If there is one element that New Orleans Saints head coach Sean Payton and new defensive coordinator Rob Ryan have worked on the most this offseason, it's to be a more physical football team.
Numerous times Payton has said that he wants to emphasize the running game this season, and in reading between the lines, he wants 2011 first-round pick halfback Mark Ingram to be the workhorse runner on this team.
In 2011 with Payton in charge of the offense, the Saints ranked sixth in rushing with for 2,127 yards on 431 carries (4.9 yards per carry average).
Those carries balanced the scales on Drew Brees' record-setting season, as he threw 662 passes.
Without Payton in 2012, the Saints resembled a pro version of Brigham Young, rushing for only 1,577 yards on 370 carries (4.3 yards per carry average).
Too much of the Saints offense was put on the shoulders of Brees, as he passed the ball 671 times.
Many will say it was because of the Saints bad defense that caused them to fall behind early in games, but no NFL team rushed the ball less than the Saints in the first half of games. It was not all because they were playing from behind.
The addition of veteran tight end Ben Watson means you will see a lot of two tight-end sets along with Jimmy Graham, and that will cause problems defensively for teams trying to match up downfield coverage wise. But it also means the Saints will have another big body to aid the running game.
The element of being a more physical team will be noted early on, and watch and see the Saints try to become more balanced like in 2011 and a more physical than what we saw in 2012.
Defensively, Ryan is all about multiple set looks and trying to give quarterbacks a different view of where defenders will rush them. He also believes wholeheartedly in being a physical team.
Like his dad, Buddy Ryan, who orchestrated some of the most physical defensive teams with the Chicago Bears in the 1980s and the Philadelphia Eagles in the early 1990s, Rob Ryan wants to play this game all-out. You won't see a lot of this read and react style preached by Steve Spagnuolo last season.
The offseason moves put great emphasis on getting bigger and more physical defensively.
Cornerback Keenan Lewis fits the mold of what Ryan wants on defense. The 6-foot-0 ¼, 210-pound cornerback has good size, long arms, good ball-reaction skills and is physical in run support.
Texas safety Kenny Vaccaro — the Saints first-round pick — also fits that mold. He reminds me of former LSU and All-Pro safety LaRon Landry, now with the Indianapolis Colts.
Vaccaro comes up the field in a flash in run support and is a physical player in run support. He is also a physical player in coverage and is an intimidator when receivers come over the middle.
The Saints' third-round pick John Jenkins of Georgia is a massive 6-4, 350-pound noseguard known for his great bulk strength and his ability to tie up multiple blockers upfront.
Sixth-round choice, outside linebacker Rufus Johnson from Tarleton State, is highly regarded by his coaches in college as being not only a good pass rusher at defensive end, but someone known for his physical play and his violent hand use.
And all eyes will be on former Dallas Cowboys outside linebacker Victor Butler, who the Saints signed in free agency. He was a major reason why they passed on Georgia outside linebacker Jarvis Jones in the first round.
Former LSU and Dallas defensive tackle Marcus Spears said while Butler displayed good pass rush skills in Dallas, he was also a physical player.
"Victor was playing behind Anthony Spencer and we had DeMarcus Ware on the other side, so he didn't get a lot of opportunities," Spears said. "When he did, he showed he can get off the snap quick and get that needed pressure from off the corner. But one thing he always showed when he got his chance and on special teams too was that he was physical and he was all-out on every play. Rob (Ryan) liked that a lot about him. Victor just had no quit in his game. I am pulling hard for him to succeed other than when he plays the Cowboys, but that is one thing New Orleans had under Gregg Williams and will have under Rob Ryan and that you will get a lot of looks and you are going to be a very physical team. If not, you are not going to play for Rob."
When looking at the Saints undrafted free agents, three in particular stick out — Nebraska outside linebacker Eric Martin, Stanford outside linebacker Chase Thomas and North Carolina inside linebacker Kevin Reddick. The words used to describe their games are smart, instinctive, playmakers on defense and physical.
When Reddick announced he had signed with the Saints, he was not coy about the style of play he was bringing to New Orleans.
"I am all about being physical," Reddick said. "I am all about aggressive play, and I want the ballcarrier to know I will be out here for 60 minutes bringing it to him. I have something to prove to everyone why they should have drafted me. There is not going to be any tapping on the breaks on my part. I have nothing to lose and everything to gain."
While the Saints will certainly have more focus and accountability with Payton's return, the one thing this offseason has brought to light is that they want to be more physical on both sides of the ball.
HAWKINS GETS A SHOT
Former Southern University and St. Augustine High standout wide receiver/return specialist Charles Hawkins is one of the number of players this weekend trying to impress the Saints coaching staff in hopes of getting an invitation to training camp.
Hawkins, ranked 32nd in my draft amongst wide receivers, went undrafted in April, but he is excited for the opportunity to work out for his hometown team.
"I was disappointed like a lot of guys were, but there are a lot of players in this league that didn't get picked," Hawkins said. "I look at Lance Moore and Wes Welker, and they made it in this league. I just want a fair chance, and the Saints scouts knew about me. I had a hamstring injury as a senior, but when given my shot out on the field, I made the most of it. I am totally focused on doing whatever I have to do to play in this league."
The 5-8 ¼, 175-pound speedster ran a (4.33) 40-yard dash time at Southern in early April after catching 31 passes for 467 yards and seven scores in 2012. He also returned 12 kickoffs for an average of 25.8 yards per return.
"I really like what the Saints do offensively in concentrating more on the short to middle areas of the field," Hawkins said. "Everyone thinks because of my speed I am just a deep threat guy, but what I do best is catch the short pass and make people miss in space due to my quickness and agility. It would be great to play with Drew Brees, and I have worked out with guys like Devery Henderson, Marques Colston, Robert Meachem and LaRon Byrd at Sonic Boom in Harahan. I try to pick their brains a bit on route running, how to properly set up defenders and sharpening up my route running skills. I am catching the ball better out front with my hands, and I have big hands, so I am working hard to not let the ball not get too close to my body. Everyday as an athlete it is a challenge, and I approach this opportunity with the Saints that way."
Hawkins, who goes by the nickname "Jitter-Bug," has some strong football bloodlines. His dad, Charles III, was a former standout football player at McDonough 35 High, and his cousin is Pro Football Hall of Famer Walter Payton.
QUOTE OF THE WEEK
Former Saints quarterback and now WWL-870 Radio sports commentator Bobby Hebert made a comment, on his son, Beaux, being the starting quarterback at Nicholls State University.
"Watching the scrimmage, that was the best I have ever seen Beaux throw the football," Bobby Hebert said. "He's healthy now from the shoulder surgery, and he had good accuracy with his receivers on the downfield throws. He has a quick release, and he can move around in the pocket some. He sees the field so much better now due to his experience and actually he is taller than I am. I was lucky at Northwestern State, and I played with Mark Duper and Joe Delaney. Now both those guys were just not great college players, but All-Pro players in the NFL. As a quarterback, you want to help create plays, but there is a fine line between making something happen and forcing something. That is the best advice I give Beaux and that is to know the playbook inside and out and also to do all the extra work in the offseason with your receivers. They got some pretty good receivers and tight ends on the roster, along with Marcus Washington at running back. People think because he is my son that he played a lot of football, but really Beaux's first love was basketball. He only started one season at Greater Atlanta Christian High School at quarterback, but he's focused on being the best at football. I like the system Coach (Charlie) Stubbs is trying to piece together offensively at Nicholls."