Site: The Greenbrier, White Sulphur Springs, W.V.
What I Saw: An afternoon practice at The Greenbrier
Three things you need to know about the New Orleans Saints:
1. The D is different, though not necessarily better. A defense that gave up the second-most yards in football a year ago still has several big question marks after Mickey Loomis made a flurry of offseason moves to plug the leaks, and one big move that opened up a new void. Second-round rookie Hau’oli Kikaha has played well enough in camp to be penciled in at strongside linebacker, but he’s a natural pass rusher who could struggle diagnosing plays against real competition. Jairus Byrd, the headline free agent pickup a year ago, has yet to practice since suffering a torn lateral meniscus last October. Big-bodied corner Brandon Browner, who was barely serviceable last season in New England, looks like the starter opposite Keenan Lewis as the Saints continue to wait on Stanley Jean-Baptiste, last year’s second-round pick. On the bright side, rookie inside linebacker Stephone Anthony plays and behaves like a 10-year pro at this early juncture. Defensive end Cameron Jordan figures to see more double teams with the release of troubled linebacker Junior Galette, who was promptly signed by Washington.
2. Brandin Cooks will be a breakout star in 2015. That’s my prediction, after watching him poke holes in Saints defenses in camp and media accounts of him tearing up the Patriots in joint practices. He’s earned high praise from coaches, teammates and even Pats coach Bill Belichick after turning in 53 catches for 550 yards as a rookie slot receiver in Jimmy Graham’s shadow, then spending much of the offseason perfecting his timing with Drew Brees. Minus Graham, the Saints will go as far as Brees and Cooks go. So far, so good.
3. Speaking of Brees, he looks better than ever. An oblique injury tampered with his throwing motion in 2014 and contributed to his 17 interceptions. That’s not terribly above par for Brees, who threw 19 picks in 2012 and 22 in 2010, but after watching the 36-year-old in practice and preseason, I believe him when he says he’s 100%. The trick will be keeping him at full strength. The Saints spent much of the draft on defense, but the one selection they did dedicate to the offensive line, first-rounder Andrus Peat, hasn’t performed like the heir apparent to Zach Strief at right tackle, much less a potential replacement for ho-hum left tackle Terron Armstead (Obviously, it’s too early to write him off).
Five dot-dot-dot observations about the Saints: Running back Khiry Robinson, a Saints undrafted pluck in 2013, looks like more than a backup to Ingram and the newly acquired C.J. Spiller… Jean-Baptiste, whom the Saints hoped would be starting by now, stumbled in joint practices with the Patriots, especially when tasked with man coverage… The Saints NEED a healthy return by Byrd, who plans on being ready for the beginning of the season. His backup, Rafael Bush, is more special teams contributor than reliable plug-in… Max Unger is already a big improvement over Jonathan Goodwin, the journeyman center who started 14 games last season in New Orleans. An afterthought in the trade that sent Jimmy Graham to Seattle in exchange for a first-round pick, Unger could elevate a middling rushing attack to one of the best in football… As defensive assistant to Rob Ryan, Dennis Allen, the former Raiders head coach, has spent much of his time working closely with the secondary. Integrating Browner and his unique skillset into a group that has yet to practice with Byrd is his first and biggest test.
Gut feeling about this team as I left The Greenbrier: 9-7. My favorite to win the NFC South and repair the division’s once-sterling reputation. For a team looking to bounce back from 7-9, a lot depends on Byrd and Cooks, two unique players at positions that will define the fortunes of this team. Replacing Graham will involve more balance on offense, and I’m expecting a big year for Ingram & Co. at running back.