The Saints enter minicamp healthy and for the most part intact. A rash of offseason distractions around the league haven't found much of a home in New Orleans, and but for a couple exceptions the team has full attendance and participation in voluntary workouts. What follows is a breakdown of the Saints as they enter minicamp.
We will see how complete participation this weekend. While a handful of Saints are looking for long term extensions to current contracts, (CB Mike McKenzie, C LeCharles Bentley, RB Deuce McAllister and DE Darren Howard), only one has made it a point to miss workouts because of a contract issue. That would be CB Fahkir Brown, who is slated to start and surprised fans and team alike when he skipped coaching sessions to draw the attention of the Saints. It is not known if Brown will make his absence an official holdout by missing the minicamp, the only mandatory organized practices off the offseason. Unconfirmed rumors state that the Saints may be trying to trade the disgruntled cornerback, but it is likely the Saints would like to see Brown in camp and think about a new deal over the summer. GM Mickey Loomis has a stated policy that he doesn't negotiate with players who are not reporting.
MLB Orlando Ruff wasn't cut immediately and while he has not been with the team for the past two weeks, the Saints are giving him a chance to look elsewhere before letting him loose. Ruff is a good team player and played his heart out for this team. While he will probably get squeezed off the roster by the Saints' surplus of young linebackers, he may still remain with the team till training camp if a better opportunity doesn't present itself elsewhere in the league.
The Saints have experimented with a 4-4-3 defense this offseason, a wrinkle in a defensive scheme from Rick Venturi that hasn't seen any overhaul this offseason.
CB Mike McKenzie has a hamstring injury right now and has been missing practice during his first offseason as a Saint. We will see in Friday morning's closed practice at 10am whether or not it keeps him off the field. CB Jason Craft has had an exceptional offseason and has turned up his intensity. Fahkir Brown's absence and McKenzie's injury have opened up a lot of time for Craft to be the focus of the coaching staff.
FS Dwight Smith has looked good this offseason and fits in well with the defense and with fellow safety Jay Bellamy. Bellamy's job is safe at strong safety, make no doubt about it, he is the leader of the defense. Second round pick Josh Bullocks plays extremely fast an is a ballhawk in practice, but won't see the starting lineup this season barring injury. He will get a lot of playing time on passing downs, he's just too good to keep out of dime sets.
Overall, the linebackers have pleased the coaching staff with their ability to mentally grasp the schemes and react in practice. We will see how this translates onto the field, as the biggest problem for the Saints linebacker corp in recent his has been recognition and playing within the scheme. Third-round pick MLB Alfred Fincher has impressed, as has Colby Bockwoldt who is a new man with a newly chiseled NFL-caliber physique. Bockwoldt was fast but lacked strength last year, and that has been the focus of his offseason. James Allen has a rock-solid grip on the strong side job. Fincher will compete with Courtney Watson for the middle linebacker job, and could beat him out. But last year's second round pick wouldn't go to the bench, instead Watson would slide to weakside linebacker. An opening day starting lineup of Watson-Fincher-Allen is a possibility, as is Bockwoldt-Watson-Allen. Watson will start, but Fincher's progression will determine where.
Veteran Derrick Rodgers is still recovering from back surgery. One of last year's defensive captains, he will compete for a job in training camp. Cie Grant will also compete, but at his position of weakside linebacker. The arrival of Alfred Fincher bumped Grant to weakside earlier this offseason.
The Saints' three starting defensive ends, Darren Howard, Charles Grant and Will Smith, have had good offseasons, as expected. Veteran DT Brian Young looks good, but it is the RDT position of most concern. 2004 5th round pick Rodney Leisle put on 15 pounds of muscle and has really improved from that standpoint but still isn't starting material right now. 2003 6th overall pick Johnathan Sullivan is chugging along, generating no real excitement about his potential, leaving last year's start Howard Green as the de facto starter. Green isn't a slouch himself, but will have to earn his job this training camp. Barring unforeseen developments, Green should win the job.
Montrae Holland and revitalized Kendyl Jacox are fighting for the left guard job. Jacox is in much better shape this offseason and the Saints hope his extra effort carries through to the regular season. Jermane Mayberry and rookie Jammal Brown will start on the right side and Wayne Gandy is the incumbent at left tackle. Center LeCharles Bentley missed several weeks of workouts due to the health problems of his father. Now back on the field and in good shape, Bentley is still have problems with shotgun snaps. It is being worked on hard this offseason.
Joe Horn is healthy this offseason, something he couldn't say much in recent years. Donte Stallworth, over the past calendar year, has been maturing by leaps and bounds as a professional and a NFL starting receiver. His progress, which we saw really pick up at the end of last season, has continued his offseason and it is a welcome sight. Nate Poole has decent speed, nice size and terrific hands and a real shot at sticking on the roster. Devery Henderson has struggled catching the ball, something we saw from day one in his rookie year. Michael Lewis has been solid as a receiver in practice but hopefully will not be called upon on offense.
At tight end, veteran addition Shad Meier has struggled, but the challenge he poses to Boo Williams has sparked Williams to respond. We'll see if it continues in the regular season but Boo isn't looking for a flag after every missed play. Regardless, veteran Ernie Conwell is the consummate professional and has had a good, healthy offseason. Conwell will start.
Deuce McAllister is one of the highlights of the entire offseason, if not the highlight. He has taken his conditioning to a new level and is in great shape. Antowain Smith is a good addition to this club. He is a veteran who knows what he is doing, and will make McAllister better by shaving off a few carries each game. Deuce should be fresher as games and the season wears on and Smith is a great veteran to have in the locker room.
QB Aaron Brooks has had a typical Brooks offseason, following spectacular practices with inconsistent ones. Todd Bouman has changed little and remains a strong-armed but inaccurate quarterback. Adrian McPherson has shown flashes, but is clearly a rookie. He admitted that at this point he has only 20% of the playbook down pat. Give him credit for honesty. Kliff Kingsbury, the Saints 2004 practice squad arm, has a shot at making the roster if McPherson can bump Bouman. The Saints would be nervous about handing the ball to McPherson right away this season but there's no denying his potential.
Nothing to report about special teams. Mitch Berger hasn't been a full attendee but it isn't a concern. As a place kicker, the immortal John Carney looks great for an old guy.
New offensive coordinator Mike Sheppard's main focus this offseason was retooling a successful scheme to make it more manageable and more efficient. He has done that. All quarterbacks were numbered play lists on their wristbands, shortening the transmissions in Brooks' helmet from 15-word plays to simple instructions such as "run play three", or "run play five" with a short modification to a pass route. The Saints have been working in practice getting the new mechanics of the play call down. Sheppard is expected to call the shots from the booth this season, something the Mike McCarthy tried. New quarterbacks coach Turk Schonert will be Sheppard's voice on the playing surface.