WHITE SULPHUR SPRINGS, W.V. — Dennis Allen strolled to his first training camp press conference as Saints defensive coordinator in strapped sandals rather than traditional Nikes, but you shouldn’t judge a coach by his kicks, at least not this one. Though Allen spent three years in the Bay Area, his philosophy is far from bohemian. “There is right and there is wrong,” he explained Saturday. “If you do right, there is praise. If you do wrong, you’re going to get corrected.”
When players are asked to describe their coordinator, the first word out of their mouth is almost always “detailed” or “thorough.” Allen lived up to those descriptions Sunday, stopping the second-team nickel unit when he saw something off to spend nearly five minutes going through the linebackers’ various responsibilities based on how a running back releases from the backfield.
The days of laid-back Rob Ryan are clearly in the past. And given the way the New Orleans defense played under Ryan the last two years, that’s probably for the better. The Saints finished 31st in yards allowed in both 2014 and ’15 and were last in points surrendered in ’15. The group improved slightly after Allen took over late in the year, but now he is looking to return this defense to respectability—with the help of several new pieces.
Up front, the Saints spent their No. 12 pick on defensive tackle Sheldon Rankins and added Nick Fairley in free agency. Fairley missed Sunday’s practice with an injury but had been taking first-team reps before he went down.
At linebacker, New Orleans brought in James Laurinaitis to man the middle after he was released by the Rams. General manager Mickey Loomis compared Laurinaitis to Saints great Jonathan Vilma during his training-camp-opening press conference, and the linebacker has only continued to receive praise since then.
Behind him, safeties at the opposite ends of their careers—second-round pick Vonn Bell and 33-year-old Roman Harper—joined former Pro Bowlers Kenny Vaccaro and Jairus Byrd to create such a positional strength that Allen has experimented with putting three safeties on the field at a time.
Miscommunication marred multiple drills over the weekend as players adjusted to Allen’s fast scheme, but there were also positive signs. Not long after Allen set the tone by having his players do 40 pushups on the first day of camp, Bell picked off Drew Brees. Vaccaro has registered knockdowns all over the field. Rankins flashed his agility while winning a one-on-one drill Sunday. And corner Delvin Breaux has shown he’s ready to take a major leap in year two. Sunday, Breaux locked onto newly signed wideout Hakeem Nicks during a one-on-one drill and stood him up, bringing the drill to a standstill.
All Nicks could say in response was, “Damn, good s---, man. Just wait until I get my feet under me.”
Allen’s intensity fits with the tone head coach Sean Payton has been trying to set since he told his players on the first day, “This is going to be as hard of a camp as I can make it.” After a second consecutive 7–9 season, Payton vowed to get as much out of August as he did back in 2006, or at least as much as he could under the current CBA rules.
“I think all of us—starting with myself as the head coach—every T’s crossed, every I's dotted,” he said. “The periods might be longer. The practices might be a little bit more demanding. Three hours is a long practice. We normally do not have a practice that long, but for us to get it the way it is supposed to look, there might be some practices where we are out here longer than normal.” Players routinely went to the ground and beyond in one-on-one drills and even special teams periods featured popping pads. Payton has put a particular emphasis on increasing the number of turnovers his defense produces, so almost every drill is punctuated with shouts from coaches to “Get the ball out!” Whether it will pay off remains to be seen, but quarterback Luke McCown said he can already identify Allen’s impact on the defense. “I definitely feel like they’re more confident in what they’re doing,” he said. “They’re lined up quicker, they’re flying around and I’m excited to see them play.”
Oh, and if you were curious about those misleading Tevas, the answer was as straightforward as you’d expect from Allen.
“The dogs are barking a little bit on me,” he said. “So I gotta keep ’em aired out.”
Other training camp observations
• I’ll let you decide for yourself which of these three facts is the strangest: 1) Peyton Manning shared a practice field with Drew Brees Sunday as he visited Saints camp; 2) The recently retired Super Bowl 50 champ was wearing a tie; 3) Manning was in town because he was speaking at the Grocery Manufacturing Association’s leadership forum. O.K., No. 3 is definitely the strangest. I’m not sure how much Manning knows about the SmartLabel Initiative discussed at the event, but plenty of Saints took the opportunity to discuss pigskin with him after their practice. “It was good to see him,” Payton said. “I think one of his great traits is that he loves being around players and this type of teaching environment. ... I’m sure it was a good break for [him] and it was for us.”
• Speaking of QBs, the Saints’ trio of signal-callers kept competing after the end of Saturday’s session, going against each other in a game that involved threading a football through two three-foot-tall foam tackling rings as they rolled towards each other. There is some sort of scoring system involved, and judging by the players’ reactions, it rewarded McCown with a W Saturday.
• In terms of throws that actually matter, several of Brees’swent in the direction of Coby Fleener over the weekend. Fleener is the latest in a long line of tight ends who have benefited from playing with Brees, from Antonio Gates in San Diego to Benjamin Watson last year in New Orleans, and Brees looked his way multiple times in team drills, including on a post pattern that sent Fleener into the end zone practically untouched.
After four years with Andrew Luck in Indianapolis (and more before that at Stanford), Fleener expressed how lucky he was to go from one elite quarterback to another after signing with the Saints. “[Brees] is an outstanding leader and what you want in a quarterback and a leader of your team,” Fleener said. “He really welcomed me in and kind of said, ‘Hey, let’s get to work. Let’s figure out what we need to do to make sure we’re on the same page.’ He’s been all I can ask for.”
• Following a 69-catch rookie season, there was plenty for Willie Snead to speak with the media about Saturday, but the reporters on hand mostly just wanted to know about his hair. Snead was hoping to get the tips bleached, he explained, but somehow ended up with fully blonde locks.
The 23-year-old said he knew he’d hear some jokes about the new look, but his mom likes it, so he figured he’d stick with it for a while. Asked for his thoughts, running back Tim Hightower said, “If he has great success and we have success, we may all dye our hair blonde.”
Five questions with safety Roman Harper
Q1: Did you ever think you’d be back (in New Orleans)?
RH: No, well, not playing. I kept a place here, but I was just coming for Mardi Gras and things like that. I never thought I’d actually be wearing a 41 jersey for the Saints again. It’s truly an honor to be able to go somewhere, to be drafted here and play for such a long time ... and now to be able to come back to where it all started to try to get this thing in the right direction.
Q2: What have you seen in Delvin Breaux at this point?
RH: Delvin’s amazing. So I didn’t know about this guy until Ronde Barber told me about him last year. I went out to dinner with him and some friends and he was like, “I’m really impressed with this Delvin Breaux.” ... To see the growth and his maturity, he’s so mature for the amount of years he’s played. The game is really starting to slow down for him. He’s one of the best corners I’ve ever seen at the line of scrimmage. He’s fast, he’s huge, he’s got great hand-eye coordination. He’s got to continue to grow. He’s got to continue to want it. He loves to compete. ... I’m expecting really big things out of him as he continues to grow in this league. Year two and three are going to be really big for him, and I’m sure he’s going to be one of those guys you talk about.
Q3: Can you compare this place all against Jackson, Mississippi, and Millsaps (where the Saints held training camp from 2006 to 2008)?
RH: Yeah man, you got to understand: It was real two-a-days back then. It was hot. I called my dad. I questioned if I wanted to do this for a living. I had to look at my signing bonus check and say, “I can keep this up.” … It was a grind, and now look at this, man. I can call room service, I an go skeet shooting on my day off. It’s pretty nice. We got a breeze. I don’t have to walk 50 yards up a hill to practice and half a mile to change and all these other things. It’s definitely different, man. The mentality is completely different. The NFL is a different game now.
Q4: Did you talk to Peyton Manning [Sunday]?
RH: Yeah. I was still angry because the last time I saw him, the confetti was falling for him. But he said we were even [referencing Super Bowl 44, when the Saints beat Manning’s Colts]. We laughed about it and we joked. I gave him a hug and I told him congratulations and all those things. You’ve got to understand and respect this guy, all the great things he’s done, the way he’s changed and molded this game, the way he’s been able to compete for such a long time. You envy him.
Q5: How has Sean Payton changed during your time in Carolina?
RH: I was going to say, ‘Sean really hasn’t changed.’ Sean is still himself. The team has changed so he can’t be the same guy that he was because the team has changed. He has to make sure these guys know who he is as a coach and what he expects out of them day in and day out, so those things have changed, but Sean himself hasn’t changed. I mean, he’s the same guy. He’s gotten older, but he’s still in good shape. He’s still talking trash and being loud and brash and borderline arrogant, confident, borderline arrogant, and I love it. I love Sean. You’ll never go into a game thinking you are an underdog, that’s for sure, and for that I appreciate him.
Biggest Turnaround: Scheduling
While the Saints made several off-season acquisitions, one of the biggest additions this training camp seems to be a few Z’s. Sean Payton has tried to bring back the practice mentality he instilled in his first few years in New Orleans, while at the same time adjusting the team’s schedule to allow for more rest time, ending meetings earlier and starting morning practice later.
“One of the things we are paying attention to, obviously, is the recovery and all the elements that go into that,” Payton said. “A lot of it is the evening recovery—trying to get the guys in the cold tubs, trying to get the guys really to sleep earlier. Then the [morning] schedule is even backed up ... with the idea of making sure that everyone is getting north of eight hours’ rest.”
It says a lot about Payton’s philosophy that he is not willing to sacrifice modern science while trying to instill an old-school mentality.
Drawing Some Buzz: Michael Thomas
From the moment the rookie wide receiver hauled that pass in Friday, Saints veterans have hardly stopped talking about it. Meanwhile, Thomas has continued making highlight reel plays, including coming back to an underthrown ball for another unlikely grab Saturday. To him, those catches are just part of the job. “When the ball is in the air, covered or not, I trust my ball skills over whoever is covering me,” he said Sunday. “I take a lot of pride in my ball skills. If I can get my hands on it, I want to make a play.”
Thomas still has work to do in the run game, but less than a week into training camp, he has already left quite an impression.