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Squad by Squad, Part 2: Defensive Ends

If you wanted to be cruel, you could say that Tom Benson collects defensive ends like other people collect Beanie Babies: they cost a whole lot, and all they do is sit there.

I said cruel, not accurate. Actually the Saints' ends are okay. But "okay" doesn't cut it when you consider that, as a unit, they control a bigger chunk of team salary than any other position. Plus, both Will Smith and Charles Grant—the two biggest offenders—are both first-round draft choices, and we have a right to expect more of them. By rights, the Saints should have one of the most fearsome set of defensive bookends in the league. Instead, we have the only pair of starters who will be sitting out four games for trying to lose weight.

When Gregg Williams took over the defense, one of the first things he told his players was, "There are no starters." We can be certain that Smith and Grant won't be starting before the bye; yet that's about all we can be certain of. Williams isn't likely to put them on the field—big salaries or not—if someone else is doing a better job. So what are the chances that someone will do a better job than either of them?

It's hard to consider these two separately. Much of the same criticism—justified or not—has been leveled against both; and as starters, they're somewhat "joined at the hip."

Smith is widely considered to be the better of the two. He has been voted to one Pro Bowl, which is one Pro Bowl more than Grant has played in. Stats-wise, though, it's pretty much a wash. Grant (who has played two seasons longer) leads in the sack totals; he also leads in the dubious "category" of "most sacks by a player in his first three years." That kind of category description is necessary in the cases of Smith and Grant, however—because both of them have slowed down considerably since the three-year point. Over the last two years, Smith's output has dropped to 7 sacks and then to 3; Grant's plummeted, from a high of 10.5 in 2004, to an average of 4 sacks over the last 3 1/2 seasons. (Curiously, Grant's decline coincides almost exactly with Will Smith's ascension to starter status.)

Admittedly, a lot of the problem, at least from the point of view of fans has to do with their salaries. Both of them cashed in with huge deals; both of them promptly crashed as pass-rushers. In both cases, injuries were part of the problem: a torn ankle ligament in Grant's case, a sports hernia in Smith's. But fans desperate for a return to the playoffs aren't in a forgiving mood. Grant, especially, has acquired a rep as a chronic underachiever.

Reportedly they're both healthy now; and you'd think they'd be highly motivated to prove themselves again, especially with a new coach to impress. That might hold true for Smith; but Grant faces so many problems right now I wouldn't be surprised if he's entered full-blown "screw it" mode. Not only will he (like Smith) miss the first four week because of the StarCaps suspensions, he also still faces trumped-up manslaughter charges in Georgia (trumped up or not, I've seen juries do very screwy his place, I wouldn't feel complacent). On top of that, he's the biggest loser in the recent film studio investment scandal, dropping almost a half-million dollars—which he may get back, or may not. Like his starting position.

On top of that, this may indeed by Grant's last chance. 2010 is an uncapped year—that means no cap on salaries paid, but it also means no cap hits in cutting players. It would be the ideal time to cut overpaid, underperforming players, and I for one expect a wholesale massacre taking place throughout the NFL if labor and management can't come to some sort of agreement quickly. Which they won't.

ASSESSMENT: When Smith and Grant return after the bye, I expect them to get a lot of playing time—Gregg Williams isn't going to let them go to waste. Smith will probably regain his starting position. Grant? He's 30 years old, has four straight underachieving years behind him, and a lot of ground to make up. I don't know if he still has the hunger it takes to earn his salary. If he doesn't, this is his last year as a Saint. If he does, then New Orleans will end 2009 as they started 2008: with Smith and Grant as defensive bookends.

Bobby McCray is ready. This is his time. He led the team in sacks last season as a part-timer. He's playing for an aggressive defensive coach now, someone who needs an end who can pin back his ears and fly to the quarterback. Bobby McCray is about to become the next Jevon Kearse.

That's what he's hoping, anyway. He's already stated that he's going to start this year; and he knows that with Smith and Grant sitting out the first quarter of the season, he's going to get his chance. One factor working to his advantage: he only has to beat out one of them. One factor working against him: it's probably going to have to be Smith.

According to the Times-Picayune, as of March McCray was behind Smith on the right side (note: this was before the additions of Paul Spicer and Anthony Hargrove). That makes sense: he's light for a defensive end, and playing the weak side means he can speed-rush the left tackle and not have to worry about taking on the tight end. That job will probably be left to Paul Spicer and Anthony Hargrove, both of whom are heavier and more compact than McCray (although both have played on the weak side in the past). With Smith out, McCray will probably start on the weak side; so if he hopes to keep a starter's job, it will have to be the one he's auditioning for.

ASSESSMENT: Bobby McCray will start this year. He'll start games 1 through 5. By that time Will Smith will be back, and hungry. Smith is bigger than McCray; but what most people don't know: he's also faster. If McCray is leading the league in sacks by the time Smith comes off suspension, he has a chance to keep his starting position; otherwise he's going to have to be satisfied with being a situational player. A healthy Will Smith isn't ready to go yet.

In the same way that it's difficult to separate Smith and Grant, it's also difficult to separate Spicer and Hargrove. Both of them were added to the Saints' roster primarily as depth—as possible, temporary replacements for Smith and Grant. Perhaps both will start at the beginning of the year; perhaps neither will. It's not even certain that they'll make the final roster.

They could hardly be more different. Spicer is a ten-year veteran who has made a name for himself through sheer drive and determination; Hargrove is a talented head-case who is on his third team in four years because the first two gave up on him.

* * * * *

"Paul Spicer plays the run. And every now and then, I get to the quarterback." [Source] That, in a nutshell, is Paul Spicer's take on Paul Spicer: a blue-collar player who works hard, who came from a small college and free agency and earned every start he made in the NFL. Spicer played nine seasons for Jacksonville, and as recently as 2007 he led his team in sacks with 7.5. But he became expendable when the Jags chose Derrick Harvey and Quentin Groves back-to-back in the 2008 draft.

There's something in Spicer's personality that reminds one a little of Hollis Thomas, a little of Warren Sapp, and a lot of Sam Mills. He's humorous, blunt, and conscientious all at once. He's also big: at 6'4' and 295 lbs., he's the biggest defensive end on the Saints' roster. He's also old: he'll be 34 at the season's start; among active defensive ends, only Jason Taylor, Trevor Pryce, and Leonard Little have been around longer. Some question whether Taylor and Little have much left to give; and apparently Jack del Rio felt the same way about Spicer. agrees:

"Paul Spicer will give 100% on every snap and never takes plays off, but he has always been an effort guy who got the most out of his marginal talent...His talent is now fading quickly, and at this point in his career he can be a rotational end or even a defensive tackle, as he plays the run better than he rushes the passer." [Source]

* * * * *

Anthony Hargrove is nearly the polar opposite of Paul Spicer. He's acknowledged to be very talented, but so irresponsible that he can't hold down a steady job in the NFL. He's been deactivated by St. Louis for an unexplained absence; arrested in Buffalo for disturbing the peace; and suspended twice by the NFL for substance abuse. In between he's played some impressive football—especially on special teams, where he's been called "a monster on kickoff coverage."

"He's an interesting player," according to Sean Payton.

Hargrove is more than simply interesting: he's out there. According to Chris Brown, writing on the Buffalo Bills' official blog:

"I once had a long conversation with him where he told me about the voices in his head. He said there are 11 people living up there and they all "come out" at different times. He rattled off their names like it was nothing. The list by the way included three or four female personalities. He just told me he has fun with it so it must be an act of his that gets laughs in the locker room."

Some of his teammates at the time were convinced he was nuts."

Signing Hargrove is the sort of personnel gamble that Payton and Loomis have avoided in the past; but speaking about the signing, Payton sought to allay fears that Hargrove would become a distraction:

"We have a strong locker room. That being said, that's something that we don't take for granted and it's something that can change quickly. I think that aspect of who we're bringing in is very important. In his case, we feel like we're bringing in someone...and we have a little bit more insight in regards to him being that he was with Joe Vitt in St. Louis and we felt real good about signing him." [Source]

Methinks he doth protest too much. Still, we'll see. Perhaps the combination of Spicer and Hargrove is exactly what Hargrove needs. Or perhaps New Orleans will send him over the edge. He's an edge rusher, after all.

ASSESSMENT: Spicer may be the perfect answer to Charles Grant's apparent motivation problems. If he pushes Grant to his do his utmost, he'll have served the Saints well. But I don't see him lasting as a starter much beyond Grant's return...unless Grant mentally crashes and burns. That pretty much takes control of the situation out of Spicer's hands and makes the left defensive end position Grant's to lose...another reason why I think Smith and Grant will be our starters again by the end of the season. In the short term, he looks to be a good stopgap measure; and if he has more left in the tank than some people figure, he could be a very valuable addition to the Saints' rotation.

As for Hargrove...flip a coin. He looked solid in the OTAs; and while it's a truism that anyone can look good in shorts, nobody has ever questioned his skills or toughness. Hargrove will either be a genius pickup or a bad distraction...or an early cut.

I think everyone in New Orleans is pulling for Charleston. He's like a younger, lighter version of Paul Spicer: a player who wills himself to success lining against players almost all of whom are more talented than he is. As a part-time player in the last half of the season, he collected three sacks—as many as Will Smith did all year, and as many as Charles Grant in half a season as a starter. He'll get a chance with Gregg Williams at the helm, but the odds are long. Payton brought in two extra defensive ends to provide depth behind Smith and Grant—not behind McCray and Charleston.

Still Charleston is a good special teams performer as well, and should make the roster.

ASSESSMENT: Charleston did a good job last year and earned a shot at starting. Instead, he'll have extra competition to contend with. I can see him making the roster as a sixth, a fifth, or even a fourth defensive end...but Smith, Grant, and McCray are likely to remain ahead of him on the depth chart. In the early part of the season, he may surprise a lot of people and start in place of Grant.

Ninkovich turned a lot of people's heads in his rookie training camp in 2006. The kid had a motor, and played with good intensity. Then he wrecked his knee against Atlanta, was placed on injured reserve, and everything spiraled downhill. In 2007 he suffered another knee injury in training camp, was released, and picked up by the Miami Dolphins. He managed to play that year, was demoted to the practice squad, reactivated later in the season, released, resigned to the practice squad...

Finally the Saints put an end to the merry-go-round by signing him once again. Recently Ninkovich made news by entering into competition with Kevin Houser for the Saints' long snapper job; but then Houser was cut, and the Saints signed veteran long snapper Jason Kyle. Does that make Kyle the depth behind Ninkovich? Or vice versa? And will Ninkovich's special teams skills be enough to ensure him a roster spot?

ASSESSMENT: Ninkovich is a good backup...but he's not better than any of the backups ahead of him. Last year the Saints kept six defensive ends: Smith, Grant, McCray, Charleston, and the now-departed Antwan Lake and Josh Savage. If you assume that Smith, Grant, and McCray are givens, and that Spicer, Hargrove, and Charleston have the inside track at backup positions, that leaves Ninkovich once again in a bad spot. He'd certainly be signed to the practice squad if he clears waivers...but that's likely to be the best-case scenario.

Unless, of course, the signing of Kyle was merely a blind, and Ninkovich is the true heir to Kevin Houser. If that's the case, he's a lock for a roster spot. But if that's the case, we're considering him under the wrong category here.

Finally, we come to the wild card. Parnell was a four-year letterman at Ole basketball. He played football only sparingly as a senior. Little is known about him—it seems nobody can even agree on his height and weight. The Saints' official site has him listed at 6'6", 278 lbs.—roughly Bobby McCray size.

We've been giving a lot of weight to comments made by Mike Detillier, who has so far praised Devery Henderson, Adrian Arrington, and Mike Bell. But Parnell also caught his eye:

...Ole Miss defensive end Jermey Parnell looked impressive.

Parnell, who played on the Mississippi basketball team, played football as a senior.

While both are a bit rough around the edges technically, Parnell and [cornerback Danny] Gorrer can run the field. Parnell also has a huge wingspan to upset a quarterback’s passing rhythm.

ASSESSMENT: It's a nice story...but Parnell is the longest of shots. It's not impossible—perhaps Ninkovich will suffer another knee injury, and most of Hargrove will decide football isn't for them. Parnell could sneak in. But I wouldn't bet the house.