As the sands through the hour glass continue to dwindle down, training camp is getting closer and closer. I was able to talk to several analysts and former Saints players the last couple of weeks and ask them what they feel like are key issues facing the Black and Gold.
Scott Shanle, former Saints linebacker and member of the Super Bowl team, told me that leadership and the ability to find the right 53 players during camp is very important. "Coach always told us the most important thing is to find the right 53 players. I feel like in the years we had the most success, we had the right mix of players," Shanle said.
Scott went on to tell me that winning the Super Bowl is the ultimate goal every season once camp begins. "Sean Payton is a coach that will always have winning the Super Bowl as the team's goal each season. Coach will look to find the right mix of veteran players that are still hungry to win a title. And I know it's all about winning with Sean Payton."
Shanle said he remembers every training camp he was a part of like it was yesterday, and player relationships on and off the field are crucial to building trust and chemistry within the team. "It's important for players to get an idea of how guys are off the field... accountability, developing relationships, feeling that each player never wants to let another player down is something that is built during training camps."
So are the Saints better going into the 2016 season? "I think you automatically see a better defense than we did last year. The front line is better, they have some good linebackers that features good young players and proven veterans. And the defensive backfield looks a lot better. Coach Dennis Allen had the defense playing better at the end of the season and I think that improvement will continue."
Scott says that winning the Super Bowl is always the goal, but also knows the Saints have a long way to go. "I definitely think the Saints will be better, much improved this season. And now is the time to start those improvements."
Steve Korte was a member of the 1980's Saints teams that were some of the best in franchise history. I spoke with Steve mostly about the Saints offensive line. "They need to improve from last season. We ran the ball pretty well. But the offense was on the field too much and had to outscore the opposing team too many times."
Steve likes the make-up of the Saints interior offensive line. "Terron Armstead is a great player. He has improved each season, he's a huge athletic guy who has tremendous strength. And the players that go against Armstead don't have a good shot at beating him."
Steve said that center Max Unger was a huge pick-up for the Saints and that Unger is one of the best in the NFL. Steve thinks the Saints offensive guard play has to improve and second year player Andrus Peat needs to make some big strides in getting better this season.
"The coaches want to make him fit on the front five. He has the physical tools, he's got good feet. I think Peat has to play more angry, and he needs to have more of an attitude on the field. He has a lot of expectations on him being a first round pick two years ago."
When breaking down the Saints rushing offensive, Korte says it all starts with the first game of the season. "As the O-Line goes so does the team. If you can control the line of scrimmage it really opens things up for the entire team. I think the Saints have a good core of running backs. Now the line needs to play with an edge and just focus on improving from week to week throughout the season."
I've given you all my Top 10 pre-season poll of what I think are the top teams in the NFL entering training camp, now it's time to take a peek at a handful of teams that I think are prime to become surprises that could make a run this season.
Buffalo Bills – Word in upstate NY is that Rex Ryan is in playoffs-or-bust mode. Buffalo was close last season with an 8-8 record and the Bills were 4-2 in the division. Buffalo swept the Dolphins and the Jets and hung tough with the Pats. Adding three more solid defenders with their first three picks in the draft loads up a Bills defense that is already one of the best units in the league.
Baltimore Ravens – I don't think that a John Harbaugh-coached team will be bad for long. Plus QB Joe Flacco is still among the elite signal callers in the NFL. The Purple Birds do play in the toughest division in the NFL, but I think they will rise up this year and make a run at the post season.
Oakland Raiders – QB Derrick Carr is improving and may be the best QB among those that have been in the league for a few years. The Raiders defense is nasty and their ability to stretch the field with a few speedy WR's gives the Silver and Black Nation more than hope for this band of Raiders to get back to the post season for the first time since January 2003.
Dallas Cowboys – Love them or hate them, the Cowboys were not as bad as their record indicated last season. QB Tony Romo is worth a handful of wins by himself and the addition of a very good draft class gives the Cowboys the edge in the NFC East this season.
New Orleans Saints – A poor defense has kept the Saints from being a playoff team in each of the last two seasons. New Orleans believes they are close to returning among the ranks of the best teams in the NFL. QB Drew Brees on offense is a sure thing. But outside of #9, the Saints have plenty of questions that need to be answered quickly if they are playing in January. Again the first four games of the season will be the signal if this Saints team is going to be one to keep an eye on or not!
Atlanta Falcons - QB Matt Ryan is very good, and remember - this is a Falcons team that came out smoking with a hot 5-0 start. But the Dirty Birds fell off a cliff, going a horrible 3-8 their last 11 games to wrap up with an 8-8 mark. Atlanta has tools on offense, the addition of Center Alex Mack is huge, and the Falcons defense is closer to being decent than bad!
OK the start of training camp is near, and all 32 teams have the same goal - win the Super Bowl! But as most of us really know, not all 32 teams have the same shot at getting there - you will notice that my list does not feature any teams from the NFC East or AFC South. Hey, it's just my opinion.
Here are my top 10 teams as the NFL opens training camp across the league.
1. Seattle Seahawks – The most ferocious defense in the league added more defensive power this off-season and QB Russell Wilson is still the best overall QB when it comes to running, passing and making the right decisions.
2. Carolina Panthers – The Cats from Charlotte are loaded on defense, better on offense, and Cam is maturing and continuing to improve his game. The clear-cut favorite in the NFC South, and I think a serious Super Bowl contender.
3. Pittsburgh Steelers – The Steelers were oh-so-close last year as they went toe-to-toe with SB champ Denver. The Steelers are now led by their potent offense. And their defense is getting better too!
4. Arizona Cardinals – Of course this team is not much at all without the services of veteran QB Carson Palmer. But if the Red Birds from the desert can keep their signal caller healthy and their defense continues to be one of the best in the NFL, then I have no doubt this team will still be standing come mid-January 2017.
5. New England Patriots – Even missing Tom Pretty for the first four weeks does nothing to change my mind that the Pats are the class of the AFC East, and still one of the best in the league overall.
6. Minnesota Vikings – This team has all the right tools. Vikings are salty on defense, sound on defense and very good on special teams. I like what QB Teddy Bridgewater is doing on offense, and just to be able to hand the ball to AP. Putting a few $$$ on the Vikings to make it to the Super Bowl would be a wise move!
7. Green Bay Packers – With one of the best QBs in the game today it's hard not to consider the boys from Cheese Head land as a top 10 team. But the Packers need to up their play on defense if they are to make it to the Super Bowl.
8. New York Jets – Upping the ante to keep DT Wilkerson and adding the most productive RB in the league the last 8 seasons in Matt Forte, these Jets are looking super legit to me. I think this team has everything it needs to be among the elite teams in the NFL this season.
9. Cincinnati Bengals – Same ole same ole with the Bengals - they're as good as anyone in the regular season, but they've proven that they can't win in January. Is this the year?
10. Kansas City Chiefs & Denver Broncos – The Chiefs are arguably one of the most complete teams in the NFL. K.C. is led by a solid defense and a good ground game. And QB Alex Smith wins a lot of games. The defending champs are as complete as most teams, but now the question of QB surfaces. But honestly, Peyton did not play all that great last season and still won the Super Bowl!
From Gary Gibbs, Gregg Williams, Steve Spagnuolo, Rob Ryan and now Dennis Allen, the five coaches that have been in charge of a Saints defense have all had a common theme - try to create turnovers.
We all know that seasons in which titles are won are hard to duplicate without a title to compare to. And when it comes to Saints history, the 2009 season was historic on many fronts, including forced turnovers and a whopping plus +13 in the turnover department. That year the Saints again had one of the most dangerous offensive units in the league, and New Orleans had a big play defense that produced seven touchdowns.
During the 2015 season, the Saints ability to create turnovers was not nearly as bad as the way the defense played overall. New Orleans forced 22 turnovers with nine coming by way of interception and another 13 in forced fumbles. The Saints finished on the plus side in the turnover ratio for just the third time in the last seven seasons.
To give you an idea of how special the 2009 season was, the best the Saints have finished in the turnover ratio since that special year is plus +2. In 2009 the Saints were an amazing +11.
The takeaways fall on the defense and special teams, but the overall turnover ratio is a team stat. Meaning that the number of turnovers created can be amplified by the limited amount the offense turnovers over the football. And the offense's ability to protect the football is crucial!
In 2009 the Saints had a record of 39 forced takeaways and being plus +11 is real good, but the Saints also turned the ball over 28 times! And I can tell you that one of the many things that the 2009 team did well was create turnovers at practice. From the first day of OTAs when then new Defensive Coordinator Gregg Williams was here, the Saints defense created and cashed in on turnovers.
The Saints only forced 19 takeaways in 2013, but the offense also did a pretty good job securing the football with only 19 turnovers to finish 2013 even.
What I am saying to you just like in any phase of work, you just can't show up and expect things to happen without working on something and preparing properly.
I believe that all Saints teams have worked on creating turnovers and prepared as best as they could. But the 2009 team did it from the first day, and causing turnovers was something that without question help lead the Saints to their first Super Bowl win.
Below is a look back at the last seven seasons and how the Saints fared in the turnover department. I have listed the interceptions and fumbles caused first followed by the total number of turnovers created. The last two numbers are how the Saints finished in the turnover ratio and where the Black and Gold ranked in the league in the overall turnover ratio.
Football season is never over. As I look back at my notes from last season, thumb through several pre-season publications and surf the net, I've come up with what I think are the best six teams to start the season. So here's what I think as the final month of the year without football arrives!
1. Alabama Crimson Tide - OK they lost a lot, but don't they always? You know this is the safest bet over the last 8 years when it comes to predicting who will be on top when it is all said and done. History has consistently proven that the boys from T-town will be among the nation's elite. A first week showdown with another possible top 10 team in the USC Trojans will only make the Tide better as the season progresses.
2. Oklahoma Sooners - The Sooners made one solid run last season but were unable to make their way to the final game. With signal caller Baker Mayfield back under center and a schedule that sets up favorably on the back end, we could very well see the Sooners back in the Final Four. However, the first five games that feature the season opener against Houston, Ohio State, TCU and Texas make the early stretch the most difficult.
3. LSU Tigers - Yes, I know they have to get better play at QB. But when you look at their 18 starters returning, a much deeper defense, solid skill players and of course the freight train that dons jersey #7, LSU looks pretty dam salty. Of course this is before the first snap of the season. But the schedule has Ole Miss and Alabama in Tiger Stadium, and a first week test against Wisconsin will greatly benefit LSU in the long run.
4. Ohio State Buckeyes - Like the Crimson Tide, the Buckeyes did lose some star power. But remember elite football teams have excellent programs in place and Ohio State is up there with the best of them. And I don't know about you, but to me CFB is so much better when the Buckeyes and the Wolverines are relevant. Save the date September 17 as the Buckeyes go to Norman to battle the Sooners. And the last two weeks feature the Michigans, and rival UM will make or break Urban Meyer's shot at a second national title in Columbus.
5. Stanford Cardinal - The most consistent program from the far West finished up strong last season, and they welcome back the nation's most versatile player in Christian McCaffrey; makes the Cardinal as much of a contender as any team West of the SEC. Weeks two through six are vital to the success of the season with monster games against USC, at UCLA, at Washington, home against Washington State and then a long trip to battle rival Notre Dame. Win all of those and then we will see this team in the four team playoff!
6. Clemson Tigers - The Tigers bring back QB Deshaun Watson and he has two of America's most skilled players to aid him in WR Mike Williams and RB Wayne Gallman. Toss in fellow WR Artavis Scott and the Tigers should not miss a beat on offense. But what seemingly most of the nation does not understand is that the Tigers defensive play the last few seasons has seen them rise to an elite level. Losing several key figures to the NFL will hurt. But if the Tigers find themselves in a few high scoring affairs they will run with the best of them and come out on top!
Ah Deuce McAllister, where do I start? Better yet, how can I stop - talking about the explosive plays Deuce made, how his presence on the field made the Black & Gold a much better team, or his record-setting accomplishment as the all-time leading rusher in Saints history. Everything he does speaks volumes – not only about the player, but the man.
They say first impressions are everlasting, the impact of my first real up-close experience with #26 is one I’ll never forget nor underestimate. One of my first shows on WWL took place at a car dealership on the North Shore. Deuce was a guest player, who came out to sign autographs.
Immediately I was impressed with Deuce’s kindness and friendly attitude. He was so approachable, genuinely on a mission to make sure everyone in attendance - fans and workers – all felt special...all had personal contact...they all got autographs. His compassion, thoughtfulness, his character speaks volumes. But what took place later that day was amazing.
The show ended at 4pm. All fans had left the dealership and all of us, the WWL broadcast crew, were getting in our cars set to go home. Deuce was driving a Hummer at the time. As Deuce pulled out, a car full of kids pulled into the dealership parking lot.
Deuce had left and was heading towards the Causeway to drive back to New Orleans. A lady waived me down and asked if Deuce was there. I sadly had to tell her that the show was over and Deuce had just left.
Obvious disappointment was on the lady’s face; the kids in the car were crushed; they came to get Deuce’s autograph. I got back in my car and began to pull out to head home. In the left corner of my eye I could see a hummer coming back towards the dealership.
Deuce must’ve seen the car pull in as he left. Deuce turned around on the highway and came back to the dealership, then he sat there and visited with each kid and gave everyone a signed autograph.
To me that was incredible. Deuce McAllister is a celebrated NFL player, a Saints fan favorite, someone who will go down in as one of the best to ever wear the Black & Gold. He’s a respected leader in the community, someone that many would love to be. But what I know from that experience, Deuce McAllister is someone all of us should try and be like.
Like the man he takes over for (Hokie Gajan) Deuce McAllister is a person, who makes the world a better place. Greatness is something Deuce has achieved in all phases of his life. And I know Deuce will become a great broadcaster.
Deuce McAllister will quickly become one of the best color analysts in all of pro sports. And his legendary status and level of respect he’s earned over the years will only get stronger.
It has been the theme for quite some time, but the end results haven't been what the team wants. Turnovers, and being able to force them, are something the New Orleans Saints have made a strong emphasis on the last few off seasons, and today, the Saints had their best glimmer of hope, as the Black and Gold Defense swarmed to the ball at day two of mini-camp.
“Of the five practices I’ve seen so far, today was the best by the defense. I thought the defense came up big in team drills and they had the edge at today’s practice,” said Bobby Hebert.
Linebackers Nate Stupar and Dillon Lee both came up with interceptions, with Stupar picking off Saints QB Drew Brees on the last play of
Several defenders turned the head of the Cajun Cannon. Bobby liked the play of CB PJ Williams, DL Bobby Richardson and LB Davis Tull in particular; Tull had two sacks today. Bobby was also impressed by rookie DL David Onyemata. “He got into the backfield and nearly took the handoff himself - that was a nice play by the rookie!”
In the first team session, veteran LB James Laurinaitis would have recorded a sack against Drew Brees. And Safety Kenny Vaccaro made a nice play on the ball, causing a pass break up with the first team defense.
Roll Tide Roll! During another portion of team drills at today’s practice, any Alabama fan would have been all smiles. On back to back plays, former Crimson Tide defenders D.J. Pettway and Dillon Lee came up big like they were back in Bryant Deny Stadium in T-Town. Pettway sacked QB Garrett Grayson, and then the very next play, Dillon Lee picked off a pass off of a tipped ball.
During the last team drill, the Saints put the emphasis on first down situations. “To me, the defense won every phase every phase of today’s practice. The defense did well in the first team session, then looked good in the short yardage work and then they closed out the practice hard," observed Bobby.
The offense did not go without making some plays. Drew Brees hit WR Brandon Coleman and connected with Willie Snead and RB Mark Ingram for big gainers in the latter part of practice.
RB Daniel Lasco hauled in a pass and turned on the jets for a nice pick up, and WR #14 R.J. Harris hauled in a nice long catch on the far side of the field.
Up next for the Saints is their final day of mini camp. Keep it right here on WWL.com for the latest on the Black and Gold.
The New Orleans Saints began their three day mini-camp today with a two hour and twenty minute practice that started on the outdoor fields, but heavy rain forced the team inside of the indoor facility.
The Saints worked on several phases of their game and ended ther practice with end-of-game situations. Saints Coach Sean Payton called out several scenarios that he wanted to see how his defense responded. "We're up by six and there is three seconds left. You know what that means? Endzone! They're going to throw to the endzone."
Bobby Hebert said that he thought today was very competitive and he thinks that the offense and defense kind of played to a draw. "The last OTA the offense had the upper hand. But today I think things were even."
His notes were somewhat damp due to heavy rains, but that did not keep the Cajun Cannon from breaking down today's practice. "I thought today was about even, comparing offense to defense. I think both the offense and defense had their moments but I'd say it was even."
QB Drew Brees connected with TE Josh Hill for a big gain. "Hill got open up field on a nice seam route and Drew placed the ball right on the money." Brees also had a nice toss to veteran WR Vincent Brown for a nice over the middle catch. And Brees would later throw a TD pass to rookie Wide Receiver Michael Thomas. Saints Running Back Mark Ingram made a nice over the shoulder grab and Brees would hook up with fellow RB Tim Hightower on a few connections.
Over on the defensive side of the football the Saints got big play from LB Craig Robertson. "He has made some plays for the defense so far. He's good in coverage and he does a nice job of being in the right place at the right time." Bobby also gave kudos to veteran LB James Laurinaitis as the backer made a nice pass break-up in red zone work.
Defensive Back P.J. Williams had a shot at two picks today but could come up with nothing. Williams hauled in an interception early in practice but could not stay in bounds. And later Williams dropped a interception. "We have had several chances at OTA's and now at the first day of mini-camp to make an intercetpion... those missed chances could be the difference in a win or a loss!"
Other notes - who's in #12? No, Marques Colston has not returned, but Veteran WR Robert Meachem was on the field on a tryout basis according to Sean Payton and Meachem wore jersey #12. And Veteran Safety Jairus Byrd was riding the bike on the side of the field.
The Saints get back to work tomorrow with an 11AM practice for day two of mini-camp.
OK, we get it! There are no full gear practices, there isn't supposed to be any contact, and for some, mini-camp is just not what is used to be. With that said, it's the biggest event of each team’s off season. The Saints' three-day mini-camp is this week at the club's facility on Airline Drive.
So who needs to put some pep in their step? Who needs to tighten up? Can anyone really stand out in such a short amount of time?
I called on our Resident Pro Bobby Hebert to give his take - here are the Cajun One's top three things to look for.
1. Practicing in Front of the Who Dat Nation – Playing in front of fans does make a difference. “Look I know it’s only a couple of thousand people, but no player wants to look bad. How the players look with other eyes watching add some excitement to each practice?” said Hebert. The Who Dat Nation loves to see good play, and having the fans at each of the three practices does give things more of a on-the-line feel.
2. Who Gets in the ZoneBobby wants to see which unit comes out on top when the Saints work on Red Zone offense and defense. “The Saints had one of the worst Red Zone defensive units in the league last season, and we know how consistent the Saints offense has been. Confidence can be gained at each practice, and neither the offense nor the defense likes to come up on the losing end of the Red Zone battles.
3. To Be or not to Be – Accurate! Bobby says he wants to see accuracy from all three of the Saints quarterbacks, from the top of the depth chart to third string. “We know Drew Brees is a Hall of Fame QB, but we still want to see all of the quarterbacks throw the ball with accuracy.” Bobby also said he wants to see the progress of second year player Garrett Grayson, who he thinks should be better this season. “A year ago, it was a lot of things thrown at Grayson in a hurry. Now he’s had a year to learn the system and get comfortable with what Coach Payton wants him to do. I want to see if Grayson is closer to pushing Luke McCown for the #2 QB spot."
Chief concerns? For me it’s simple - is the Saints defense better. And when I say better, I mean better right now. Folks let’s face it - if the Saints defense is not even at the very least a little bit better right now then we’re in trouble.
I think we began to see strides of improvement from the Saints defense the final three weeks of the 2015 regular season. I don’t think we need to see the '85 Bears this week, but signs of improvement can be in the form of lining up correctly, how well the team looks in down and distance situations, and most importantly - does the defense finally have the turnover-creating style that the Who Dat Nation has been promised for... oh, let’s say, about half a dozen years now?
I’d keep an eye on the wide receivers to get a feel about who could shake out as the main guy this season. TE Ben Watson and WR Willie Snead were the top guys in 2015, so with Watson gone does that automatically mean that TE Coby Fleener is filling that void? Will Brandin Cooks up his numbers this season? Will Brandon Coleman do better? And which newcomer at the position can be this year’s surprise?
And of course can the Saints 'buffalo' their way to better production from two former Bills - Byrd and Spiller, that’s all I have to say. Can the Saints get SOME bang for their BIG bucks out of these two? I’m not giving up on either. But the sands through the hour glass are getting smaller and smaller!
So there you go Who Dats - a few things for you to look for in the Saints three day mini-camp. And for complete coverage and the latest on the Black and Gold stay logged on to WWL.com!
He brings a lot to the table - the entire body of work he has complied in 10 NFL seasons. Once a second round draft pick from the University of Alabama, Saints safety Roman Harper is back in Black and Gold. And this time, his impact stands to be even bigger than we he joined the club as a rookie in 2006.
“Roman brings a calming effect... he’s had a lot of success in this league for a long time.” Those words came from Saints Coach Sean Payton when hre was asked about some of the things that Roman brings to the team.
When you chart all of the success that he has had as an NFL player, one would think that any player, young or old, would gain some knowledge of the game on and off the field from a guy like Roman Harper.
Since being drafted back in 2006, Roman Harper has been to the NFL Playoffs seven times, was a part of five NFC Titles (3 New Orleans / 2 Carolina), was on a team that played in three NFC Championships, won two NFC Titles, and played in two Super Bowls with one title to his credit when he was with the Saints back in 2010.
Harper quickly made an impact during his rookie season in 2006 before going down with a season-ending injury in the first quarter of that season. But according to Payton, the Saints are counting far more on Roman’s play this season.
“It was really about finding a fit. We feel like Roman will be able to do a lot of things on defense, and he can contribute on special teams,” said Payton, giving some examples of what we can expect to see from Harper this season. “He’s a guy that can be closer to the football and he will be in a lot of three safety packages.”
Without question the Saints bringing back Roman Harper is a feel good story. And one question Bobby and I have been asked a few times is how many good plays does Roman have left in him?
The Prattville, Alabama native had some good numbers in the two seasons he spent in Carolina with the Panthers. Along with winning back to back NFC South Division Titles, Roman complied 135 tackles, he defended 15 passes and picked off four passes.
To say that Roman has something left to help aid a poor Saints defense would be correct. Let me put it to you this way, I ask you - would Roman’s play have helped the Saints the last two seasons had he been in New Orleans instead of Carolina? I rest my case.
I’m not saying that the aging veteran is going to have an All-Pro type season. But what I do know is that only good can come from having Roman back in the Saints locker room. And I think Harper will help the Saints defense on the field as well.