July 25, 2012

Battlefield Three: What to Watch in Training Camp

Three big camp battles to watch in Saints training camp 2012.

Placekicker: Youngster Garrett Hartley is the Super Bowl XLIV deliverer. Age-defying John Kasay is the new team leader in single-season points, having subbed for Hartley's mysterious-until-season-ending hip injury in 2011.

Garrett Hartley shined in 2009 made a name for himself in the post-season. The Oklahoma product hit the highest-pressure kick in team history - an overtime 40-yarder to send the Saints to Super Bowl XLIV against the Vikings. He then kicked three field goals in the big game to help the Saints win their first title. He is 42/49 in his career and was 20/25 in 14 games in 2010, and received a new five-year deal in 2011. Unlike Kasay, he's never kicked a full NFL season before, having appeared in only 27 regular season games.

Kasay's NFL career began in 1991 as a fourth round pick. He was the original Carolina Panther, kicking for the expansion team from 1995-2010. He made 28 of 34 field goals as a Saint in 2011 including 63 extra points, a team record, part of 147 total points, also a new team record. One of the league's all-time greats, Kasay, 42, is - publicly - only an insurance policy for Hartley's rehabbed hip injury, but the veteran has proven himself starting-quality.

The Saints have a position of luxury here - the loser of this battle (if healthy) will probably find another job in the NFL soon.

Outside Linebacker: Scott Shanle, of the stand-and-watch Vernon Davis Shanle's, has the hardest battle here.  With Gregg Williams gone but long-time ally Joe Vitt the interim head coach, Shanle has to fend off returning youngsters Nate Bussey and Jonathan Casillas, veteran Will Herring and newcomers Chris Chamberlain and David Hawthorne.

Shanle, 32, a Saint throughout the Payton era, seems to be likely to lose a job in the linebacker battle.  But he's been counted out before. A full time starter these six seasons since arriving, Shanle is steady, averaging 78 tackles per season, but rarely a factor in turnovers or pass rush.

The story of whether the Saints' offseason acquisitions at linebacker pay off will be told in the number of snaps they take from Shanle, who appeared to be the strongside starter in minicamp.  The Saints would save $1.75 million in cap space by cutting Shanle in the last year of a two-year contract, leaving $1.2 million of dead money on the books for 2012.

Ex-Falcon Curtis Lofton also figures in the new linebacker picture. Though he is currently slated to fill suspended starter Jonathan Vilma's role in the middle, new defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo's scheme could make use of him in a variety of ways.  Assuming Lofton starts in the middle, that would leave Hawthorne the presumed starter at weakside, as he has the most outside linebacker starting experience and the biggest outside linebacker contract.

Bussey, last year's seventh round pick and college teammate of linebacker-turned edge-rusher Martez Wilson, and Casillas, the speedy favorite of former defensive coordinator Gregg Williams, are wildcards in the competition.  But with a new defense in place, they have no advantage over Hawthorne or ex-Ram Chamberlain, a former starter was brought over from St. Louis by Spagnuolo.

Chamberlain, Bussey, Casillas and Herring all have good special teams experience and may solidify their jobs there.  But can one of them unseat Shanle or Hawthorne?

Fourth Wide Receiver: Marques Colston and Lance Moore are the sure bets on the depth chart, with Devery Henderson the filling the Scott Shanle role on offense.  With a $3.5 million cap hit that could be reduced by $2.65 million should the Saints cut him, Henderson faces a training camp of validation.

A versatile deep threat, Henderson's playing time was limited by the stacked depth chart.  With Robert Meachem off to San Diego, the LSU product is primed to emerge as a full-time starter, and needs to earn it.  Henderson, 30, overcame an early case of drops in his career but still needs to be more aggressive at the point of attack.  When flatfooted and waiting, he's let more than one defender step in front of him for a Brees interception.

Henderson is 5th on the Saints' all-time list for receiving yards with 4061 over eight seasons.  He's 814 yards shy of Ambramowicz in fourth place, but it would take a massive uptick in his performance trend to match it in the last year of his contract.  It is hard to believe, but DE Will Smith and Henderson are the two longest-tenured Saints, the top two picks in Mickey Loomis' 2004 draft.

Henderson's challengers are fourth round pick Nick Toon, the polished prospect with an NFL pedigree, 2011 training camp star Joe Morgan, and last-chance-left Adrian Arrington, the 2008 seventh round pick with five NFL games and four tough training camps under his belt.  This will be Arrington's fifth and presumably final attempt to make the Saints roster - he's exhausted his training camp eligibility.

Morgan's explosive speed and agility came out of nowhere in training camp 2011, he was a surprise in practice and a playmaker in preseason, but his minor right knee injury at the end of camp required surgery.  Instead of sitting him on the 53-man roster for 3-4 weeks, the Saints put him on injured reserve and "hid" Morgan all season.  With a year of professional conditioning under his belt, the lanky Morgan should be more refined and ready to challenge Henderson as the team's premiere deep threat.

Can Toon, Morgan or Arrington unseat Henderson?  If not, who will be the team's fourth receiver?

Also on the roster is veteran WR Courtney Roby, a valuable special teams gunner looking to carve a spot there for his fifth season with the Saints.  And thanks to Morgan, we can't ignore undrafted rookies - so Chris Givens, Derek Moye and second-try Chris Givens are worth mentioning.  Signed today was Marques Clark, who graduated from Henderson State in 2006 but is getting his first real NFL shot this year.

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