Training camp is quickly approaching, which means it's time to preview the most exciting part of the summer. Over the next month, Around The NFL's Conor Orr will break down all 32 teams and give us something to look for in late July.
Training camp report date: Rookies July 20, veterans July 27.
Training camp location: The Greenbrier, White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia.
Offseason in a nutshell: Though the Saints were a disaster a year ago and all signs pointed to the team playing without either Sean Payton or Drew Brees in 2016, something happened this offseason to put the rocking boat at ease. While change is sometimes healthy, Payton brought up a good point about an old message being new in a league with so much turnover. There is a sense around the team that after years of expensive free agency miscues and salary cap difficulties, there is actually a bedrock of affordable and potentially explosive talent on the roster. A 2016 second-round pick (Michael Thomas) and a 2014 first-round pick (Brandin Cooks) should be starting at wide receiver. A 2013 third-round pick (Terron Armstead) has developed into one of the five best offensive tackles in the league. First-round pick Sheldon Rankins has been advertised as Aaron Donald Part 2, and lines up next to Cameron Jordan and in front of 2015 first-round pick Stephone Anthony. Obum Gwacham is a name to watch as a situational pass rusher this year, and, on the back end of their defense, Delvin Breaux is a bright young cornerback with a tremendously high upside.
Player to watch: Defensive tackle Sheldon Rankins. Rankins, the subject of a longer piece I did on the pre-draft process back in April, reportedly lived up to the hype during minicamp and is an early favorite to stay on the field all three downs. Camp will provide more of an affirmation -- we have been led to believe that the defensive tackle will be a bully (and his college tape shows that was the case) -- but now we get to see him against Max Unger, Armstead and Andrus Peat every day in practice. For those who love a good training camp pass-rushing drill, it's time to get your popcorn ready.
THREE BURNING QUESTIONS:
At the moment, New Orleans has three tight ends (Coby Fleener, Josh Hill and Michael Hoomanawanui) who are good enough to see the field on a consistent basis and three running backs (the Tim Hightower comeback continues!) who should earn significant carries. Last year, the offense ranked fourth in the league in plays run off the right guard (78) and eighth in plays run off the left guard (63), which suggests that we could see a more compact version of Payton's offense, even if blocking isn't Fleener's strong suit.
A report from NFL Media Insider Ian Rapoport on Thursday suggested they were the favorites to land Anquan Boldin -- the best remaining receiver in free agency. Many have projected rookie Michael Thomas in the No. 2 role, which would make for a fascinating under-the-radar training camp battle if Boldin were to hit NOLA. Signing a vet this late in the game doesn't necessarily guarantee a roster spot, either -- just ask former Packers and Giants receiver James Jones. If New Orleans decides to hedge its bets, more entertainment for the rest of us. Regardless, Thomas is worth watching during red zone periods to see if he can deliver on his abilities as a big-bodied natural scorer.
Despite what was an objectively bad Saints season, Brees still nearly hit the 5,000-yard mark, passed for more than 30 touchdowns and reduced his number of interceptions from the year before. He only missed one game despite lingering rotator-cuff issues and treated us to one of the greatest offensive (and worst defensive) games in NFL history in a 52-49 win over the New York Giants. Payton told the crew on "NFL Total Access" recently that he sees absolutely no difference in Brees, which leads us to believe there won't be any special veteran vacation or treatment days this summer.
Way-too-early season prediction: We predicted a monumental divisional shakeup this offseason already (the Panthers missing the playoffs, perhaps?) and that means another team in the division needs to step up. This Saints' defensive line has the potential to be beastly under the right circumstances, and we're buying in. There are teams that surprise us every year, and wouldn't 11 wins for the Saints be a surprise?