Smith (right) had 10 1/2 sacks a year ago but must help the D create more turnovers.
at Indianapolis (T)
at Tampa Bay
at Atlanta (M)
at San Francisco
The King 500
155Marques Colston, Wide Receiver
Even though the seventh-rounder out of Hofstra led all Saints wideouts in '06 with 70 catches for 1,038 yards and eight TDs, he was still considered the No. 2 receiver. But with Joe Horn gone to Atlanta, the 6' 4", 231-pound Colston is now the man. He'll benefit from the additions of receiver David Patten and tight end Eric Johnson. Says Colston, "I'm trying to take on that leadership role."
Laissez les bons temps rouler! A year after taking its hometown on an enchanting playoff run, this team will go even further
In a word, expectations. Coming off a miserable 3-13 record in 2005, the
Saints rebounded in '06 to have the greatest season in their 40-year history,
winning the NFC South, leading the NFL in total offense and reaching their first
conference championship game. More significant, they restored a large measure of
civic pride to their rebuilding hometown. At the center of the team's turnaround
was a trio of new faces: coach Sean Payton, quarterback Drew Brees and running
back Reggie Bush. With all three back -- and with no major losses to free
agency -- hopes in the Big Easy are sky high. For a franchise with only eight
winning seasons to its credit, suddenly nothing less than a Super Bowl will do.
"We know how good we can be," says Brees, who started the Pro Bowl after
throwing for 26 touchdowns and a league-high 4,418 yards. "This is our
WHERE THEY'RE HEADED
To reach the Super Bowl, New Orleans has to play better defense. In
their first season under defensive coordinator Gary Gibbs, the Saints gave up an
NFL-worst 16 completions of 40 yards or more, and allowed 14 rushes of at least
20 yards, the third most in the NFC. On top of that, the defense forced the
second-fewest takeaways (19) in the league, a problem that became crippling in
the postseason, when New Orleans failed to create even one turnover in two
playoff games. It's little wonder then that six of the club's eight free-agent
signings were defenders.
In particular, cornerback Jason David and free safety Kevin Kaesviharn were
brought in to help an inexperienced and porous secondary that was the team's
weak link in 2006. Cornerback Fred Thomas, a 12-year veteran who turns 34 on
Sept. 11, was burned on a slew of big passing plays, and rookie strong safety
Roman Harper lacked experience. After Harper went down with a torn left ACL
against Tampa Bay in Week 5, New Orleans had to use journeyman Omar Stoutmire.
"We'd be good for five or six plays," says Gibbs, "and all of a sudden give up a
David, 25, who signed a four-year, $16.5 million deal, was a three-year
starter for the Colts. Though he lacks experience in the sort of man-to-man
coverage schemes employed by Gibbs, he's a clear upgrade over the aging
Kaesviharn, 30, is a ball hawk who played in both the Arena Football
League and the XFL before spending six years with the Bengals. He signed a
four-year, $10 million contract with New Orleans after he had more sacks (four)
and nearly as many interceptions (six) last season as the entire Saints
secondary (one and eight). Kaesviharn will help mentor Harper and Josh Bullocks,
who has not yet emerged as a playmaker in his two years as a starter. "We wanted
to create some more competition," says general manager Mickey Loomis. "We're
going to need all of those guys. They're all going to contribute."
Loomis's biggest off-season move was actually re-signing one of his own
players, defensive end Charles Grant (six sacks), to a seven-year deal worth $63
million. Grant teams with Pro Bowl end Will Smith (10 1/2 sacks) to form one of
the top pass-rushing tandems in the NFC.
The front seven, the strength of the defense, stayed remarkably healthy a
year ago. Grant started every game, and Smith started 14; linebackers Scott
Fujita, Scott Shanle and Mark Simoneau missed only a total of four starts. That
concealed the group's startling lack of depth. But Loomis shored things up in
the off-season by adding veteran defensive tackle Kendrick Clancy and
linebackers Troy Evans and Dhani Jones. "We know we were pretty fortunate last
year," says Fujita. "That doesn't happen every year, so the more experienced
guys who come in and contribute right away, the better."
With a defense less likely to allow big plays and more capable of creating
turnovers, the Saints and their high-flying offense appear ready to fulfill the
team's lofty expectations. That was surely on Payton's mind at the end of the
team's off-season workouts in June, when he and linebackers coach Joe Vitt
staged a mock funeral for the 2006 season and urged the team to look forward.
With his players gathered around, Payton oversaw the burial of a casket
containing memorabilia from last year, including a replica of his Coach of the
"Here's the thing," he says. "We've got smart guys who know there's nothing
wrong with the bar being raised. That's what we want. We want to be a team that,
year in and year out, plays consistently and puts ourselves in position to
compete for a championship."
New Orleans will do more than that this season. Come Feb. 3, expect the
Saints to march back home as Super Bowl champs. -- Mark Beech