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Pro football pundits see a bright future for this year's Saints if Š

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The Stardust Race and Sports Book sets the odds of the New Orleans Saints going to Super Bowl XXXIX at 35-1. That's not the worst -- that honor goes to the Arizona Cardinals and Detroit Lions, who started at 200-1 -- but it's a far cry from the New England Patriots and Philadelphia Eagles, who opened at 6-1 and are currently 4-1 and 7-2, respectively. The Saints' competition in the NFC South are all favored above the Saints, Tampa Bay chief among them, currently getting 10-1 odds.

Why the pessimism? According to ESPN.com's Marcus W. Vanderberg, "While the rest of the NFC South was striving to make improvements, the Saints took the Œif it ain't broke, don't fix it' approach to the offseason. That would be great if New Orleans wasn't coming off an 8-8 season that saw the franchise miss the playoffs for its third consecutive season."

FOXSports.com's Brain DeLucia says, "The Saints know they have a lot of talent but must mature and improve their focus." The consensus is this is certainly true at the quarterback position. ESPN's Len Pasquarelli says, "the key remains quarterback Aaron Brooks, who at times flirts with greatness, but too often falls back into stretches of mind-boggling inconsistency." Street & Smith's 2004 Football Yearbook disagrees: "The Brooks bashing isn't fair. Brooks has the talent to be an elite quarterback. He just needs better play from his offensive line and more consistency from his receivers."

Indeed, "Horn was inconsistent and wasn't much of a big-play guy," Pro Football Weekly Preview 2004 reports. "That job is supposed to belong to WR Donté Stallworth." The often-injured Stallworth forced Brooks to rely heavily on Horn, but according to The Gold Sheet 2004 Football Annual, the third-year Saint has stepped up his offseason workout regimen. "Stallworth has reportedly worked more diligently this offseason to help prevent the muscle pulls & strains that so often keep him sidelined," The Gold Sheet writes. In Sporting News Pro Football 2004, The Times-Picayune's Saints beat reporter Jeff Duncan says, "Team officials are quietly optimistic that the light has finally clicked on and (Stallworth is) poised for a breakout season."

A lot of preseason excitement surrounds tight end Boo Williams and rookie wide receiver Devery Henderson out of LSU. Pro Football Weekly Preview 2004 writes, "Second-round pick Devery Henderson has blazing speed and will provide a deep threat. He has electric moves in the open field and creates good separation on routes." The Gold Sheet 2004 Football Annual says, "Henderson is a burner who should love the indoors." Of Boo Williams, Sporting News Pro Football 2004 says the converted wide receiver "has the burst to get behind linebackers, and his size will cause matchup problems for defensive backs."

The one part of the Saints' performance that generates unanimous praise is the running game, and particularly Deuce McAllister. SI.com writes simply, "It starts and ends with McAllister, a unique talent coming off his second consecutive Pro Bowl year." Pro Football Weekly writes, "McAllister has the power to pound the middle and the speed to scoot outside, but he is at his best between the tackles. He explodes through holes and has the strength to absorb a hit and shake a tackler." McAllister has been asked to lose 10 pounds, which has Sporting News Pro Football 2004 predicting, "The lighter weight should make him quicker and faster in the one-back sets the offense plans to employ."

There is also a lot of optimism about the Saints' defensive line. "Brian DeLucia of FOXSports.com writes, "Outside of Carolina, not many teams have as much talent at defensive line as the Saints." ESPN's Len Pasquarelli says, "The Saints will go to training camp in a couple of weeks with a unit that is arguably superior to the one that started for New Orleans in 2001." Unfortunately, the unanimity of optimism about the line is matched by the suspicion for the linebacker corps. USATODAY.com writes, "The Saints are in need of some playmakers." Street & Smith says, "Middle linebacker is a huge question mark." Pro Football Weekly says, "Orlando Ruff and Darrin Smith both struggled to shed blockers," but holds out hope for Cie Grant, who struggled with injuries last year. "Grant Š might be the most intriguing of the bunch with his speed and lower-the-boom hitting style." Overall, Pro Football Weekly says, "If the 'D' comes together early and the offense can return to its high-scoring ways of 2002, the Saints can make a serious run at the postseason and scare some teams along the way." Jeff Duncan echoes that, writing for The Sporting News, "A fast start is critical. If they can gain confidence and momentum during the user-friendly first half of the schedule, they will be in the postseason hunt all the way." SI.com echoes the "if" sentiment, writing, "If the Saints don't lead the league again in lost fumbles (they had 20), a 9-7 finish would not be a surprise."

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