It's been awhile – since the beginning of the 2014 regular season, to be exact – since the New Orleans Saints entered training camp as the hunted, rather than the hunter.
Then, they were attempting to follow up an 11-5 regular season and wild card playoff victory in 2013, with optimism oozing throughout fandom that New Orleans was poised to take another step toward a Super Bowl appearance.
Now, after three consecutive 7-9 seasons, it's the reigning NFC South Division-champion Saints, winners of 11 regular-season games and a wild card playoff matchup – and a whisker away from advancing to the NFC championship game – who enter training camp as the team that division opponents will look to push off the hill.
Undoubtedly, for New Orleans, this view is preferable. Here's a six-pack to crack open during training camp, a few things to watch that could help the Saints extend their stay atop the South.
- It's hard to think of a time when the secondary has looked more promising. Begin with starting cornerbacks Marshon Lattimore, the NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year, and Ken Crawley, and mix in free agent signee Patrick Robinson, a Super Bowl champion who was one of the league's best slot corners last year. Slide over to safety, which looks more than solid: Marcus Williams is back after a standout rookie season, Kurt Coleman is a veteran presence and a productive thumper who wants to be in the middle of the action and has shown he can handle the challenge, and Vonn Bell continues to make plays, play starter snaps and make the three-safety packages viable. The depth behind those six will have to be sorted out (there's talent there, which is another reason to be optimistic), but New Orleans has a secondary crop that possibly will look even better on the field than it does on paper.
- Don't get hung up on who'll start at which linebacker position, or who'll be the play-caller. Not just yet. Just focus on the quality and the depth that the Saints have at the position, which probably makes it the deepest it has been since Sean Payton became Saints coach. Demario Davis was a signature addition in free agency this year. A.J. Klein was the prize free agent signee last year and looked to be ascending before he was injured. Alex Anzalone was a Game 1 starter last season as a rookie. Craig Robertson has started 27 of the 31 regular-season games he has played for the Saints the last two seasons. Manti Te'o arguably finished 2017 playing the best football of his NFL career. Nate Stupar, a valuable special team player, also has shown he's able to play defensive snaps. New Orleans is in better position to withstand injuries than it has been in a while. Competition will be fierce in camp.
- Gotta stay with the defensive theme for just a while longer, because rookie defensive end Marcus Davenport will generate tons of focus. Let's not just hand over the job to him; Alex Okafor was having the best season of his NFL career before he ruptured his Achilles and if Okafor returns to form, he'll play a significant amount of snaps. Plus, Trey Hendrickson was productive in the rotation as a rookie, and he shows real promise. But Davenport's real NFL education begins in camp. He will be tutored by one of the best in the league in defensive end Cam Jordan, who possibly was the most disruptive defensive player in the league last season. And Davenport should get reps against two of the league's best offensive tackles, Terron Armstead on the left and Ryan Ramczyk on the right. If that doesn't accelerate his growth, nothing will.
- Speaking of Armstead, he needs to finish camp healthy. He's a stud when healthy, but he hasn't been, having missed 15 of 32 regular-season games the previous two seasons. Obviously, it's most important that he's available for regular-season games but, still, no one wants to see him get nicked up during camp.
- We should get a taste of what Taysom Hill is as a quarterback. The second-year player, who made a splash on special teams last year – a testament to his athleticism and willingness to do whatever was necessary to get on the field – will battle veteran Tom Savage for the backup job behind Drew Brees. And it'll be interesting to see how Hill fares in practice and preseason games. He's an intriguing prospect, to say the least, and it should be a lively competition between him and Savage.
- Statistically, Benjamin Watson had his best NFL season with New Orleans in 2015. The Saints don't need the 37-year-old to replicate his 74 catches, 825 yards and six touchdowns from then, but they do need him to be a viable offensive option. Tight end was one of the team's least productive positions numbers-wise; blocking was fine (check out the Saints' rushing yards and touchdowns from last year), but receiving was abysmal for a team that has had some monstrous seasons from the position, including Watson's. He wasn't brought back just to be a steadying force, locker room voice and community leader. He was brought back to help make the position as productive as possible, and he remains an athletic marvel. He'll tutor in between blocks and receptions.
Check out the best defensive photos from Saints Minicamp presented by Verizon