After surviving what may be one of the worst offseasons in recent memory, the Saints finally return to live action in Baltimore at 7:30 tonight. New Orleans has a lot of fresh bodies on the field in 2015, and how they mesh will raise some very interesting questions as the season progresses. Although the first team will, of course, get limited reps, they're not necessarily the ones that fans have questions about heading into a new season.
-Can Brandon Coleman and Seantavius Jones maintain the hype?
Both of these receivers have gotten a lot of folks talking about them through strong training camp performances, but as Andy Tanner proved year in and year out for the Saints, translating that into on the field success is no small feat. With the trade of Kenny Stills and Jimmy Graham, the invisibility of Nick Toon and the apparent descent of Marques Colston, the Saints need receiving threats. If these two can be the threat that the Saints are looking for (a big body and a burner, respectively), then they should be able to at least complement consensus #1 target Brandin Cooks.
-Will the secondary see the improvement that they strove for?
By adding Brandon Browner, Delvin Breaux and to a lesser extent Kyle Wilson and PJ Williams (plus letting go of Patrick Robinson and Corey White), the Saints showed that they were serious about improving upon their abysmal secondary last season. Browner is an established bruiser that punishes receivers at the line, and Breaux was a borderline CFL legend by the end of his stint there (he shut down superstar receiver Duron Carter in the Grey Bowl). Wilson adds a modicum of depth to the position, but if Breaux (who will likely take reps at first corner at some point tonight) can live up to his outstanding athleticism, the Saints should be fielding a very different unit from the one that they showed in 2014. It's unlikely that Jairus Byrd will see the field, but Kenny Vaccaro has emphasized his tackling coming off of a poor showing in his sophomore year. The Saints will look to live up to their talent next year, as opposed to an awful 2014 season.
-Will the Saints get any semblance of pressure?
This one is tricky, because more than not having talent the Saints don't have depth getting to the quarterback. With the recent departure of Junior Galette, the Saints lost their number one pass rusher from the previous two years. Perhaps using the recently extended Cameron Jordan in Galette's old position can help the cause, but outside of him New Orleans has John Jenkins, Akiem Hicks, and Anthony Spencer among a bunch of camp bodies. At linebacker, their specialists are now Jordan and rookie Hau'oli Kikaha. Pay attention to the battle in the trenches tonight, as the Saints will need to do much better getting to the quarterback, especially early in the season, to help their fresh faced secondary.
-Will the interior line improve?
Last season, the Saints had a lot of issues with interior linemen getting to Drew Brees. In order to remedy the problem, the Saints traded for Center Max Unger and released Guard Benjamin Grubbs. Unger is a Pro Bowl Center and the Saints tried to sell high on Grubbs. They kept Jahri Evans, but expect a lot of shuffling on the offensive line. Tackle Andrus Peat is an unknown quantity that had poor reactions in camp, but could translate better on the field. Peat and Armstead could get some interchangeable reps, with the latter even getting some snaps at Guard alongside Tim Lelito, but the Saints will need to try to mitigate the pressure up the middle to give Brees a pocket to deal with.
-The Kicking Battle
Though not sexy on paper, Zach Hocker and Dustin Hopkins will be battling it out for the starting kicker position. This will be key. There are eras of teams measured in kickers, and good to great kickers are at a serious premium in today's NFL. Hopefully one of these two can bring range that the Saints were lacking with Shayne Graham booting the ball.
It's always fun to see a rookie get his first NFL reps.
2015 is going to be a seriously interesting season for the Saints. It will decide if the team will rebuild or retool in the final years of Drew Brees's contract. They added a lot of talent, now they just need to put it together. Tonight starts to answer a lot of questions, and it's always good to see pads in action again. These are just some of the many camp battles that will start to be resolved tonight, and we'll keep an eye on these stories as they unfold throughout the preseason.