With a few departed pieces on offense and a defense in the middle of a philosophical transition, the New Orleans Saints are heading into training camp with a number of intriguing position battles ready to unfold.
While the Saints return 10 starters on offense, losing Jermon Bushrod and Chase Daniel in free agency has opened up competition for both the left tackle position and the backup quarterback role. On defense, few positions are set in stone outside of the starting cornerbacks, inside linebacker Curtis Lofton and defensive end Cameron Jordan.
The Saints will now use training camp as a proving ground for answers to each position battle.
Below, we'll break down each of the most important positional battles set to take place in New Orleans this summer.
1. Left Tackle
Candidates: Terron Armstead, Charles Brown, Jason Smith
The Saints defense is starved for improvement across the board, but the most important positional battle this summer might just be at left tackle. The goal will be to replace the aforementioned Bushrod, a former Pro Bowler who left New Orleans during free agency this offseason.
Three intriguing names will have a legitimate shot at filling Bushrod's job on the blind side of quarterback Drew Brees: Armstead, a third-round pick in the 2013 NFL draft; Brown, a former second-round pick from 2010; and Smith, the No. 2 overall pick in 2009.
If draft position guaranteed results, the Saints would have more depth at left tackle than any club in the NFL.
However, we know that isn't the case.
Brown has started just eight games while battling numerous injuries over three NFL seasons. Smith, who has dealt with three different concussions, came into the NFL as a highly regarded prospect but then struggled at left tackle with the St. Louis Rams. Armstead is tremendously athletic for a left tackle, but he will be transitioning from a small-school program to the NFL as rookie in 2013.
The Saints will hope one of the three can overcome their deficiencies and grab hold of the most important position on the offensive line.
Having three years of experience in the Saints offense likely gives Brown the first legitimate crack at winning the job, and a strong camp from him might make the decision an easy one for Sean Payton.
Armstead and Smith are intriguing, however.
Standing 6'5" and weighing 306 pounds, Armstead ran the 40-yard dash in 4.71 seconds at the NFL combine this year. His athleticism at the position is rare, but he's also raw coming from FCS school Arkansas Pine-Bluff. He'll need to be a quick study in the Saints offense to be the Week 1 starter.
Smith might be the sleeper. While mostly a bust for the Rams, Smith is getting a fresh start and a brand new opportunity in New Orleans. There are times when a player with so much natural talent simply needs a change of scenery for the light to finally come on.
By the time September rolls around, though, the Saints won't care which of the three is starting. The offense just needs to feel comfortable with one of these guys protecting their $100 million-quarterback.
2. Outside Linebacker
Candidates: Junior Galette, Will Smith, Martez Wilson
The loss of Victor Butler to a potentially season-ending ACL injury is a tough blow for a unit in transition. But Butler's absence also helps clean up the positional battle at edge rusher, with two spots now likely coming down to just three players.
The experiment with Smith at outside linebacker will be one to watch. A 4-3 defensive end his entire career, Smith weighs 282 pounds and isn't a great fit for standup linebacker. But the Saints will give the veteran pass-rusher every opportunity to prove he belongs at the new position.
More than likely, Galette and Wilson will emerge in camp.
Galette stands 6'2" and 258 pounds—a more prototypical size for a 3-4 outside linebacker—and has natural pass-rushing skills. Over the last two seasons, he has used his athleticism and a surprising spin move to record 9.5 sacks.
Wilson, who transitioned to defensive end in New Orleans after playing linebacker at Illinois, has experience rushing the quarterback in a two-point stance. His build (6'4", 252 pounds) also fits much better for a 3-4 outside linebacker than 4-3 defensive end.
Used mostly in a limited role his first two seasons, Wilson recorded just 29 tackles and four sacks.
However, losing Butler likely opens up the strong-side slot for Wilson to start, with Galette and Smith battling to be the primary pass-rusher on the weak side.
New defensive coordinator Rob Ryan understands that improving the Saints defense will fall heavily on the transition of the pass-rushers at outside linebacker. Even without Butler, there should be a comfort level in the having three players battle for two spots this summer.
Candidates: Malcolm Jenkins, Kenny Vaccaro, Roman Harper, Jim Leonhard, Isa Abdul-Quddus
The safety situation in New Orleans is complicated, and not only because of the numbers. The Saints currently have four safeties with starting experience, plus a first-round rookie, but Ryan won't be afraid to use packages that get three safeties onto the field.
The goal now is to sort out the mess.
Harper and Jenkins represented the worst starting-safety combination in football last season, and it wasn't really close. According to Pro Football Focus (subscription required), Harper and Jenkins graded out as the 87th and 88th best safeties last season, respectively. Only 88 safeties qualified for the ranking.
Their collective struggles—plus the 7,042 passing yards allowed last season by the New Orleans defense—forced the Saints to draft Vaccaro, arguably the 2013 draft class' best safety. Unless he struggles mightily in camp and the preseason, he'll be a heavy favorite to receive playing time right away.
If that's the case, the Saints will have to decide on whether Jenkins, Harper, Leonhard or Abdul-Quddus is most qualified to start alongside the rookie.
It's also possible that Jenkins or Vaccaro could move down to slot cornerback in some formations, setting up the ability to have three safeties on the field. Jenkins arrived in the NFL as a cornerback, while Vaccaro received experience playing near the line of scrimmage and in the slot while at Texas, so the assignment would not be foreign to either player.
Adding Leonhard, a 30-year-old safety who spent last season in Denver, is another interesting wrinkle. He has experience playing in a Ryan 3-4 defense (he spent three years with Rex Ryan in New York) and could help mentor the younger guys at the position, especially Vaccaro.
Abdul-Quddus, 23, has started four games as an injury fill-in the past two seasons.
The Saints will hope that adding to the talent base at safety will decrease the amount of miscues made at the position next season. If three safeties do see the field at volume in 2013, the position figures to be an important one for the Saints defensive turnaround.
Backup Quarterback: Losing Chase Daniel has forced the Saints to get creative in order to fill the No. 2 quarterback role. While Luke McCown and Seneca Wallace both offer NFL starting experience, neither possess great upside at the position. Rookie Ryan Griffin will likely compete for a practice-squad spot.
Inside Linebacker: Lofton's starting spot is guaranteed, but who plays alongside him might still need an answer. While Jonathan Vilma is one of the longest-tenured Saints, David Hawthorne has starting experience and could push for playing time. One of the veterans will start with Lofton.
Backup Receivers: Marques Colston and Lance Moore should be the top receivers, and Joe Morgan remains the Saints' best vertical threat. However, there's much uncertainty after the top three. Kenny Stills and Nick Toon are young and capable, but Stills is rookie fifth-rounder and Toon is coming off a lost 2012 season. The Saints are taking 12 receivers into camp, so there will be plenty of competition pushing the two favorites.
Defensive End: Cameron Jordan is a lock to start at one spot, but the Saints will use camp to decide who plays opposite him. Akiem Hicks, who stands 6'5" and weighs 318 pounds, is the heavy favorite. But don't count out veteran Kenyon Coleman, who Ryan brought with him to New Orleans from Dallas. He's strong against the run and will push for snaps. Even Brodrick Bunkley could be a candidate for time on the edge.
Nose Tackle: Every good 3-4 defense needs a plugger in the middle, and it appears as though 2013 second-round pick John Jenkins will play that role. He certainly fits the bill; Jenkins weighs almost 350 pounds and is more athletic than he looks. Hicks and Bunkley could also see time on the inside, depending on the situation.
Nickel Cornerback: The Saints signed Keenan Lewis, which gives the defense two starting cornerbacks (the other being Jabari Greer). Now, the goal will be to find out who is capable enough to play on the inside of the nickel. Patrick Robinson has been a huge disappointment, but he'll get a chance to be the guy. The same goes for Corey White, who saw plenty of time at nickelback in 2012. Jenkins and Vaccaro might play down near the line in some sets, too.