We are only a handful of days into training camp, but after watching the first wave of Saints practices, I would bank on the following upgrades. Upgrade #1--improved special teams. Upgrade #2 --Roman Harper and Malcolm Jenkins will be hailed as the best pair of safeties in the NFL and the two will be among the league’s best individually too. Upgrade #3--second year player Junior Galette will have a breakout season. And, upgrade #4--the Saints rushing attack will more aggressive.
Let’s go in reverse order and begin with a part of the Saints offense that will affect the team’s game plan--upgrade #4--rushing attack. In 2009 New Orleans averaged over 131-yards rushing per game ranking them among the best in the NFL…6th best rushing offense. But in 2010 that number plummeted. New Orleans finished 28th in the NFL with an average of just over 94-yards per game.
The Saints went through eight running backs last year. The injury bug bit the club in early August with the season ending injury to Lynell Hamilton. That bug plagued the Saints all the way to their final regular season game against the Tampa Bay Bucs and into the playoffs against Seattle.
This year New Orleans will challenge their O-line, and the Saints core of running backs is much deeper with Pierre Thomas, Chris Ivory, Lynell Hamilton, Darren Sproles and, of course, rookie RB Mark Ingram.
Upgrade #3--I believe second year player DE Junior Galette is about to “blow up!” Galette gained attention during training camp last year, when he manhandled one of the Saints top draft picks, LT Charles Brown. Stillman College isn’t supposed to whip up on USC, right? Well, it happened, and the quick and versatile Galette continued to improve week to week. Then, in the Saints final preseason game against the Tennessee Titans Galette took off.
Some feel Galette’s performance in the Saints preseason finale against the Titans helped cement his place on the team’s 53 man roster. Galette had one quarterback sack; he blocked a punt and finished the game with three total tackles in the Saints match-up with Tennessee.
Today Galette seems more comfortable with Coach Greg Williams’ defense. With continued improvement, Galette could become a force up front for a Saints defense that needs to get more heat on opposing QB’s…and a defense that will be without DE Will Smith for the first four games.
“My goal is not just to make the roster. It’s all about making plays and having solid production on the field. I have bigger goals for myself and my family and I want to become a consistent player,” Galette said.
Upgrade #2--the Harper-Jenkins combo. This one is easy because the players have done all the work. Saints safeties Roman Harper and Malcolm Jenkins have quickly become a solid pair, if not the best in the NFL today.
Roman has steadily improved and Jenkins’ knack for the ball was evident last season with a game changing play in the Saints win over the Rams. Remember how he picked off Sam Bradford and returned the interception for a touchdown? Then, again on Thanksgiving, Malcolm saved the day for the Black & Gold by jacking Cowboys WR Roy Williams. Look for Roman and Malcolm to be even more in sync this season.
Finally, upgrade #1--look for the Saints to improve drastically on special teams. The Saints have been looking for more consistency in their punt return game and kickoff coverage. At times last season New Orleans showed flashes of being better in both areas, but look for big upgrades this year.
Now it would be easy to say the reason why is the acquisition of one of the best returners in the game today, RB Darren Sproles. Sproles will undoubtedly make big contributions, but you also have to factor in the attention special teams play gets daily at training camp.
Special Teams Coach Greg McMahon now has some serious help. Former Special Teams Coordinator of the Miami Dolphins, John Bonamego, is back in the “Big Easy.”
Coach Bonamego brings a ton of coaching experience back to New Orleans, where he served as special teams coach for the Saints in 2006 and 2007. In short, the Saints now have two special teams coordinators manning the sidelines. That’s a GOOD thing.
And I’ll throw you “Who Dats” some lagniappe. I haven’t played fantasy football, but I’m going to start this year. Take Saints TE Jimmy Graham. He will be cheaper to get early on, but by mid-season his price tag will rise. Graham is poised to have a breakout season!