What about Will Smith and Charles Grant? It’s on fans’ mind in today’s New Orleans Saints mailbag

Posted by Jeff Duncan, The Times-Picayune March 24, 2009 1:32PM

After a brief hiatus this weekend, I finally hundered down today and answered another round of questions for the Saints Insider Mailbag.

Today’s installment features several questions about the Saints’ current players and roster.

I’ll have another mailbag on Wednesday that will focus on the NFL Draft and the Saints’ possible plans there. Send any new questions to Saintsmailbag@gmail.com. And don’t forget to include your name and place of residence.

Until then, here’s today Q&A:
Q: Jeff, the Saints’ pass rush was awful last year. How can they expect to improve in this area with a front seven that will likely be almost identical to last year’s? Will Gregg Williams make that big of a difference? And, Jammal Brown may become an unrestricted free agent after this upcoming season, depending upon whether a CBA agreement is struck. Do you think the Saints might go offensive tackle at No. 14 to replace Brown, who’ll be crazy expensive if he does, in fact, become a UFA? I love Brown, but Andre Smith would be a whole lot cheaper. Thanks, Robert Recard, New Orleans.

A: To answer your pass-rush questions, Robert, the Saints expect Will Smith and Charles Grant to be healthy for 2009 and they believe that will go a long way toward improving the production from the front seven. Williams’ scheme is going to help but he’s no miracle worker. There’s only so many different things you can do with X’s and O’s. Eventually it comes down to talent and players executing. That said, if given the green light by head coach Sean Payton, I expect Williams to be extremely aggressive with his pressure packages. Williams has never coached on a team with an offense as powerful as the Saints’ current unit. He can afford to take more chances with Drew Brees and company on his sideline. I think the biggest change Saints fans will see out of the defense under Williams is the multiple personnel packages he will employ. He’ll play every card in his deck at some point in the game. And he’ll be much more creative in how he chooses to pressure the quarterback. Williams will send more players from different places in the defensive scheme than Gary Gibbs did. As far as the drafting of an offensive tackle, I’d be surprised but not shocked if the Saints used their first-round pick on one. Brown is scheduled to become a UFA but in all likelihood he’s going to be an RFA because I don’t see any way that the league avoids an uncapped year in 2010. In that scenario, the Saints can retain Brown’s services with a first-round tender in the range of $2 million a season. That’s a bargain for a two-time Pro Bowl left tackle. Given the recent signing of Jon Stinchcomb at right tackle and the retention of reserve Zach Strief, I’m not sure why the Saints would invest more money into the position when they have so many other areas of need on the roster. And finally, you can forget about Andre Smith being a Saint. He’s the exact kind of player that Sean Payton detests. Lazy. Unmotivated. Disinterested in the game. There’s zero chance he plays for the Saints.
Q: Jeff, now that we have addressed our secondary concerns in this off season, I am concerned with our depth and productivity from the defensive end positions. Grant and Smith are making a lot of money, but it could be argued that neither player is living up to the size of their contracts. A lot of our issues with the secondary could have been a direct cause of a lack of a consistent pass rush. Do you think the Saints are looking to add depth to the position if they do not go secondary with the first round pick? Also, is there still a possibility that Grant and Smith could be suspended for the first 4 games next season for the star-cap issue? Best regards, R. Brian Johnson, Fort Lauderdale, Fla.

A: Brian, there’s no question that the Saints defensive end position is going to be in the spotlight next season and rightfully so. The Saints invested a ton of money in Grant and Smith and should expect the pair to perform like one of the top tandems in the league given their compensation. I’m not sold on Grant but Smith was a model of consistency before his injury-plagued 2009 campaign. In his first four seasons he averaged 8.5 sacks a year and never had few than seven in a season. I’m willing to give him the benefit of the doubt that the sports hernia affected his performance last season. Williams is a big fan of both players and I think he’s going to reach deep in to his bag of motivational tricks to light a fire under both this season. Their production is essentially to the overall execution of the defense. And, yes, I expect Grant and Smith to be suspended for the first four games of next season. And if you read the comments from NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell this week you would, as well.
Q: Jeff, I’ve read some very interesting things regarding Mike McKenzie and the notion that McKenzie couldn’t be cut without either a physical or a deal (settlement) to release him. Is this factual? Is McKenzie allowing the Saints to use his cap room to bring in younger talent, then restructuring the deal that would allow him to be brought back to mentor at a decent cap number for his eventual replacement, knowing this might very well be his last stop in the NFL? Rabbi Werber, New Orleans.

A: Rabbi, most likely McKenzie reached some kind of injury settlement with the Saints before being released. It’s a standard league practice. Hollis Thomas worked out a similar arrangement last year. It’s in the best interests of both sides to do this. McKenzie is freed to market his wares to any team in the league and the Saints get the cap they need to make their roster moves. Even though Saints general manager Mickey Loomis said Monday that the team has not entirely closed the door on McKenzie, I think he’s just being politically correct. I don’t think McKenzie is in the team’s future plans. That was obvious when they made the bold moves on Ron Bartell and Jabari Greer in free agency and from the comments Loomis made in the official announcement of McKenzie’s release. If the Saints were interested in keeping McKenzie around they would have just re-worked his contract, that way he could have participated in the team’s offseason program with the rest of the unit. It’s critical for every player on the defense to be immersed in Gregg Williams’ new defensive scheme from the opening whistle. Trust me, if McKenzie were in the Saints’ plans, he’d be a part of their offseason program, which kicks off March 30.
Q: Do you think Dan Morgan will win a starting spot over Scott Shanle and stay healthy for us next season? It would do my heart good to see Morgan deliver some big hits to Deangelo Williams next year. Amit Bajaj, Clinton, Miss.

A: It’s too early to speculate about Morgan and his status for 2009, Amit, but judging by Morgan’s recent comments during a Sirius Radio interview, he has every intention of starting. He has been out of football for a while now and given his injury history it would be foolish for the Saints to count on him at this point. In my mind, he’s essentially lagniappe at the position. I have not seen Morgan play, but colleague Pat Yasinskas of ESPN.com is really high on Morgan and I trust his judgment. Pat covered Morgan throughout his career in Carolina and believes he will be a major upgrade for the Saints if he’s healthy. That’s, obviously, a big “if.” Still, Morgan is definitely worth the gamble, considering the Saints don’t have much invested in him at this point.
Q: Jeff, I have seen some questionable remarks made about Jabari Greer’s skills? Is he a Cover 2 guy or can he play man to man? Chris Garrison, Harvey, La.

A: In Greer, the Saints got a solid starting cornerback who should pair with Tracy Porter to give the Saints their best pair of young starting corners in years. If he’s the Saints’ No. 2 corner — which is how I think the Saints view him — then he’s a significant upgrade over the club’s recent No. 2’s. Reports out of Buffalo have been mostly positive on Greer. Greer isn’t a spectacular playmaker but he’s versatile, athletic and solid in nearly every phase of the game, including run support, zone and man coverage. He was generally rated as one of the top 10 corners on the free agent market and the Saints valued him more than other because of his age (27), competitiveness and potential. He’s improved gradually throughout his career so his best years should be ahead of him. Interestingly, he (5-11, 180), Porter (5-11, 186) and Randall Gay (5-11, 190) are nearly identical in size. A former elite hurdler at the University of Tennessee, Greer still carries a track physique, but he’s not afraid to stick his nose in there on run support. Greer spent the first two years of his career in Buffalo in defensive coordinator Jerry Gray’s scheme, which is almost identical to the one Williams will employ in New Orleans so he should be able to make an easy transition on the field.

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