How to return the Saints to the top of the NFL

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January 18, 2011
Thursday, Jan. 20
January 20, 2011

So close, but yet so far away.

Wasn’t that just the story of the 2010 New Orleans Saints’ season?



The Black and Gold were razor blade sharp one game, then as dull as watching turquoise paint dry the next.



They were healthy one drive or even one play, then beaten and bruised the next.

They would drive down the field with ease, then turn the ball over in the red zone.



Things just weren’t quite right.



Some of that is the natural hangover of being the defending Super Bowl champions.

Repeating as champs has only been done a handful of times before and it’s only been done once in the parity era of football (by the Patriots).



But some of it, too, was bad play and a roster littered with small holes n problems that need to be fixed.



There is hope, however, and there’s no doubt the Black and Gold can return to NFC and even NFL prominence if the right moves are made.

A slippery slope does exist, though, because several of these moves are difficult and mishandling these situations could push the team even further behind the rest of the competition.

Here are the most pressing questions for the Saints entering the 2011 offseason.

What to do about Reggie? n Reggie Bush is due $12 million next season. I’d be the first person to admit that when he’s “right”, he’s worth that. But I’d also be the first to bet my life savings that he will be injured for at least half of next season. Bush had just 358 combined rushing and receiving yards this year. With similar production next year, he’d earn $33,000 per yard gained. That’s not exactly bang for one’s buck. Expect the Saints to either restructure Bush’s deal or let him go, trading that $12 million for two or three players elsewhere on the depth chart.

Tight End tight spot n Reserve David Thomas is a free agent and Jeremy Shockey is going to be 31 next season and is due $4.8 million. With the emergence of rookie Jimmy Graham as a viable option, the Saints could let Thomas and Shockey both walk, opting to sign a cheap backup for what could be the new starter, Graham.

Linebacker depth n Jonathan Vilma is an absolute mad man at linebacker, but the rest of the Saints’ corps is a little bit long in the tooth. Instead of signing stop-gap average linebackers, the Saints should probably use their first or second round pick in the draft on a long-term project that could boost the team’s defensive middle.

Lock up Drew and throw away the key n We heard all season analysts touting how the Saints would soon tie Drew Brees into a long-term contract that would make him one of the NFL’s highest paid players. Guess what? That never happened. Brees originally signed a 6-year, $60 million deal with the team in 2006. Guess what 2011 will be? His sixth year with the team. I’m not trying to say Brees will leave the Saints, but doesn’t he deserve an extension? The guy’s arguably done more for the franchise than any other player that’s ever played in New Orleans. Lock him up and make him a Saint for the rest of his career.

Special teams specialists n Garrett Hartley is the answer at kicker, just like Thomas Morstead is the unquestioned answer at punter. But the Saints’ return teams were awful last year n with or without Courtney Roby. Kick returners in the NFL often get taken for granted, but when a team has a dominant one, it changes the entire flow of the game. Just ask the Chicago Bears. I don’t think there’s any way they’d have won their division without Devin Hester. With an already great offense, if the Saints can get good field position every once in a while, they’d be close to unstoppable.

Reworked secondary n Darren Sharper is a free agent and more than likely, he will not be with the team this coming season. Likewise, Roman Harper showed his flaws against the Seahawks, too, being beaten on several long passes down the field. The Saints do have talent in their secondary, but they just need to sign a few players to provide depth and to get Harper off the field in passing situations when his lack of speed can be reduced.

Versatility at halfback n This one is an area that people may disagree with me. The Saints do have plenty talent at halfback, most notably Pierre Thomas and Christopher Ivory. But if the team follows my plan and loses Reggie Bush, then they have two power backs in an offense that favors a finesse halfback. Just imagine how good the Saints could have been this season had they signed LaDainian Tomlinson n a guy who wanted to be with the team. I’d be in favor of drafting a halfback in the late rounds of the draft or picking up a guy for cheap in the free agency period, because as the Saints learned the hard way this year n one can never have enough running backs in today’s NFL.

So close, but yet so far away. Let’s see how many of these Mr. Benson has on his own to-do list.