For the New Orleans Saints to play to the level they hope to achieve this season, the players who are counted on to produce big – like quarterback Drew Brees, receiver Brandin Cooks, defensive end Cam Jordan – will have to produce on par with the expectations they've created. But there will have to be a few pleasant surprises, too. Here, possibly, are five of them:
1. On your Ps and Js. Cornerback P.J. Williams didn't play a single regular-season down last year, sidelined by injury and surgery as a rookie. So having him now almost is like the Saints received a bonus draft pick this year and from what we've seen, we can determine why Williams was so highly regarded coming out of Florida State. His cover skills appear to be very sound, to the point where he should be a regular presence on the field. Williams possibly could start if Keenan Lewis isn't quite back from his surgery and rehabilitation, and undoubtedly will be key in the Saints' sub-packages. No team can have too many good cornerbacks, and Williams could give the Saints another one.
2. Saint Nick. Defensive tackle Nick Fairley hasn't consistently played up to the billing of a former first-round draft pick (No. 13 overall, by Detroit in 2011). After producing 1.5 sacks and 77 tackles the last two seasons combined, the Saints signed him to a one-year contract hoping that he's got a chip on his shoulder and is prepared to be as beastly as he was when he was a dominant force at Auburn. He can be disruptive in the middle of the defensive line (a combined 11.5 sacks in 2012-13) and if he can recapture that, life will become a whole lot easier for everyone else along the defensive front.
3. Can't-Miss Kid. You can't help but notice receiver Brandon Coleman. He's 6 feet 6 and 225 pounds, as big a receiver as you're likely to find anywhere. This will be his second year on the active roster and if the jump he makes in production is as big as he is, he's due to have an impactful year. Coleman caught 30 passes for 454 yards and two touchdowns last season, respectable numbers that could increase significantly. He's a huge red zone target for Drew Brees, so his scoring opportunities should increase. More important, there will be competition for his snaps and that further should inspire him; Brandin Cooks and Willie Snead appear to be set as the Nos. 1 and 2 receivers and Coleman settled in as the third receiver last year, but rookie Mike Thomas has impressed so far, and he looks ready for the challenge of playing at a high level in the NFL. New Orleans undoubtedly will miss Marques Colston, the best receiver in franchise history. But Coleman possibly can help soften the blow of Colston's absence on the field.
4. Mt. Andrus. All you need to know about the regard that the Saints have for Andrus Peat is this: He was drafted to play right tackle, but is versatile and talented enough this year to play right guard. He'll need to play at a high level, given that's the position formerly occupied by Jahri Evans, the second-most decorated offensive lineman in franchise history. Peat is another former first-round pick and a mountain of a man – 6-7, 316 pounds. Maintaining leverage will be a key for him.
5. Lower The Obum. This was a bit of a tossup, because free agent linebacker Nate Stupar could be ready to have the best year of his NFL career. Stupar looked extremely comfortable during OTAs and minicamp, and he may be on the field much more than in special team situations. But defensive end Obum Gwacham could stand to benefit most from the injury sustained by Hau'oli Kikaha. He will be one of the players spending time at right defensive end, and there will be opportunities for him to rush the quarterback. In his first season with the Saints, Gwacham had 2.5 sacks in the final eight games and if everyone else on the line capably fills their role, Gwacham could be in a lot of one-on-one situations. The Saints took a chance on him because they see a diamond in the rough, and the payoff could come this season.