29 July 2011

Adaptation: Sean Payton's Second Act

Reggie Bush was Sean Payton's first draft pick with the Saints, Payton's prized x-factor in a relentlessly, attack-minded offensive scheme. Nobody was (is) a bigger fan of Reggie Bush than Coach Payton. 

Bush's 2006 selection not only symbolized the Saints' transition into a rebuilt, modern NFL franchise, but his skill set was also representative of the Saints' offense under Sean Payton: unprecedented, shapeless, formationally-diverse, explosive, up-tempo.  

Payton's evolution moves Saints ahead
The stories about Payton's early infatuation with Bush's talents are now legendary: Payton telling Bush's marketing agent, Mike Ornstein, "fuck you" upon Ornstein's request that the Saints not draft Bush in 2006, and instead allow Bush to go to a bigger market; then later, the coach drawing up plays for Bush on cocktail napkins at Emeril's the night before the 2006 draft when Payton realized Bush would be a Saint.

But now, as Bush leaves for Miami, his departure reveals a nuanced, adaptive shift in offensive philosophy in what now appears to be Sean Payton's second stanza as the Saints' head coach. 

Seemingly, the league's defenses started to better solve Sean Payton's offense in 2010. The trademark rhythmic tempo was less fluid; the interceptions were too frequent; the dimensional framework was too often one-sided; big plays were less prevalent; and the offense was less devastatingly, consistently efficient.  

And as a result, it's been incumbent on Coach Payton to react, adapt, and evolve. The NFL, and life in general, rewards dynamic thinking and punishes stagnant adherence to dated truths. Sean Payton seems intent on employing the former and avoiding the latter. 

Payton's current willingness to part with Bush--and his prior choice to make Bush increasingly less prominent in the offense--signals the coach's open-mindedness and acceptance of the present realities of a league better equipped to defend his schemes. The Saints' forward march without Bush is a not-so-subtle metaphor for a new era in Sean Payton's offense. 

What Sean Payton now has in Mark Ingram is an element that's been missing since Payton was cutting his teeth as a rookie head coach in 2006. Integrating Ingram into the the Saints' advanced, now matured scheme provides Payton with an opportunity to re-mold his progressive attack, to add a potentially elite power-back to his menu of services, and to force opponents into developing a new roadmap on how to contain the Saints' offense. 

If you're not busy being born, you're busy dying. 

Today, it seems like Sean Payton and the Saints' offense is focused on living in the moment.    

26 July 2011

Carl Nicks and 2011 Free Agency: A Ripple Effect

Lost in the flurry of free agent activity has been an under-reporting of the importance of Carl Nicks to the Saints' signing of free agents and re-organization of their salary cap.   

The future of Nicks as a Saint remains somewhat uncertain. He's a restricted free agent, and tendered with a 1st round compensation. Basically, this means that if (when) he tests free agency this summer and if he signs an offer sheet with another team, then the Saints must match that offer if they want to retain Nicks. If they don't match the offer, the Saints will receive compensation in the form of a future 1st round draft pick from the team that potentially signs Nicks. Easy enough, right? 

Nicks' free agency will create a domino effect
Considering that Nicks is young and is entrenched in the elite class of guards in the NFL, it seems almost certain that some team will throw a boatload of money at him in the coming week. If the Saints intend on keeping Nicks for the long term, they'll need to pay top dollar for his services. Considering that Jahri Evans recently signed the richest deal in league history for a guard, and further considering that Drew Brees is due for a monster contract within the calendar year, there's only so much money to go around. 

With that being said, I can't see the Saints letting Nicks get away from them. Protecting your chief investment--Brees--is paramount and the Evans/Nicks guard combo does just that, and does it spectacularly well. 

Assuming that Nicks will ultimately sign a rich contract with the Saints (I'm assuming this), it hinders the Saints' ability to sign their various free agents now. It's a simple ripple effect. 

When you consider the large number of free agents the Saints currently have (nearly 30), you realize that many of the pieces of the 2009 championship team just won't be around this year. Further, with priorities like Jermon Bushrod, Roman Harper, Lance Moore, Jonathan Goodwin, Dave Thomas, Reggie Bush, Zach Strief, and Darren Sharper, it's likely the Saints will be forced to underbid on several of these players in an effort to manage the salary constraints in regards to both the immediacy of their needs and in regards to Brees and Nicks, as discussed above. 

Of the players listed directly above, the priority signings, in my opinion, are Bushrod and Harper. And then Lance Moore. 

It's much too risky to go into 2011 with a question mark at LT, a position of vital importance, especially considering the Saints have legitimate Super Bowl aspirations. Signing Bushrod to handle the left side of the line for 2011 is an absolute must. 

As for Harper, he's been shredded by Saints' fans in the aftermath of the Saints' 2010 playoff loss to the Seahawks. And while Harper has deficiencies in pass defense, he is a two-time Pro Bowler and one of the Saints' most consistent defenders during the Payton era. He's also exceptional against the run. Combine this with the fact that the Saints are perilously thin at the safety position, and it means that re-signing Harper is essential. 

While Lance Moore is a personal favorite of mine, and a favorite of almost all Saints' fans, re-signing him is less of a priority when you take into consideration the entirety of the Saints' immediate needs and salary restraints. Without question, Moore is an outstanding WR. But with the diversified, socialist philosophy the Saints' offense espouses, I can't see the Saints offering top dollar to Moore. Remember, the Saints rattled off a 13-3 season in 2009 largely without the services of Lance Moore. That's not to minimize his abilities or belittle his contributions; it's just a reminder that on the Saints' offense, the only one critical component is Drew Brees. 

I do believe both the Saints' front office and Drew Brees badly want to re-sign Moore. But I also believe Moore is looking for a big payday, as he's outperformed his prior contracts and likely wants to maximize his earning power, as he should. He deserves a requisite payday. Unless he's willing to accept, say, 80-85% of what some other team may offer him--and I'm assuming some other team will make him an attractive offer--I sense he'll play elsewhere next season. But let's hope not. 

As the next few days of free agency unfold, the Carl Nicks' situation bears watching closely because, in my opinion, his fate is the domino that dictates the difficult decisions the Saints' front office faces.

05 July 2011

The 2011 Draft: Impact Players

The results of the Saints' 2011 draft hold enough promise that the current draft class has the potential to rival the 2006 draft, widely considered the best draft in Saints' history. 

In 2006, the Saints kicked off the draft with the much ballyhooed selection of Reggie Bush at #2 overall and then went on to add Roman Harper, Jahri Evans, Zach Streif, and Marques Colston. The 2006 draft supplied a vital core of players who ranged from the underrated and versatile (Streif) to the elite (Evans, Colston), with each player fulfilling a key role during the past five years for the NFC's winningest team over that span.  

In 2011, the Saints added several promising players to bolster the team's foundation and fill vital needs on the roster. Let's take a look at each of these players and see what their roles might be and how soon they might contribute. 

Nate Bussey, OLB Illinois
* 7th round, 243rd player selected overall
* 6'1, 228

The second of two LBs selected from Illinois by the Saints, Bussey projects as special teams contributor in 2011, assuming he makes the Saints' roster. 

While he lacks ideal size, his speed, quickness, and work ethic provide key attributes for his role as a special teams player. Impressing the Saints with his demeanor and character, Bussey already appears to be a favorite of Gregg Williams.   

Gregg Williams on Bussey: "Fans will be pleased how tough he is, how versatile he is. He can play in space, and wait til you see him on special teams. He can flat get it done."

Sean Payton on Bussey: "He's a guy that has versatility. We think he can be guy that will contribute right away in the kicking game."  

Greg Romeus, DE Pitt
* 7th round, 226th player selected overall
* 6'5, 264

Romeus possesses prototypical size for an NFL DE. In 2009, he was the co-Defensive Player of the Year in the Big East. 

Back and knee injuries derailed the latter part of his college career, sinking his draft stock from a projected 1st/2nd round pick to late-round status. It appears unlikely that Romeus will be able to contribute in 2011 due to rehab on a torn ACL. 

Romeus will be a project for Gregg Williams and the defense, but his overall physical attributes, athleticism, and pass-rushing skills will provide him the opportunity to ultimately crack the Saints' lineup, likely in 2012. With the Saints aging at the DE position (W. Smith, A. Brown), Romeus--assuming he's fully recovered from an ACL injury--should provide adequate replacement value. 

Gregg Williams on Romeus: "I like the fact that he has a basketball background. He has very good athletic ability."  

Johnny Patrick, CB Lousiville
* 3rd round, 88th player selected overall
* 5'11, 191

Patrick should immediately see the field in 2011 on special teams, playing a key role on the coverage units as a gunner. The Saints' coverage unit was an area of inconsistency in 2010 and Patrick should quickly help raise the level of the special teams, an area he excelled in college. 

He will also compete for the nickel back spot, fortifying a defensive backfield replete with talent. Patrick's key attributes are his ball skills (he's a converted WR) and quickness.  

Mike Mayock on Patrick: "He's very quick. He has good feet; he's a natural change-of-direction guy." 

Sean Payton on Patrick: "We do think he has versatility. He's someone that can certainly provide depth right away on the kicking game." 

Martez Wilson, OLB Illinois
* 3rd round, 72nd player selected overall
* 6'4, 250 

Wilson is athletically-elite due to his size and his speed--he ran a 4.49 at the NFL combine this year, the fastest among linebackers. In 2010 at Illinois, Wilson was a tackling machine amassing 112 tackles, 4 sacks, and 3 forced fumbles. 

His draft stock dipped due to a neck injury in 2009, but his measurables and potential make him the real steal of the Saints' draft class especially considering the Saints' need to upgrade the LB position. 

While Wilson may initially struggle to learn the complexity of Gregg Williams' system, he will be guided along in the nuances of the schemes by the highly-intelligent and experienced Jonathan Vilma which should help speed Wilson's development. Wilson also provides a pass rushing presence off the edge that the Saints have lacked for several years. 

Mike Mayock on Wilson: "He's big, strong, fast; some teams are looking at him as a potential outside rush linebacker because he's so long." 

Ron Zook on Wilson: "He might be more of a pure athlete than anyone I coached with the Saints. He really has a chance to be a special player." 

Mark Ingram, RB Alabama
* 1st round, 28th player selected overall
* 5'9, 215

Maybe the most complete, polished RB to come into the NFL since Adrian Peterson, Ingram possesses the increasingly-rare 'every down back' capability. With NFL bloodlines--his father, Mark Sr., was a WR for many years--Ingram, the Heisman Trophy winner in 2009, maintains elite vision, great balance and burst, patience, good pass-catching skills, excellent pass-protection abilities, and consistent ball security (Ingram fumbled only twice in his college career). 

Ingram's role in the Saints' offense will likely evolve in stages, and I foresee his impact in 2011 to follow a similar path to Jimmy Graham's in 2010. Regardless, Ingram will provide an immediate boost to a lethargic running attack. His ultimate ceiling is that of an elite NFL RB. 

Sean Payton on Ingram: "One trait that is impressive is his ability to block pressure and pick up. He is a physical back, he can catch the ball, but he is good in his protections."

Nick Saban on Ingram: "New Orleans is the perfect situation for him; he was the best RB in the draft. Mark is a very versatile player and this is a great fit for him."  

Cam Jordan, DE Cal
* 1st round, 24th player selected overall
* 6'4, 287

Jordan provides a much-needed infusion of talent to a Saints' defensive line that struggled last year pressuring the QB and stopping the run. Jordan will help in both areas, and more immediately vs. the run where he projects as an elite run stopper. 

His high IQ and versatility will allow him to play multiple positions in Gregg Williams' varied schemes, and for this reason, he was a highly-prized pick for the Saints who, admittedly, were surprised that Jordan was available to them at 24. 

With the impending four-game suspension of Will Smith (StarCaps), Jordan should see plenty of playing time immediately. Also owing to his own NFL bloodlines--his father, Steve, was a Pro Bowl TE for several years--Jordan should make a smooth transition as an every-down DE in the mold of the Saints very-own Will Smith. 

Mike Mayock on Jordan: "Jordan might be the best five-technique in this draft. He gives [you] scheme versatility because you can play him inside, and he can stand up." 

Gregg Williams on Jordan: "He won't be pigeonholed into one area. He gives you the ability to play hard against the run, but we can also move him inside on passing downs."