Camp Confidential: New Orleans Saints

August, 13, 2014
Aug 13
11:00
AM ET
WHITE SULPHUR SPRINGS, W.Va. -- Drew Brees' strained oblique must have been one of those balance-in-the-universe things.

Although the New Orleans Saints quarterback is expected to be healed in plenty of time for the start of the regular season, the injury that has kept him sidelined for the past two weeks feels like one of those yin-and-yang type of deals. Like something had to go wrong to keep the Saints' training camp from going too smoothly.

Because aside from a handful of injury issues that have crept up this summer, the Saints' camp has been as idyllic as the cool mountain air in their new West Virginia training camp site.

Breakout young talents such as rookie receiver Brandin Cooks and second-year left tackle Terron Armstead have injected some new life into an offense that needed a boost in those two position groups. Meanwhile, the Saints' defense appears to be in better shape than ever during the Sean Payton-Brees era, with defensive coordinator Rob Ryan heading into his second season with even more talent at his disposal.

No, the image of Brees throwing passes to prized free-agent safety Jairus Byrd in street clothes before the start of the preseason opener wasn't exactly an awe-inspiring sight. But if they're both back to 100 percent by the start of the real opener, this team indeed has the feel of a bona fide Super Bowl contender.

THREE REASONS FOR OPTIMISM

1. Cooks has been everything that was advertised and then some. The first-round draft pick from Oregon State has repeatedly flashed his dynamic speed in practices, in the scrimmage and in the preseason opener, when he embarrassed two St. Louis Rams defensive backs with a wicked stop-and-go move. Cooks has also caught almost every pass thrown his way, including some trickier back-shoulder throws and some balls he had to go up and get behind safeties and corners. And he has remained humble and hardworking, demonstrating that the hype isn't going to his head. Although you never want to put too much on any rookie's plate, Cooks really looks like a guy who will help fill that big-play void that started to show up for the Saints last season.

[+] EnlargeCooks
Dilip Vishwanat/Getty ImagesIn the preseason opener, Saints rookie Brandin Cooks had five receptions for 55 yards and a TD.
2. The Saints' run game looks as if it could be a legitimate strength -- or at least a decent complement to the passing game. The blockers and runners alike have hit the ground running this summer after finishing strong last season. Mark Ingram and Khiry Robinson thrived in the preseason opener -- and that was without Pro Bowl guards Jahri Evans and Ben Grubbs in the lineup because of undisclosed injuries. Armstead is emerging as a tremendous young asset. And more than anything, you can tell there is a confidence among all the players and coaches after they figured out what worked (and what didn't) last season when they transitioned to more of a zone-blocking scheme under new line coach Bret Ingalls.

3. The simple law of averages says the Saints have to force more turnovers than in 2013, when they had only four takeaways over their last 11 games, including zero in the playoffs. But they're not just counting on a change in fortune. It's been a huge point of emphasis this offseason, starting with the Byrd signing. You constantly hear players and coaches cheering turnovers on the field or chattering about the opportunities they missed. One of the highlight moments in camp came early, when the entire secondary wildly celebrated after a great team effort by Champ Bailey and Rafael Bush to force, save and recover a fumble.

THREE REASONS FOR PESSIMISM

1. Brees' injury isn't expected to linger into the start of the regular season. And, in his 14th NFL season, he of all people should be able to handle missing preseason games. But it's obviously not ideal for him to be thrown off his routine. And it's a sobering reminder of how fragile the Saints' title chances are if anything happens to their future Hall of Fame quarterback.

[+] EnlargeDrew Brees
AP Photo/Chris TilleyThe Saints' offense is in good hands -- as long as QB Drew Brees is healthy and ready to lead the charge.
2. Another future Hall of Famer, cornerback Bailey, has been dealing with an undisclosed injury that leaves his future -- and the Saints' No. 2 cornerback job -- in limbo. The good news is the Saints have some other decent options, including former starters Patrick Robinson and Corey White. And Robinson, especially, has looked good in his return from a 2013 knee injury. But in general, that No. 2 cornerback job remains as big of a question mark as it was to start the offseason.

3. Let's go with injuries one more time. It was unsettling to see both Evans and Grubbs out of the lineup for much of the past two weeks. Ideally, neither of their ailments will affect the regular season. But it's another reminder the Saints are getting older across the line -- and this coming on the heels of an inconsistent performance across the board in 2013, in part because of Evans' injuries. I still consider the Saints' line a strength. But they are counting on a healthy line since they don't have much proven depth to fall back on beyond their five starters.

OBSERVATION DECK

  • Jimmy Graham remains the Saints' most potent playmaker, even though he missed all of the organized team activities and minicamp in a contract dispute. Graham had the fastest time of any player in the team's conditioning test at the start of camp. And safety Kenny Vaccaro said he thinks Graham looks faster and stronger on the field. Don't forget, Graham is now healthier after dealing with a painful foot injury for the second half of last season. Another monster season could be on the way.
  • The Saints have a lot of young defensive stars still on the rise who could be talked about in similar terms to Graham (end Cameron Jordan, cornerback Keenan Lewis, outside linebacker Junior Galette, Vaccaro and end Akiem Hicks among them). Lewis and Galette seem to be off to the hottest starts so far among that group. But I wouldn't be surprised to see any one of them in the Pro Bowl.
  • None of the Saints' other draft picks has stood out yet. Cornerback Stanley Jean-Baptiste, linebackers Khairi Fortt and Ronald Powell, and safety Vinnie Sunseri have all had their moments in practice and have shown some flashes of long-term potential. But they're also still in that "thinking too much to play at full speed" mode. If I had to pick a first-year player to make an early impact other than Cooks, I might go with Canadian Football League transplant Marcus Ball, a safety/special-teams asset.
  • The center battle between Jonathan Goodwin and second-year pro Tim Lelito is still too close to call. But both players have looked good, for the most part, so the winner should be worthy. This doesn't feel like a significant area of concern.
  • The Saints were hoping the kicker battle wouldn't be a tough call. But veteran Shayne Graham hasn't locked down the job yet in his battle with younger hopeful Derek Dimke, thanks in part to a missed 33-yard extra point in the preseason opener.
  • Second-year quarterback Ryan Griffin has looked great so far, giving him the early edge over veteran Luke McCown in the battle to become Brees' backup. Ideally, neither one of them will see the field this season. But either should be capable of keeping the Saints' loaded offense competitive if needed in a pinch.

Mike Triplett

ESPN New Orleans Saints reporter

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