New Orleans Saints coach Sean Payton is about to find out if his decision to jettison half a dozen prominent players has put his squad back on a playoff trajectory.
As Saints training camp opens this week at the Greenbrier Resort in White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia, one of few certainties is that the 2015 squad will look a lot different than the previous edition that went 7-9.
A defense that ranked second-to-last in the NFL last season has cut ties with middle linebacker Curtis Lofton, who was in on a team-high 144 tackles, and outside linebacker Junior Galette, who led the club with 10 sacks.
Free agency and the draft has brought fresh talent, including veterans such as cornerback Brandon Browner and running back C.J. Spiller, as well as rookie linebackers Stephone Anthony and Hau'oli Kikaha, who were defensive stars in college.
Quarterback Drew Brees said he hopes the overhaul has strengthened the Saints in the areas of leadership, chemistry, and attention to detail.
''The intelligent teams, the ones that study the situations and know when something can or can't happen in that game - those are the ones that end up being division winners and playoff teams,'' Brees said. ''Unfortunately, we were not one of those teams last year. There were plenty of games where we were right there. We had a chance to win and yet it was a poor decision or not knowing a certain situation that cost us that game, and that can't happen. That's just bad football, as we'd say. We need to be a smarter football team.''
Some offseason moves helped the Saints stockpile additional draft picks, which should help with depth. But Payton made it clear that moves to bring in veterans like Browner, who's won two straight Super Bowls with Seattle and New England, and center Max Unger, who also won a title with the Seahawks, was about more than their physical abilities.
''We like to get guys who are from winning programs and who are used to winning,'' Payton said. ''There is a leadership that comes with it.''
Here are some story lines to follow during Saints training camp:
NEW TARGETS: Other than veteran Marques Colston, the only returning regular in the receiving corps is 2014 first-round pick Brandin Cooks, whose promising rookie year was cut short by injury. That sets the stage for players like third-year tight end Josh Hill, and young receivers Nick Toon, Brandon Coleman and Seantavius Jones to emerge.
Coleman and Jones were undrafted rookies only a year ago, but Brees proclaimed that the receivers ''are light years ahead of where they were last year.''
SEEKING SACKS: The Saints' defense ranked in the bottom third of the NFL in sacks per pass attempt, so losing Galette's production probably won't help. But New Orleans signed defensive end Cameron Jordan to an extension with the hope he'll perform closer to 2013 levels, when he led the club with 12 1/2 sacks. Candidates to replace Galette include recently acquired veteran Anthony Spencer and Kikaha, whose 19 sacks at Washington last year led all FBS players.
STRONGER SECONDARY: Browner's arrival gives the Saints a second starting cornerback who is solid in single coverage, along with incumbent starter Keenan Lewis. Safety Jairus Byrd, who intercepted 22 passes in five NFL seasons in Buffalo, is back from an injury that sidelined him most of last season, his first in New Orleans. New cornerback Delvin Breaux could emerge at nickel if he can make the transition from the CFL as well as Browner once did. Draft picks P.J. Williams and Damian Swann also could emerge.
BREES' BLOCKING: While Unger's arrival gives the Saints a proven commodity at center, Grubbs' departure leaves a pair of young linemen, Tim Lelito and Senio Kelemete, competing to start at left guard. Top Saints draft pick Andrus Peat eventually is expected to take over for veteran right tackle Zach Strief, but may not be ready this year.
KICKING COMPETITION: Payton released veteran kicker Shayne Graham in May, leaving a pair of kickers with virtually no NFL experience, 23-year-old Zach Hocher and 24-year-old Dustin Hopkins, to compete for the high-pressure job.
''In a perfect world, you would have experience,'' Payton conceded. ''I'm anxious to see how these guys do.''
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