Projected starters and key players for Sunday’s Super Bowl:
NEW ORLEANS SAINTSOFFENSE
Drew Brees, QB (9), 6-0, 209, 9th season, Purdue.
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Comes off sensational season in which he led NFL in passer rating (109.6, a career high), TD passes (34), and completion percentage (70.6, an NFL record) … Had 4,388 yards passing, his fourth consecutive 4,000-yard season … Has been key to Saints’ turnaround since 2006, leading them to two NFC title games and now the Super Bowl … Was a college hero in Indiana, although not many Colts fans likely are rooting for him this time … Has thrown six TDs, no INTs and has 116.1 rating in playoffs.
Pierre Thomas, RB (23), 5-11, 215, 3rd season, Illinois.
Undrafted out of college, has gone from special teams ace to starting running back … Led Saints with 793 yards rushing and six TDs. Also had 39 receptions and two more TDs … Overtime leap on fourth-and-1 for first down was key in NFC championship victory … Has recovered from late-season rib injury that sidelined him for finale.
Dynamic receiver, runner and punt returner, but also mistake-prone … Recovery from knee surgery slowed him for much of schedule, but has rediscovered his burst since getting healthy … Broke 83-yard punt return and 46-yard run for scores vs. Arizona in divisional round … Muffed punt in championship game, but also scored touchdown on reception.
Jeremy Shockey, TE (88), 6-5, 251, 8th season, Miami.
Has battled injuries all season and sore right knee has limited him in playoffs … Splits time with David Thomas (85), who has similar skills … Provides good target over middle for Brees … Had 48 catches for 569 yards and three TDs in 13 games … Was hurt for Giants’ Super Bowl win two years ago, then discarded by team, so he desperately wants a major role in this one.
Hofstra might have dropped football, but Colston remains a force … Versatile wideout can get deep, make catches over the middle and on sidelines … Led Saints with 70 catches for 1,074 yards and scored nine times … Has eight catches in postseason, one score.
Deep threat who has inconsistent hands, although much better at holding the ball than earlier in his career … Averaged 15.8 yards for his 51 catches during season … Tied with Colston for team lead with eight postseason receptions, two for TDs.
Robert Meachem, WR (17), 6-2, 210, 3rd season, Tennessee.
After wasted rookie year, has really come on in last two seasons … A prime deep threat who had nine TD catches among 45 receptions and averaged 16.0 yards … Has only two catches in postseason and has been bothered by sprained ankle … Could draw single coverage often.
Fourth-round pick in 2007 from Division I-AA … Very raw, was special-teamer in ’07 and ’08 in rare times he was active, but made 14 starts this year after Jammal Brown hurt his hip … Has become reliable protector of Drew Brees’ blind side.
Carl Nicks, LG (77), 6-5, 343, 2nd season, Nebraska.
The biggest of New Orleans’ blockers … Fifth-round choice in 2008 who started 13 games as a rookie … Key performer in running attack, started every game this season.
Jonathan Goodwin, C (76), 6-3, 318, 8th season, Michigan.
Most veteran of blockers, joined Saints as free agent in 2006 after starting career with Jets … Also has played some guard … Became starting center in 2008, when he battled knee injury that cost him three games.
All-Pro has blossomed rapidly after small-college background … Fourth-round pick in 2006 has started every game in his career … Gets outside to make blocks to spring runners, also excels in pass protection.
Jon Stinchcomb, RT (78), 6-5, 315, 7th season, Georgia.
Second-rounder in 2003 who was four-year starter in college … Missed entire 2005 season with knee injury, but has started 64 straight regular-season games since … Older brother Matt played for Raiders.
Bobby McCray, LE (93), 6-6, 260, 6th season, Florida.
Signed away from Jaguars as a free agent in ’08 … Replaced injured Charles Grant as starter that season and has become starter with Grant sidelined again … Must step up his game in Super Bowl after being non-factor for most of playoff games.
Remi Ayodele, NT (92), 6-2, 318, 3rd season, Oklahoma.
Played well in NFC title game … Recovered fumble against Vikings … Not a sack threat, but does his part against the run … Had 53 tackles in 2009 … Brother Akin is LB for Dolphins.
First-round selection in 2008, has Saints’ only sack of playoffs … Has started every game in which he’s played for New Orleans, but missed six contests this season with knee problem … Had 45 tackles, two sacks.
Will Smith, DE (91), 6-2, 282, 6th season, Ohio State.
New Orleans’ best pass rusher, was second in NFC with 13 sacks … Has not come close to one in playoffs, but has an interception … Has 49 1/2 career sacks and has caused 16 career fumbles, recovering six … One of players implicated in StarCaps case, has not been forced to sit out any games yet.
Scott Fujita, SLB (55), 6-5, 250, 8th season, California.
Signed in 2006 as free agent from Dallas, the first defensive addition when coach Sean Payton took over … Played for Kansas City before that … Team leader with some versatility … Had 75 tackles in ’09 … Missed five games with calf and knee injuries.
Jonathan Vilma, MLB (51), 6-1, 230, 6th season, Miami.
Was 2004 Defensive Rookie of Year with Jets, where he was dominant in 4-3 defense. Jets switched to 3-4 when Eric Mangini became coach, wasting Vilma’s pursuit skills. Was traded to Saints in 2008 and became centerpiece of New Orleans defense … Made 130 tackles this season, had three INTs and two sacks. Also had interception in NFC title game.
Scott Shanle, WLB (58), 6-2, 245, 7th season, Nebraska.
Former special-teamer who worked his way into starting job … Missed two games this season with concussion … Finds the ball, had two INTs and two fumble recoveries … Has 106 tackles, third on the team … Was acquired in trade with Dallas in 2006, previously played for Rams.
Key free-agent signing in offseason from Buffalo … Had strong opening to season, then suffered sports hernia and missed seven weeks … Came back in season finale … Had 48-yard INT return, longest of career, for TD against Atlanta … Had two INTs for TDs in 2008 with Bills.
Roman Harper, SS (41), 6-1, 200, 4th season, Alabama.
Has started all 52 games in which he’s played in NFL … Finished second on team with 127 tackles, including career-high 14 against Carolina … Also forced two fumbles … A second-round draftee in 2006 who started five games as a rookie.
Darren Sharper, FS (42), 6-2, 210, 13th season, William and Mary.
All-Pro ballhawk who tied for league lead with nine INTs, returning three for scores … Set NFL record with 376 yards on his interception runbacks, one for 99 yards … Also solid in run support and will match up with another All-Pro in Dallas Clark … Had 93 tackles this season … One guy Peyton Manning must watch out for.
Made up for pass interference call that set up Vikings’ tying TD last week with last-minute interception of Brett Favre … Second-round pick in ’08 … Started five games as a rookie before going on IR with right wrist injury … Also missed four games this season with knee injury … Had four INTs to go with two forced fumbles and 69 tackles this season.
Thomas Morstead, P (6), 6-4, 225, 1st season, SMU. Solid rookie punter Payton praises for his poise … Has done particularly well punting and kicking off in two postseason games … Fifth-round pick last year … Also punted and kicked off at SMU.
Made 40-yard field goal in OT to win NFC title … Cut by Denver, was signed by Saints in October 2008 and made all 13 field goals. But opened this season suspended for use of banned stimulant … Was inactive another seven weeks as veteran John Carney kicked, then returned on Dec. 6 to make 9 of 11 FGs.
Courtney Roby, KR (15), 6-0, 189, 4th season, Indiana.
Injured right knee on return late in NFC championship game … Signed as free agent in 2008 after setting receiving records in college … Ran track in college, was drafted in third round by Titans in 2005. Also played for Bengals and Colts … Cousin was renowned punter Reggie Roby.
Only four-time MVP in NFL history … Led Colts to 2006 championship, winning Super Bowl in Miami and game’s MVP award … A native of New Orleans whose father, Archie, was Saints’ first star … Trying to become first reigning MVP to win Super Bowl since Kurt Warner in 1999 … Set NFL record for 300-yard playoff games with his seventh in AFC title game win over Jets, going 26 of 39 for 377 yards … Is No. 3 in postseason completions … Had instrumental role in development of young WRs this season.
Joseph Addai, RB (29), 5-11, 214, 4th season, LSU.
Leading rusher for Colts with 828 yards, scored 10 TDs. Also caught 51 passes and scored three times … Averaging only 3.8 yards per rush in postseason, but against top defenses of Baltimore and New York … Set Super Bowl reception mark for RB with 10 for 66 yards in 2007 … First-round pick in 2006.
Dallas Clark, TE (44), 6-3, 252, 7th season, Iowa.
Needs 74 yards receiving to pass Shannon Sharpe (814) and Keith Jackson (834) for most by tight end in postseason history … First-round pick in 2003 who made first All-Pro team this season with 100 catches for 1,106 yards and 10 TDs … Joined Tony Gonzalez as only TEs with 100 receptions in a season … A favorite target on third down.
Consistent threat who had sixth straight 1,000-yard season, making 100 catches for 1,264 yards and 10 scores … Can run every pattern and will beat you deep … Didn’t do much in AFC title game against Darrelle Revis, but Saints have no cover guys like Revis … In 2007 Super Bowl, had 53-yard TD against Bears … Born in New Orleans.
Pierre Garcon, WR (85), 6-0, 210, 2nd season, Mount Union.
Grew up in Fort Lauderdale … Rare successful NFL player from Division III school – albeit a powerhouse on that level … A special-teamer in ’08 who blossomed in ’09, ably replacing injured Anthony Gonzalez in lineup … Made 47 catches for 16.3 average and four TDs during season, has been sensational in playoffs with 16 receptions and a TD.
Manning’s pet project has become clutch receiver who also has starred in playoffs … Fourth-round pick after three seasons at BYU and two-year church mission in Argentina … Made 60 catches, tied for most among rookies, and scored seven TDs. In postseason, has 11 catches for 15.9 average and two scores.
Charlie Johnson, LT (74), 6-4, 305, 4th season, Oklahoma State.
Started 12 games as Manning’s protector on blind side … Sixth-round pick in 2006 … Became regular midway through 2007 season … Replaced injured Ryan Diem at RT in Super Bowl win over Chicago … Also was starter at left guard in past.
Ryan Lilja, LG (65), 6-2, 290, 6th season, Kansas State.
Returned to starting lineup after missing last season with knee injury … Acquired on waivers in 2004 from Kansas City, which signed him as undrafted free agent … Played full seasons in 2005, 2007 and 2009 … Solid performer when healthy.
Jeff Saturday, C (63), 6-2, 295, 11th season, North Carolina.
One of the league’s best centers, started all 16 games as leader of offensive line … Two-time All-Pro, equally adept at run and pass blocking … Signed as free agent in 1999 after Ravens cut him in 1998 … Became starter in 2000, has played in every game in eight of his seasons.
Inactive in first game, didn’t start until eighth contest against Houston … Has been solid ever since … Replaced 2008 second-round pick Mike Pollak and Addai’s per-carry average since then jumped to 4.21 yards … Signed as undrafted free agent with Washington in 2008, was cut, went to Jets and was cut. Also played in ArenaFootball2 in Boise.
Ryan Diem, RT (71), 6-6, 320, 9th season, Northern Illinois.
Fourth-round pick in 2001 who became regular the next year … Began career as a guard … Started every game but finale this season despite back and hamstring issues … Very consistent in ground game and passing attack. Key reason Manning was sacked only 13 times all season.
Robert Mathis, LE (98), 6-2, 245, 7th season, Alabama A&M.
So quick that his lack of size doesn’t hamper him, even against 320-pound tackles … Had 9 1/2 sacks, giving him 63 for career … Is not a liability against run, but makes presence felt mostly on passing downs … Missed seven games this season with quad and neck problems … Excellent complement for Dwight Freeney.
Antonio Johnson, LT (99), 6-3, 310, 3rd season, Mississippi State.
Started all but season finale, had 34 tackles … An inside force, not much as pass rusher … Fifth-round pick by Titans in 2007, signed in 2008 off Tennessee practice squad … Started four times and once in playoffs that season.
Dan Muir, RT (90), 6-2, 312, 3rd season, Kent State.
Has had strong playoffs with 12 tackles after 66 during regular season … Joined Colts in 2008 off waivers from Green Bay, was backup that season … Started 10 of last 11 games, has been very active on line.
Dwight Freeney, DE (93), 6-1, 268, 8th season, Syracuse.
All-Pro DE who plays hurt, with a motor that never stops. But ligament damage in his right ankle could sideline him, a big blow for the defense … Also considered undersized, but never has inhibited him … Led team with 13 1/2 sacks in 14 sacks, has team record of 84 sacks in career … First-round pick in 2002 has started all 14 postseason games in career … Has made five Pro Bowls.
Philip Wheeler, SLB (50), 6-2, 240, 2nd season, Georgia Tech.
Third-round pick in 2008 became starter this season in 10th game, replacing Tyjuan Hagler, who ruptured a biceps … Wound up with 53 tackles and played special teams … Also was forced to fill in at DE.
Gary Brackett, MLB (58), 5-11, 235, 7th season, Rutgers.
Leader of the defense, has gone from undrafted free agent to key contributor … Became starter in 2005 and sets tone for physical, fast linebackers … Missed two games this season with knee injury, battled injuries all year, but had 99 tackles … Watch for him to make an early statement with a hard hit.
Fourth-round pick in 2007 emerged as starter last season … Missed final two games of season with knee problem … Had two INTs, returning for TD, during season. Already has fumble recovery in playoffs … Led team with 101 tackles, can make plays sideline to sideline.
A hero of the 2007 Super Bowl win with interception return for TD … Will have difficult matchup with Colston or Meachem or Henderson … Had 50 tackles, but only one interception during season after being inactive for seven games with knee injury … Has one pick in playoffs … Second-round selection in 2005 draft and became starter in 2007 after big game vs. Bears in February’s Super Bowl.
Third-round pick who became starter early in season, but has struggled with injuries since and missed AFC title game with left foot problem … Had 63 tackles, a pick, a forced fumble and fumble recovery during season … Colts are hopeful he is healthy for Super Bowl, but could be reserve anyway.
Jacob Lacey, RCB (27), 5-10, 177, 1st season, Oklahoma State.
Undrafted free agent signed after draft, made quick impression … Replaced both Hayden and Powers when they had injuries, easily could start vs. Saints … Finished with 78 tackles and three INTs, also did well on special teams … Brees will look to go his way, or Powers’ way.
Melvin Bullitt, SS (33), 6-1, 201, 3rd season, Texas A&M.
A revelation in place of star Bob Sanders, who can’t stay healthy … Signed as free agent in 2007, mostly was special-teamer, but started half the games in ’08 and started 12 this season … Missed final two games with injured shoulder … Not as dynamic as Sanders, but makes plays, especially against the run … Could see a lot of Shockey or even Bush over the middle.
Antoine Bethea, FS (41), 5-11, 203, 4th season, Howard.
Somehow, he was not voted to Pro Bowl … A playmaker and leader on defense … Started every game and had to hold secondary together in face of injuries … Had 95 tackles, forced two fumbles and recovered one … Will make his presence felt early.
Pat McAfee, P (1), 6-1, 220, 1st season, West Virginia.
Like Saints, Colts have rookie punter who also kicks off … Had better numbers than Morstead … Had net of 37.8 yards per punt and put 21 inside the 20 … Doesn’t get shaken by tough kicks, but also has kicked indoors in 13 of his games.
Matt Stover, PK (3), 5-11, 178, 20th season, Louisiana Tech.
One of NFL’s all-time kicking leaders, was original Baltimore Raven … Joined Colts this season when Adam Vinatieri (right hip) got hurt in sixth game … Won Super Bowl with Ravens in January 2001 … Made 9 of 11 FGs, all 33 PATS … Very accurate from 40 yards in, does not have long range … A clutch kicker.
Chad Simpson, KR (35), 5-9, 216, 2nd season, Morgan State.
Had two TDs rushing but his role is returning kickoffs … Averaged 23.6 yards, with a 93-yard TD … Signed as undrafted free agent in 2008, spent time on practice squad, but played in postseason loss to San Diego … Hasn’t done much in these playoffs.
T.J. Rushing, PR (20), 5-9, 186, 4th season, Stanford.
Averaged 5.7 yards on punt returns, has also run back some kickoffs … Also has role on coverage teams … Seventh-round pick in 2006 who also plays defensive back.