As expected, the Saints have released starting strongside linebacker Keith Mitchell. The Saints told Mitchell months earlier that he would be released and he has not been in attendance at any practices. Mitchell has been a fixture as a starting outside linebacker for four years, but last season his production and attitude tailed off significantly.
Linebacker Depth Chart
The starters at linebacker for the Saints are currently Darrin Smith at weakside, Charlie Clemons in the middle and Sedrick Hodge at strongside. The only wildcard is fiery veteran Bryan Cox, who according to many could challenge Clemons for his job.
At the bottom of the linebacker depth chart, there will be another battle between second year players Curtis Holden and Roger Knight. With Smith, Clemons, Cox, Hodge and 3rd-round pick James Allen on board, Holden and Knight are competing for a spot as the sixth linebacker on the roster. The Saints will only keep six linebackers instead of the usual five if the extra man can prove himself on special teams. Holden is coming off of his rookie season where he collected eight solo tackles on special teams. Knight was signed off the practice squad before the Saints' game in Atlanta against the Falcons, but tore the ACL in his knee and ended his season in the game.
RB James Fenderson missed out on valuable playing experience in NFL Europe because of a knee injury but is practicing with the team. According to the Saints' official website, he is participating in all team drills in the coaching sessions as the NFL Europe league moves into its 9th week of a 10-week regular season. Fenderson is expected to compete for a roster spot as a backup runningback in training camp.
Robinson, Not Ojo, Is Lighting Up NFL Europe
WR Onome Ojo isn't exactly lighting up the NFL Europe league, as many expected of the 5th-round pick in 2001. After eight weeks, (Ojo missed the first two games with a groin injury), Ojo has seven catches for 71 yards and a touchdown. Although he has started in the Rhein Fire's spread offense since returning from injury, Ojo hasn't seen much excitement. In fact, fellow Saints allocation WR Jimmy Robinson, undrafted out of Kentucky last year, is making the splash. Robinson is 6th in NFL-E standings with 27 catches for 300 yards and a pair of touchdowns. Of course, neither wideout has gotten much help from the Fire quarterbacks. Starter Tee Martin and backup Romaro Miller have been only tokens in the Fire's run-oriented offense. Martin has only 900 yards passing in seven games, and only 89 completions.
Ojo will be competing with Robinson, veteran Jake Reed and diminutive Michael Lewis for the fourth spot in the team's wide receiver rotation. One disadvantage that NFL Europe players have is that they really don't get much of a break. Every other player on the roster has had time to work out, build strength, nurture injuries and study the Saints' playbook. NFL Europe players, on the other hand, are overseas from the beginning of April through the middle of June, and return with a fresh set of minor injuries to heal before hitting training camp a month later. Still, the experience and development is invaluable.
Battle at Fullback
Another battling brewing is the competition that second-year fullback Moran Norris is giving third-year starter Terrelle Smith. Smith has had back problems at the end of both of his seasons so far, but when he is healthy he's been nothing less than a devastating blocker. Smith is easily one of the best young lead blockers in the league right now, but is part of a dying breed. Some teams don't carry true fullbacks any more and the role of a blocking back is diminishing. They are being replaced by big, bulky, but versatile runningbacks with above average ball-carrying and receiving skills.
Two generations of fullback are seen on the Saints' roster now. Norris represents a movement in the league for quicker more versatile runningbacks that don't carry the name fullback and don't do as much lead blocking. Smith has had fumbling problems when asked to carry the ball in the past, and while he caught his first touchdown last season he has dropped a few in his career. Norris is by no means a Larry Centers-type receiver and was moved from tight end in college to fullback for a reason. But he has more ball-carrying experience and ability, and is still equipped to do run blocking. Norris was the strongest player in the 2001 NFL Draft and remains one of the strongest players on the team today.
Smith has responded by recovering quickly from his back problems and showing up in the best shape of his life. He has apparently made some strides as a receiver as well, and has no intention of giving up his starting job. The Saints 2002 offense, which will be more wide open, will call for a versatile fullback who can run, catch and pick up blitzes in addition to lead blocking for Deuce McAllister. As it stands now, the job is apparently Smith's to lose, but Norris will still get a share of the playing time.
Alexander Moves to Tackle
Undrafted rookie P.J. Alexander from Syracuse was one of the top center prospects before his play really tailed off in his senior year. Alexander signed with the Saints but is actually lining up at left tackle. Alexander is a good athlete but isn't really developed at any position on the offensive line. The Saints apparently feel his best shot is at tackle. Regardless, the Alexander doesn't stand much chance of making the final roster, barring a string of injuries.
Long Snapper Houser As Good As They Come
NFL teams realize the importance of having a good long-snapper on the roster, but also the importance of having a long-term deal for him. Long snappers have a very limited job description but are incredibly important facets of the special teams. A long snapper can really kill a team with mistakes. The significant of the long snapper is showing. Recently, the Jets gave an eight-year, $5.24 million contract to long snapper James Dearth. The Titans gave a $650,000 one-year deal to long snapper Aaron Graham, a contract which is above the minimum. The Saints have a reliable option of their own in Kevin Houser, a 7th round pick in 2000 who hasn't made a grievous mistake in two seasons. Houser was handed the job as a rookie, and replaced one of the best long-snappers in recent memory in veteran Kendall Gammon. Houser hasn't disappointed, while Gammon, now 34, moved on to the Kansas City Chiefs. Houser is one of the top long snappers around right now, and tosses the ball with great accuracy and impressive speed. He also occasionally gets in on the tackle downfield after a punt. Houser is officially listed as fullback, but hasn't ever and will never step into an offensive huddle in the NFL. He is entering the final year of his rookie contract, which will pay him a $375,000 base salary this season.