Three thoughts as training camps open around the NFL:
One thing I’m certain of: The New Orleans Saints will be coming to camp on a mission. They’re not happy about what has happened this offseason and they’ve taken on the mindset that the world is against them. That’s going to lead to an increased focus across the board, which is not a bad thing.
This team will miss suspended coach Sean Payton, but the Saints have some very strong veteran leadership. Quarterback Drew Brees has spent his career playing with a chip on his shoulder. After recently becoming the NFL’s highest-paid player, he’ll be out to show the world he deserves it. This team always has fed off Brees’ work ethic and leadership. That’s going to be needed more than ever.
One thing that might happen: I still think there’s a decent chance the Saints will add a pass-rusher at some point in the preseason. They’re putting in a defense, with new coordinator Steve Spagnuolo, that will rely on the front four more than ever. Aside from Will Smith, who is suspended for the first four games, the Saints do not have a proven pass-rusher among their current crop of defensive linemen.
There are high hopes that some young players, such as Junior Galette and Martez Wilson, can emerge as threats. But the Saints don’t have a history of sitting around and waiting for young players to develop. More than any team in the NFC South, they’ve shown a willingness to bring in veterans in recent years. They couldn’t do that early in the offseason because of salary-cap concerns. But now that Brees’ deal is done, the Saints have some cap space to work with. If an experienced pass-rusher is released elsewhere or becomes available via trade, I can see the Saints pouncing.
One thing we won’t see: A rookie in the starting lineup. The Saints didn’t have a pick in the first two rounds of this year’s draft. But this isn’t a team that has even asked many of its first-round picks (see Malcolm Jenkins, Patrick Robinson and Robert Meachem) to start right away. The Saints did a nice job of addressing their needs through free agency.
Defensive tackle Akiem Hicks, a third-round pick, and receiver Nick Toon, a fourth-round choice, might be the only rookies you’ll see much of this season. Hicks has chance to work his way into the rotation with Sedrick Ellis and Brodrick Bunkley. Toon has a chance to be the fourth receiver, behind Marques Colston, Devery Henderson and Lance Moore. At best, Hicks and Toon will be role players this season. But the hope is that those two and the rest of this draft class can make a bigger impact down the road.