And on the sixth day, there was hitting. After five days of the CBA-mandated non-padded practices, The MMQB Training Camp Tour finally got to see real football when the Saints strapped on the pads and started popping each other on the grounds of The Greenbrier in White Sulfur Springs, W.Va. What a tremendous job by the people at The Greenbrier to get the facility—a large office building with two grass fields and a turf field—ready in just three short months. And what a great decision by coach Sean Payton and general manager Mickey Loomis to move their camp from New Orleans, where the heat can drain the players. Camp Greenbrier got off to a soggy start, but it’s much cooler than the Saints’ normal home.
One vivid memory from watching practice
On roughly the fourth play of live drills, defensive end Junior Galette slashed through the Saints’ offensive line to nail the running back. He then proceeded to trash-talk fullback Erik Lorig for failing to block him. Ah, real football.
How this team can go 12–4
If they stay healthy, especially on the defensive side (where they were ravaged by injuries last season) and veterans like cornerback Champ Bailey, right guard Jahri Evans, linebacker Curtis Lofton and right tackle Zach Strief don’t lose a step (I have concerns about the first three, but not Strief) that record is very much within reach.
How this team can go 4–12
Not happening, unless the unthinkable happens to Drew Brees. The other quarterbacks on the roster (Luke McCown, Ryan Griffin and Logan Kilgore) inspire zero confidence.
Now, from Fantasyland …
1. There is going to be quite a battle between Robert Meachem, first-round pick Brandin Cooks, Nick Toon and Joe Morgan to see who gets the nod to be third and fourth on the receiving depth chart. Cooks looks to be exactly as advertised: an explosive playmaker. It will just be a matter of getting the playbook down and earning the trust of Drew Brees before he replaces the production of running back Darren Sproles in the passing game.
2. Not sure there is a more frustrating fantasy position out there than the Saints’ running back spot. Pierre Thomas, Mark Ingram, Khiry Robinson and Travaris Cadet are all talented, and nobody’s going to be a workhorse. It might be best to keep any eye on them as the season wears on; you might be able to pick up a sleeper if one of them goes down with injury and someone else gets more touches as a result.
3. It will be interesting to see how tight end Jimmy Graham responds this year; he often came up short in big games last season when challenged by the best defensive backs in the game. One would think that would be good for Graham in the long run now that the shortcomings in his game were shoved in his face.
How I project the lineup, with competitive spots in bold:
|WR||Marques Colston||LDE||Akiem Hicks|
|LT||Terron Armstead||NT||Brodrick Bunkley|
|LG||Ben Grubbs||RDE||Cameron Jordan|
|C||Jonathan Goodwin/Tim Lelito||OLB||Junior Galette|
|RG||Jahri Evans||ILB||David Hawthorne|
|RT||Zach Strief||ILB||Curtis Lofton|
|TE||Jimmy Graham||OLB||Parys Haralson/Victor Butler|
|WR||Kenny Stills||CB||Keenan Lewis|
|WR||Robert Meachem/Brandin Cooks/Nick Toon/Joe Morgan||CB||Champ Bailey/Patrick Robinson/Corey White|
|QB||Drew Brees||SS||Kenny Vaccaro|
|RB||Pierre Thomas||FS||Jairus Byrd|
|FB||Erik Lorig||3rd CB||Patrick Robinson/Corey White|
|K||Shayne Graham/Derek Dimke||P||Thomas Morstead|
Best new player in camp
Brandin Cooks, wide receiver. At least while Jairus Byrd is on the PUP list. Cooks is a natural pass catcher and an electric playmaker with the ball in his hands.
Strong opinion that I may regret by November
Former Broncos cornerback Champ Bailey is not going to help this team as much as the Saints had hoped. He’s extremely average at this point. He’s lost a step, is much stiffer in the hips and is relying even more on his mind to make plays. It’s early, but it would not be a shock if Bailey, who has just $500,000 guaranteed on his contract, doesn’t make the team. The Saints have some promising young defensive backs who might have to be kept. Undrafted free agent Pierre Warren, for instance, was making plays all over the field.
Something I’ve never seen before
On at least three different occasions, Sean Payton told the team to take a four-minute water break. Don’t think I’ve ever seen that, even during practices in extreme heat.
What I thought when I walked out of camp
I like this team a lot, and it’ll be one of the most battle-tested teams come the playoffs. The Saints have a legit chance to start the season 6-0 before starting an eight-game stretch that can be described in no other way but brutal: vs. Packers, at Panthers, vs. 49ers, vs. Bengals, vs. Ravens, at Steelers, vs. Panthers, at Bears. If defensive coordinator Rob Ryan has a healthy unit for most of the season (unlike his 2012 season in Dallas or last year in New Orleans), the Saints will be a very formidable team, especially if they learned from their struggles against more physical teams.