New Orleans Saints training camp is in full swing at The Greenbrier in White Sulphur Springs, West Va. For head coach Sean Payton and his charges, the task at hand is putting last season’s 7-9 disappointing showing in the rear-view mirror and focusing on getting back to the playoffs.
With that goal in mind, here are five keys to the Saints’ 2015 season:
1. Protect Drew Brees
Whatever it takes, No. 9 must remain injury-free. Can general manager Mickey Loomis slip some non-monetary incentive clauses into the contracts of the offensive linemen based on keeping the quarterback vertical and unscathed? Will Payton mandate extra laps around the practice field, shuttle runs or other such drudgery for blown blocking assignments? Could the staff preparing the meals during training camp and at the practice facility serve each lineman his favorite dishes and in massive quantities if he does not allow a sack in the previous drill/game? Perhaps owner Tom Benson could use his clout to arrange for a Secret Service detail assigned to Brees, during the games at least? If the pride of Austin’s Westlake High School misses multiple games, the Saints and their fans should just start looking towards next year’s draft.
2. Replacement for Jimmy Graham
The top pass catcher in terms of receptions and touchdowns and third-most productive in yardage was traded to Seattle. An All-Pro tight end, Graham also built a rapport with Brees that can’t be replaced in one season. However, someone must become that consistent target on which Brees can rely on every play, especially the ones that matter. Maybe longtime Saint Marques Colston can revert to his sticky-handed ways of just a few seasons ago?
3. C.J. Spiller filling Darren Sproles’ role
Sproles was only fourth in terms of rushing, receiving and combined yards from scrimmage respectively in his last season with the Saints in 2013. However, his versatility forced opposing defenses to respect him as true receiving threat; Sproles also was a threat to break off a long run when rushing the ball. Even though he could not always deliver a vital block against a defender bearing down on Brees, at least Sproles could catch a dump-off pass to turn a possible sack into a positive play. Brees needed that type of safety valve many times last season.
4. Secondary needs consistency instead of being liabilities
Stanley Jean-Baptiste needs to start contributing like a second-round pick should instead of making everyone question his selection in the 2014 draft. Could either 2015 selection — P.J. Williams or Damian Swann — show enough during training camp to be ready to play a significant amount and provide some needed depth?
5. Linebacker vacuum
With the release of Junior Galette, the Saints find themselves in a precarious situation. They wasted a sizeable amount of salary cap space on a player who will not be on the team. They also jettisoned the only defender who recorded double-digit sacks last season.
Can the Saints manage to find an adequate replacement among the available free agents or eventual training camp casualties from other teams that comes at a reasonable price? That seems unlikely since the team has more than 20 percent of its salary cap tied up in either paying players no longer on the team or deferred amounts owed to current Saints. This situation will continue to test Loomis’ skill in both personnel evaluation and budgetary finesse.
New Orleans drafted two linebackers (Stephone Anthony, Hau’oli Kikaha) in the first two rounds of this year’s draft. One of them will need to be on the field for a sizeable percentage of the plays this season, if not start a majority of the games.
The daily practices of August interspersed with four exhibition games will start to answer these issues. Unexpected cuts of veterans and acquisitions of free agents can alter any of these key questions into settled concerns or worsened liabilities. However, Saints fans will not get all of the answers they are seeking until the season has finished.
— Written by John La Fleur, who is part of the Athlon Contributor network. A graduate of Michigan State and LSU, La Fleur also has been a Saints fan since he was old enough to understand football. Follow him on Twitter @FBConnoisseur.