Sunday, October 17, 2004

Thursday, October 14, 2004

By Len Pasquarelli

Less than two full weeks after being acquired in a trade with the Green Bay Packers, cornerback Mike McKenzie has moved into the New Orleans Saints' starting lineup, bumping the much respected Fred Thomas to the bench in a shakeup of the secondary unit.

The sixth-year veteran will take over, in Sunday's home game against Minnesota, at the left cornerback spot. Incumbent left corner Ashley Ambrose will move into Thomas' former spot at right cornerback. The starting safeties, for now, remain unchanged.

It was just a matter of time, everyone agreed when the Saints added McKenzie, until he gained a starting job. The time arrived when McKenzie demonstrated he that he was fully recovered from a hamstring injury that had limited his playing time in Green Bay.

Other contributing elements -- the underachieving Saints have lost two games in a row, both to teams that were winless when they faced New Orleans, and Thomas has struggled with injuries and inconsistency.

McKenzie faced the Vikings twice annually in division play during his five seasons in Green Bay and remains familiar with Minnesota personnel. He has spent some of the week of preparation counseling his new teammates on the Vikings' wide receivers, especially Randy Moss.

The Saints dealt for McKenzie on Oct. 4, sending the Packers a second-round choice in the 2005 draft and backup quarterback J.T. O'Sullivan. McKenzie was still recovering from the hamstring injury and did not dress for last weekend's game against Tampa Bay.

The veteran cornerback, of course, skipped all of the Packers' offseason conditioning programs, camp, the preseason and the regular-season opener in contract dispute. He reported to the Packers the day after the opener, played nine snaps as a nickel back in the Sept. 19 against the Bears and then missed the next two games with the hamstring injury.

New Orleans officials had been attempting to deal for McKenzie since training camp. It was no secret to Saints player, especially cornerbacks, that a deal might be consummated.

The irony is that the Saints worked hard in the offseason to retain Thomas, who was very close to signing with Philadelphia as an unrestricted free agent. Thomas is one of the acknowledged leaders in the New Orleans locker room.

While disappointed with his demotion, Thomas allowed he has not played to his normal level of consistency because of rib, foot and groin injuries. He will likely assume the nickel role now.

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