1. Sean Payton makes a difference. Last year, players and coaches said all the right things during Payton's absence – they knew how he'd want them to proceed, they remembered his teachings, they heard his voice in their heads, etc., etc., etc. Well, having The Man back in his place makes a huge difference, in terms of respect, authority, pace. It makes a difference when everyone knows exactly who's leading, and that they'd better follow, or else. And it makes a difference when the leader has the kind of swagger – earned – that trickles down to every player on the roster. There's a different feel within the organization this season, and Payton is the reason.
2. The defense will be better. The argument could be that, after allowing an NFL-record 7,042 yards last season, it couldn't get worse. But the belief that it'll be better is based on what we've seen through the lens of training camp. True, the view has been limited – only three practices have been completed and the entire system hasn't even yet been installed by defensive coordinator Rob Ryan. But the defense thus far has been an aggressive unit, challenging every pass and harassing runners and, at times Sunday, exhibiting a cantankerous side that coaches probably praised privately, if they didn't do so publicly. Having a new attitude and a few new, key pieces (veteran cornerback Keenan Lewis, rookie safety Kenny Vaccaro) and the healthy return of another (linebacker Jonathan Vilma) helps.
3. Vaccaro is a keeper. He looks like the real deal – a safety that can help in run support and can cover. Vaccaro, in fact, said he favors pass coverage and he certainly seems to possess the skills to do so. He's young, so there will be bumps in the road (he bit on a nice double move during passing drills Sunday). But he has enough skill and swagger to make an impact immediately.
4. Will Smith's move to outside linebacker may not be such a big deal. He says he'll have many of the same responsibilities as an outside linebacker as he did at defensive end. And Ryan named several former defensive ends (DeMarcus Ware, Anthony Spencer, Mike Vrabel) who transitioned to outside linebacker and played fine. Let's assume Smith is practicing with the starting defensive unit for a reason, the reason being that Ryan believes Smith can handle the job.
5. There are opportunities present for a receiver. Behind project starters Lance Moore and Marques Colston is nothing but space and opportunity. Joseph Morgan? Andy Tanner? Nick Toon? Kenny Stills? Courtney Roby? Saalim Hakim? Opportunity is knocking. It'll be interesting to see who answers, and capitalizes. Tanner lined up with the starters in Colston's absence (he's currently on the PUP list) and seemed comfortable with the role. But each of the aforementioned will have a chance to impress and earn snaps. Who will?