Burning Questions for New Orleans Saints Training Camp
The 2012 season was an absolute nightmare for the New Orleans Saints.
A campaign that began with the stigma and suspensions of the "Bountygate" scandal looming over the team ended with the Saints failing to make the playoffs, due in large part to a defense that was among the worst in the NFL in recent memory.
It's that defense that dominates the training camp story lines for the Saints, but the other side of the ball has some noteworthy concerns as well.
Here's a look at some of the biggest questions as the Saints open camp in Metarie.
Can Sean Payton Pick Up Where He Left Off?
Without question, the biggest impact of the "Bountygate" suspensions was the loss of head coach Sean Payton, who was suspended for the entire 2012 season.
Payton's ability to make in-game adjustments was sorely missed by the Saints, who lost five of their nine games by single-digits.
According to Jeff Darlington of NFL.com, a re-energized and fit Payton can't wait to really get down to work.
Listen, it's good to be back. There are a lot of things we have to do, a lot of things we have to improve on. But I'm excited. It's certainly something, when you're removed from it for seven to eight months, you do get anxious.
The players seem impressed with what they've seen of Payton so far this summer. Defensive end Will Smith told Darlington that Payton has "got that energy," and that "Guys are getting fired up about that."
Can Drew Brees Make History...Again?
In 2011, New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees broke the single-season record for passing yardage with 5,476.
In 2012, Brees became the first quarterback in NFL history to top 5,000 passing yards in a season three times. No one else has done it more than once.
At the end of the day, the Saints will go as far as Brees takes them. Three straight 5,000-yard campaigns may seem a tall order, but it's not when you consider Brees and Payton, who have a very close working relationship, haven't had a full offseason to prepare together since 2010.
In 2011, the lockout caused a very truncated offseason.
Last year the "Bountygate" fiasco cast a pall over the Saints' summer.
This year? Nothing's in the way. And that should terrify the defensive coordinators in the NFC South.
Will Rob Ryan Fix the Saints' Defense?
The Saints' defense was absolutely horrific in 2012.
The team ranked near the bottom of the league in several statistical categories, allowing a mind-blowing 440.1 total yards a game, which was over 50 more than the next-closest squad.
With former coordinator Gregg Williams now long gone, the team turned to another big name to fix their defensive woes by hiring Rob Ryan after he was let go from the Dallas Cowboys.
Under Ryan, the Saints will be switching to a 3-4 defensive front, and, while any step is probably a step in the right direction, fans are well served to temper their expectations.
Ryan may talk a big game, telling Mike Triplett of The Times-Picayune that "I think we all have a chip on our shoulder after last season," but Ryan hasn't been at the helm of a top-10 defense since 2006 in Oakland.
Who Is Going to Rush the Passer?
Among the many defensive issues facing the Saints this season is their lack of a pass rush.
The Saints ranked 25th in the National Football League in sacks last year, and the switch in defensive schemes means that many players will now be coming after the quarterback from unfamiliar positions.
Defensive end Cameron Jordan, who paced the team with eight sacks last year, will be asked to display more strength, a requirement for 3-4 ends.
Junior Galette and Will Smith, who combined for 11 sacks in 2012, will now be rushing the passer standing up, after making the switch to outside linebacker.
The Saints have already absorbed a blow in this regard. Outside linebacker Victor Butler, who showed flashes for the Dallas Cowboys last year before joining the Saints in free agency, tore his ACL in OTAs and is lost for the year.
How effectively these players take to their new roles is immensely important for the Saints in 2013, because...
The Secondary Has to Be Better, Right?
In 2012, the New Orleans Saints were one of two teams in the NFL that allowed more than 290 passing yards a game. Only the Tampa Bay Buccaneers surrendered more.
Yes, the Saints pass-wacky offense can skew those numbers a bit, as teams are forced to throw to play catch-up.
However, having the NFL's two worst safeties is a factor as well.
According to Pro Football Focus (subscription required), Roman Harper and Malcolm Jenkins were just that in 2012.
The Saints took steps to upgrade their leaky secondary in the offseason, adding free agent cornerback Keenan Lewis and drafting Texas safety Kenny Vaccaro in the first round.
Those new additions are going to need to gel with their new teammates quickly. Rob Ryan likes to blitz, and lots of blitzes means lots of man coverage.
Will Mark Ingram Finally Live Up to His First-Round Billing?
In 2011, the New Orleans Saints drafted running back Mark Ingram in the first round, hopeful that the former Heisman trophy winner would become the team's lead back.
Since then, it's been injuries and disappointment. Ingram has gained less than 1,100 yards on the ground in his first two NFL seasons combined, and Ingram has yet to average four yards a carry in a season.
If 2013 is going to be Ingram's breakout year, there was no indication of it at Saints' minicamp.
In fact, as Larry Holder of The Times-Picayune pointed out, Ingram spent most of his time practicing with the second team, while Pierre Thomas and Darren Sproles worked with the starters.
Who Will Watch Drew Brees' Blind Side?
For the past several seasons, the job of protecting Drew Brees' backside has fallen to Jermon Bushrod.
Bushrod is now in Chicago, setting the stage for what could easily be the most important training camp battle of 2013 for the Saints.
On one hand, there's Charles Brown, the Saints' second round pick in 2010. Brown filled in at right tackle for a few games last year, but the fourth-year pro has struggled with injuries throughout his brief NFL career.
On the other hand, there's Terron Armstead, a rookie from Arkansas Pine-Bluff, as well as former second overall pick Jason Smith.
Smith has been a colossal bust to this point in his career, and Armstead is very talented but very raw. That would seem to open the door for Brown to seize the job, assuming that he can stay healthy and Lucy doesn't pull the ball away at the last moment.
See what I did there?
Who Will the Starters Be at Inside Linebacker?
Last year, the Saints had a historically bad run defense.
The Saints gave up nearly 150 yards on the ground per game, allowing a mind-bogging 2,361 yards for the season.
A large part of fixing that issue will lie with the inside linebackers in Rob Ryan's 3-4, which creates an interesting problem.
Only one of the leading candidates to man those spots has ever played in a 3-4 defense, and he was absolutely horrible at it.
In fact, that's one of the things that punched Jonathan Vilma's ticket out of New York to begin with.
Still, as Nakia Hogan of The Times-Picayune pointed out recently, it was the 31-year-old Vilma who was working alongside Curtis Lofton with the first team in minicamp.
Vilma wore the "green dot" helmet and made the play calls, and while it's still early, that would seem to indicate that he's entrenched as a starter.
Here's hoping it works out better than 2007, when Vilma's numbers free-fell in a nightmarish season as a 3-4 inside linebacker with the Jets.
Will Jimmy Graham Get Paid?
Tight end Jimmy Graham has established himself as one of the NFL's premier players at his position.
The argument can be made that he's the best in the league at what he does.
However, he's hardly paid like it.
Graham will make less than $1.5 million in the last year of his rookie deal in 2013, and that contract has already been the subject of consternation among the members of Saints Nation.
However, this isn't a situation that's apt to be resolved soon.
As Pat Yasinkas of ESPN reported, no NFL team has more money already committed for 2014 than the Saints' $143.4 million.
That's going to make it hard to find wiggle room for a fat payday for Graham, but you can bet your last nickel that the Saints will slap the franchise tag on Graham before he ever sniffs free agency.
Will Another Receiving Option Emerge?
In Jimmy Graham, Marques Colston and Lance Moore the Saints already a trio of quality options in the passing game. Running back Darren Sproles gives the team a fourth.
Third-year wide receiver Joe Morgan appeared set to lay claim to the role of third wideout and deep threat after averaging nearly 40 yards a catch in 2012, but a recent DUI arrest has opened things up a bit.
However, head coach Sean Payton offered a vote of confidence in Morgan after his arrest, according to Larry Holder of The Times-Picayune, and the speedster would appear to have the edge on the likes of Nick Toon and Chris Givens as training camp gets underway.
Whether he holds onto the job will hopefully be decided on the playing field, and not in the police blotter.