Ten storylines to monitor as the New Orleans Saints enter 2017 training camp presented by Verizon
1: Adrian Peterson
To Saints fans that are eager to see running back Adrian Peterson unleashed during training camp, we offer a word of advice courtesy of Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers: R-E-L-A-X. Relax. There’s nothing to be gained by unnecessarily overworking Peterson during camp or preseason. Peterson falls into this category for Coach Sean Payton – you don’t have to see the goods every day, but you have to see them. During OTAs and minicamp, all indications were that the Saints saw plenty enough to be enthused by the player who is No. 2 among active rushers, with 11,747 yards in his first 10 seasons. The injury and surgery that limited him to three games last year are in the rear view, but don’t just assume he’ll take over as the starter, either. Mark Ingram is coming off the best season of his career, and has proven to be effective over the years despite limited touches. Ingram knows the system better, has been very productive in it and has a rapport that can’t be underestimated. The competition should elevate the performance of each.
2: The Heat
It’s hot, and the heat is going to take a toll. That’s part of the price to be paid when training camp is held in Metairie, La., instead of White Sulphur Springs, W. Va. Now, that’s not to suggest that training camp in West Virginia softened the Saints or that they were coddled – that’s a ridiculous premise. But the ability to mentally fight through the adversity that will be faced due to the heat and humidity undoubtedly will help the Saints. The positive is that this isn’t ’06 or ’07 in Jackson, Miss. There are no two-a-days to fight through, so that’ll help. Still, it will be difficult and nothing bonds a team like a collective dose of adversity.
Do the Saints finally have a linebacker corps they believe can be effective? Well, they can’t be accused of sitting idle, crossing their fingers and hoping for improvement from the players who already were on the roster. So in the offseason, they picked up free agents A.J. Klein and Manti Te’o, and drafted Alex Anzalone. They’ll join Craig Robertson, Dannell Ellerbe and Nate Stupar (who all started games last season) and Stephone Anthony (a rookie starter two years ago) to give the Saints depth and competition. A healthy Ellerbe (knock wood) singularly elevates the group because of all the things he can do, including rush the passer. Defensive coordinator Dennis Allen has some chess pieces; training camp will go a long way toward showing him the best way to use them.
4: Ted Ginn Jr. Jr.
When the Saints signed free agent receiver Ted Ginn Jr., all indications were that he has been a better player in the second half of his first 10 seasons than he was in the first half; particularly, his last two seasons in Carolina (a total of 98 catches for 1,491 yards and 14 touchdowns in 2015 and ’16). New Orleans needs a continuation of that. With Brandin Cooks traded to New England, Ginn is the proven deep threat on the roster and even at the age of 32, he still appears to be the fastest man on the field. The added bonus is that he also should juice up the punt return game.
5: Brandon Coleman
The time has come for receiver Brandon Coleman to consistently display the ability that frequently he flashes, but too often isn’t used. The 6-foot-6, 225-pounder routinely has played smaller and less forceful than his size would indicate, and the frequency of his drops has perplexed. New Orleans is set with its top three receivers (Ginn, Michael Thomas and Drew Brees). But there’s a reason the Saints have kept Coleman around, and it’s time for him to show why. Otherwise, someone else (Corey Fuller, perhaps?) is poised to take his reps and maybe, his roster spot.
6: Offensive Line
The offensive line likely is in much less disarray than circumstances might have suggested. First, center Max Unger may return by the third preseason game and if that happens, the line has its anchor. If it doesn’t, Josh LeRiebus was a starter two years ago for Washington and smoothly transitioned into the lineup during OTAs and minicamp. Second, if left tackle Terron Armstead misses the season due to shoulder surgery, the Saints’ contingency plan with Armstead being out (Andrus Peat kicks out to left tackle from left guard, Senio Kelemete starts at left guard) worked well for the majority of last season (Peat had 10 starts at LT, Kelemete had nine at LG). The reason to monitor the unit is to see how rookie tackle Ryan Ramczyk progresses. He was a left tackle at Wisconsin, is slated to work in at right tackle as a Saint, but perhaps could be called upon at left tackle if the Saints want to keep Peat at guard, a position which Peat appears to be mastering well.
7: Sheldon Rankins
Defensive tackle Nick Fairley, who may not play again due to his heart ailment, will be missed, and not just because he had the best season of his NFL career (6.5 sacks) last year. He also was a good presence in the locker room. But Sheldon Rankins, New Orleans’ 2016 first-round pick, could be ready to put on a show. Rankins broke his leg in training camp last year, missed half of the regular season, and still had four sacks in eight games. He wants to be a dominant player and looks like he can be.
#8: Defensive Backfield
On paper, the cornerback position is capably manned. The trick is getting what’s on paper to the field and keeping it there. Starters Delvin Breaux and P.J. Williams were injured in the first (Breaux) and second (Williams) games of the ‘16 season, and neither returned to form (Breaux clearly wasn’t the same in the remaining five games he played after breaking his fibula, and Williams missed the rest of the season due to his severe concussion). They’re back, again poised to start and if they’re on the field, then having Sterling Moore and Ken Crawley back (starters for most of last year) will be a significant help, as will the addition of first-round draft pick Marshon Lattimore, who was considered the best corner in the 2017 draft. The talent is there; improved coverage will be a huge assist in helping the pass rush.
#9: Alex Okafor
The Saints have been searching for an impact player at right defensive end for the last several seasons (as irritating as it may be to admit, since Junior Galette was sent packing). Alex Okafor gets his turn at bat during training camp. Considering the attention that Cam Jordan attracts on the left side, and the possibility that Rankins will give opponents fits in the middle, Okafor could flourish. He should solidify his standing during camp.
10: Alvin Kamara
Perhaps no rookie bears watching more than running back Alvin Kamara, the third-round pick whom the Saints believe can be used in the Reggie Bush/Darren Sproles role on offense and special teams. That’s high praise and high expectations, and Kamara just may be the player who can touch that high ceiling for New Orleans. The team believes he can be a productive runner, knows he can be an outstanding receiver and is the kind of variable that can give opposing defenses fits. Kamara could be this year’s Michael Thomas of the rookie class. He may not break as many records as did Thomas last year, but he could have a jarring impact in his role.