April 10, 2006

NOPF Minicamp Notes: First minicamp highlighted by a Parcellsesque Payton

Without question, Sean Payton's New Orleans Saints will be a no-nonsense, all business team, if the first minicamp is any indication.

Payton and his young, energetic coaching staff were just short of cracking whips out on the practice field, and were definitely sending a message to players that may have been used to a more lax practice routine. Payton is a Bill Parcells clone. No question about it. One of the most powerful and successful coaches in NFL history has put his mark on Payton in a most obvious way. More than anything, Payton made it clear that everyone who contributes to this team will be in shape sooner than later.

Here's a positional review:

Outside linebacker Anthony Simmons looked extremely impressive and might prove to be the steal of this free agent class. Seeing action at strongside linebacker, Simmons was out of football last year while recovering from wrist surgery. Both he and another free agency prize, LB Scott Fujita, are big hitters with fast, skinny legs. Fujita looked a little too mechanical in his first practices but still clearly looks like starting material.

Veteran strong safety Jay Bellamy is back and looks like he's lost weight. He was in good shape. CB Mike McKenzie, a solid football player, appeared to be very businesslike on the field but maybe not so much on the locker room. It remains to be seen whether or not his playfulness off the field, especially in the locker room, will be an issue in Payton's all-business, all-the-time atmosphere. On the field, there is no question that Payton will work the life out of his players, with zero tolerance for fooling around. McKenzie, known for his loud, loquacious locker room personality will need to tread carefully.

DT Johnathan Sullivan looked out of shape, as usual. Given that this coaching staff has little care for what potential he might have showed last year, Sullivan has a lot of growing up to do. That goes for most players... this coaching staff has a clean slate for all of them, and it is a new day for guys who may have struggled under the previous coaching staff.

Newly-signed RB Michael Bennett? Coaches only saw a couple blurs of him on the field. Bennett is very fast and if he can stay healthy will be an asset to the offense. Payton said that the backup quarterbacks are battling... not necessarily for the #2 job, but battling to pick up the playbook and the system. Neither was impressive in the new system. In all positions, especially the quarterback position, Payton and quarterbacks coach Pete Carmichael will be demanding football intelligence from his players, and its not clear that Bouman or McPherson have what it will take.

The offensive starting lineup for most of minicamp was, from left to right, rising second year star Jammal Brown, veteran Jamar Nesbit, free agent arrival Jonathan Goodwin, journeyman Dwayne Ledford and fourth-year Jonathan Stinchcomb. It was clear that the guys in the starting lineup were also the guys in the best shape. Nesbit is emerging as a leader in the locker room, and one of the few veteran voices on the line. The coaching staff made a point to say that Brown's move to left tackle is permanent. While it is certainly possible that the rhetoric is a smokescreen on the Saints' interest in Virginia T D'Brickashaw Ferguson, ultra-athletic Jammal Brown is destined to get a shot at the premier line position, left tackle. Entrusting that ever-important job to a rookie, even one that projects so well to LT as Ferguson, would take a lot of courage.

At wide receiver, second-year pro Chase Lyman was impressive. Last year's fourth round pick was healthy, in shape and running without a brace on his surgically repaired knee. Donte Stallworth had a shoulder scope, as did DE Will Smith, but it is not something to worry about. Devery Henderson caught a couple long balls, but dropped some. He has some growing up and toughening up to do before making an impact on this of all teams. Who knows what will happen at tight end, its hard to say without pads on.

Getting rid of Aaron Brooks and Wayne Gandy will have a tremendous impact on the locker room. Haslett's pets, Brooks and Gandy were sold as leadership under the previous coaching staff. But Brooks showed little passion and Gandy was a bad influence on the locker room because he lacked football focus. As opposed to what appears to be Payton's strength, Haslett lacked discipline and created separation in the locker room by picking favorites.

As far as coaches go, Joe Vitt expects his linebackers to 'chew glass and spit nails' and is a very aggressive coach. Seems like just the ideal recipe for a classically underachieving Saints linebacking corp. Special teams coach John Bonamego carries around a portable PA system, strung from his neck.

QB Drew Brees stayed after practice throughout minicamp and worked with teammates in the indoor facility, going over plays and getting some valuable mental reps. Brees was on site more than two hours after Friday's practice, and appears to be doing everything he can, short of throwing. He was executing running plays and formations on the field, and lightly tossing the ball.

On final note on training camp: due to traffic and hotel concerns, the team is searching for an off-site training camp alternative. Jackson, Mississippi is a strong possibility right now, but the team is looking for both indoor and outdoor practice locations that will make it difficult.

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