Saints Top 5 Training Camp Battles to Watch in 2014

Steven Bisig-USA TODAY Sports

Rookie mini-camps, OTAs and training camps give fans a glimpse at the potential line ups and personnel formations we might see. Here are some of the big battles to watch going into next season.

A few storms are brewing the closer we draw to Training Camps and the preseason. Questions are arising as to who will become the starters for week one. Recent positioning at OTAs, comments from the coaches in their press conferences and personal fan favorites have led to differing opinions concerning the final roster.

This year is one to be optimistic about more so than last year. Last season there was a lot of hope, but there was also a lot of reservations. Rob Ryan's defense was still untested and unknown, Sean Payton was coming back from a long vacation and the doomsday naysayers were once again filling our heads with "we must win now or Brees and Co. will get to old.". While one of these tunes haven't changed the others have. Rob Ryan turned a defense around (literally) and Sean Payton brushed the rust off to put us back in the playoffs.

You guys and gals knew all of that already though. So what do we have to look forward to? Several key positions are up for grabs this year.

1.) Starting (No. 2) Cornerback

Candidates: Patrick Robinson, Champ Bailey, Corey White, Stanley Jean-Baptiste and Rod Sweeting.

Who I'm penciling in: I'm going to go with Champ Bailey here. I think at this stage in his career Champ is a better nickel corner than he is a starter, but I don't have as much confidence in the rest of the candidates this early. Baptiste is someone I wanted back in January, but I still feel he needs to redshirt this year and receive limited snaps as he gets acclimated to the corner position (this will be his 3rd year playing at CB) and learn our system.

Corey White has always been a nickel CB to me and that will not change without seeing his play drastically improve. I love his physicality in the run game and his ability to play the short routes, but we've seen too many times what happens when he's asked to stretch the field with a receiver. Sweeting is another player who needs more camp time. Patrick Robinson is the biggest question mark for everyone.

Robinson took snaps with the ones last week in OTAs, but I contribute that more to him knowing the system better than Champ. There is potential for him to slip into the role, however. Much like Ingram he is in a make or break year. I'm not holding my breath on it. Though, with Sean Payton at the helm, everyone gets a shot:

"I am sure he is just as anxious to get out here healthy.  We felt last offseason he did a lot of good things.  He is right there (as) one of the guys competing for (playing) time and for a spot at that corner position."

Rob Ryan likes what he's seen of Robinson as well:

"He's a special athlete, a unique guy that can bend. For such a big corner, he's got natural bend. We're going to have competition all over, but we think Patrick is going to be great for us, and we know he will be."

In a recent poll 468 of you participated in, 237 (51%) of you said you thought Champ Bailey would win the starting job. Patrick Robinson came in second with 163 (35%) votes.

Update: At the June 5 OTAs, Corey White, Stanley Jean-Baptiste and Champ Bailey worked with 1s, Patrick Robinson worked primarily with 2s. Lots of shuffling going on as they attempt to find the best fit.

2.) Starting Center

Candidates: Tim Lelito and Jonathan Goodwin

Who I'm penciling in: Right now I think the job is Lelito's to lose. Goodwin is a strong insurance policy, but is also at the end of his career. Everyone remembers what happened when we brought in Olin Kruetz, right? I think Goodwin still has solid football in him and could very well force Lelito to ride the bench another year before coming the starter. Still, his age and athleticism dropping off do put him in the backseat for me at the moment.

We also have to consider that Goodwin is having to learn a new system. When he left to join the 49ers he joined a team that ran (and still does) a power/man blocking scheme. Lelito has a definite head start in the knowing the zone blocking scheme we use. Can you teach an old dog new tricks? This could go either way and we'll have to see how both perform in the upcoming weeks. Matt Armstrong is a long shot, but he is technically in the running.

Update: June 5 OTAs saw Lelito taking all team 1 snaps. No big surprise here, Goodwin still has to adjust.

3.) Starting OLBs

Candidates: Junior Galette, Victor Butler, Parys Haralson, Rufus Johnson, Kenyunta Dawson, Kasim Edebali, Chidera Uzo-Diribe and Ronald Powell

Who I'm penciling in: Victor Butler/Junior Galette and Parys Haralson. There are a lot of players fighting for these two spots this year. A big question that must first be considered is what will be the Saints primary player package in 2014. Will Rob Ryan return to the 3-4 he is most comfortable with as his base or will he try to rekindle the magic he found last year in the 4-2-5? If the Saints continue with the 4-2-5 I'd expect to see JG with his hand more in the dirt than standing up. Considering the attention given to the defensive backfield this offseason its a possible course of action.

With that in mind, you have my two picks. If Ryan opts to focus more on his traditional 3-4 (which I'm hoping for)  I'd expect to see JG starting. There are too many questions and variables to predict how the younger guys brought in will do. Edebali is someone I loved coming into the draft, but I don't think he usurps  either penciled in starter. Chidera, Rufus and Ronald have all gained their legions of Saints fans rooting for them but they're working more towards making the 53 man roster than starting. This might be my number three position battle in terms of importance, but this is what I'm looking forward to the most come training camp.

Update: June 5 OTAs saw Rufus Johnson, Powell and Haralson seeing a lot of reps with the 1s. Victor Butler mostly on the 2s. Like at CB, Ryan seems to be trying to find the best for the position.

4.) Fifth (and potential sixth) receiver spot(s)

Candidates: Nick Toon, Andy Tanner, Brandon Coleman, Joseph Morgan and Seantavius Jones

Who I'm penciling in:  Joseph Morgan and Brandon Coleman get very lightly penciled in here. I have Colston (X), Cooks (Z/Y), Stills (Y/Z) and Meachem locked. Meachem is on the fringe, but I believe his veteran presence and ability to block at the line and downfield will keep him in a Saints uniform one more year. Coleman left strong impressions on me during our interview and after watching his film so I am admittedly a bit biased. I have heard many good things about Seantavius Jones trickling out so don't sleep on him.

Joseph Morgan makes the roster for me simply from the standpoint of positioning. Jones, Toon and Coleman are all large Split-End type wideouts who are looking to be the future replacement for the aging Marques Colston. Morgan is the only burner receiver that is on the outside looking in that I see having potential to make the roster.  There are doubts about his ability (to stay healthy and play). To quote one of the Canal Street faithful, "it will be hard to replace his 10 career catches".  Sarcasm aside, while I agree with the sentiment, Morgan does have the benefit of being one of the only receivers of his type fighting for positioning.

Update: Coleman didn't look great, dropping several balls at practice. Jones and Toon both seem to be shining a little brighter at the moment.

5.) Starting RB

Candidates: Khiry Robinson, Pierre Thomas, Travaris Cadet, Timothy Flanders and Mark Ingram

Who I'm penciling in: Khiry Robinson, paired with Mark Ingram, will see most of the run touches. The question here is not who will be the bell cow running back, but who will lead the team in rushing.  Most people would think the running back battle to be more important, yet Payton has done the running back by committee system since Deuce retired. It is easier to get by with average talent in the committee system when you lack a true bell cow, and in some cases can be used to your advantage as we've all seen.

Why do I give the first nod to Khiry? Though I do like Mark Ingram, last year I saw similar production from the two backs, but Khiry has less NFL time under his belt. There isn't too much to go on between them, but I like what I see from both backs. Khiry has a chance to mature to the NFL game quicker than Ingram did. He said  a few days ago that he is getting up to speed. His confidence and acclimation to Payton's system could mean avoiding the Sophomore slump.

"It's kind of all slowing down for me now, I'm getting the hang of it. It's a big difference than last year. Last year I was basically just running, hoping I went the right way," he said. "Now I feel like I've got the concepts down."

Will the Saints stick to the 1-2 punch we saw in the playoffs, or will the Saints return to the pass heavy, run when you have to style we saw last year? We received promises last year that there would be more runs that never saw fruition. I believe this year Payton returns to form.  Pierre Thomas is still a solid contributor in the pass game and he should still make an impact. He could turn into more of a third down back this year to help lighten his load and keep him fresh. Will the "Curtis Martin clone" breakout? Will Ingram silence his doubters? Will Pierre Thomas find the fountain of youth?

What about you Saints fans, what are you looking forward to the most in June and July? While almost everyone agrees we need to get back to the run game not everyone agrees as to how. Will the new center combined with Armstead at Left Tackle help correct the mistakes? Are receiver battles more important than I'm listing them? Who are your starters? If you'd like to attend one of the Saints upcoming practices their minicamp will be open to the public on June 10-12. They will begin at 11:00 A.M. and will be at the Saints Metairie practice facility.

As always, I welcome your comments, critiques and all around banter. God bless!

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