1. Brandin Cooks is for real. The rookie receiver lived up to the hype, and then some, at New Orleans Saints training camp. True, every NFL team has had its share of “Training Camp All-Pros,” which may be one of the reasons that Coach Sean Payton has appeared to temper his public enthusiasm regarding Cooks. No doubt, he has seen more than a few flameouts in his day. But, that said, there doesn’t appear to be anything Cooks doesn’t do well. Teammates gushed about him from Day 1 and every day thereafter, he delivered. It’s not just that he’s fast; he’s also shifty, smart (he knows several receiver positions), athletic and appears to have great hands. If the Saints can get him in space – and nobody will figure out ways to do that better than Payton – then he’ll provide highlights all season. If opponents try to take him away, that’ll leave more operating room for his teammates. It’s a win-win situation for the Saints.
2. The jump from Year 1 to Year 2 generally is significant for a player. That certainly seems to be the case for safety Kenny Vaccaro. Vaccaro has dialed back the aggression toward teammates (he tackled almost anything that moved last year as a rookie) while becoming even wiser in Rob Ryan’s defense, and that’s saying something because Ryan called him probably the smartest rookie he has coached. Vaccaro now knows how to align teammates and his responsibilities have decreased with the addition of free agent safety Jairus Byrd and the overall improvement of the defense. If that means he’ll play faster, opposing offenses should beware because Vaccaro is a weapon in coverage, as a rusher and definitely as a tackler.
3. No one on the team has been judged as harshly, or has judged himself as harshly, in the past three seasons as running back Mark Ingram. Ingram has beaten himself to a pulp over errors, lack of production and injuries. But if this training camp and preseason games are any indication, the 2011 first-round pick is ready to put together his best NFL season. Ingram is healthy, fit and decisive as a runner. He’s the Saints’ leading rusher this preseason (21 carries for 148 yards and a touchdown, averaging 7 yards per carry). But he also has shown improvement as a receiver (two catches for 27 yards, and a touchdown) and as a blocker on blitz pickup. We saw a snapshot of the player Ingram could be at the end of last season. He looks even better than he did then. The Saints are hoping for an improved running game from last season and it looks like Ingram is ready to contribute to that goal.
4. A point of emphasis for the Saints entering this season has been forcing more turnovers. This defense, which forced a combined eight in consecutive preseason games against Tennessee and Indianapolis, appears to be a lock to force more than 19 turnovers this season. Obviously, that won’t happen just because the Saints want it to. That’s why the addition of Byrd (22 interceptions and 11 forced fumbles in five NFL seasons) is so important, as well as the improvement of Vaccaro (a forced fumble, sack and interception in consecutive preseason games) and the ability of defensive end Cam Jordan and outside linebacker Junior Galette to master the sack-strip. This group of defensive backs seems better equipped to challenge for footballs and come down with interceptions, and the “population to the football” theory should provide some opportunities to pop the football loose from opposing runners and receivers.
5. It’s a little bit early to engrave an invitation to the Pro Bowl in Hawaii for left tackle Terron Armstead. But the second-year player sure looked the part in training camp, aided by the almost-daily challenge provided by Galette. The Saints ran for 517 yards and four touchdowns on 122 carries, and a two-point conversion, in their final four games last season, including playoffs. Those are the games Armstead started and it was the most productive four-game rushing stretch of the season. Armstead’s athleticism is off the charts (his 4.71-second 40-yard dash at the NFL Combine is the fastest ever for an offensive lineman) and he has gotten better with the confidence that came along with starting the last four games.
6. Byrd may have the best hands on the team. Really. If he makes a one-handed interception, it’s not by accident – he works on it. His recognition and instincts are every bit as good as forecast so if there’s a 50-50 ball in his area, where he has just as good a chance to get to it as the receiver, you should like his chances. A lot.
7. This isn’t a bold prediction, given that it has happened before. But from what we’ve seen in camp, with receiver Marques Colston being healthy and tight end Jimmy Graham being, well, Graham, the two look ready to produce another season in which both have 1,000 receiving yards. Payton has managed Colston’s work in camp and the nine-year receiver has been better off for it. He may be as healthy as he has been in a couple of years. And, as much as anyone, Graham should benefit from the tighter officiating in the secondary. If cornerbacks and safeties are going to be strictly limited to what they can do, he’ll be just about unstoppable. And if teams decide to pay extra attention to him, that’ll only benefit Colston and the rest of the receivers.
8. All the stars seem to be aligned for Akiem Hicks to have a big season. The third-year defensive end has been as ornery on the field as he has been gregarious off it. He’s a mountain of a man who’s big (6 feet 5, 324 pounds) and strong, as evidenced by his ability to toss around almost any offensive lineman one on one. He has been extremely physical and there should be opportunities for him to flourish because one, he plays the run and pass well and should be on the field plenty, and two, with Jordan (12.5 sacks last season) and Galette (12 sacks) bringing the heat from the outside, he should have some favorable matchups when he slides inside on passing downs. Hicks seems poised to accept the challenge.
9. If everyone can stay healthy – a big “if” – the Saints have the kind depth in the secondary that most teams only can dream about. The starters in the base defense will be Keenan Lewis and Patrick Robinson at corner, with Vaccaro and Byrd at safety. The third safety, Rafael Bush, started six games last year and the Saints liked him enough to match Atlanta’s qualifying offer to the then-restricted free agent. He’ll start when the Saints open in a three-safety defense. The third and fourth cornerbacks, right now, are Champ Bailey, the 16-year veteran who’ll possibly be a first-ballot Hall of Famer, and Corey White, who started eight games last season (including playoffs) and started 12 in his first two years. Toss in a couple of promising rookies – safety Vinnie Sunseri and cornerback Stanley Jean-Baptiste – and there’s a lot of quality there. There’ll be injuries; the key is, how severe will they be?
10. Drew Brees isn’t slowing down one bit. If there’s a finish line for him, he’s sprinting through the tape. Even though he missed a good chunk of training camp, and only has played one quarter of preseason, he looks like he hasn’t missed a beat. As good as the Saints offense has been under his direction – he’s the only quarterback in NFL history with multiple 5,000-yard passing seasons (four) – it possibly can be even more efficient this season if the running game is improved and the receivers remain healthy. Brees strained his oblique but showed no ill effects against the Colts. Scoring points rarely has been a problem for the Saints since 2006. It doesn’t look like it’ll be a problem this year, either.