New Orleans Saints rookies, first-year players and newcomers mainly have had the run of the practice facilities for the last several weeks. Indoctrination into the total team begins this week, as the Saints begin OTAs.
“It’s a chance to introduce a few new things, but it’s also a chance to get some of the younger players around the veterans,” Coach Sean Payton said Monday, prior to participating in the 27th annual Saints Hall of Fame Celebrity Golf Classic, at Bayou Oaks.
“And of course, we’ve got some veteran players that are new,” Payton said. “So you’re really looking at just beginning the process. You’re beginning an installation that’s going to be similar to training camp, and yet, you still have to focus on the lifting and conditioning.”
That approach to the basics has added up for the Saints, who won the NFC South Division title for the second consecutive year last season, the first time in franchise history that New Orleans has won back-to-back division championships.
New Orleans also advanced to the NFC Championship Game, a year after the season ended in an NFC Divisional Game. Each time, the Saints were defeated on the last play of the game; a walk-off touchdown as time expired against Minnesota, and an overtime field goal against the Rams, a play that happened in the aftermath of a missed fourth-quarter penalty against the Rams that likely prevented New Orleans from advancing to the Super Bowl.
“At some point, it feels like it takes a miracle to beat the Saints,” All-Pro defensive end Cam Jordan said. “We hit the playoff run, we’ve got to be a tighter-knit group, we’ve got to be a group with that same mentality.”
Jordan said the nearly indescribable conclusions to the last two seasons haven’t made it easier to reset with a vengeance mind-set, but that the hunger is derived from something else.
“At the end of the day, you’re sick to your stomach for no less than two months about what happens,” he said. “You’d love to say we’ve been to a Super Bowl. At this point, we’ve got (quarterback) Drew (Brees) and (punter) Thomas Morstead now, that have Super Bowl rings from the Saints.
“And this is something that we’ve got to update. We’ve got to get everybody a ring. We’ve got to not only do it for the city, but do it for the guys in the locker room that push so hard. Heading into Year 9, I’d love a Super Bowl ring now.”
The Saints figure to lean heavily on a pair of second-year players: Defensive end Marcus Davenport, and receiver Tre’Quan Smith.
Davenport, who had offseason surgery and shared on social media that he’d been dealing with what was considered a “season-ending injury” last year, had 4.5 sacks, a forced fumble, 12 quarterback hits and 22 tackles in 13 games as a rookie. Smith caught 28 passes for 427 yards and five touchdowns. He had two 100-yard receiving games, against Washington (three for 111 yards and two touchdowns) and Philadelphia (10 catches for 157 yards and a touchdown).
“Really, I’m just trying to be able to contribute more,” Davenport said. “Last year we were a play away, and it really wasn’t the ref’s fault. We shouldn’t have let it get that far. So, I’m going to try to add a play.”
Smith has been attempting to make some physical adjustments to his game.
“One of my biggest things was my false step, coming off the line,” he said. “Many times, Sean and C.J. (senior offensive assistant/receivers coach Curtis Johnson) got on me about that. It’s mainly coming from leg power and generating it from there.
“My coach, C.J., he always did a great job of keeping me there mentally, telling me that we drafted you for a reason, it’s not a mental thing for you. You’ve just got to work on a couple of physical attributes.”
Smith also took note that the Saints did not pick a receiver in this year’s NFL draft.
“I didn’t follow (the draft) but when I got in, a couple of guys were saying, ‘They didn’t draft a receiver,’ and then a lot of my friends back home said they didn’t draft a receiver,” he said. “And I was like, ‘They didn’t have to. They’ve got me and Keith (Kirkwood) there, (and other) great players.’ So I was kind of happy they didn’t. That just shows that the organization believes in us and believes in our ability.”
Payton said the OTAs are another important step in the team-building process.
“It’s another team and it’s a new challenge,” he said. “There’s no secret message to start the spring. As we get closer to training camp, we’ll get a little bit more focused as to how we approach the season.”