Commentary

Saints camp preview: Can the team improve its running game?

Updated: August 18, 2008, 7:29 PM ET
By AJ Mass | ESPN.com

Editor's note: These camp previews are up to date as of the start of preseason games. For the latest changes since then, check our updated rankings, projections and profiles.

One number sums up 2007 for the Saints: 652.

That's how many passes Drew Brees attempted last season, which was more than any other quarterback in league history. Of course, while the Saints have favored an aerial attack for several years, this extreme imbalance was more out of necessity than design. Injuries to Deuce McAllister, and later Reggie Bush, severely crippled the New Orleans rushing attack, in spite of the valiant efforts of Aaron Stecker and Pierre Thomas to fill the void. Add to that an incredibly porous defense that more often than not had the Saints playing catch-up, and there was simply no way for this offense to be anything but predictable and a shadow of its formerly successful self.

Assuming their running backs recover from injury, the Saints' offense is going to be just fine. Yes, it would help if someone stepped up and became a legitimate No. 2 receiver, but the Saints now have Jeremy Shockey on board, which makes that receiver role a little less important. And Marques Colston has to be rejoicing. What the Saints truly needed in the offseason was a visit from Mr. Pennington -- not Chad, but Ty -- to perform an extreme makeover on their defense. And that's just what they did. Veterans Jonathan Vilma, Dan Morgan, Aaron Glenn and Randall Gay were all brought in to change the team's fortune and improve upon an abysmal 7.87 yards allowed per passing attempt. They even spent their top draft pick on USC's Sedrick Ellis to shore up the defensive line, stop the run and put pressure on the opposing quarterback.

All this renovation might not be enough to move the New Orleans defense from laughingstock to elite in one fell swoop, but if the renovations do manage to keep the Saints from falling so far behind early in games, then coach Sean Payton's play-calling balance can return to something a bit more reasonable. It still will be slanted toward the pass, to be sure. But it won't be a one-trick pony that has very little chance at staying consistent, which should make it more than OK for you to draft New Orleans players again in 2008.

What to look for in camp

New Orleans Saints

If the Saints can just improve their running game, the pieces are in place for them to win and help fantasy owners in the process.

Key Additions
TE Jeremy Shockey
LB Dan Morgan
DB Randall Gay
DL Bobby McCray
DB Aaron Glenn
QB Mark Brunell
K Taylor Melhaff
Key Losses
OL Jeff Faine
K Olindo Mare
LB Matt McCoy
TE Eric Johnson
Probable Lineup
QB1 Drew Brees
RB1 Deuce McAllister
RB2 Reggie Bush
WR1 Marques Colston
WR2 David Patten
WR3 Devery Henderson
TE Jeremy Shockey
K Taylor Melhaff
Preseason Schedule
@ ARI Aug. 7, 8:00 p.m.
HOU Aug. 16, 8:00 p.m.
@ CIN Aug. 23, 7:35 p.m.
MIA Aug. 28, 8:00 p.m.
All times ET
Key position battles: Marques Colston is by far the team's best wide receiver, and he wants to be paid like one. Some sort of deal likely will be agreed to before it becomes too much of an issue. What might take longer to hammer out is who gets to stake their claim to the No. 2 receiver slot. David Patten and Devery Henderson rotated in and out of that role, along with Lance Moore, in 2007 and both will contend for the honors in 2008. However, the wild card in this equation is Robert Meachem. The former first-round pick battled a knee injury and a seeming inability to run routes in a wasted rookie campaign. However, a year on the sidelines has made him a bit hungrier and far more attentive to detail, so perhaps he will be a surprise in camp.

Fitting in: Of all the new faces on the defensive side of the ball, none has more promise than Jonathan Vilma, who comes from the New York Jets after a disappointing season that ended with a knee surgery. Vilma is expected to be fully ready for the start of camp and should flourish now that's he back in a 4-3 scheme. Remember, in 2005 he tallied 128 solo tackles in the Jets' 4-3 before the arrival of Eric Mangini in New York brought with it a change to an unfamiliar and unproductive (at least for Vilma) 3-4 scheme. Vilma could well become an IDP sleeper.

Also, another guy from New York, a fella named Shockey, jumps into the receiving fray. But can he stay healthy? Will he be OK with there being games in which Colston gets targeted 12 times and him only six or seven? Shockey can be good as good as he wants to be, but it seems there has always been something holding him back (injuries, situation). Be careful not to expect elite numbers from him.

On the line: Considering how often Drew Brees dropped back to throw in 2007, the fact that he was sacked only 16 times is a testament to how good at protecting him the Saints' offensive line was. As for the running game, that's a different story. Certainly the injuries to McAllister and Bush didn't help matters, but even so, averaging 3.7 yards per carry for the season isn't going to cut it. Unfortunately, Jeff Faine is gone, having signed with Tampa Bay, and they'll take a big hit there. But the unit will get some help with the return of tight end Mark Campbell, who missed 2007 because of a back injury and is one of the league's better blockers. Certainly Jammal Brown, Jahri Evans and Jonathan Goodwin will welcome the help.

On the mend: Deuce McAllister went down in Week 3 with a torn ACL, and now for the second time in his career must deal with the recovery from that kind of operation. If he can't go all out, or even worse he suffers a setback, then Reggie Bush could be placed in the lead-back role once again, something his large frame clearly isn't suited for. The pair is best used in tandem, with McAllister handling the every-down duties and Bush running sweeps and focusing more on catching passes and running gimmick plays. At the same time, if Bush can handle some of the lead-back duties, perhaps Deuce will be spared just enough wear and tear to get him through the schedule unscathed.

The bottom line

The defense should be better, giving this team a real shot at the NFC South crown. However, all the voodoo in the world isn't going to help the Saints go marching into the postseason if the running game doesn't get on track and stay there. If Reggie Bush has another underwhelming season, then there's not a chance this offense will be "keeping up" with anyone.

AJ Mass is a fantasy football, baseball and college basketball analyst for ESPN.com. You can e-mail him here.