As the summer heat continues its eternal war on the gulf coast, the Crescent City faithful have a renewed pep in their step. Did all of the streets get fixed? Of course not. But, more importantly to many, it’s a perfect day because the New Orleans Saints are at the Greenbrier beginning preparations for the 2016-17 NFL season.
By the end of this week, the Saints will have the helmets and pads on, and the Black and Gold will only be six weeks away from butting heads with the Oakland Raiders in the Superdome on Sept. 11. But, before we get ahead of ourselves, let’s take a look at some Saints camp storylines. And, of course, it all starts with the passing game.
Don’t fall for it again, because some of you did last year. Remember all of the “Drew Brees’ best days are behind him” mumbo-jumbo? Right. And, after that nonsense, Brees lit up the stat sheets for 4,870 yards passing (in 15 games) to go along with 32 touchdowns against 11 picks.
On top of that, Brees had to adjust to new players lining up in the receiving ranks, which, it turns out, he will do again this year, as starters Benjamin Watson and Marques Colston are no longer with the team.
After letting Watson head off to the Ravens, Mickey Loomis and company went out and invested heavily in TE Coby Fleener (five year contract/$36 million total/$14.6 million guaranteed). Fleener isn’t being brought to New Orleans to block, he is here to catch a lot of footballs up the seams. Fleener also must feel blessed, coming from the Andrew Luck passing attack to Drew Brees.
The Saints rely once again on the fleet-footed Brandin Cooks on the outside. Cooks topped 1,000 yards last year, and enters his third season as the undisputed leader of the receiving corps. The Saints will also count on the continued maturation of Willie Snead, who fought his way into a starting role and impressed with 69 catches last year.
The Saints drafted wide receiver Michael Thomas out of Ohio State in the second round. Thomas has the size to make an immediate impact in the NFL and will push Brandon Coleman, who disappeared at times last year, for playing time.
The running back corps will be led by the ever-steady Mark Ingram, who added “pass catcher” to his resume last year, snaring 50 catches out of the backfield. A big question mark for the team is what are they going to get from C.J. Spiller? In 2015, outside of an 80-yard game-winning catch versus Dallas, Spiller was seen mostly on the sidelines instead of the field.
The men in charge of making the running game go and keeping Brees off of his back will be a familiar bunch. Terron Armstead, fresh off a five-year contract extension, and 11-year veteran Zach Strief will hold down the tackle spots. Max Unger will anchor the line at center. The Saints didn’t re-sign Jahri Evans, so Tom Lelito, Senio Kelemete and Andrus Peat – drafted as a tackle out of Stanford, but played at four different positions last year – will compete for the guard positions. Peat will also be competing with Strief for the right tackle position.
The Saints defense was awful last year, but have made some moves to improve this season. First, no more Brandon Browner. Thank god. Moving on, the Saints defense is built around their leader, Cameron Jordan, who enters his sixth season with the ball club. Jordan had a stat-sheet stuffing season last year with 61 tackles, 10 sacks, two recovered fumbles, seven passes defensed and a blocked field goal on his way to his second Pro Bowl.
The Saints went out and signed fellow 2011 first round draft pick Nick Fairley to bolster the D line. Fairley comes off of a solid campaign with the St. Louis Rams and will be joined by John Jenkins, Tyler Davidson and 2016 first round draft pick, out of Louisville, Sheldon Rankins along the interior line.
The defensive end position, opposite Jordan, seemed to belong to Hau’oli Kikaha, after an admirable “baptism by fire” performance as a rookie. Unfortunately, Kikaha tore his ACL during off-season workouts, ending his 2016 campaign. Kasim Edebali might get first crack at this spot during passing situations. Edebali, a third-year pro, had some good games for the team last year. Most notably, in the Thursday night 31-21 victory over the Atlanta Falcons, in which Edebali recorded three solo tackles and one sack.
Six words about the Saints linebacking unit – Stephone Anthony, Stephone Anthony, Stephone Anthony. It was a history-making performance in 2015 by Anthony, as he recorded 144 tackles (99 solo), which are the most by a Saint since the legendary Rickey Jackson’s 125 tackles in 1981. This year, Anthony will move from middle linebacker to the strong side, as veteran free agent Jim Laurinaitis takes over the defensive play calling. It’s going to be fun watching Anthony, who may be on the path to superstardom.
The defensive backfield will be held down by the “Crescent City Connection” – Keenan Lewis and Delvin Breaux. Hopefully Lewis, that is, as the eight-year veteran is rehabbing from a hip injury that limited him to six games in 2015. On the other corner, Breaux looks to build off a sterling rookie campaign in which he led the team with three interceptions and 23 passes defensed. A welcome return to the defensive backfield ranks will be P.J. Williams, the Saints 2015 third round draft pick out of Florida State, whose rookie season was lost to a hamstring injury.
High priced acquisition Jairus Byrd enters his third season with the team, carrying a ton of high expectations. Byrd joins the stalwart Kenny Vaccaro at safety. Vaccaro posted personal career highs in tackles (136), solo tackles (87), and sacks (3) last season. Second round draft pick out of Ohio State, Vonn Bell, looks to fight for playing time.
Training camp is for figuring out what you have and what you need. After 2015, obvious changes needed to be made, and the Saints have made some. Now, if they can put the injury bug behind them and gel on defense, those changes might bear some fruit. Happy camping, everyone!
And like a fine wine with a steak dinner, every game should be accompanied by a beverage and song.
Beer Pairing: Lazy Magnolia Brewery’s “Song of the South” Berliner Weiss
Playlist Recommendation: Anders Osborne, “Summertime in New Orleans”
Around the Way
Props to everyone involved in the 2nd annual “Jarvis Landry Giveback” mentoring event. Landry, wide receiver of the Miami Dolphins, returned to Lutcher High School, to hold the private event for disadvantaged youth. According to nola.com, the event was attended by over 100 boys – who received a lunch and, of course, hit the gridiron for some practice drills. But, most importantly, they heard a speech by Landry about overcoming obstacles and giving back to the community. Also, Landry announced that he has created a Building Winners Academic Scholarship fund, which will be awarded annually to a Lutcher High School senior upon graduation. Kudos.