The New Orleans Saints fully will assemble at The Greenbrier in White Sulphur Springs, W. Va., on Wednesday then will hold their first practice Thursday. Here are five storylines to watch as New Orleans enters Training Camp 2016 presented by Verizon, its 10th under Coach Sean Payton.
1. Dennis' D. There has been a full offseason to dedicate to the implementation of Dennis Allen's defense, but Allen, who took over as defensive coordinator during last season, still is in the process of adapting the system to its parts, and vice versa. It's critical that he do so, because defensive improvement is paramount for the Saints, who allowed the most points (29.8) and the second-most yards (413.4) per game in the league last season. Early returns suggest that the secondary should be improved; the Brandon Browner experiment at cornerback and as a defensive captain proved toxic, so the Saints will roll with young talent like P.J. Williams and Damian Swann to give support to starting corners Delvin Breaux and Keenan Lewis. But all eyes will be on Allen, who has the task of designing a sounder defense and putting the talent in position to maximize its ability.
2. Checkmate. Free agent linebacker James Laurinaitis appears to be a significant defensive addition. Seven years of experience is critical; it will allow him to step in at middle linebacker and be quarterback of the defense, a duty last year that rested on the shoulders of then-rookie Stephone Anthony. Anthony moves to the Sam linebacker position and, perhaps, freed of play-calling duties, will be in position to make even more of an impact. It's important to note that Laurinaitis already has engaged quarterback Drew Brees in the chess matches that Brees routinely participated in when linebacker Jon Vilma was a defensive rock for New Orleans. If Laurinaitis similarly can lead this defense to its share of winning days against the Saints offense as did Vilma, that could bode well for the regular season.
3. West Bank is the best bank. A couple of years ago, cornerback Keenan Lewis arguably was the Saints' best, most dependable defensive player. Last year was an injury-marred mess for him. He still is recovering from season-ending surgery in 2015 but if Lewis can return to form, he'll bookend with Delvin Breaux to give New Orleans a formidable starting cornerback tandem. A healthy Lewis significantly would upgrade the depth quality in the defensive backfield if – a big if – Swann is healthy (he missed the end of last season after suffering his third concussion) and Williams is as good as he appeared to be during OTAs and minicamp.
4. For Peat's sake. For the better part of 10 seasons, the Saints were able to pencil in Jahri Evans as their starter at right guard, and rest assured that they would receive Pro Bowl-caliber play the entire season. Evans' release this offseason left a void, and it appears that Andrus Peat, last year's first-round draft choice, is ready to fill it. Peat was drafted to play right tackle but if the best five offensive linemen includes Peat at right guard and incumbent Zach Strief at right tackle, that's how the Saints are going to approach it. Peat played some left guard, left tackle and right tackle last season, so he has game experience. And he has worked at right guard this offseason so he should be fairly acclimated to the position. He's in noticeably better physical condition than he was as a rookie, and learning the nuances of the position should come with experience for the intelligent Peat.
5. Rowing in the same direction. Actually, this category is going to take a little longer than training camp to monitor and decipher. Payton and General Manager Mickey Loomis have been searching for the right combination of talent and character the last couple of years, and believe they have the proper mix again. We truly won't know if that's the case until the Saints are faced with adversity during the 2016 season. The '14 and '15 Saints teams were lacking in those areas, and there were players who didn't respond well to hard times. But the current roster of players believe that this locker room is improved and that the right character guys are present. That's something that more easily can be identified when a bad stretch occurs, because over the course of a 17-week regular season, at least one usually does.