- Mike Triplett, ESPN Staff Writer
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NFL Nation's Mike Triplett examines the three biggest issues facing the New Orleans Saints heading into training camp.
Offensive line: After ranking among the NFL’s elite units for half a decade, the Saints’ offensive line has suddenly become one of the team’s biggest question marks. It still has a chance to be one of New Orleans’ strengths -- led by Pro Bowl guards Jahri Evans and Ben Grubbs and veteran right tackle Zach Strief -- but the Saints need to clean up the inconsistency they displayed up front last season while also breaking in two new full-time starters at left tackle and center. The line is the key to the Saints’ two biggest priorities on offense this season: running the ball with more consistency and giving Drew Brees time to hit some more explosive plays down the field.
The good news is there’s plenty of reason for optimism: Second-year left tackle Terron Armstead has the potential to be a great player; the Saints have two strong candidates for the center job in youngster Tim Lelito and veteran Jonathan Goodwin; and the line was playing terrific by the end of last season. This was especially true during the playoffs after Strief said they got better at identifying their strengths and weaknesses. They need that progress to continue.
Cornerback: The Saints might be building the NFL’s best secondary east of Seattle, led by young stars such as cornerback Keenan Lewis, safety Kenny Vaccaro and newly signed safety Jairus Byrd. However, they need to find out which other cornerbacks they can rely on among a group loaded with both talent and question marks. None of the candidates are sure things. But with so many options, one or two of them are bound to emerge.
The most intriguing is probably future Hall of Famer Champ Bailey, whom the Saints signed in free agency in hopes that he still has a standout season left in him. Third-year pro Corey White has shown promise, but also some growing pains, so far. Former first-round draft pick Patrick Robinson had a great start to his career but needs to bounce back from his 2012 struggles and a knee injury that wiped out his 2013 season. Second-round draft pick Stanley Jean-Baptiste is a big corner with big potential, but he might need time to develop. Throw second-year pro Rod Sweeting into the mix, and a few other young guys, and this should easily rank as the most compelling position group to watch this summer.
Road woes: If it’s possible to address this issue during training camp, the Saints will find a way. Their struggles on the road last season derailed their Super Bowl chances. They’ve got to find a way to win enough road games in the regular season to make sure they’re playing at home in the playoffs -- where they are truly dominant inside the Mercedes-Benz Superdome. The Saints’ road performance will be especially important early on since they play three of their first four games on the road, including a critical Week 1 showdown at division rival Atlanta.
Coach Sean Payton and Brees were already stressing the importance of their road performance this summer. Although they’re confident in their ability to travel (especially after a playoff win at Philadelphia last season), they’re well aware of the need to handle things such as communication better. Payton broke down statistics for the team this summer and even pumped crowd noise into practices during OTAs -- something he had never done so early in the offseason. If nothing else, they’ll get used to hotel living, as they’ll spend three weeks at their new training camp site at the Greenbrier Resort in West Virginia.