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Baby Steps 

The Saints front office hopes that several modest acquisitions via free agency and the draft will plug the holes that have kept the team back.

In the first few years of the Jim Haslett era -- with Randy Mueller pulling the trigger as the general manager -- the New Orleans Saints' offseason buzzed with activity and made headlines in the way a December push to the playoffs would. Big names, huge contracts, surprise moves were the norm.

Save for Haslett's debut season in 2000, the team has failed to reach the playoffs under his leadership. (Mueller was fired by owner Tom Benson after the 2001 season.) Yet, team management now believes that a solid on-field nucleus of talent is in place and is capable of playoff-caliber play. Featuring the rock-solid tandem of quarterback Aaron Brooks, running back Deuce McAllister and wide receiver Joe Horn on offense and defensive anchors Charles Grant and Darren Howard, the Saints during the past several seasons have been considered among the NFL's most-talented teams, even earning dark-horse consideration to reach the Super Bowl in a few pundits' preseason predictions in 2003. The free-agent and draft-pick strategy during the Mickey Loomis/Rick Mueller (Randy's brother) regime has been generally to plug holes of obvious need, rather than sweeping overhauls of the franchise's roster.

Still, Rick Mueller (director of player personnel) and Loomis (general manager) have brought in several key acquisitions during this offseason. The goal is to solidify an offensive line that aims to protect and propel Pro Bowler McAllister, and return some strut and swagger to a defensive secondary that was ranked among the league's worst the past two seasons. Here's an overview of the new faces the Saints hope will elevate the team to the playoffs in 2005:

FREE AGENTS

Saints fans have had four years to get a good look at safety DWIGHT SMITH -- arguably the franchise's biggest pick-up in the offseason -- who has played for NFC South rival Tampa Bay through his entire NFL career. With Smith, the Saints hope they have an athletic, fierce playmaker in the defensive secondary, a force that's been missing since the departure of Sammy Knight in 2003. Also, Smith brings a Super Bowl ring to the Saints, which management hopes brings that intangible quality of a winning attitude to the locker room. In Super Bowl XXXVII, Smith became the first player in NFL history to return two interceptions for touchdowns during the championship game, making flashy runs of 44 and 50 yards.

Known for hard hits and superb cover skills, Smith (5-foot-10, 201 pounds) is expected to be a starter on opening day in the free safety slot. Smith started his last 32 games for Tampa Bay after playing college ball at Akron and last season recorded a career-high 104 tackles. Smith was signed to a five-year contract worth $15 million, with perhaps the only question mark coming from two arrests on weapon charges. A conviction in 2002 for pulling a gun on a motorist brought anger-management classes, probation and fines. Charges were dropped subsequent to an arrest this March following an incident in which two fans approached Smith in a fast-food parking lot and alleged that Smith pointed a pellet gun at them.

Smith was considered by many to be the best free safety in this year's free-agency pool, but the arrests could have dampened his marketability. This move helps the Saints on several fronts: it removes the glaring (and expensive) disappointment of Tebucky Jones from the roster and adds a playmaker to the secondary while also removing one from a division rival. It won't help, though, if Smith makes more headlines off the field.

The Saints hope the right side of the offensive line will create huge holes for McAllister and plenty of time for Aaron Brooks with the addition of veteran Pro Bowler JERMANE MAYBERRY. A stout 6-foot-4, 325-pounder, Mayberry was identified as one of the Saints' top offseason priorities, and the franchise hopes the move pays immediate dividends on the field. A 10-year veteran coming from the Philadelphia Eagles, Mayberry also has Super Bowl experience (but no ring), and his locker-room presence is considered one of his biggest pluses. He started in the 2002 Pro Bowl.

Mayberry is known as a no-nonsense professional with an enviable work ethic obvious since his days as a freshman at Texas A&M-Kingsville. He enrolled as a non-scholarship student and paid for tuition by working at the school library before coaches felt his on-the-field play merited a scholarship after his first year.

Mayberry is a versatile player, having started at all positions on the offensive line except center with the Eagles. While primarily playing right guard in Philadelphia, he is expected to start at right tackle for the Saints next to Montrae Holland. Mayberry is considered equally adept at run blocking and pass protection, which Saints coaches hope will improve an offensive line that critics say has kept the potential scoring machine of Brooks-Horn-McAllister in check.

Other notable free-agent moves for the Saints this year include linebacker LEVAR FISHER, a three-year veteran out of North Carolina State, where he earned a reputation for huge hits and tough play. Though Fisher joins a squad in serious need of help at linebacker, he sat out last year with a knee injury that remains a big question mark in terms of his potential impact. Saints fans will surely recognize the name AZ-ZAHIR HAKIM, the former St. Louis Ram wide receiver who made the famous fumble on a punt return that propelled the Saints to a thrilling 2000 playoff victory over the Rams in the Superdome. Hakim was signed as a potential fourth receiver, along with fellow former Clarke High School grad Talman Gardner in hopes of bolstering a receiving corps weakened by the departure of Jerome Pathon and the continued injury problems of draft pick Chase Lyman.

DRAFT PICKS

The Saints' draft choices in recent years have been informed by a philosophy of not only going after top-flight talent, but to also look closely into players coming from the big-time programs, figuring experience at the toughest level of college play is a proper proving ground for the rigors of the NFL. (The past three first-round picks all hailed from the University of Georgia.) Such logic prevailed once again in 2005, with the Saints picking in the first two rounds standouts from the Big 12 Conference and a high-risk (but potential high-yield player) from the football factory that is Florida State University.

The Saints front-office leadership showed some shrewd moves in going the proven "best player available" route in the 2005 draft, trading its No. 16 slot (and a third-round pick in 2006) to move up three slots to draft University of Oklahoma offensive line juggernaut JAMMAL BROWN. Brown, 6-foot-6 and 313 pounds, was ranked by virtually all the draft experts as the top offensive lineman in the draft after he was awarded the 2004 Outland Trophy as college football's top offensive lineman.

The two-time All-American Brown allowed no sacks last season for the Sooners, and only one in 2003. He helped the Sooners average more than 462 yards per game on offense last season, and led the team with 130 knockdown blocks. While many predicted the Saints would opt for some defensive help with the first-round pick, Brown clearly has the team excited with his huge potential.

In the second round, the Saints looked for help in what many consider the team's weakest link -- its defensive secondary -- in the form of Nebraska Cornhusker free safety Josh Bullocks. Named an All-American by The Sporting News and a finalist for the Jim Thorpe Award -- given to college's top defensive back -- Bullocks entered the draft after his junior season in which he had 63 tackles (43 solo) and two interceptions.

While the first two rounds of the NFL draft typically garner all the press, excitement and hope for a better team, the Saints this year caused quite a stir with its fifth-round selection, quarterback Adrian McPherson. While Aaron Brooks clearly stands as the team's starting quarterback, the Saints made a surprise move by selecting McPherson, who came out of high school already a big name as the only Florida prep player to earn both Mr. Football and Mr. Basketball in the talent-rich state's history.

McPherson started only 13 games in his career at Florida State, kicked out of school after first being arrested on check forgery and then facing gambling charges. Yet, his unquestioned athletic ability and size have drawn comparisons to NFL greats such as John Elway and Randall Cunningham. McPherson played in the Arena Football League after leaving FSU and then Tennessee State, earning Rookie of the Year honors last year for the now-defunct Indiana Firebirds in the Arena Football League. He played under the tutelage of long-time NFL quarterback Steve DeBerg, who gushes about McPherson's potential in the NFL, saying, "He's a tall version of Michael Vick."

For his part, McPherson has said repeatedly to the media that his only request was, "Somebody give me an opportunity to play football." The Saints have.

click to enlarge Former Tampa Bay strong safety Dwight Smith hopes to - bring his Super Bowl-winning attitude to the Saints' - porous secondary.
  • Former Tampa Bay strong safety Dwight Smith hopes to bring his Super Bowl-winning attitude to the Saints' porous secondary.
click to enlarge The Saints moved up three slots in the first round to - snag University of Oklahoma offensive lineman (and - Outland Trophy winner) Jammal Brown (right) to provide - protection for Aaron Brooks and Deuce McAllister.
  • The Saints moved up three slots in the first round to snag University of Oklahoma offensive lineman (and Outland Trophy winner) Jammal Brown (right) to provide protection for Aaron Brooks and Deuce McAllister.
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