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New Saints on the Block 

Alejandro de los Rios and Jonathan Bachman on the New Orleans Saints' newest members ... and what they'll bring to the Black and Gold

The New Orleans Saints showed restraint during the NFL's frenzied free agency period this summer. But while the front office didn't make headlines for blockbuster deals, it did make changes at significant positions. Darren Sproles, Mark Ingram, Olin Kreutz, Shaun Rogers and Cameron Jordan are all new to the Saints this year, and each has contributed in varying degrees to the team's 2-1 record (at press time). Let's take a look at how the newcomers stack up.

Darren Sproles

click to enlarge Darren Sproles - PHOTO BY JONATHAN BACHMAN

Sproles has been a one-man highlight machine since the season began, but no moment encompasses what Sproles means to the Saints more than one of his first — or, rather, how Saints fans reacted to it. In the opening game against the Green Bay Packers, Sproles returned a punt for 72 yards for a touchdown and, either out of habit or confusion, a packed crowd at the Irish Channel bar Tracey's began chanting "Reg-gie! Reg-gie!" On the NFL Network, Michael Irvin said what everyone is thinking: "[Sproles] is playing Reggie Bush's role better — like Reggie has never played before in his life."

  Irvin wasn't exaggerating. Sproles seems to change the Saints' fortunes for the better every time he gets the ball. Against the Houston Texans, he ignited what had been a stagnant offense with a 30-yard rushing touchdown in the second quarter, putting the Houston defense on its heels for the rest of the game.

  Despite being projected to be a third-down running back, Sproles has been on the field for snaps more often than fellow backs Mark Ingram and Pierre Thomas. Sproles also has shown his versatility by catching 21 passes for 165 yards in his first two games — something Bush hadn't done since 2008. Something else Bush hasn't been able to do since 2008? Stay healthy. Sproles hasn't missed a game since 2007.

  The only thing Sproles seems to lack is his own chant when he steps up to receive a punt. Our personal preference is the theme from Mighty Mouse ("Here he comes to save the day!") but we think "Da-rren, Da-rren" will do.

Mark Ingram

click to enlarge Mark Ingram - PHOTO BY JONATHAN BACHMAN

As coveted as the Heisman Trophy is in college football, it hasn't exactly been a consistent indicator of future NFL success. Saints fans know this all too well (see "Bush, Reggie"). Unfortunately for rookie Mark Ingram, he has the pressure of being the Saints' second Heisman Trophy-winning running back drafted and he has to play in New Orleans' pass-heavy offense. Ingram has averaged just over 12 rushing attempts in the team's first three games and is averaging 3.6 yards per carry. The limited amount of carries puts a microscope on every one of them. So far, Ingram's most memorable plays are a mixed bag. His steamrolling of safety Roman Harper spawned headlines and expectations that Ingram would treat opposing defenders the same way, but we have yet to see that power translate into the regular season.

  Ingram was stuffed at the goal line on the Saints' final play in their loss to the Green Bay Packers, in a game where the Saints struggled in short-yardage situations. In week two, he fumbled in the fourth quarter against the Chicago Bears, a play that may have given Chicago new life had the Saints not managed to sack Bears quarterback Jay Cutler on the very next play. Against Houston, Ingram had just four carries for 38 yards, but one of those was a punishing 17-yard fourth quarter rushing touchdown that sealed the game for the Saints.

  The good news is that Ingram has played just three games as an NFL running back and has shown plenty of potential. Right now, Saints coach Sean Payton says he's still juggling his three running backs in the backfield, but it shouldn't take long for him to find the best way to use the powerful Ingram.

  More good news: Even though Ingram didn't score on that final goal line play against the Packers, the touchdown against the Texans might be a greater indicator of how he will serve the Saints in that area. As Payton said after the Green Bay game, "I think that's a play we're going to see him score on a number of times as the season progresses."

Olin Kreutz

click to enlarge Olin Kreutz - PHOTO BY JONATHAN BACHMAN

While Ingram and Sproles will get most of the attention as newcomers to the Saints offense, free agent-signee Olin Kreutz is in a pivotal role. No one may be more important when it comes to the Saints' effectiveness in moving the ball.

  The center-quarterback dynamic is the most important relationship on a football team. They are the only two offensive players to touch the ball on every snap and it's their combined ability to read defenses and adjust for oncoming blitzes that can be the difference between a sack and a big gain. Exhibit A: Look at Kreutz's former team, the Bears, which allowed 14 sacks in the first three games of the season. The offensive line situation in Chicago is so bad that Bears general manager Jerry Angelo has had to defend his offseason moves to angry fans (among those moves: letting Kreutz go to New Orleans).

  Kreutz started the season in New Orleans without missing a beat. Saints quarterback Drew Brees is among the least-hit QBs in the league and New Orleans has given up just six sacks through three games. Kreutz had a rough outing against Houston, though. It started on the first offensive play of the game for the Saints when he stepped on Brees after the snap and caused the quarterback to fall for a three-yard loss. Kreutz later committed a face mask penalty and then finished the game on the sidelines with a left knee injury. Though he's since missed practice, Kreutz work ethic should have him back on the field in no time.

  Kreutz's passion was clear from the beginning, according to an anecdote shared by Payton before the team played the Bears. Apparently, as Kreutz's agent was hammering out a deal with Saints general manager Mickey Loomis, the center was supposed to be getting on a plane to leave New Orleans. But when a deal was made at the eleventh hour, it was revealed that Kreutz never got on his flight and had instead stayed at an airport hotel. "He had purposely not gotten on the flight, stayed there," Payton said. "Two hours later, he was at practice at center."

Defensive Line

click to enlarge Turk McBride - PHOTO BY JONATHAN BACHMAN

Even though the Saints have one of the deepest rosters in the NFL, there were, and are, loads of questions to be answered on the team's defensive line. Who can forget how the Seattle Seahawks ran roughshod over the Saints in the playoffs last year, or how Packers QB Aaron Rodgers seemingly went untouched in this year's season opener? After a lackluster first game, defensive coordinator Gregg Williams shuffled the line and saw marked improvement against Chicago and Houston's high-octane offense.

  Sorry about grouping all the defensive line players here, but with so many new faces, it can be hard to keep track ...

  Aubrayo Franklin and Shaun Rogers are first-year Saints playing defensive tackle and they're both playing a significant role in this new-look line. Against Chicago, it was the double teams the tackles commanded that freed up the Saints' defensive ends and linebackers to tee off on Cutler. Against the Texans, the line was more inconsistent but stepped up at many crucial moments, pressuring Texans quarterback Matt Schaub into crucial fourth-quarter mistakes which gave the Saints the victory.

  Newcomers Junior Galette and Turk McBride got to reap the rewards of the tackles' hard work, combining for three of the Saints' six sacks on Cutler and one of the two on Schaub. The only real disappointment on the line so far is first-round pick Cameron Jordan. Jordan has seen limited action with the Saints defense this season, notching just four tackles.

  Jordan has said transitioning to the speed and skill of the NFL has been his biggest challenge. But while seeing a first-round pick standing idly on the sidelines may seem a waste, the upside is that he's not playing because the Saints have better players ahead of him on the depth chart. That New Orleans has the luxury of keeping a talented rookie on the sidelines while he adjusts to the NFL is cause for optimism.

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