More weapons put Bush's role with Saints in question

JACKSON, Miss. -- Temperatures are not the only thing rising at the Saints' training camp at Millsaps College in Jackson. So are the hopes of coach Sean Payton and his players 11 days into a long, hot summer. Here are five training camp observations as the Saints prepare for their opening preseason game with the Arizona Cardinals on Thursday night in Glendale, Ariz.

1. Bush unsure what his load will be

With running back Deuce McAllister taking part in both morning and afternoon practices for the first time Tuesday, and newly acquired tight end Jeremy Shockey only seeing limited practice time because of a slow return from the fractured left fibula that ended his season with the Giants a year ago in the season's 14th game, Reggie Bush remains unsure how he will be used this season.

During his rookie year, Bush was a classic triple threat, contrasting his speed with McAllister's power at running back while catching 88 passes, an NFL receptions record for a rookie running back, and returning 28 punts, including one for a score. Last season, he started nine games at running back after McAllister went down with a knee injury, and his overall production seemed to suffer with the increased workload before his own knee injury sidelined him for the final four games of the season.

While some assume he will return to the shared duties of his rookie year, that depends on the health of McAllister and the role Shockey will play in the offense.

"There are a lot of things up in the air," Bush said. "I'm not exactly sure in terms of what the coaches want to do. They definitely know I want to be back there returning punts and being as involved as much as possible in the offense. That's question more for coach Payton to answer.

"What I think doesn't really matter. It's up to the coaches. I think it's a matter of how I position myself, how I work, how much progress they see I'm making at camp. I really try to focus on my progress and that's really it.

"I'm trying to better myself throughout this camp and see that I'm progressing every day, getting better every day. Whatever situation or scenario they put me in, or however they want to use me is fine with me."

Bush made it clear he hopes to once again be the Saints' punt returner, after returning just three a year ago because of his increased workload replacing McAllister.

"I don't know of anybody who would turn down a starting position," Bush said of being the No. 1 punt returner this season. "It gives you a rhythm, it gives you a chance to return some punts and obviously the more punts you return, the better you become at it and the better the chances of scoring a touchdown are."

Touchdowns around the goal line may be at a premium this season, however, if McAllister and Shockey are both healthy. The former is a short-yardage power house and the latter a looming target for quarterback Drew Brees at tight end, akin to the one he had in San Diego with Antonio Gates.

Although their presence might take points off the board for Bush, as long as they put them on the board for the Saints he insisted he's OK with it.

"The addition of Shockey brings a lot to our offense," Bush said. "It brings an edge and a tight end who can stretch the field, and who defenses always have to keep in the back of their mind. Shockey's a plus for us and we hope that he's going to be as tough as possible and a good contributor here."

2. Will Goodwin hold up in the middle?

Less than 24 hours after free agency began this offseason, the Saints had a nearly 300-pound hole in the middle of their offensive line when their center, Pro Bowl alternate Jeff Faine, signed a six-year, $37 million contract with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Or did they?

Two days earlier New Orleans re-signed Faine's backup, Jonathan Goodwin, to replace him and thus far New Orleans' general manager Mickey Loomis feels he got a bargain. The seven-year veteran will be in the middle of the Saints' offense after having started only 15 of the 87 games he's played for the Jets and the Saints. Coach Sean Payton insisted this week that Goodwin showed enough in two starts last season to assure him he was ready to play and nothing he's done in training camp has changed that opinion.

"Jonathan played in four games last year and it gave us a chance to see how we operated with him in there at center," Payton said of Goodwin. "He's doing well. He's been solid. Most runs and passes start with recognizing who you're going to call the middle linebacker. That starts with Jonathan and Drew Brees.

"He's someone that handles the protections well in regards to the multiple looks. There's a lot of communication that has to go on to make sure that those guys are on the same page and it generally starts inside-out. In his case, that's something that he does well."

Although Goodwin has limited NFL experience as a starter, he is used to playing with top quarterbacks. He was an All-Big 10 lineman at Michigan on a team led by Patriots' All-Pro Tom Brady and now has a Pro Bowl signal caller to protect. Goodwin showed his ability to quickly recognize a situation for what it is when he was asked Monday what it was like snapping to Brees and Brady.

"Tom's a great quarterback but I'll take Drew Brees," Goodwin said, proving he can not only recognize who the middle linebacker is, but also where his bread is buttered.

3. Is Meachem finally ready to perform?

A year ago, then-rookie wide receiver Robert Meachem had the distinction of being the league's only No. 1 draft choice not activated for a single game. Although his problems began when he injured his knee before training camp, it persisted throughout the year as he struggled to get over the injury and make the transition from college football to the NFL.

Those struggles are why he's looking at Thursday's first preseason game differently than his veteran teammates. To them, it's something to survive. To Meachem, it's a coming out party.

"I don't even know how to explain how much I'm looking forward to this game," Meacham said after a morning practice in which he mishandled two passes, although one was badly under thrown. "I want to make plays. I want to show people why they drafted me. Today, I should have caught two balls, but I didn't. It wasn't the quarterback's fault. It was my fault."

Meacham spent much of the offseason working with 12-year veteran David Patten, who came back from a similar knee surgery and was willing to guide Meachem through a rehab and retooling process that had to begin in the simplest of ways.

"I was a rookie with no experience and I had a limp," Meachem said. "Coach didn't want to embarrass me by putting me in the games. I could have been an embarrassment to myself and to the team. It was frustrating. Being a competitor, you want to be out there, but I was on the scout team so I tried to give our defense the best look I could even with a limp. I wanted to be part of things."

This year, the limp is gone and although the starting jobs at wide receiver still belong to Marques Colston and Patten, Meachem and Devery Henderson are pressuring Patten. Seldom has a day gone by in camp that Meachem hasn't made his presence felt, as he did at a scrimmage last Saturday when he made a 22-yard reception of a Brees pass that reminded the Saints why they were so high on him a year ago.

Yet, Meachem knows after a rookie season of no production he has to make significant strides in a lot of areas, including in experimental work this summer as a possible kick returner, where he struggled this week handling some kickoffs on the run.

"Every week I wasn't activated it got worse," Meachem said of last season. "You never get used to it. The funny thing is I went through the same thing at Tennessee. I tore my meniscus and was on crutches for 13 weeks. What made last year worse was I kept trying to play. I was trying to prove I was a No. 1 pick. I got no excuses. I was out there so I had to make plays and I wasn't making them."

Meachem believes, and the Saints hope, this year will be different.

4. Grant to move inside on passing downs

If No. 1 draft choice Sedrick Ellis continues to be as dominating a factor as he's been in the opening weeks of training camp, the Saints already potent pass rush will have a rotation that will put renewed heat on opposing quarterbacks.

Camp: Jackson, Miss./Metairie, La.

Preseason games:
Aug. 7: at Arizona, 8 p.m. ET

Aug. 16: Houston, 8 p.m. ET

Aug. 23: at Cincinnati, 7:35 p.m. ET

Aug. 28: Miami, 8 p.m. ET

As things now stand, free agent acquisition Bobby McCray and sack leader Will Smith (33.5 sacks since joining New Orleans in 2004) will rush from the outside with Ellis, the draft's seventh pick, manning one tackle slot and Charles Grant sliding inside from his normal defensive end position to add quickness on the inside at the other.

"We could have something real special," Grant said. "Ellis is a young guy who is real strong. When you watch him move he does what Warren Sapp did. With the speed we'll have outside people will have to watch them so we should be able to get off and get to the quarterback."

Grant has been one of the Saints' most reliable linemen both as a force in run defense and as a pass rusher. He has missed only two games in six years playing primarily on the outside, although he did play tackle at times when the Saints rotated him along with Smith and Darren Howard under former head coach Jim Haslett.

Smith has been working more on the inside this summer in part because of a nagging knee injury to thirteen-year veteran Hollis Thomas that has limited his practice time. Yet Smith claimed there's something he's missing more than being a full-time defense end.

"My bed," Grant said. "You know how you got that one little dented spot in your bed? I miss that spot."

5. Porter injury opens door for Gay

Cornerback Randall Gay is looking at an opportunity this summer.

Signed as a free agent, the former Patriots nickel back is in a battle with 2007 starter Jason David, who struggled much of last season while trying to make the transition from the Tampa 2 style zone defense he'd played in Indianapolis to the more frequently used man-to-man schemes of the Saints.

Gay figured to be battling not only David but also second-round draft pick Tracy Porter for playing time, but Porter pulled a hamstring early in training camp and has not practiced since, thus giving Gay more snaps to exhibit his wares.

On Tuesday, he picked off a Drew Brees pass in a 7-on-7 passing drill with a perfectly timed leap in front of a receiver. It is those kinds of plays the Saints are hoping to get from the new blood added to a secondary that a year ago had only 13 interceptions on a defense that was tied for last in the league in giving up plays of 40 yards or longer.

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