Preseason exhibition games didn’t turn out so well for the Saints, who finished 0-4. However that is the same pre-season record New Orleans sported before winning their first Super Bowl, so the Crescent City is brimming with optimism heading into Sunday’s season opener with the Arizona Cardinals.
It may not have produced an abundance of confidence, but the exhibition contests, along with training camp, did reveal some crucial new impact players for the Saints.
Center Max Unger:
The 29-year-old Super Bowl champion arrived in New Orleans via a controversial trade with the Seahawks for All Star tight end Jimmy Graham, but Unger certainly proved his worth in the trenches to teammates and front office personnel during the team’s time at the Greenbrier Resort in West Virginia. There is clearly a reason why Jon Schneider’s regime decided to make Unger one of the three players retained in Seattle after the changing of the guard in 2010.
Now veteran signal caller Drew Brees and New Orleans’ interior will benefit from Unger’s diverse talent set, tough passion and six years of experience.
“My mind frame along this whole trade path is just to continue to do the things that I’ve done to get me to where I am in my career,” Unger said. “They brought me here because I’ve demonstrated in the past that I have a good game plan when I get on the field. They just want me to keep doing the things I’ve been doing.”
Unger will keep doing those things alongside the seasoned talents of tackle Zach Strief and guard Jahri Evans, who were both part of the Saints Super Bowl run. Tim Lelito and Terron Armstead round out the starting five.
“He’s a stud,” Strief said of 305-pound Unger. “Seeing a guy that can move like him in the zone game, a guy that can legitimately reach twos, which is not easy to do. He can also stop a bull rush in a pass-rush drill, and that’s pretty unusual. There’s not a lot of those type of players.”
The two-time Pro Bowler should also help boost the Saints bigger commitment to the run this season. Unger was no doubt part of the equation for success that produced Marshawn Lynch’s eye popping numbers for Seattle. Now, Unger will be providing that same type of protection and opportunity for Mark Ingram and CJ Spiller.
Certainly that group works in concert together,” head coach Sean Payton said. “When you have someone like Max, who is real smart and has been in a real good system offensively, it’s a plus for the line in general.”
Left Tackle Terron Armstead
Another plus for the line is the skyrocketing play of the athletic Terron Armstead, which should also bolster New Orleans’ pass protection. The 24-year-old out of Arkansas Pine Bluff seems to finally be coming into his own in his third year as a pro. Armstead ran the fastest 40-yard time (4.71) in the history of the NFL Combine for an offensive lineman, and now he’s learned how to pair that blazing speed with the intricacies of covering Drew Brees’ blind side.
“Terron was always an elite athlete, always a good run blocker,” analyst Mike Detillier said. “Where you see the marked improvement is as a pass protector. He is using his unique skillset of power and speed to the fullest. He ‘stones’ some defensive ends at the point of attack. He can also adjust his body so well to steer those “rush” ends to the outer edge of the pocket.”
Good news for a 36-year-old franchise quarterback who is looking for more time in the pocket, as well as the team paying that quarterback top dollar for his services.
“Terron is close to an elite left tackle,” Detillier said. “He is the next Powerball money winner for the Saints. Terron reminds me a lot of Tyron Smith (Dallas Cowboys), and I think Smith is the best left tackle in pro football today.”
Wide Receiver Brandin Cooks
The second year pro invested his time into practicing with Drew Brees this offseason as soon as #9 would allow, and the strategy looks to pay large dividends this season. Cooks’ fantasy football stock is exploding, and he’s personally looking to take a big step forward this season on the actual field of competition.
“I’m more than ready to go,” Cooks said. “This has been a long offseason, and we’re just ready to get back out there and get this thing on fire.”
Last season, Cooks hauled in 53 passes, three touchdowns and 550 yards in ten games before a broken thumb sidelined him. This season, with no Jimmy Graham or Kenny Stills in front of him, Cooks is locked in on stepping up.
“Going into my second year, I’m confident,” Cooks said. “But we all know every day you can get better at something: whether it’s press cover, blocking, running more precise routes. I still have room to be better.”
Although his improvement is far from over, Cooks is undoubtedly a breakout player when the Patriots Bill Belichick makes a point to say he’s happy Cooks isn’t playing for an opponent in New England’s division. Meanwhile, Cooks’ head coach in New Orleans has high praise for the 2013 Biletnikoff winner.
“He is very quick in and out of cuts and very explosive,” Payton said. “He is a tireless worker and his attention to detail is one of the things that is unique and pretty special.”