With Payton back, Saints head to camp with hope

METAIRIE (AP) — Since Sean Payton returned from his bounty ban in January, the Saints have steered clear of scandal or contract

holdouts in a blissfully uneventful offseason. With the focus back on football, optimism abounds in the Big Easy.

"Here we are, really for the first time in four years, where you feel like this is a normal offseason," quarterback Drew Brees

said recently. "You come to work every day with no distractions other than just focusing on football and getting better."

The 2010 offseason was unusual in that the

Saints were defending champs. In 2011, there was a lockout. Then 2012

was overshadowed

by the NFL's probe of the Saints' cash-for-hits bounty system,

which resulted in suspensions, fines and lost draft picks.

Further complicating matters was Brees' contract holdout, which

ended a couple weeks before 2012 training camp.

Brees still passed for 5,177 yards last

season while leading a unit ranked second in yards per game, but such

production wasn't

enough to get the Saints back to the playoffs for a

fourth-straight season because New Orleans' defense sank to historically

low depths, yielding a single-season record 7,042 yards.

Now that Payton is back, he is refining the prolific offense he created and he's brought in new defensive coordinator Rob


Five things to know about the Saints as training camp arrives:


Payton's record speaks

for itself. He coached six seasons before his suspension and in that

time rebranded

the once-floundering Saints as one of the most exciting teams in

the NFL. With his offenses regularly at the top of the league

and breaking both franchise and NFL records, he led New Orleans to

the playoffs four times, to the NFC title game twice and

to the franchise's first Super Bowl title in 2009-10. In his last

three seasons before his suspension, the Saints made the

playoffs each time, twice racking up 13 regular season wins. In

his return, Payton has brought not only his ability to create

mismatches with his offensive play design, but also the discipline

and intensity to which his players have responded well

in the past.


One of the first

changes Payton made upon his return from suspension was to fire 2012

defensive coordinator

Steve Spagnuolo and hire Ryan. That meant a change from the 4-3

defensive alignment to the 3-4 preferred by Ryan. The change

in scheme has meant a switch in position for several players who

once were considered defensive ends and now will play outside

linebacker, such as Will Smith and Junior Galette. Players say the

adjustment has not been all that difficult because the

Saints effectively were in a 3-4 for a number of their blitz

packages when Gregg Williams was the coordinator from 2009-11.


As defensive

captains Jonathan Vilma and Smith enter their 10th NFL seasons, they are

out to prove

they can be effective in altered roles. Smith played his first

nine seasons at right defensive end. Now he is an outside linebacker,

meaning he may have to drop into pass coverage at times. Vilma has

been most effective as a middle linebacker in a 4-3. While

with the Jets early in his career, he struggled when that club

switched to a 3-4. Now he'll be in a 3-4 again, though Payton

has said he believes Vilma can be effective on the weak side,

while Curtis Lofton will be the strong side middle linebacker.


For the past four

seasons, Brees' blind side has been protected by left tackle Jermon

Bushrod, who left

during free agency for Chicago. The Saints hope 2010 second-round

draft choice Charles Brown is ready to step in as a starter.

Brown has been injury plagued early in his career, leaving coaches

anxious about his reliability. Competing with Brown will

be former St. Louis first-round pick Jason Smith, who is hoping to

reinvigorate his disappointing career in New Orleans, and

2013 third-round pick Terron Armstead.


The Saints have several

young, inexperienced receivers vying for regular playing time behind


Marques Colston and Lance Moore. The front-runner appears to be

Joe Morgan, who joined the club as an undrafted free agent

in 2011 but did not see action in 2012 after spending his rookie

year on injured reserve. Nick Toon, a 2012 fourth-round draft

pick who also spent his rookie year on injured reserve, and rookie

Kenny Stills, a fifth-round pick, also are looking to break

into the lineup.