There should be an improvement in the secondary. Kimbrough has taken over at strong safety, and Fichtner will play the weak safety. Dave Whitsell will be at right cornerback again, and two youngsters, John Douglas and Gene Howard, have been impressive at left corners.
Fears bolstered his linebacking, the strong point last year, with the addition of veteran John Brewer, obtained from Cleveland. Ted Davis appears to be set at one outside spot, Les Kelley at the other. Fears has a wealth of strength with Fred Whittingham at middle backer and Brewer and Steve Stonebreaker available as backup at the other outside posts.
The New Orleans defensive line is surprisingly strong for a team in only its second season. Two big young tackles—Dave Rowe (23, 6'7", 280) and Mike Tilleman (24, 6'6", 280)—create a solid center, and Rowe is quick enough to help the pass rush. Another young giant, rookie Willie Crittendon (23, 6'5", 275) has shown enough to earn a job as the swing tackle, relieving either of the starters.
At defensive end, Doug Atkins, the ex-Bear who is beginning his 16th pro season, is playing with more gusto than he has shown in years. Brian Schweda, the young man who played end last season and was the steadiest performer on the line, is back, but he and Atkins have no proven replacement now that Dan Colchico, acquired from San Francisco, is out for the season with an injured Achilles' tendon. A rookie, Tom Carr, will spell the 38-year-old Atkins.
Fears still needs to improve the offense before the Saints can be rated as genuine contenders. An off-season trade sent Quarterback Gary Cuozzo to the Minnesota Vikings. It was a wise move for the Saints and for Cuozzo, a classical drop-back passer who relies on the line to protect him. With the Saints' line, he had no protection. Bill Kilmer, a scrambler, was by far the most effective Saint quarterback in 1967, and he has taken over the job for 1968. New Orleans has acquired Karl Sweetan from the Detroit Lions to back Kilmer up, but it is unlikely that Sweetan will unseat him.
The running backs last year were sturdy but not fast enough to pose a breakaway threat. Jim Taylor, who cost New Orleans a first draft choice, is still a formidable blocker and a bristling runner for short spurts, but he is no deep threat. The most pleasant surprise during the preseason games was free agent Tony Baker, a stumpy powerful runner who carries 230 pounds on a 5'11" frame and does it with agility. He looks like an animated fireplug when he runs, but he has unshakable balance and he could make a big difference in the Saints' ground attack. Baker came up from the Des Moines Warriors of the Professional Football League of America. He led that league in rushing last year and may lead the Saints this year.
Behind Taylor and Baker—or beside them, as the case may be—is a gaggle of competent runners, none of whom have shown exceptional ability. The Saint rushing will be sound but, saving Baker, not spectacular.
The spectacular arm of the Saint arsenal should be the air attack, where the addition of Dave Parks, whom New Orleans acquired in a trade with San Francisco, giving up Kevin Hardy and next year's first draft choice in the process, makes an already dangerous set of receivers more feared. Dan Abramowicz, the rookie whiz of 1967 who caught 50 passes for six touchdowns, will probably move to flanker, vacating the split-end spot for Parks. Monty Stickles, another ex-49er, is slated for tight end, where Kent Kramer played last year. Stickles is known primarily for his sure blocking; as a receiver he is limited to short passes. John Gilliam provides speedy relief for the wide men, and Ray Poage is also available, although he lacks real speed. If Kilmer, who is football's answer to a knuckleball pitcher, can get the ball to his talented catchers, the Saints should have a really good passing attack. Kilmer may be another Bobby Layne. Layne's passes sometimes traveled end over end, but they were almost always on target.
Kilmer needed his considerable running ability in 1967 to survive and probably will have to depend on his legs more than his blockers again this season. The offensive line is eager and some of it is young, but it has not developed the cohesion and thrust which mark a good line. Del Williams, in his second season at right guard, has a bright future in the NFL, and Jake Kupp, the other guard, has useful experience. Joe Wendryhoski, a five-year man, has the job at center. The tackles have been barely adequate, and an experiment in moving Crittendon to offense failed. The line does not block sharply enough to sustain a ground attack, and this puts an added burden on the passing.
One place where the Saints have no worries at all is in their kicking game. Pencil-thin Charley Durkee handles kickoffs and placekicks well, and Tom McNeil was tied for second in the NFL in punting.