Last Modified: Tuesday, July 23, 2013 7:53 PM
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
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
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:
1) PAYTON'S PRESENCE
Payton's record speaks
for itself. He coached six seasons before his suspension and in that
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.
2) DIFFERENT DEFENSE
One of the first
changes Payton made upon his return from suspension was to fire 2012
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.
3) VETERAN ADJUSTMENTS
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.
4) BREES' BLINDSIDE
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.
5) YOUNG RECEIVERS
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.