Top Saints camp battles: Defense

The New Orleans Saints entered the next stage of offseason workouts with the start of OTAs on Tuesday. Over the course of four weeks, they’re scheduled to have a total of 15 full-team practice sessions during OTAs and minicamp.

The media will have access to eight of those sessions, starting with Thursday’s OTA practice. Click here for a breakdown of the early camp battles I’m most interested in watching on offense.

Here are the top battles to watch on defense:

1. Cornerback: This will be the most fascinating position to watch on the entire roster this summer. Keenan Lewis is entrenched as the No. 1 guy. Then there are a number of intriguing options battling for the other starting job and backup roles.

As I mentioned in Wednesday’s buzz video, I’m looking forward to seeing future Hall of Famer Champ Bailey in action – especially matching wits with a fellow super-duper-star like quarterback Drew Brees.

I’m also very curious to see how Patrick Robinson bounces back after missing all of last season with a knee injury. I think Corey White is being overlooked as a serious contender for the other starting job now that he has some experience under his belt. Likewise, I think second-year pro Rod Sweeting is being even more overlooked in this crowded field of contenders. And rookie Stanley Jean-Baptiste is an interesting project because of his rare size for the position.

Even the next tier of contenders is filled with some solid roster candidates (Trevin Wade, Terrence Frederick, A.J. Davis, Derrius Brooks). Here’s how I handicapped the field following the draft.

2. Outside linebacker: Junior Galette is also entrenched as the Saints’ top outside linebacker/edge rusher. But there are more intriguing contenders for the other starting spot and backup jobs now than there were a year ago.

Veteran Parys Haralson should resume his part-time starting role as a proven run defender. But it’s possible the Saints will feature more true 3-4 alignments this year now that they have some more pass rushers at their disposal.

Veteran Victor Butler is back after missing all of last season with a torn ACL, and hopes were very high for him last summer. Second-year pro Rufus Johnson spent most of last year on the practice squad but has a year of experience under his belt now. Rookie Ronald Powell may take time to develop, but he has great athletic potential. A few new undrafted rookies will also challenge for roster spots, along with returning backups Keyunta Dawson and Kyle Knox.

We won’t get a great feel for these guys until we start to see full contact in the preseason and some training camp drills. But we’ll at least get a glimpse of how and where they line up in practices.

3. Inside linebackers: Veterans Curtis Lofton and David Hawthorne are set as the starters, and veteran Ramon Humber is a good bet to make the roster as backup and special teams standout. But I’m interested to see if the young guys push for some early playing time. Second-year pro Kevin Reddick, fourth-round draft pick Khairi Fortt and Powell (at the strong-side outside linebacker spot) all could be dynamic enough to force their way into the rotation sooner than later.

4. Special teams: Those guys mentioned above could also make their mark on special teams. The same goes for the guys fighting for backup safety spots like rookie Vinnie Sunseri and Canadian Football League transplant Marcus Ball.

And that’s not to mention this year’s crop of undrafted rookies, who will undoubtedly use special teams as their best path to the big leagues. You may have noticed that the Saints aren’t afraid to give undrafted rookies a serious shot at cracking the roster.

5. Nose tackle: This is only mildly interesting since I figure veteran Brodrick Bunkley and second-year pro John Jenkins will split snaps pretty equally this year at a position where the Saints like to rotate players and keep them fresh. But it will be noteworthy to see if Jenkins pushes Bunkley enough to become “1A” in that rotation this summer.

The rest of the defensive line roles seem pretty clear with Cam Jordan and Akiem Hicks as the starting ends and Glenn Foster and Tyrunn Walker as the top backups. But an undrafted rookie or two could certainly fight their way into the rotation, as well.