5 Biggest Areas of Concern for the New Orleans Saints Heading into Training Camp
On paper, New Orleans appears to have assembled one of its strongest, deepest squads in several years. The Saints boast a roster studded with playmakers on both offense and defense, along with a future Hall of Fame quarterback calling the shots under center.
Coach Sean Payton’s squad has benefited from a number of significant offseason personnel moves, and the ultimate goal is a berth in the Super Bowl next February.
New Orleans may be a team with great potential, but that doesn’t mean the club is free of question marks heading into the upcoming season.
If the Saints are to make a run for a championship this year, they can’t afford for the following areas of concern to become glaring weaknesses. Here, ranked in order of least concerning to most concerning, are New Orleans’ five biggest question marks for the 2014 season.
5. No. 2 Cornerback Position
Keenan Lewis mans the Saints’ No. 1 cornerback position, and he’s looking to build on an excellent 2013 season.
The No. 2 spot, however, is still very much up in the air.
Corey White, Patrick Robinson and Champ Bailey are all competing for the starting position on the outside, and all three have a realistic shot at earning the job.
White filled in for the injured Jabari Greer midway through the season last year, and he experienced both peaks and valleys. He finished the season with 41 tackles, an interception and a forced fumble, while gaining valuable playing experience.
Robinson, meanwhile, missed most of last season with a knee injury. He was the Saints’ first-round draft choice in 2010, but he’s struggled for the better part of his time in New Orleans. He’s yet to play a full season under second-year defensive coordinator Rob Ryan, however, and 2014 could be the year in which he finally puts it all together.
As for Bailey, the 12-time Pro Bowler undoubtedly has bundles of wisdom to impart to White and Robinson, but he isn’t ready to bow out and hand over the job just yet. The former Denver Bronco endured an injury-riddled campaign in 2013, and he’ll be looking to remove the bitter taste of last season’s devastating Super Bowl loss from his mouth.
Whoever emerges victorious in this camp battle will receive the responsibility of taking on the opposition’s No. 2 wideout each week, and more and more NFL teams—including NFC South rivals Tampa Bay and Atlanta—are featuring two or more playmakers at wide receiver. That’s why it’s important for Payton, Ryan and the New Orleans coaching staff to make the right decision from the get-go.
4. Replacing Key Contributors in the Passing Game
Over the past eight years, the Saints have become known throughout the NFL for their prolific pass offense.
This past offseason, however, the team parted ways with two of their most important weapons in the passing game over the last three seasons. Running back Darren Sproles and wide receiver Lance Moore posted impressive receiving numbers during their Saints careers, but salary-cap issues, along with age, contributed to the departures of both.
Replacing their production won’t be easy, but the Saints have two wideouts who are capable of answering the challenge in Kenny Stills and Brandin Cooks.
Stills, entering his second season, led the NFL with an average of 20.0 yards per reception last year. He’s fast and explosive, and he can go up and make spectacular catches in traffic. The 2013 fifth-round draft choice hauled in 32 catches last year, which isn’t bad for a rookie, but he’ll have to increase his production in a big way this season.
New Orleans traded up to nab Cooks in the first round of this year’s draft, and his speed and elusiveness in the open field could prove to be quite difficult for opposing defensive coordinators to game plan against.
The chances of Stills and Cooks equaling, even surpassing, the production of Sproles and Moore are realistic, but until they actually do it on the field, this area will remain a question mark.
3. Run Defense
New Orleans pulled off a remarkable defensive turnaround in 2013, as Ryan’s unit finished the season as the NFL’s fourth-ranked defense.
The Saints fielded the league’s No. 2-ranked pass defense, but the run defense was nothing to boast about. New Orleans finished the season ranked No. 19 in that category, which leaves plenty of room for improvement this year.
The addition of free agent safety and three-time Pro Bowler Jairus Byrd should be of great benefit, as his elite coverage range in the secondary will allow hard-hitting strong safety Kenny Vaccaro to be utilized more often in run support.
Inside linebackers Curtis Lofton and David Hawthorne were much improved last season after their dreadful 2012 campaigns, but there’s still room for both players to step up their play even more in 2014.
Up front, starting nose tackle Brodrick Bunkley returns, but his backup, 360-pound run-stopper John Jenkins, has a pectoral injury and will begin training camp on the Player Unable to Perform (PUP) list.
To compensate for Jenkins’ absence, New Orleans recently signed undrafted free-agent nose tackle Tyrone Ezell, who could be called upon early in the season.
2. Kickoff/Punt Returner
When the Saints traded Darren Sproles to Philadelphia, they lost not only a key contributor on offense but their punt returner and primary kickoff return man.
In 2013, Sproles was not as explosive as he was during his first two seasons in New Orleans, but he was still the Saints’ best option in the return game. Now that he’s no longer in the fold, special teams coordinator Greg McMahon will have to find a capable replacement.
The most likely choice is running back Travaris Cadet. The third-year man returned nine kickoffs in 2013 for a 26.6-yard average, but this season would be his first bringing back punts.
If Cadet has any competition for the spot, it will likely come from Cooks. The rookie wideout returned 12 punts for 72 yards last season for Oregon State, and he returned eight kickoffs for the Beavers in 2011 for a 22.3 yard average.
Wide receiver Joseph Morgan could also make a push, but the safe bet is on Cadet seizing the role before the season opener.
1. Starting Center
The biggest question mark for the Saints heading into camp is the starting center position.
New Orleans parted with ways this offseason with Brian de la Puente, who started for the Black and Gold for the past three years.
The frontrunner for the job is Tim Lelito, who served as a backup interior lineman in 2013. The second-year player saw action in 16 games last season, including two starts at guard, but thrusting him into the starting lineup at such an important position could be somewhat of a risky move on Payton’s part.
Lelito won’t be handed the job, however, without first beating out free-agent acquisition Jonathan Goodwin. The 13-year veteran is a familiar name among Saints fans, as he spent five years with the club from 2006-2010. He started on New Orleans’ 2009 Super Bowl championship squad, but he’s spent the last three seasons in San Fransisco.
The 35-year-old Goodwin could push Lelito for the job, but youth is likely to prevail in what should be an interesting camp battle.