Friday, April 29, 2011

Saints Have Modest, Productive 2nd Draft Day

It was a relatively quiet night at the Saints’ headquarters on Airline Drive on Friday with the Black and Gold armed with two third round picks.

The Saints had the 56th overall pick in their second round before dealing that selection the day before as part of the surprising trade with the New England Patriots that resulted in running back Mark Ingram being picked up by the Black and Gold.

With their first selection of the third round (72nd overall) the Saints selected Illinois linebacker Martez Wilson. Both USA Today and WWL AM Draft analyst Mike Detillier had Wilson going in the second round, with the former rating him the second best linebacker in the draft and the latter the top inside linebacker.

Most significantly, Wilson is quick, having run the fastest 40-yard dash of any linebacker at the combine.

In his post-round press conference, Saints head coach Sean Payton said he would utilize Wilson as an outside linebacker at the “sam” (strong) side. Payton compared Wilson’s physique with that of former Saints olb Scott Fujita.

The Saints grabbed Louisville cornerback Johnny Patrick with their other third round pick (88th overall). USA Today ranked Patrick as the 11th best cornerback in the draft while Detillier had Patrick as the 12th.

Though the Saints are fairly well-stocked at cornerback with starters Jabari Greer and Tracy Porter in addition to the team’s first round selection in last year’s draft, Patrick Robinson, the Patrick pick can be attributed in part to front office’s desire to upgrade their reserves in that area.

In his post-third round comments, Payton shared that he envisioned Patrick contributing on special teams as a gunner.

Overall the Saints got value while addressing some of the team’s needs on defense and on kick coverage.

Thursday, April 28, 2011

Falcons Pull a Ditka While the Saints Pull a Rabbit

A tip of my fleur-de-lis cap to NFL Draft expert Mike Detillier.

Prior to the Carolina Panther’s first overall selection in the 2011 NFL Draft, Detillier shared that the Atlanta Falcons were aggressively pursuing a major move to scoop up one of the top two wide receivers in the draft, with the likely trading partner being the Cincinnati Bengals.

Detillier was off only by two picks as the Falcons unloaded their first round draft pick (27th overall), second round draft pick (59th overall) and fourth round draft pick (123rd overall) in the 2011 draft plus their first and fourth round picks in the 2012 draft to land Alabama wide receive Julio Jones.

While it wasn’t exactly to the scale of the infamous Ricky Williams trade that Saints coach Mike Ditka recklessly engineered in 1999, though it’s almost on par. The Falcons have sacrificed a good part of their future on a single player, which as Saints fans know is a scary prospect. The Jones deal certainly adds greater appreciation for the Saints 7th round selection in the 2006 NFL Draft.

With the 24th overall selection the Saints front office ate up over eight minutes of the draft clock before picking defensive end Cameron Jordan of California, who wasn’t expected to remain on the draft board by the time New Orleans made its choice.

The addition of Jordan should bolster the Black and Gold’s pass rush and his presence will be especially needed when starting defensive end Will Smith finally serves his four game suspension next season stemming from the Star Caps case that began in 2008.

Jordan, considered one of the top three defensive ends in this year’s draft, was conventional pick by the Saints and the fans attending WWL Am radio’s Draft Fest, the unofficial viewing party for the Black and Gold faithful, warmly received the news of his selection.

Minutes later the reaction of Saints fans would be off the charts, as General Manager Mickey Loomis executed one of the boldest draft maneuvers in his career with the team.

The New England Patriots were supposed to make the 28th selection in the draft but the Saints ended up with pick after shipping their 2nd round pick (56th overall) and 1st round pick in the 2012 NFL Draft. And with that selection, the Saints made a move that will have major inclinations for #25.

Like Jordan, Alabama running back Mark Ingram wasn’t supposed to be on the board when the Saints picked though the stout halfback certainly was on the minds of Saints fans and apparently the Saints front office as well.

With the return of Pierre Thomas and Chris Ivory, the addition of Ingram on the roster will go a long way towards reestablishing a ground game that paid huge dividends in 2009 yet faltered in 2010 in no small part due to injuries and with no small consequences.

The odd man out is likely- scratch that- certainly Reggie Bush. In fact, #25 has said as much on his Facebook page, stating simply “it’s been fun New Orleans”.

Loomis should be credited with having the vision and guts to swing such a big deal at a relatively fair price. The team addressed their two biggest needs in one draft day, developing a pass rush and bringing back a rushing attack.

While the actual value of these gambits will not be ascertained until the players take the field, on paper they look good.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

It's Draft Day!

One of my favorite days on the sports calendar is the first round of the NFL draft.

Today marks the beginning of process where team scouting departments prove their value to their organizations and where struggling teams either secure the cornerstone for their franchise’s return to greatness (Cleveland and Detroit excepted) or waste millions of dollars via signing bonus on a player who excelled on the college level but busted in the pros.

Drafting a player in the first round is as much a crapshoot as it is an investment.

The NFL Draft has become a major media event over the years, with the league turning what was once a weekend affair into a 72-hour sports drama with the first two days being conducted before millions of fans on prime time television.

Best Player Available v. Addressing Specific Needs v. Retention Probability

One of the biggest arguments about the draft has to do with the question of whether teams should choose the best player available versus addressing a hole on the roster with the best player available at that position.

Building (and maintaining) a team doesn’t happen in a vacuum.

In the back of every general manager’s mind is free agency. A great player on a roster today might end up being a great player on some other team next season. Also there’s the matter of durability.

Popular yet oft-injured tight end Jeremy Shockey’s days on the Saints’ roster were numbered when Saints general manager Mickey Loomis managed to score the U’s Jimmy Graham in the third round. The Saints made it official when they cut after a few seasons the very player Loomis and head coach Sean Payton had so aggressively pursued and bought off the New York Giants’ roster for the princely sum of second and fifth round picks.

What the Saints Need

In 2009 the Saints swaggered into the playoffs with the best record in their conference; in 2010 they hobbled into post-season play and humbled out courtesy of the Seattle Seahawks. The Saints ended their bid for a Two Dat with their entire pre-season running back corps on crutches and it showed in the stats. After enjoying unparalleled success with a balanced offense in 2009, the Saints finished with one of the weakest running games in the NFL in 2010

Though the front-office finally came to terms with Pierre Thomas with a longterm deal and a renegotiated contract with Reggie Bush is likely, the Black and Gold might make a move to provide more depth for their running game. A second or third round pick for a mid-level running back is probably in order.

The other major deficiency with the 2010 Saints was their lack of an effective pass rush. The Saints made a big move signing defensive tackle Shaun Rogers prior to the lockout though there are concerns at defensive end as Will Smith isn’t getting any younger or more consistent in racking up sacks.

The linebacker corps has been a point of concern for most of the Sean Payton era. Nobody will ever confuse them for the Dome Patrol and little has been done to shore it up. One of the big surprises in last year’s draft was the Saints decision to not use one of their selections on a linebacker.

Another point of concern is free safety. While Malcolm Jenkins has stepped up and established himself at the position, veteran Darren Sharper’s role with the team is still up in the air. What if Jenkins goes down with an injury, as he did in the regular season finale against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers? Usama Young is not the answer.

Draft expert Mike Detillier has also beat the drum for the Saints to pursue a high-caliber kick/punt returner in the draft, bearing in mind that Courtney Roby, who has handled kick returns, will be a free agent.

To Trade or Not to Trade

The Saints don’t have a lot of trade bait if they wanted to leap ahead of their 24th slot, though arguments have been made for both jumping and dropping back.

Quality players will still be available when the Saints pick and there might be no point in using a 1st round selection on a player that may very will be around in the 2nd round. It’s like paying $100,000 for a house today when you can spend $75,000 on it tomorrow.

And with no picks in the 4th, 5th and 6th rounds, the Saints might want to diversify their options in the 2011 draft. I could easily picture the Saints giving up their late 3rd round pick for two picks further down but in the first half of those rounds.

I suspect a trade down is more likely than a trade up, but one rarely knows what lurks in the complicated mind of Mickey Loomis.

First Round Options: Best Available

If the following players (listed in order of preference) are available come the 24th pick, the Saints should make a selection and not a deal.

Mark Ingram Running Back I’d be shocked if the best half-back available in the 2011 Draft fell down this far, but if the 2009 Heisman Trophy winner is still on the board when the Saints pick, their front office would be fools to not grab him. As I mentioned earlier, the Saints’ ground game needs help and I believe the ex-Alabama running back can inject some nitro into the Black and Gold’s high-powered offense. Furthermore, selecting Ingram would make Bush either expendable or less expensive in the event the team wanted to retain his services. That said, I don’t see how Ingram would get past the Miami Dolphins, who have the 15th overall pick.

Cameron Jordan, Aldon Smith, JJ Watt or Ryan Kerrigan Defensive End The acquisition of one of these players would address a major need for the Saints, who need to develop a pass rush if they want to once again hoist the Lombardi Trophy outside the practice facility.

Akeem Ayers Outside Linebacker Ayers would be a major addition to the Saints often battered linebacker corps. While middle linebacker Jonathan Vilma is an outstanding player, there are questions on his flanks. Jonathan Cassillas was supposed to start on the weak side but was lost for the season after injuring his foot in an exhibition game against the Tennessee Titans (at least he didn’t get run over by their mascot). Veteran linebacker Scott Shanle is a free agent and his status with the team is unknown. Regardless of Shanle’s future with the Saints, the team is going to need to make some upgrades at outside linebacker with an eye on the future.

If other teams have scooped up the aforementioned, it might be a good idea for Loomis to spend some time on the phone with teams looking for a second first round pick, either trading for their later picks in 2011 or their first round selection next year.

It’s unlikely franchises that picked early will be picking late in the 2012 Draft so a first round swap might end up laying a strong foundation for the team’s future.

So What’s Likely to Happen

I’m going to assume Loomis will be uncharacteristically conservative in the 2011 Draft and will not make as many deals as has in the past. Bear in mind I was totally off in last year’s predictions, only getting the 7th round selection of a revolving door quarterback right.

Round 1 (24th) Muhammad Wilkerson DT Temple
Round 2 (56th) Brooks Reed OLB Arizona
Round 3 (72nd) Jabaal Sheard DE Pittsburgh
Round 3 (88th) Shane Vereen HB California
Round 7 (226th) Richard Gordon TE Miami
Round 7 (243rd) Best available kick-punter returner

What Should Happen

Round 1 (24th) Ryan Kerrigan DE Purdue
Round 2 (56th) Brooks Reed OLB Arizona
Round 3 (72nd) Lawrence Guy DT Arizona State
Round 3 (88th) Mark LeGree FS Appalachian State
Round 7 (226th) Leon Berry WR/KR Mississippi State
Round 7 (243rd) Richard Murphy RB LSU

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Pre-Draft Interview with Mike Detillier, Part II

In the second part of The Onside Kick’s pre-NFL Draft interview with WWL AM radio sports commentator and college football expert Mike Detillier, the draft analyst examines positions of need for the Black and Gold, the value of running back Mark Ingram to the Saints, where LSU standout defensive back Patrick Peterson will be drafted and whether the “Son of Ironhead” will be sporting a fleur-de-lis on his helmet in the 2011 season.

And a reminder, those still interested in acquiring Mr. Detillier’s 200-page draft guide, which also contains valuable information for Fantasy Football aficionados, can order the book from

TOK: What would you say is the number one priority for the New Orleans Saints to address via the 2011 NFL draft?

MD: First, always look for players that fit what you do best offensively and defensively, but the top need for the Saints is to upgrade the defensive line at both end and tackle. This team needs to generate a better and a more consistent pass rush. All season long the Saints could not get a good pass rush unless they brought extra people and they need to get someone who can get that extra push from the middle or off the edge.

TOK: You have LSU’s Patrick Peterson as your top rated player in the draft, what do
you think would be the lowest selection he could fall to?

MD: I gave him a lot of consideration at the #2 spot to Denver and I have him going to Arizona at the #5 spot, but I don’t think he gets pass the #7 spot and if Arizona doesn’t take him I expect a team, like the Houston Texans, to try and trade up to select him. The 49ers would love to land him if he falls that far down to the #7 spot.

TOK: You were one of the very first to say that Cam Newton would be the first pick
overall pick in the draft. How much of a certainty is he going with the top pick?

MD: It came down to him and Blaine Gabbert. The Panthers need help at quarterback and it just came down to the upside and the “Wow” factor around Cam. He is still rough around the edges as a passer and his accuracy wanes at times, but he has the tools to develop into a big time performer, if the commitment on his part is there. He reminds me a lot of a more athletic version of what the Buccaneers have in Josh Freeman. Carolina needs a “buzz” player and in this draft Cam is it.

I feel pretty strongly that Cam will be the top guy, even though Peterson, Von Miller, Marcell Dareus, and A.J. Green are higher rated players. Every quarterback picked in this draft early will be overdrafted and that includes Newton and Gabbert.

TOK: You are a big fan of Mark Ingram and I have heard you believe he will be a top
NFL back. Why are people on ESPN and the NFL Network bashing him so much and
trying to put others at the top running back spot?

MD: I really don’t get it to be honest. The guy has been a terrific college player and even after coming back from a minor cartilage repair on his knee he still averaged over 5 yards per rush. He reminds me so much of Emmitt Smith when he came out of Florida. He also is a very good receiver coming out of the backfield and he has been well drilled in pass protection sets. He is a three down back and you don’t find many like that. Ingram is also one of the most competitive guys you will ever meet.

He is a Top 20 type player, but this stuff about the knee and other items are being fed to many by agents who want to lower his draft stock and increase the stock of their own players. There is also the devaluation of the running back position today because it is manned by committee. His knee is fine.

TOK: With that said couldn’t you get real good value in rounds 2 and 2 at running back?

MD: Yes. That is part of what has happened to Ingram and every other back looking to sneak into Round One. It is the feeder system today, college football, that has turned into running back by committee and you just won’t find an Adrian Peterson-type player often and the value of the halfback spot has diminished.

TOK: I would love to be a fly on the wall if Ingram, Iowa’s Adrian Clayborn and
Muhammad Wilkerson are all on the board when the Saints pick at 24.

MD: I agree. Do you go with the bigger need and pick the defensive lineman knowing that you can get a good back later or do you go with the top back in this draft and cut loose Reggie Bush for good. Bush is just too injury-prone in my opinion to pay the top dollars for.

Also you know those defensive linemen will get swooped up quickly and you may not get a shot a highly rated lineman ,even late in Round 2.

TOK: Would the Saints be interested in Cameron Heyward at 24? It seems you and most
others have him going late in Round One instead of in the mid-20’s.

MD: I would say no at 24, but if they traded down it would be a strong possibility. Cam is a good kid, big, powerfully built, but he is inconsistent. He has looked really good at times, but he has looked very average other times. He is versatile, could play defensive tackle or end, but it is his inconsistent nature that will drop him late into Round One or real early in Round 2. He also doesn’t have a mean streak in him. That is something his dad had that he doesn’t. He needs someone to light his fire on a consistent basis.

TOK: Does having running back Pierre Thomas under contract mean the Saints won’t be
looking at a running back in this draft?

MD: Saints will be looking at the running back spot in this draft. No question about it. They don’t have one healthy back on the squad. Pierre, Chris Ivory, Lynell Hamilton and Reggie are all rehabbing injuries or surgeries. You never have enough good backs. That was evident on this team last season. Pierre’s new deal will not affect their thinking on picking a back in this draft. The real value of backs is going to be in Rounds 3 and 4. They are going to have a host of productive NFL backs picked in that section this year.

TOK: Will the Saints pursue a kick returner in this draft?

MD: Yes, it may be early if a receiver like Randall Cobb-Kentucky, Jerrel Jernigan-Troy or even a Titus Young is available. They need a good slot end who can spread the field and help out in the return game. If not, later on someone like Louisiana Tech’s Phillip Livas is a strong possibility late. I covered Livas at South Terrebonne High School and he was a terrific running back there. He has become a good slot end, punt and kickoff return man and he could play halfback in a pinch. He reminds me a lot of another South Terrebonne product who excelled in that same slot/return game portion of the game in the pros in Clarence Verdin. This team needs to get a quality return man.

TOK: Which position is more of a priority for the Saints to address, defensive end or outside linebacker?

MD: Good question and you could have a strong debate on either side, but I side with defensive end. Nothing is more important in the 4th quarter than a pass rush and when you run a 4-3 defense you want that pressure from the defensive ends.

I would look for this team to add a quality starting veteran outside linebacker once free agency starts up, whenever that is.

TOK: With the release of tight end Jeremy Shockey and with David Thomas a potential
free agent, will the Saints pursue a tight end somewhere in the draft?

MD: Yes. This team loves the multiple tight end sets and there is room for another tight end on the roster. Ideally with a young talent and a potential star player like Jimmy Graham you would like to bring in a veteran player, but with no free agency yet I could see them get a tight end, especially with one of the two 7th round picks. With the first four picks in the draft I expect the Saints to pick a defensive lineman, an outside linebacker, halfback and wide receiver.

Monday, April 25, 2011

Mike Detillier 2011 NFL Draft Interview Part I

The Onside Kick is once again happy to spend some time with WWL AM radio’s college football expert Mike Detillier, author of one of the most comprehensive NFL draft guides in the country.

In this installment, Mr. Detillier shares some thoughts about last year’s draft, what went wrong with LSU’s Al Woods, a favorite Buddy D anecdote and a few other stories. The second part of the interview, focused on the 2011 NFL Draft, will be posted on Wednesday.

TOK: Would you rate Patrick Robinson, the team’s number one pick in 2010, a bust player?

MD: I think it is too early for that, but he struggled with the technical part of the game and he has always been a bit of a guesser. He has excellent physical tools, but he struggled with the technical part of the game and his footwork to turn and run with receivers was sloppy.

TOK: That is almost exactly what you wrote about him in your 2010 draft report and was that the reason you didn’t rate him a first round choice?

MD: That is the main reason. He was very inconsistent at Florida State and while he had the talent of a first round pick he didn’t play up to that level from week to week. He needs to become a more disciplined player, no doubt, and Gregg Williams really rode him hard last season in the training camp period and throughout the season when he was healthy.

TOK: Last draft day you thought the Saints gambled big on a player that was not a
productive college player in Al Woods. Why didn’t he pan out?

MD: I personally really liked Al and he is a very likable young man, but he lacks great football instincts and he is slow to react to what is breaking down in front of him. In high school he was bigger, stronger and faster than anyone else he played against and he dominated. That was not the case at LSU and with the Saints. He was built like someone carved him out of stone, but he just couldn’t get that body to react to what was happening quickly. It wasn’t because of effort. He tried hard. Al was just not a very instinctive football player.

TOK: Your draft guide is 200 pages cover to cover, includes bios of hundreds of players, has the 4 round projections-you did in mid-March, a great section on the top current players in the league, fantasy football and etc. People that work with you say that you spend countless hours going over film, breaking down film, getting info from various college sources and you get a constant barrage of calls from players, coaches, people in the front office of NFL teams and such. How much time do you spend with the report?

MD: Too much. I guess that would be the best reply, but it is something I truly love to do. You can’t do this halfway, you have to give the full commitment. On a holiday I won’t do anything, but I would guess 340 days a year, and I can’t count the hours.

TOK: Are you also involved with some college recruiting services looking over and
evaluating talent for some also?

MD: Yes. It gives me a heads-up on the top talent heading into the college football world and eats up any free time I have in the spring and summer. It does keep me in touch constantly with players, coaches and high school coaches on the top talents they have and who they play.

TOK: I’d like to go back to Iron Mike’s “Reign of Error” with the Saints. Who talked Mike Ditka into selecting Chris Naeole in the 1st round?

MD: Dick Stanfel was the chief influence on that pick. Stanfel came out of retirement to coach the offensive line for the Saints under Ditka and he loved Chris and he talked Mike into drafting him in Round 1.

TOK: When was the first time you heard Buddy D say Donte Stallpepper?

MD: The first time was at a lunch with Buddy, Randy Mueller and I on the Wednesday before the draft. We were talking about the upcoming draft and Randy told me he didn’t think Stallworth would be there when they picked and he had saw my draft report where I projected Donte to New Orleans.

During the conversation Buddy said Stallpepper twice and Randy and I looked at one another and I jut knew he would repeat it again. Sure enough. The Saints picked him and he blurted it out. When I told him about his comment was, “ No way I could have said that”, and then he turned back said “Maybe I did say it.”

TOK: Your call of the Saints pick of Ricky Williams was memorable, but you, Buddy D. and everyone else never thought the deal would get done right?

MD: That is right-on correct. General manager Bill Kuharich told me the day before the draft that no team was biting on any move and that they had basically given up on the deal to move up to acquire Ricky and they were going to draft UCLA quarterback Cade McNown.

The morning of the draft Terry O’Neil, the Saints salary cap man for the Saints, told me that he was 99% sure that no deal would get done and he was thrilled that it wasn’t going to happen. He actually stood up to Mike and voted against the deal.

Two Saint assistant coaches before we started Draft Fest told us no deal would happen for Williams and they were happy about it. When Buddy asked them if they rejected Williams in front of Mike Ditka the response was the same. “No way we are saying anything bad about Ricky in front of Ditka. We like our jobs.”

We had numerous national reporters calling us to see whom the Saints would draft because the Williams deal was dead.

Even Ricky Williams told us the next day that he didn’t think he would be in New Orleans. He actually thought either the Indianapolis Colts were going to pick him or that the Cleveland Browns were going to try and trade back into the top-5 to get him.

With all that we both strongly felt the deal to acquire Williams was not going to happen. The crowd that day went wild when the announcement came down. There actually were people crying tears of joy about that pick. I have never seen anything like it, even the Reggie Bush pick didn’t match that moment.

TOK: You had the Saints picking Malcolm Jenkins in your mock 1st round of the book
two years ago and never wavered, but who would they have selected had Jenkins been
picked? Would it have been Clay Matthews?

MD: No, it would not have been Matthews, but his USC teammate OLB Brian Cushing- who the Texans took right after the Saints selected Jenkins. The Saints liked Matthews, but they liked Cushing more.

TOK: With the draft coming up this weekend, can fans still order a copy of the report?

MD: Yes, they can log on to and we can get them a copy out quickly.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

2011 New Orleans Saints Draft Preview: The Picks

Due to trades made in 2009 and 2010, the Black and Gold enter the 2011 NFL Draft without their full complement of selections, though they will have better access to quality college players than last year when their victory in Super Bowl XLIV had the Saints picking dead last in the first round.

Thanks to their early demise in the last season’s playoffs, the Saints will have the 24th pick in the first round, picking just ahead of the team that facilitated their ignominious exit, the Seattle Seahawks.

In addition to the 24th pick in the first round, the Saints will have the 56th overall selection in the second round, the 72nd and 88th overall picks during the third round and the 226th and 243rd overall selections in the seventh and final round.

The relatively early selection in round three, eighth in the actual round, stems from the Jammal Brown trade the Saints made with the Washington Redskins. The Saints received the Redskins’ third round pick in exchange for the Pro Bowl tackle and the Black and Gold’s fifth round selection (155th) in this draft.

The Saints surrendered their fourth round pick (121st overall) to the Jacksonville Jaguars in a trade for the cats’ 5th round selection (158th overall) in last year’s draft. The Saints used that pick to select center Matt Tennant, who the front office sees as a solid contributor in the near future.

The Saints organization is finally paying the tab to the New England Patriots in a deal that was consummated in 2009 when the Pats sent over reserve tight end David Thomas for New Orleans’ sixth round (189th overall) pick in the 2011 draft.

Considering Thomas’s contributions to the team as both tight end and as a backup fullback after starting fullback Heath Evans went down with a season ending injury against the Miami Dolphins in the midst of the team’s Super Bowl run in 2009, his acquisition for a 6th round pick is one of Saints general manager Mickey Loomis’s best swaps in terms of overall value.

The Saints held on to their original seventh round selection in this year’s draft and was awarded an extra seventh round pick as compensation for the loss of outside linebacker Scott Fujita as a free agent to the Cleveland Browns in 2010 offseason.

As the league determined he was not replaced on the roster by a free agent of an equal or greater value, which is calculated through a complicated formula, the Saints were eligible to receive the bonus pick, which cannot be dealt to another team. The Saints final pick is the 12th to last selection in the draft.

The Onside Kick will be updated daily during draft week. Stay posted for a two part interview with NFL Draft expert and college football analyst Mike Detillier (whose guide is still available at and other information related to the draft.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

NFL Deals Saints Favorable 2011 Schedule

The Who Dat Nation should offer thanks to the NFL scheduling fairies for the 2011 regular season itinerary.

The just released game line-up has the Black and Gold playing in four nationally televised games, with three of them in the climate controlled confines of the Louisiana Superdome.

The team’s lone road contest before a national audience will be at Green Bay for the NFL regular season kickoff, the same game the Saints hosted last season, as the league- to nobody’s surprise- paired this year’s defending Super Bowl champions against the previous year’s.

That the Saints were included in the marquee game is a blessing for if there is a time the Black and Gold would want to play in Lambeau Field, it’s in early September long before the winter turns the stadium’s turf into frozen tundra.

The league also decided to make two of the three nationally televised home games “family affairs” with the Manning brothers. Peyton will seek to avenge his Super Bowl loss against his father’s first team on Sunday night, October 23rd while his younger brother Eli and the New York Giants will play in the Superdome on the Monday Night Football game after Thanksgiving, November 28th.

The Saints will play their only “cold weather” game in 2011 when they travel to Nashville to take on the Titans on December 11th. The temperatures in Music City average in December between 30 and 40 degrees.

Though the Saints’ schedule is relatively more favorable than last season’s two December games in Cincinnati and Baltimore’s open air stadiums and a late road trip to Atlanta, it won’t be a walk in the park.

The kickoff game against the Green Bay Packers could set the tone of the season and potentially act as a tie-breaker if both teams were to be in contention for post-season homefield advantage in the playoffs.

After an extended rest the Saints will face the defending NFC North champion Chicago Bears on September 18th, which would be the first visit by the Monsters of the Midway to the Superdome since the infamous NFC Championship game.

Bears fans who generally travel to their team’s road games might want to consider skipping this one as the tickets will be as hot as the Who Dat Nation for that contest.

The Saints will host the Houston Texans’ high-octane offense the next week before going on a three game road trip to Jacksonville, Carolina and Tampa Bay followed by the Colts visit to the Superdome.

From there the Saints will travel to Saint Louis, return to New Orleans to take on the Buccaneers and then head up to the ATL in week ten.

Last season the Saints spent Thanksgiving Day playing in Jerry Jones’s palace in north Texas; this season the team will have some time off with a late bye in week eleven before suiting up to host the Giants on November 28th.

Even if the Saints were to stumble out the gate, they’ll have plenty of time and opportunities to catch their breath and rally towards the season’s end. The Black and Gold will host a still rebuilding Detroit franchise on December 4th before making consecutive trips north to Nashville and Minneapolis to face two teams that are just starting to rebuild.

In a game with divisional title and/or playoff implications, the Saints will host the Falcons the day after Christmas on Monday Night Football before closing out the season with a New Year’s Day afternoon game at home against the Panthers. Hopefully that game will end being the equivalent of a fifth exhibition contest.

Until the labor contract with the players, free agency rules and team personnel moves are resolved and the NFL Draft has come to pass, it would be pointless to speculate how the Saints will finish though prognosticating a winning record at a minimum would not be that great of a stretch with the core of the team’s offense returning.

The combined record of the Saints opponents from last season is 130-126, giving the Black and Gold the 14th toughest schedule in the NFL.

The Competition’s Schedule

The Dirty Birds start the season out in Soldier Field before hosting the Philadelphia Eagles the next week. On week four they go to the site where the Two Dat died in Seattle and host the Packers in week five. In week nine the Falcons fly into Lucas Oil Stadium to face the Colts. The tougher Falcons schedule is more the result of the fixed schedule rotation than game placement. While the NFL website claims that the Falcons have an easier schedule than the Saints, I believe the road trips to Chicago, Seattle, Indianapolis and Houston will prove to be challenging.

In contrast, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, the only other threat to the Saints for the NFC South division title, caught some lucky breaks with their schedule. By virtue of their third place finish last season, the Bucs will play the Dallas Cowboys at home and travel to San Francisco. Though the Bucs ended up drawing the short straw in the league’s attempt to internationalize things by having their home game against the Bears moved to London in late October. That said, even with an easier schedule the Buccaneers are going to have to have success against NFC South opponents if they want to avoid being once again just shy of a playoff berth.

Not Many Frequent Flyer Miles in 2011

The Saints won’t be able to blame jet leg if things don’t work out for them this season. The Saints will play only one game west of the Mississippi River and then just barely outside the shadow of the Gateway Arch when they face the Rams. The two longest road trips of the regular season are to Minneapolis and Green Bay, roughly two and a half hour flights straight north. With the next two farthest road trips being Saint Louis and Charlotte, Tom Benson will have one of the smallest gas bills of any NFL owner.

NFL Releases New Orleans Saints' Regular Season Home Schedule

September 8th @ Green Bay Thursday, 7:30 PM NBC
(League kickoff game)

September 18th vs. Chicago Sunday, 12:00 PM Fox

September 25th vs. Houston Sunday, 12:00 PM CBS

October 2nd @ Jacksonville Sunday, 12:00 PM Fox

October 9th @ Carolina Sunday, 12:00 PM Fox

October 16th @ Tampa Bay Sunday, 3:15 PM Fox

October 23rd vs. Indianapolis Sunday, 7:20 PM NBC

October 30th @ Saint Louis Sunday, 12:00 PM Fox

November 6th vs. Tampa Bay Sunday, 12:00 PM Fox

November 13th @ Atlanta Sunday, 12:00 PM Fox

November 20th BYE

November 28th vs. New York Giants Monday, 7:30 PM ESPN

December 4th vs. Detroit Sunday, 12:00 PM Fox

December 11th @ Tennessee Sunday, 12:00 PM Fox

December 18th @ Minnesota Sunday, 12:00 PM Fox

December 26th vs. Atlanta Monday, 7:30 PM ESPN

January 1st vs. Carolina Sunday, 12:00 PM Fox

Nationally televised games: @ Green Bay and the Indianapolis, New York Giants and Atlanta home games.

Sunday, April 3, 2011

Cathcing the Boys of Summer in the Spring

While the NFL owners and players haggle over television revenue and the length of the regular season, I temporarily traded in my Saints hat for a Houston Astros cap to catch a bit of Major League Baseball spring training.

Spring Training takes place in two of the country’s outstanding vacation destinations, Florida and Arizona. Now for the uninitiated, the latter might conjure images of a coyote on rocket skates chasing a swift blue bird though the Grand Canyon State has more to offer than just…the Grand Canyon (though that alone is a pretty big deal- pun intended).

In addition to having year-round warm weather, southern Arizona has some of the best golf courses in the country and is home to a number of swanky spa resorts. Another added bonus is that the spring training camps are closer to each other in the Cactus League (the sobriquet for the Arizona-based facilities) than they are in the Grapefruit League (Florida).

After leaving my 9 to 5 (technically 8:30 to 4:30) two weeks ago, I jumped in my truck and was east bound and down to the Astros training facility in Kississimmee, which is just southeast of Orlando, about a 10 hour and $5 toll drive from New Orleans.

Having never been to a Spring Training game, I didn’t know what to expect.

One way to describe it as watching major league players hit and field at minor league prices…with a few exceptions.

The Astros facility charged $7 to park out in an open field and while walking up to the stadium, a scalper (or perhaps it would be more accurate to call him a “knee skinner” since there’s only so much profit that can generated on this scale) warned me that my section 200 ticket was “far away” from the field.

Despite that pitch, I kept my cheap ticket and my money, since the best way to enjoy spring training is standing up.

Upon entering the stadium I saw that the “nosebleed” $15 tickets were a mere dozen steps from the main concourse. After looking at the chair, I walked towards the concourse adjacent to left field.

One of best aspects about the Spring Training experience is the close degree of interacting fans can have with the players and staff, though I’m not talking about the Susan Sarandon-type from Bull Durham, though the baseball groupies are most conspicuous.

The smaller stadium provides accessibility between the fans and the pros that’s unthinkable in a major league stadium. The crowds are less than 10% of a regular season game. For instance, there were 3,442 in attendance at Saturday’s game and 4,117 on Sunday.

The dugout is only marginally removed from the stands and the bullpen consists of a narrow strip of dirt between the meter-high stadium wall and the first and third base lines. The coaches, catchers and relief pitchers warm up only a few feet away from the fans, allowing for banter.

And because the starters generally don’t play a full game, unless they’re just coming back from injury, they typically retire to the clubhouse early down a path where fans can talk to them and score autographs.

Granted the Astros facility is probably fan friendlier (and emptier- half of those in attendance on the Saturday and Sunday games were sporting the opposing teams’ gear) than the New York Yankees training camp in Tampa, I saw practically every starter who are still part of the team from last season’s line-up interact with the fans over the two day period.

One notable exception was retired first baseman Jeff Bagwell who told fans he would accommodate their autograph requests shortly after a visit to the clubhouse though the maybe-future-hall of famer never returned.

The most accessible person in uniform was team manager Brad Mills. Despite being on the losing end of two big losses, Mills exhibited the patience of Job and talked with everyone lined up near the clubhouse, signing every baseball, baseball card and poster until every fan, collector and eBay seller got his or her fill.

For die-hard baseball fans, a weekend visit to either the Grapefruit League or the Cactus League should find its way to a “life list” along with pilgrimages to Cooperstown, Wrigley, Fenway and Chavez Ravine.