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Saints mailbag: What will training camp bring for Sean Payton’s squad?

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The Saints suit up for their first preseason game in exactly three weeks, while training camp is right around the corner.

NFL: New Orleans Saints-Minicamp Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports

In less than a week, the New Orleans Saints will be gearing up for training camp in anticipation for their 2017 season. While their first contest is just a mere three weeks away when they open on the road against the Cleveland Browns, the questions we have for Sean Payton’s squad is considerable. Here’s a few I pulled from Saints Twitter:

Fans are expecting big things from the Saints this season, and that’s hardly a surprise. Of course, we have it in our minds that if the team turns in another season of mediocrity and misses the playoffs, the changes should come and the hammer should fall. I get the sense that the team’s brain trust won’t change, just the moving parts. Some of the blame and failures fall on both Mickey Loomis and Sean Payton over the past three seasons, but Tom Benson supports both of these guys - maybe more so Loomis. Payton obviously had some added pressure from last season, and had to fire/dismiss some long-standing coaches from his seemingly tight-knit group. I’d be more worried about Drew Brees staying with the Saints at this point if things go south for the team, but it’s so difficult to see Brees leaving New Orleans when the Saints will be sure to essentially cater to him as long as he keeps playing at an elite level.

It’s tough to say yes. You want to believe that Alex Okafor can provide a consistent rush off the edge, something that’s been wildly missed since Junior Galette’s departure. You also want to believe that rookie Trey Hendrickson can put together some of his wild success he had at Florida Atlantic, and that Hau’oli Kikaha and Obum Gwacham could be answers for the Saints. As of right now, I’d emphatically say no. While Okafor has received most of the first-team looks (and keep in mind we haven’t hit training camp with pads and contact), there’s no telling if the Saints might try a committee approach at defensive end. Defensive line coach Ryan Nielsen certainly brings an exciting element to him, and it’ll be interesting to see if/how he can maximize the talent on the roster.

I’d automatically look to the defense there, because that’s been the biggest struggle for the Saints during the three straight 7-9 seasons. Specifically, I’m looking at the secondary with P.J. Williams. Williams had a lot of promise to him entering last season, but that unfortunate concussion injury wiped him out. While he’s said to be fully recovered from the injury, I would be inclined to believe there’s a large role out there for him. With Nick Fairley being sidelined for 2017, then that also puts bigger pressure on Tyeler Davison and David Onyemata to step in and produce at a higher level.

On offense, I don’t believe Larry Warford is getting enough attention. He isn’t just some guard brought in off the street. He had big success with the Lions in both pass and run blocking, and I believe he’s very underrated. I’ve said he’s the younger version of Jahri Evans, which is a generous comparison. You couple that with him pairing up with Zach Strief on the right side, and that could be a real scary tandem. Plus, there’s also some potential nuggets for him to pickup with former Lions like Rafael Bush, Corey Fuller, and quarterback coach Joe Lombardi.

For the defense, I’ll go with Stephone Anthony. Yes, we already know about his track history. It’s utterly disappointing to see how much he’s regressed, but that’s just how it goes in today’s NFL. Nothing is guaranteed with a high draft pick. The saving grace for Anthony is in Mike Nolan, who has already said that he’s intrigued by the former first-rounder. Specifically, Nolan said:"My impression so far is that he's very capable. He's also a guy that's kind of versatile. I think his best position is in the middle." Whether or not Anthony can put this together during training camp remains to be seen.

Realistically, I’ll say the Saints can be a top 15 unit. There’s a lot of reasons to be optimistic. The players are one thing, but the coaches brought in like Ryan Nielsen (D-Line) and Mike Nolan (Linebackers) are considered major upgrades. Many forget that the Saints run defense was actually pretty good last season, finishing 14th in the league with just 101.6 yards allowed per game on the ground. That’s incredible improvement by their standards.

The floor is unfortunately what we’ve been accustomed to, with porous secondary coverage, unfortunate injuries, and the inability to generate turnovers and get stops when needed most. Last season and the ridiculous amount of injuries were a big anomaly. However, it’s just part of football. I do think the Saints have positioned themselves better for depth, at least on paper.

It’s so hard to count Hau’oli Kikaha out, but the injuries are clearly a cause for concern there. ACL issues are haunting for many players, especially when you’ve had several in your playing career. If he can stay healthy, and that’s big if, then the Saints can really benefit from Kikaha on the edge. Kikaha is literally a gamble right now. Stephone Anthony’s troubles are duly noted, and as mentioned previously, maybe Mike Nolan is the answer.

The only receiver I see gunning for his No. 4 spot is Corey Fuller. Brandon Coleman’s ability as a run blocker is something not easily replaced, and that’s where his size advantage does come in handy. While everyone would love to see him finally live up to the Marques Colston comparisons, the reality is that may never come to fruition. I do believe Jake Lampman and Jordan Williams-Lambert are receivers to keep an eye on throughout training camp, however.

The obvious answers here are Marcus Williams and Ryan Ramczyk. Williams enters training camp with full expectations of being part of the team’s 3-safety set. He had the proven track record for being a ballhawking safety at Utah, and also brings a lot of pro-level skills to the table. In essence, we’re talking about who we thought Jarius Byrd would be. As for Ramczyk, he’s going to be thrown into the fire immediately as a starting left tackle candidate with Terron Armstead out of action for some time. His play at Wisconsin put him on the radar of many teams, and the Saints were fortunate to have him land in their lap at No. 32. As of right now, those two would be the biggest impact players heading into camp, but as you know, that can quickly change.

The biggest thing is that you’re having to replace a player that had 722 snaps last season, and was pretty effective at his position. He was second on the team behind Cam Jordan with 22 quarterback hurries and 6.5 sacks, so that production must be found from somewhere. Sheldon Rankins should be energized and ready to play in a full season where he’ll likely be the focal point of the interior line, and I believe Tyeler Davison and David Onyemata can realistically fill the void for Fairley. I’m intrigued to see what veteran Tony McDaniel brings to the table, as he’s only missed two games in the past four seasons. While he won’t be a full-time starter, he could be a smart presence in situational downs and short-yardage. No Fairley is a tough pill to swallow, but the Saints have no choice other than to press on.

Defense would include two of the players you mentioned, Adam Bighill and Arthur Maulet. Maulet may not be regarded as a surprise player to some, given his flashes at minicamp. However, this is where he and all of the players will be tested when contact is allowed when the pads come on. Bighill seems very undersized for a linebacker (5-foot-10, 230 pounds), especially compared to the rest of the linebacker corps. Needless to say, he sticks out when he’s out on the field. His six years in the CFL could come in handy, and if anything I believe his path lies on his special teams ability. Both will need to really turn it on to warrant a spot on the final 53-man roster. The other candidate I’d throw out for defense is Manti Te’o. Yes, the injury history is a reason for red flags, but this is a big opportunity for Te’o to rejuvenate his playing career. I’d anticipate seeing some of that on the field.

On offense, there’s a couple of players I believe could turn some heads. For starters, Trey Edmunds is buried on the running back depth chart, but he has a tremendous opportunity to climb past Marcus Murphy and Travaris Cadet. As I stated before, I’d also keep a close watch on wide receivers Jordan Williams-Lambert and Jake Lampman, who have a big opportunity ahead as a No. 5 option. Lastly, it’d be a toss-up between Garrett Griffin and Clay Harbor in the tight end battle and John Fullington as a guard option.

As always, thanks for your questions!