The Top 100 photos from 2014 New Orleans Saints Training Camp presented by Verizon. (New Orleans Saints photos)
White Sulphur Springs, W.Va. – It's not as if the New Orleans Saints didn't enter training camp in 2014 without any questions that needed to be answered.
It's simply that the questions appeared to fall under the umbrella of "minor concerns" for a team that, coming off an 11-5 record and the first road playoff victory in franchise history, appeared poised to post another double-digit victory season and, perhaps, a deep run into the playoffs.
But this year, befitting a team that finished 7-9 in '14, nothing falls into the "minor concerns" category. And anyone who saw the Saints' offseason facelift – from changes on the coaching staff, to additions and subtractions on the roster, to taking a microscopic look at each and every detail to evaluate whether it needed to be improved or eliminated and replaced by another method – knows that the franchise took seriously its offseason work.
And regarding a team that will enter training camp with some serious questions to answer, atop the list is this: How will the trade of Jimmy Graham affect the offensive efficiency?
In five seasons, Graham arguably became the best tight end in the NFL and inarguably the most productive one in franchise history, with 386 catches, 4,752 yards and 51 touchdowns. And, for obvious reasons, he became a favored target of quarterback Drew Brees.
Big, fast and outlandishly athletic, Graham wasn't only a magnificent red zone target who was too big for any cornerback who stood across the line of scrimmage when Graham lined up outside, but also was too fast for linebackers and safeties who were given the responsibility of shadowing him when he lined up in the slot or at the end of the line when the Saints were between the 20-yard lines.
There's no denying that the Saints lost an offensive mismatch. But, too, there's no denying that before New Orleans picked Graham in the third round of the draft in 2010 – a former undersized, college power forward that played one year of college football at Miami – the Saints had a formidable offense.
The Saints led the league in yards per game in 2006, '08 and '09 and led the league in scoring in '08 and '09. Thus, there's confidence that the proficient system and players that led to those numbers without Graham again will produce at a high level with the current cast of characters that do not include Graham.
In other words, it was done once and can be done again – especially if New Orleans receives the performances it expects from second-year receiver Brandin Cooks, running backs Mark Ingram (who had a career year last season) and C.J. Spiller (a prized free agency signee) and a tight end corps that includes third-year player Josh Hill, who caught five touchdowns in 14 receptions last year.
The Saints are hoping the same principle applies to the defense.
In 2013 the Saints finished fourth in the league in total defense, a 28-spot jump from the previous season, and fourth in scoring defense. Last year the dip was gargantuan – No. 31 in yards allowed per game, No. 28 in points allowed.
Perhaps worst, Saints opponents converted 46 percent of the time on third down. New Orleans' defense couldn't execute properly, couldn't get off the field and couldn't get the ball back to the offense via turnovers, either.
So this season, the team is counting on less being more. The defense is being simplified – it will be less exotic in the belief that less clutter will allow players to play more freely and be more instinctual rather than reactionary.
And it will do so without the services of outside linebacker Junior Galette, who totaled a team-leading 22 sacks the past two seasons. Galette was released by the Saints on Monday, creating a void at right end that possibly will be filled by veteran Anthony Spencer or rookie Hau Kikaha, or a combination of the two.
While defensive coordinator Rob Ryan oversees the transition, ably aided by Dennis Allen, a former Saints defensive backs coach who most recently was head coach of the Raiders, the process should be boosted by cornerback Brandon Browner.
Browner, a free agent signee, appears to be the cornerback the Saints have sought to start opposite Keenan Lewis. The monstrously sized Browner (6 feet 4, 221 pounds) and Lewis are excited about playing with each other for the first time since the two were in college at Oregon State, and they're ecstatic about lining up as close as possible to receivers that they intend to harass at the snap.
If New Orleans plays as much man-to-man as anticipated, Browner, Lewis and their secondary mates will carry a heavy burden to hold up their end of the deal. But if the pared down schemes help the Saints produce a few more third-down stops and turnovers, then the less-is-more approach will have been ideal for a unit that doesn't need to be perfect more than it likely just needs to be solid.
The special teams unit will have an important issue to settle as well in training camp.
Gone is kicker Shayne Graham, a 15-year veteran who made a team-record four field goals in four attempts, including the game-winning 32-yarder as time expired, in the Saints' NFC wild card road win against Philadelphia in 2013.
The competition between Zach Hocker and Dustin Hopkins will play itself out in training camp and promises to be an intriguing one. Neither ever has kicked in an NFL game, but it won't be the first time that New Orleans has taken a chance on a young kicker during Coach Sean Payton's tenure (Garrett Hartley, anyone?).
Of course there will be other competitions during camp, for roster spots and playing time. The Saints will have no shortage of underlying sagas taking place during their term at The Greenbrier.
And after last season, none of them classifies as minor concerns.