town. Next-door neighbors include the town's minor league baseball team, the Zephyrs, and a Budweiser distribution plant. The convivial confines would seem to give the Saints a built-in excuse to kick back and laissez les bons temps rouler, but the team has been all business, and traveling for work too. Earlier this month they flew to New England for three days of joint practices with the Patriots; on Tuesday they took a morning road trip to the Superdome to break in the stadium's freshly laid turf in advance of a three-day joint workout and a Saturday exhibition game with the Texans.
1. The Saints offense can improve. Now, you wouldn't think that given how off the charts the unit was in '09, when it led the league in yards (403.8 per game) and points (510). But quarterback Drew Brees singled out giveaways and third-down efficiency as areas the Saints can shore up. "We were middle of the pack as far as turnovers [16th, with 28], so I think we can definitely be better there," said the reigning Super Bowl MVP, who wasn't taking much satisfaction from New Orleans' sixth-place rating in converting third-down situations [44.7 percent] either. "If we get one, two, three, four, five percentage points higher in third-down percentage, that's another conversion in a crucial situation during an important game where we can score [at least] three more points in a game."
He underscored his commitment to perfection in Monday's practice. After the morning session ended 25 minutes early, Brees stayed on the field to get in some extra work with his receivers -- all of whom were in pads for the first time since the beginning of training camp. Among the returnees was Robert Meachem, who missed two weeks while rehabbing from right toe surgery.
2. Ladell Betts can improve the Saints' run game. The ninth-year back agreed to a one-year deal Monday, and his addition resolves perhaps the lone offensive depth concern for the Saints, who lost leading rusher Mike Bell in free agency in March and Lynell Hamilton to a season-ending knee injury last week. In Betts, who played his previous eight years with the Redskins, the Saints get a hard-nosed inside runner and blocker who has soft hands to boot. (He snagged 53 balls in 2006, good for third-most on the Redskins.)
In his first practice as a Saint, Betts caught a few passes in warm-ups, but was otherwise was a pad-less spectator. He showed no hitch in his surgically repaired left knee, which he blew out 10 games into the '09 season. "I felt pretty good running and cutting out there," said Betts, who's eager to reprise his '06 form, when he also led the Redskins in rushing (with 1,154 yards). "I am not sure when I will play; it's up to the coaches. Once they see what I can do, I am sure they will use me to my strengths."
3. Anthony Hargrove has improved by leaps and bounds. So says Saints defensive coordinator Gregg Williams, who has watched the sixth-year defensive lineman's transformation from end to tackle with pride. "I'm really looking forward to watching him this year because I think he'll be light years better," Williams said.
Last year Hargrove approached career highs in tackles (30), sacks (five) and set a personal best in fumble recoveries (three). Williams thinks Hargrove can post even better numbers now that he understands his assignments in this defense. "He really didn't know how to play [defensive tackle] last year, but he played hard and tough," said Williams, who'll be leaning heavily on Hargrove to help stiffen New Orleans' limp run defense. "Now with a year underneath his belt and the whole offseason to develop, he's already playing much smarter and with better anticipation."
Show me a team with an elite quarterback, and I'll show you backup who would put that team in a world of trouble if the guy ahead of him got hurt. In particular, three of the league's top five offenses -- Indianapolis, Houston and New England -- would be significantly worse off if their young backups (Curtis Painter, Dan Orlovsky and Brian Hoyer, respectively) were forced into extended duty. The Saints, too, would be a different team if they lost Brees. But that hasn't stopped them from backing him up with grizzled vets. In 2008 they signed Mark Brunell, then 37 years old; after Brunell decamped for the Jets in July, New Orleans replaced him with ninth-year vet Patrick Ramsey, who is making something of a homecoming with the Saints. Ramsey grew up in Ruston -- which is 335 miles northwest of here -- and starred at nearby Tulane in college. After being selected 32nd overall in the 2002 draft by Washington, Ramsey mostly foundered as a starter, posting a 10-14 record and a 76.0 percent passer rating. Still, Ramsey (who went on to backup stints with the Jets and Broncos) believes he can be solid in relief once he digests Sean Payton's intricate offense. "There's just a lot that the quarterback does at the line -- specifically, just a lot of IDs for the defense," Ramsey said. "It's one that I think I can definitely run in the future." In case of emergency only, of course.
Say this for newbie corner Patrick Robinson: he can take criticism. After suffering more abuse than a Bourbon Street hotel room in the Saints' preseason loss to Pats last Thursday, Robinson was further lambasted by Williams, who on Saturday ripped Robinson for not knowing how to play football. "I don't have any trust in him," the coach said.
If that sounds harsh, you should hear the things Williams says to Robinson, a first rounder pick out of Florida State, out of microphone-shot. "Behind the scenes he gets it every second of every day," said Williams, adding that he partly blasts Robinson to steel his psyche. Since his public polemic, Williams has been pleased with the maturity he's seen out of Robinson, who'd later call the tough love constructive. Robinson showed more unflappability in an 11-on-11 drill Tuesday, returning an interception by third-string quarterback Chase Daniel for a touchdown. "Patrick is a great kid, and he's gonna help us a lot," said Williams, who strains to note the record his doghouse has in turning pups into pit bulls. "Tracy Porter was my whipping boy last year, and he turned out pretty good, didn't he?"
Speaking of Porter, the third-year corner limited his haircut game to a basic fade for camp. The 'do is a far cry from the grand tonsorial statement he made before the Super Bowl, when he had images of the Lombardi Trophy and the Superdome etched onto his head. The style seemed like a jinx waiting to happen until Porter returned a Peyton Manning interception 74 yards for the game-sealing score -- at which point Porter's haircut appeared downright prophetic.
Still, he might not have passed for Moses if his barber had done a better job of playing Robert Moses. "In between the Superdome and the trophy there was a road," said Porter, who sported outcroppings of Pac-Man ghosts for the NFC Championship. "It was supposed to symbolize the long road, the adversity that we had faced, the obstacles that we had overcome to get to this point." It's a point that begs for a bigger canvas, but you won't find that on Porter's head -- at least not while he has a withering critic like Williams to keep him humble.
1. Stillman rookie defensive end Junior Galette appeared just as explosive as advertised, which is saying something considering how much he has been touted on YouTube. His two-highlight library has attracted plenty of views and a significant fan following in camp.
2. Through five camps and too many practices to count, I can easily say that the best catch I've seen all summer was the left-handed grab Marques Colston made between two defenders on a seam route during an 11-on-11 drill Tuesday. He maybe looked back once for the ball the 40-plus-yard connection. Ridiculous.
3. Sean Payton canceled afternoon practice on Monday to take his team to see The Expendables. But Williams hung back to work on his own script, for the Houston game Saturday.
4. Leave it to Jeremy Shockey to break the industrious silence of the Saints' practices when he feels like things are getting just a little too quiet. During one drill on Monday he took sport in taunting the second- and third-team defenses from the sideline. When I asked Jonathan Vilma if this was typical of the Pro Bowl tight end, the seventh-year linebacker chuckled. "Shockey's a different breed," he said. "We all know that. We don't listen too much to what he says."