Team-By-Team Offseason Analysis

Today: New Orleans Saints

Next: New York Giants

Offseason Recap: Saints

Coach: Jim Haslett (entering fifth season with team)

Players Released

Dale Carter, CB

Kevin Watson, DT

Matt Simonton, K

James Ferguson, RB

Free Agents Lost

Walter Rasby, TE (Washington)

Terrelle Smith, FB (Cleveland)

Free Agents Added

Aaron Stecker, RB (Tampa Bay)

Brian Young, DT (St. Louis)

Sam Gash, FB (Buffalo)

Jamar Nesbit, G (Jacksonville)

Free Agents Re-Signed

Darren Howard, DE

Derrick Rodgers, LB

Fakhir Brown, CB

Fred Thomas, CB

Lamar Smith, RB

Spencer Folau, G

Jerry Fontenot, C

Ki-Jana Carter, RB

Traded For

Jason Craft, CB (Jacksonville)

Draft Picks

Rd. 1 (No. 18 overall) Will Smith, DE, Ohio State

2 (50) Devery Henderson, WR, LSU

2 (60) Courtney Watson, LB, Notre Dame

5 (139) Rodney Leisle, DT, UCLA

5 (156) Mike Karney, FB, Arizona State

7 (240) Colby Bockwoldt, LB, BYU

It's not that the New Orleans Saints made bad offseason moves. They didn't. But this was a team in need of an offseason makeover, and all it got was some tinkering.

The Saints are 24-24 since going 10-6 and reaching the playoffs in 2000, Coach Jim Haslett's first season. They went 8-8 last season and Saints officials believe they are close to returning to the playoffs. But the club is playing in a division with the Carolina Panthers, the defending NFC champions; the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, who look improved after a busy offseason; and the Atlanta Falcons, who should have quarterback Michael Vick back in the lineup. The Saints appear closer to last place than first.

Haslett made only minor offseason changes to his coaching staff, and there was no roster overhaul. Disappointing cornerback Dale Carter was released two seasons into a seven-year, $28-million contract. Former Pro Bowl fullback Sam Gash was signed, and New Orleans traded for Jacksonville Jaguars cornerback Jason Craft. But for the most part, the Saints aimed for the status quo, keeping defensive end Darren Howard off the free-agent market by naming him their franchise player and re-signing a string of their own free agents.

The Saints will hope that former first-round draft pick Donte' Stallworth becomes a star in his third NFL season; that fellow wide receiver Joe Horn continues to be productive but keeps the cellphone in the locker room and the touchdown celebrations under control; that quarterback Aaron Brooks can continue to improve and tailback Deuce McAllister can remain as productive, and an offense that ranked 11th in the league last season can move into the top 10; and that a defense that ranked eighth in the league against the pass but 27th against the run can get tougher up front.

New Orleans was fortunate to get Ohio State defensive end Will Smith with the draft's 18th overall choice. Wideout Devery Henderson and linebacker Courtney Watson, both second-round selections, could be contributors.

But this season will be played out against the backdrop of the team's uncertain future in New Orleans as the franchise and state politicians hash out financial issues while the league looks to put a team in Los Angeles. The state is facing a $7.1 million shortfall on a $15 million payment that it is required to make to the Saints by July 5 under a 2001 agreement. If the state defaults on the payment, it has 75 days in which to address the matter or the Saints can begin looking for a new home.

NFL team owners, meantime, begin a two-day meeting today near Jacksonville in which one of the primary topics will be the ongoing effort to put a franchise or two in the vacant Los Angeles market. The owners don't want to add an expansion franchise because of the scheduling problems that would cause, and the Saints could end up on the list of candidates to relocate.

AROUND THE LEAGUE

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Welcome to football limbo, Maurice Clarett and Mike Williams.

Clarett, the former Ohio State tailback, and Williams, the former USC wide receiver, find themselves at least temporarily with nowhere to play in the fall. They are ineligible to return to college football after entering the draft and hiring agents. And they are ineligible to play in the NFL after the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 2nd Circuit on Monday reversed the Feb. 5 ruling by U.S. District Judge Shira A. Scheindlin that temporarily made Clarett and Williams eligible to play in the NFL this year.

The ruling by a three-judge panel of the appeals court surprised virtually no one involved in the process. The judges said when they granted the NFL's request for a stay of Scheindlin's ruling last month -- keeping Clarett and Williams out of the April 24-25 draft -- that the league had a likelihood of prevailing on the merits of its appeal.

The legal maneuvering will continue. Clarett's attorney, Alan C. Milstein, said by telephone Monday evening that he would file a motion, probably today, to have the case taken up by the full appeals court. Clarett's camp seems prepared to take its appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court if necessary.

But NFL officials were confident late Monday that the judges' ruling would stand. Even when Scheindlin issued her ruling in February, holding that the league's draft-eligibility rule (that a player must be at least three years removed from high school) violated antitrust laws, NFL officials believed they had a good chance to prevail on appeal. They said that they had case law on their side for their claim that their draft rule should be exempt from antitrust scrutiny because it resulted from collective bargaining between the league and the NFL Players Association. The appeals-court judges agreed, dismissing Milstein's arguments that the NFL's rule is an unfair restraint on the football job market and that the players' union does not have the right to bargain for Clarett because he is not a member.

Williams apparently plans to file suit in Tampa. Williams, like Clarett, is not eligible to enter the league until the 2005 season if the NFL's eligibility rule stands. He was the only prominent player to enter the draft after Scheindlin's decision temporarily opened the draft to college freshmen and sophomores and high school players. Williams helped USC to a share of the national title last season as a sophomore, and likely would have been a first-round selection if he had been included in last month's draft.

Williams's agent, Michael Azzarelli, has maintained in recent telephone interviews that Williams's NFL eligibility should be considered separately from Clarett's because Williams entered the draft only after the league set a new deadline for previously ineligible players following Scheindlin's decision. But NFL officials have been unmoved by that argument. They say they told Williams and his representatives all along that they would attempt to overturn Scheindlin's ruling, and would bar him from the league this year if they succeeded.

Williams was asked in a conference call with reporters when he announced his decision to enter the draft whether he had considered the possibility that the league could reverse Scheindlin's ruling in Clarett's lawsuit against the league, and keep him out of the NFL for another year. He said he had. He had made his decision as an adult, he said that day, and he would live with the consequences like an adult.

The NFL clearly is winning the legal battle now, and experts on antitrust law say it is a long shot that the attorneys for Clarett and Williams will find a way for them to enter the league this year. If Williams is kept out of the NFL, he could attempt to return to USC. Athletic department officials there said recently that they would petition the NCAA on his behalf to attempt to have his college eligibility restored if he wants to return to school. NCAA officials say the case would go before a committee that handles such eligibility questions. USC Coach Pete Carroll indicated late Monday that the process to appeal Williams's NCAA eligibility already had been put in motion.

Clarett's next step, if he's kept out of the NFL in 2004, would be tougher to discern. He sat out last season while under suspension after leading Ohio State to a national championship as a freshman in the 2002 season. Ohio State officials have said they don't envision him playing for the school in the fall. He could play in the Canadian Football League, but that would be risking injury while playing for a comparatively meager salary. He could sit out the season and enter the 2005 NFL draft but would not have played in two years by then. He could attempt to return to college football at another school, but that's another iffy proposition. Even those in Clarett's camp don't seem to know yet what his next move would be.

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Now that the Oakland Raiders have quarterback Kerry Collins in the fold, that could nudge Rich Gannon, the 2002 NFL most valuable player, out. He has said he doesn't intend to accept a reduction of his $7-million salary for the upcoming season, and he is to count $8.9 million against the salary cap. The Raiders would save $7 million of 2004 salary-cap space by releasing him after June 1. Their savings would be less than $1 million if they cut him before then.

But a Raiders source said late Monday that the club intends to keep Collins, 31, and Gannon, 38, and have them compete for the starting job. Gannon indicated recently that he would be receptive to that, the source said. The Raiders are less than $500,000 under next season's salary cap but could clear space with the possible departures of offensive tackle Lincoln Kennedy, center Barret Robbins and safety Rod Woodson after June 1. Oakland also could carve out additional salary-cap room if it can agree to a new contract with cornerback Charles Woodson, who will count $8.7824 million against the salary cap as the club's franchise player.

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If the Raiders keep Gannon, that would leave the Baltimore Ravens with little choice but to sign free agent Kordell Stewart as their backup quarterback. The Ravens are in discussions with agent Leigh Steinberg about Stewart but are unlikely to make any moves before they see what the post-June 1 market looks like. If Gannon does leave the Raiders, he perhaps could sign in Tampa Bay and make Buccaneers quarterback Brad Johnson available. . . .

The Detroit Lions are trying to complete an agreement with free-agent defensive tackle Dana Stubblefield, who would back up starters Dan Wilkinson and Shaun Rogers. The Lions apparently weren't paying attention when the Stubblefield-Wilkinson tandem failed in Washington. Stubblefield also has drawn interest from New Orleans, Green Bay and the New York Giants. The Lions also are among the teams negotiating with another former Redskin, free-agent tight end Stephen Alexander.