The New Orleans Saints rebounded nicely following a hectic 2012 campaign where Sean Payton was suspended following Bounty-Gate.
The team got off to an 0-4 start, before catching fire late to finish 7-9. Last season, the Saints returned to the post-season, but due to a 3-5 road record were forced to play away from home for the playoffs. On the flip side, the Saints went 8-0 at home and were unbeatable. Entering 2014, the Saints will look to be a much more balanced team.
Here are 5 questions about the New Orleans Saints heading into training camp.
5. Who’s going to start at center?
As training camp opens, the Saints have an open competition at center. After being the starting center on the Saints from 2006-2010, Jonathan Goodwin was brought back to compete against Tim Lelito, an undrafted free agent out of Grand Valley State. Lelito has gotten the majority of the first-team reps so far, but Goodwin has a great repoire with Brees and the transition could go a lot smoother if he were the guy. Lelito has just 2 NFL starts and is still an unknown at this time. It definitely has to make Sean Payton feel a lot better to have Goodwin as a security blanket if all else fails.
4. Replacement for Darren Sproles?
For the last 3 seasons, Darren Sproles served as Drew Brees’s ultimate security blanket. Sproles was one of the game’s biggest match-up nightmare’s, catching over 70 passes in each of his 3 years in New Orleans. In 2011, he set an NFL record for all purpose yards in a season with 2,696. The Saints traded Sproles in May to the Philadelphia Eagles for a 4th round pick, and the team now has major shoes to fill. With Sproles out of the picture, the Saints will have to rely on Mark Ingram and Pierre Thomas to step up. Neither play is as dynamic as Sproles, and the duo combined for 935 rushing yards in 2013. If New Orleans plans on having a legitimate rushing attack, either Ingram or Thomas must prove they can carry the load. Even if one of them does, the Saints offense will look a lot different next season.
3. Will Jarius Byrd and Champ Bailey live up to reputations?
The Saints made two big additions to its defense over the off-season, signing cornerback Champ Bailey and safety Jarius Byrd. After being one of the games most dominant cornerbacks for nearly a decade, Champ Bailey came back to Earth and easily had the worst season of his career last season. The 36-year-old Bailey was limited to just 5 games while dealing with a nagging foot injury and he failed to record an interception for the first time in his career. Bailey is destined for the Hall of Fame. His 12 Pro Bowls rank 1st all-time among defensive backs, and he’s a 7-time 1st team all-pro. All of that is in the past though, and the Saints are hoping Bailey can live up to his reputation. The Saints gave big-time money to Jairus Byrd signing him to a 6-year $54 million dollar contract. Over the last few years, he’s established himself as one of the game’s best safeties. If he can live up to his reputation, the Saints defense will take an even bigger step forward in 2014.
2. What type of immediate impact will Brandin Cooks have?
The Saints lost Lance Moore and Darren Sproles, but drafted Brandin Cooks with the 20th pick in the draft out of Oregon State. Cooks has 4.3 speed, and he should become one of Drew Brees’s favorite targets. The question with Cooks is if, not when he becomes a dependable weapon for Brees. As presently constituted, the Saints have Marques Colston solidified as the number 1 receiver, and Jimmy Graham at tight end. Beyond that, the Saints wide receiver depth includes Kenny Stills and Robert Meachem, neither of whom are particularly impressive. The Saints are counting on Cooks to come in and contribute from day one. If not, defenses will make every attempt to take Graham and Colston out of the game making life very difficult for Brees.
1. Can Drew Brees finally get out of his comfort zone?
Of all the quarterbacks in the NFL, no one has a greater disparity in home vs. away numbers than Drew Brees. At home in the SuperDome, Brees is unstoppable. Last season at home, the Saints went 8-0 and Brees threw 27 touchdowns to just 3 interceptions, had a 73.6 completion percentage, and a 126.3 passer rating. On the road, the Saints went 3-5, and Brees threw 12 touchdowns to 9 interceptions, completed 64 percent of his passes, and had a 84.8 passer rating, over 40 points lower than his home passer rating. Because of this tremendous disparity, the Saints were forced to play on the road in the playoffs and failed to get past Seattle in the 2nd round. It is unbelievably crucial the Saints play better on the road so the road to the Super Bowl can travel to New Orleans. If it does, the Saints could easily win the NFC.