Bradley Handwerger / WWLTV.com Sports Writer
THIBODAUX, La. ― Jon Gruden isn’t sure about the details of the lockout.
He doesn’t know how free agency is going to be changed. And doesn’t know how teams are going to react to being off from football for four-plus months.
But one thing he does know is that he likes the Saints.
ESPN’s Monday Night Football oracle, long high on the Saints, remains that way this offseason.
“I still think they’re one of the top four or five teams in football without a doubt,” Gruden said Friday during an interview at the Manning Passing Academy.
Gruden is most bullish on the Saints offense, especially the backfield.
When asked about the addition of Mark Ingram through the draft, Gruden was glowing in his review of the former Heisman Trophy winning running back from Alabama.
The rookie, Gruden said, can contribute immediately.
“I think you need a guy that when you have the ball and the lead inside of four minutes to run the clock, that’s the only enemy (for an opponent),” Gruden said. “I think Ingram is that kind of guy. He’s an NFL back. He can pick up blitzes flush. I’ve seen him do it. He’s a pretty good receiver out of the backfield.
“I just think he’s going to make a lot of big first downs for the Saints in key situations.”
But the key will be remaining healthy.
The Saints ended the 2010 season decimated in the backfield, among other positions. By the end of the playoff loss to Seattle, the Saints were down to DeShawn Wynn in the backfield. Reggie Bush and Julius Jones ended the game on the bench with injuries while Pierre Thomas and Chris Ivory didn’t even dress because of injuries sustained prior to the playoffs.
“This is a team that uses their backs,” Gruden said. “Two at a time. Multiple formations. Reggie is a joker – he lines up in the slot, he lines up outside, he lines up in the backfield. They missed those backs. Pierre and Reggie had a lot to do with the Super Bowl trophy I think. To get Ingram, hopefully Pierre and Reggie back and Ivory?
“That’s a nucleus of four backs that not a lot of teams can say they have.”
Gruden, though, extends his praise to the receiving corps.
“They’re not catch-counters in New Orleans,” the former coach said. “They’re into winning football games.”
In fact, the most diminutive receiver on the Saints’ roster the past few seasons picked up the most praise from Gruden.
Lance Moore, who in all likelihood will come out of the offseason as a newly minted unrestricted free agent, was described as Brees’ “go-to guy in key situations” and a “quick slot receiver who really has the body language of an All-Pro.”
And that’s not mentioning the man running the offense.
Drew Brees, as always, got rave reviews from the quarterback guru himself.
“Brees makes very few mistakes,” Gruden said. “The more football you give this guy, the better he is.”
The question, though, is can the Saints get back to the Super Bowl.
Gruden, for one, thinks it’s a possibility if the stars align and the right decisions are made.
“I think they’ve got to come off the bye and make a couple of tough decisions with their roster and hit the ground running,” he said. “If they do that, they’ll get right back in contention.”