QUARTERBACK: Starter -- Drew Brees. Backups -- Jamie Martin, Todd Bouman, Adrian McPherson, Jason Fife.
The Saints made this position their top priority once they selected Sean Payton as their new head coach in mi-January, and Payton wasted no time in deciding his team had to go in a different direction. The erratic and mistake-prone Aaron Brooks was dumped in favor of Brees, even though the two-time Pro Bowl pick was rehabbing from January surgery to his throwing shoulder. The Saints are hoping Brees will be a calming and steadying influence on Payton's version of the West Coast offense and immediately pay dividends on the six-year, $60 million contract he received. Martin was brought in to possibly serve as Brees' top backup after Bouman struggled in replacing Brooks for the final three games of the 2005 season. McPherson has some tools, but still has a long way to go before he's ready to move up the ladder.
RUNNING BACKS: Starters -- RB Deuce McAllister, FB Mike Karney. Backups -- Reggie Bush*, Michael Bennett, Aaron Stecker, Fred McAfee , Keith Joseph, Jamaal Branch, Ray Hudson.
With players like McAllister, Bush, Bennett and Stecker, the Saints might have one of the best-stocked and fastest backfields in the NFL. The question mark is at tailback where McAllister is trying to rebound from a torn ACL in his right knee, but he expects to be full speed by the start of training camp after getting positive results in the team's June mini-camp and organized team activities. McAllister will likely be joined on the field by Bush in certain formations and situations, while Bennett and Stecker could be insurance policies for McAllister with their ball-carrying skills and pass-caching abilities out of the backfield. In two seasons, Karney has proven to be a solid lead blocker and dependable receiver as well.
*Reggie Bush has yet to sign, and states he is ready to sit out the season
TIGHT ENDS: Starter -- Ernie Conwell. Backups -- Zach Hilton, Mark Campbell, Tim Euhus, Billy Miller, Nate Lawrie.
Despite injuries in the latter stages of his career, Conwell continues to be a valuable receiver and technically-sound blocker. Hilton, a 6-foot-8 target, has come along quite well in the last couple of seasons as both a pass-catcher and a blocker and came up big in the second half of 2005 when Conwell was sidelined by knee and wrist injuries. Campbell, Euhus and Miller will likely battle for the third and fourth roster spots -- if the Saints decide to keep four.
WIDE RECEIVERS: Starters -- Joe Horn, Donte Stallworth. Backups -- Devery Henderson, Chris Horn, Bethel Johnson, Michael Lewis, Nate Poole, Chase Lyman, Mike Hass, Marques Colston, Lance Moore, Levon Thomas, Jamal Jones.
Horn is coming off a season in which he missed three games and most of a fourth because of a nagging hamstring problem, but is extremely eager to prove to the new coaching staff that he has a lot of tread left on the tires. Stallworth had a breakout season in 2005, but will have to show some dedication to his job and impress the coaching staff to remain a starter. Henderson, Chris Horn, Johnson, Lewis and possibly Hass, a sixth-round draft choice who won the Biletnikoff Award last year, will duel for roster spots and playing time. Johnson and Lewis, who is returning from a torn ACL, are speedy and extremely dangerous as return men.
OFFENSIVE LINE: Starters -- LT Jammal Brown, LG Montrae Holland, C Jeff Faine, RG Jermane Mayberry, RT Jon Stimchcomb. Backups -- Jamar Nesbit, Jonathan Goodwin, Chad Setterstrom, Ben Archibald, Jahri Evans, Zach Strief, Dwayne Ledford, Augie Hoffmann, Pascal Matla.
This area of the team has been torn down and completely rebuilt, so much so that the Saints will likely have new starters at each of the five positions. Only Brown and Holland return as starters, but they'll be in new spots with Brown moving to the left side from the right to protect Brees' blind side, while Holland switches sides to left guard to help out Brown. Faine replaces Pro Bowl pick LeCharles Bentley, but the two spots on the right side will be up for grabs in training camp. Mayberry and Goodwin will vie for the job at right guard with Stinchcomb and Nesbit, who is a guard by trade, trying to round out the starting lineup. Stinchcomb will be out to earn his first starting job as a pro while coming back from a torn patellar tendon sustained early in training camp last summer.
DEFENSIVE LINE: Starters -- LE Charles Grant, DT Willie Whitehead, DT Brian Young, RE Will Smith. Backups -- Hollis Thomas, Tony Bryant, Jimmy Verdon, Cedric Woodard, Rodney Leisle, Rob Ninkovich, Clifford Dukes, Tommy Davis, McKinley Boykin, Brandon Villarreal.
The Saints are set at the ends with Grant and Smith, a couple of aggressive and active pass-rushers who can get to the quarterback in a hurry, but they also have to help stop the running game -- which has not been a strength for this team the last few seasons. Young and Whitehead have the work ethic and desire to be forces against the run, but they don't have great size. That's one of the reasons the Saints went out and obtained Thomas in a draft-day trade with the Philadelphia Eagles. Bryant is an experienced situational pass rusher and Verdon, a former seventh-round draft pick, showed flashes after being promoted from the practice squad late last season.
LINEBACKERS: Starters -- WLB Scott Fujita, MLB Alfred Fincher, SLB Anthony Simmons. Backups -- Colby Bockwoldt, Tommy Polley, Jay Foreman, Terrence Melton, Russel Rabe, E.J. Kuale, Bobby Iwuchukwu.
One of the weakest areas of the team when Payton and defensive coordinator Gary Gibbs arrived, those two have worked hard to add quality starters and some depth to the position. Fujita and Simmons should help a lot, while Fincher, a third-round draft pick in 2005, showed signs that he may be ready to emerge as a starter late in the team's off-season workouts. Bockwoldt played well as a starter for the last 1 1/2 years, but Fincher will probably get an opportunity to take his starting job away after the coaching staff mixed and matched the linebackers during spring ball to get a better idea of who fit in at each position. Like Fujita and Simmons, Polley and Foreman bring lots of NFL experience to the table.
DEFENSIVE BACKS: Starters - LCB Mike McKenzie, RCB Fred Thomas, SS Omar Stoutmire, FS Josh Bullocks. Backups -- Jay Bellamy, Jason Craft, Joey Thomas, Bryan Scott, Roman Harper, Steve Gleason, Josh Lay, Anwar Phillips, Grant Mason, Ray Williams.
McKenzie was rewarded with a contract extension in training camp last summer, but he didn't play like it afterward. He'll have to play much better this time around if the Saints are going to be successful against the pass -- as will Fred Thomas. Stoutmire, another free agent acquisition, stepped into a starting role during the off-season workouts and could solidify his spot in training camp. Bullocks started 14 games in 2005 after Bellamy was lost for the season and is expected to continue to improve. Craft, Joey Thomas, Scott and Harper will all vie for playing time in the nickel and dime packages.
SPECIAL TEAMS: Starters -- PK John Carney, P Mitch Berger, LS Kevin Houser. Backups -- Steve Weatherford, Connor Hughes.
At 42, Carney's leg isn't as strong as it used to be -- but he's still plenty accurate from 50 yards in, nailing 25 of 32 field-goal attempts last season. Berger had another big season punting even though he didn't make a repeat trip to the Pro Bowl and Houser continues to get better and better as one of the game's most accurate long snappers.
Unit by Unit: New Orleans Saints
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