Run defense has been a problem of ours for years. What move have we made this offseason to improve that the most?
You could look to personnel, like: The drafting of inside linebacker Stephone Anthony and defensive tackle Tyeler Davison; trading for inside linebacker Dannell Ellerbe; an improvement or, at least, a return to rookie form by defensive tackle John Jenkins; and a return to health of Brodrick Bunkley. Anthony, especially, could be a run-stuffer. Or, perhaps, improvement will come because of a simplified defensive scheme that will allow players to play freer and faster, without quite so much thought process going into what is the assignment. But maybe – maybe – the biggest improvement in the run game will come via an improved secondary. If cornerbacks Keenan Lewis and Brandon Browner play the way that they're expected to play, and if the Saints can get it together in the nickel and dime packages, that should free up more defenders to help against the run. I know that doesn't boil it down to one aspect, but it's an improvement-by-committee deal.
My question is about the injured risk players, ala Kenny Phillips or Dannell Ellerbe. And what is the news on Tim Hightower?
I assume you're asking how they're progressing. Phillips has been working in OTAs and looks healthy, but Ellerbe didn't work last week (he had an excused absence). We really won't know much about injuries and the extent of them until the team is mandated to disclose them, but take it as a great sign that Phillips is working uninhibited. As for Hightower, he's in a difficult spot. The Saints have three backs (Mark Ingram, C.J. Spiller and Khiry Robinson) that we know are going to play if healthy. If coaches go with four running backs and a fullback, as they did last season, then Hightower may have to beat out seventh-round pick Marcus Murphy as the fourth back, and Murphy probably is more multifaceted (he returns kicks and can serve as a jack-of-all-trades back). Hightower has had some productive NFL seasons, and he obviously should be better in pass protection than Murphy because he's a veteran. But Murphy may add zip behind Spiller and, again, it can't be discounted that he was an accomplished returner at Missouri. The more you can do, the more valuable you become especially if you're not a starter.
Are we looking at any quarterbacks?
Let's assume that the Saints have the quarterbacks that they'll be entering training camp with, after drafting Garrett Grayson. They have four, which is plenty, and the guy they drafted comes with high marks not only from his college coaches, but from the Saints coaches who evaluated him in a private workout.
Can we please get Pierre Thomas back?
As much as we all love Pierre Thomas – Saints screen passes may never be the same – his Saints career simply couldn't last forever. At some point the determination had to be made as to whether his level of productivity warranted a roster spot, or if it was time to get younger in hopes that another player, or group of players, could make up for his absence and production. He hasn't signed with another team as of yet, so he'd be an obvious player to be on the Saints' radar if an injury occurred to one of the principal backs. But it's always a balancing act for a franchise in terms of parting ways too soon, or too late, with a cherished player. Unfortunately, it's a decision every franchise faces during the offseason, who to retain and who to part with. Mark Ingram's production last year, Khiry Robinson's ability to ease Ingram's load and the addition of C.J. Spiller, who proved in Buffalo that he has an "awe" factor as a home run threat, are among the reasons the Saints felt comfortable with the Thomas decision.
Do you think the locker room is stable and focused, unlike last year?
So far, so good. Certainly, some players needed to mature a bit from last season and hopefully everyone is on the same page, in the same playbook, this year. But the truth is that we'll get a much better understanding of the locker room when adversity surfaces. And over the course of a season, it's gonna happen. The manner in which a team responds internally to a losing streak or rash of injuries is the true measure, because if it says all the right things but does none of them, then the talk is pretty cheap. Brandon Browner's leadership qualities were touted when he was signed as a free agent, Max Unger will be a great influence as a player and person, Drew Brees, Jahri Evans, Zach Strief and Marques Colston remain around to help set the tone as to what is expected of Saints players under Coach Sean Payton. I think the locker room will be better this year.
Do you believe the reports on the Saints feelings about Drew Brees' decline in physical ability? What are your personal feelings?
In a word, No. The Saints are pretty satisfied with Brees and believe he has several outstanding seasons in him. Now, that's not saying that Brees hasn't declined one iota. He's entering his 15th season; no one plays in the NFL for 15 years without experiencing some physical decline. But as un-Brees-like as last season was, consider this: He led the league in passing yards, completed 69.2 percent of his passes and threw almost twice as many touchdowns (33) as interceptions (17). Obviously, add in the fumbles lost and his turnovers were higher than normal and, certainly, several turnovers were committed at awful times (though the argument can be made that there never is a good time for a turnover). But he was extremely productive in comparison to every NFL quarterback. I think he has years of quality time left; no one takes better care of himself than does Brees, who stays on the cutting edge of everything in terms of nutrition and training. Yes, the Saints drafted Garrett Grayson perhaps to be the quarterback of the future. But the future isn't now.
Is C.J. Spiller the next Darren Sproles, or should I lower the huge expectations I have for him?
Keep the expectations high. Heck, the Saints have high hopes for Spiller, so there's no reason that the rest of us shouldn't have high expectations. Now, he isn't Sproles. He's bigger, less of a scatback. But he's the kind of fast that makes fast guys look pedestrian and when teammates are just about drooling at the prospect of seeing him with the ball in his hands in the open field, that speaks volumes. It'll be interesting to see how many ways the Saints devise to get Spiller the ball, because he could be edge-of-your-seat as a playmaker.
Barring injury, where do you think our defense will rank?
That's a tough one. Of course, players and defensive coaches probably want to be in the top five. But I think that if the offense produces the way it has since 2006, the defense can rank somewhere in the middle (14-18 or so) and that'll be plenty good enough. As much as anything, it has to force more turnovers, produce more quarterback pressure and produce stops on third down. Turnovers, pressures and sacks are huge pluses for a defense. All of that helps a defense get off the field on third down, and that's something the Saints didn't do last year.