A Saturday six pack of things to take away from Saints minicamp:
1. C.J. Spiller’s the real deal. OK, back in March we pooh-poohed the Saints giving Spiller more money than Mark Ingram even though Spiller was ostensibly Ingram’s backup. Forgive us for not watching many Buffalo Bills highlight films lately.
Spiller gives the backfield a combination of Darren Sproles’ elusiveness with Pierre Thomas’ straight-on ability to make yardage after contact, making him a threat however he touches the ball.
Plus, after five years of being with a franchise which hasn’t made the playoffs in this century, Spiller’s with one with a track record of success, even if it did go off the tracks last season.
Is there any wonder Spiller’s an enthusiastic presence both on the field and in the locker room?
2. Brandin Cooks may be the only saving grace about the Class of ’14 — Cooks was 10 games into a stellar rookie season (53 receptions, 550 yards 3 TDs) when it was cut short by a hand injury. But he’s shown no signs of that being a setback, using his acceleration to make startling moves to get open downfield and running short and intermediate routes that has Drew Brees’ raving. With Kenny Stills dispatched to Miami, Cooks is the team’s deep threat for this season and beyond.
But the excellence of Cooks just points out what a poor job of drafting the team did last year. The six players selected totaled only 36 out of a possible 96 game participation opportunities. The leader was linebacker Ronald Powell with 14, all limited to special teams. Did you know he was even still on the team?
Two of the draftees are already gone, and you don’t hear much about Vinnie Sunseri and Stanley Jean-Batiste being counted on for big contributions in their sophomore seasons.
With the team’s 2012 and 2013 second-round draft picks lost because of Bountygate and the No. 2 from 2011 dealt to New England for the chance to take Ingram, the team has created some serious depth issues for itself.
3. But those problems may be alleviated by some oldies but goodies. The Saints have an unusually high amount of veteran free agents brought during the second wave of signings when the price is affordable and the risk is minimal.
Saints coach Sean Payton acknowledged Thursday that it was by design that running back Tim Hightower, wide receiver Josh Morgan, guard Mike McGlynn, defensive tackle Kevin Williams, linebacker Anthony Spencer, safety Kenny Phillips and cornerback Kyle Wilson, all players with at least five years experience but who were available after March’s early big money period, were signed to provide both depth and leadership which everyone acknowledges was lacking last year.
Will all seven make the final cut? Probably not. But four or five would be good additions.
4. The same thing goes for the for draft class of 2015. After the missteps of 2014 (which probably cost college scouting director Rick Reiprish his job), this year, the emphasis was on character and productivity.
Obviously it’s early and the players have only been in shorts, but those choices should lead to those players getting on the field much more than their predecessors.
Linebacker Stephone Anthony will be a Game 1 starter. Fellow linebacker Hau’oli Kikaha and cornerback P.J. Williams will get plenty of playing time as well.
Ironically, first-round pick Andrus Peat appears headed for a redshirt year unless something happens to incumbent right tackle Zach Strief. Eventually Peat may be an All-Pro, but one wonders that if LSU’s La’el Collins hadn’t had the cloud of a murdered ex-girlfriend hanging over him at the time of the draft he wouldn’t have been an ideal fit at guard where there seems doubt that Tim Lelito is truly the answer at the position.
5. Tight end’s going to be all right. To be sure, trading away Jimmy Graham left a big void in the offense. But 12-year veteran Ben Watson has been looking more like the player who averaged 39.8 receptions in his eight years in the league before arriving in New Orleans than the one whose total receptions in his two seasons with the Saints is 39.
Josh Hill is performing with equal enthusiasm and rookie free agent Jack Tabb is going to be a tough man to cut.
Graham was a singular talent and he’s drawing raves at Seattle’s minicamp. But after last year’s contentious arbitration hearing, things were never the same and more and more it’s looking like it was time for both sides to move on.
6. Lowered expectations plus some internal soul searching may pay off. With all due respect to Anthony Davis, it’s eye-popping to see that the Pelicans are considered twice as likely to win the NBA championship as the Saints are to win the Super Bowl (20-1 to 40-1).
The Saints are co-favorites with Atlanta and Carolina to win the NFC South, but that says more about the weakness of the division than the strengths of the teams.
The over/under victory line for the Saints is 8½, a truer reflection of what the oddsmakers think.
But maybe it’s just the last-day-before-summer-vacation happiness in the locker room on Thursday along with Payton’s repeated mention of a through study of what went wrong and how best to fix it, there’s an underlying feeling that at the least there will be a divisional title, which means a playoff berth.
“Every team comes out of the spring feeling like it can have a great season,” Spiller said. “The difference here is that this team has been there and you have a head coach and a quarterback who know what it takes to win it all.
“We’ll go to training camp now getting ourselves prepared the best way we can. so that in September we’re ready to turn it all loose.”
See you at The Greenbrier.