The New Orleans Saints thought they had insured a solid secondary with the addition of Dale Carter at cornerback. Now they're sure again, even though Carter is lost indefinitely. Carter was supposed to take over opposite Fred Thomas. Then in July, Carter was suspended indefinitely for violation of the NFL's substance abuse policy.
"I know people were talking,'' said cornerback Michael Hawthorne. "But I make it a point never to listen to talk. We aren't worried about who isn't here. We just keep working.''
With Carter's suspension, competition stiffened between Hawthorne and rookie Keyou Craver, who has had a surprisingly good training camp.
"I think we have two good young guys,'' Thomas said. "I think it's going to be a much stronger position than anyone believes.''
Craver, the Saints fourth-round draft pick this year, has turned heads with good plays in training camp and in the preseason games.
"He's fluid, he's smart and he makes plays,'' coach Jim Haslett said. "Some guys have instinct and some guys find the football. The ball always seems to pop into the hands of (strong safety) Sammy (Knight). This kid has a lot of that, too.''
Craver's playing behind Thomas, and Haslett has said he would be nervous starting a rookie at cornerback. But Craver has definitely shown he will get game time, at least in the nickel and dime packages.
"I know Coach said he wasn't comfortable starting a rookie,'' Craver said. "I'm trying to show him he can relax when I'm out there.''
But Hawthorne, a sixth-round pick in 2000, has moved up on the depth chart in training camp.
"He's gotten better every day,'' said defensive coordinator Rick Venturi. "His fundamentals are better than I've ever seen them. He's playing with real confidence. Hawthorne thinks time and experience have helped him. One thing you learn in the NFL is the value of patience,'' Hawthorne said.
"It takes a while to get things down the way you should. The biggest thing is to just keep getting better.''
The final depth chart has yet to be decided, but Hawthorne is confident that when it's finally posted, he'll have one of the top spots.
"Let's put it this way - I don't plan to be a backup no matter what I'm playing or where,'' Hawthorne said.
Thomas, the Saints' top cover cornerback last season, has had a good preseason, including intercepting two passes and knowing down three more in the exhibition game against Miami.
"We all have one goal this year, and we're keeping that in mind now,'' Thomas said. "I think we'll make our mark this season.''
The Saints secondary has improved overall, said safety Sammy Knight, who made his first Pro Bowl last season with 120 tackles, six interceptions, and five fumble recoveries.
"I think we're going to do really well this year,'' Knight said. "We have some good people and we're already playing together well. I think we have the communication you need out there down already.''