The New Orleans Saints will open their 2013 training camp when players report on Thursday, so it is that time of year to figure out the team’s keys to success this season.
For a team that is still enjoying the “Golden Age of New Orleans Saints football,” the keys for success aren’t really that hard to figure out this year, especially with the Saints football boss Sean Payton back in town in 2013.
Here are eight keys I think are important for the Saints this year.
1. KEEP DREW BREES HEALTHY
Saints quarterback Drew Brees is the best football player to ever wear the team’s black-and-gold jerseys.
In a time when you have signature quarterbacks like Peyton Manning, Tom Brady, Aaron Rodgers, Ben Roethlisberger and a growing group of “read-option” signal-callers in the NFL, Brees is still considered one of the elite players in the game and don’t kid yourself.
Without Brees, the Saints would’ve been luck to win four games last year.
Since coming to the Saints in 2006, he has led the team to four playoff appearances, two NFC championship games and one Super Bowl title.
He has thrown for over 4,400 yards in six of his seven years in New Orleans, which include three 5,000-yard seasons.
Brees has passed for 244 touchdowns in seven seasons, and he has completed 65 percent or more of his passes in five of those seven years.
Brees has led the team to score over 500 points twice (2009 and 2011). There have only been 17 teams since 1960 to reach that mark.
The Saints have been jackpot lucky to not have him go down to a serious injury in that span and that is again the most key for this team in 2013.
That means everyone will be watching closely what happens at the left offensive tackle spot. With Jermon Bushrod taking his talents to the Chicago Bears, Charles Brown has the opportunity to seize the moment and become the full-time starter.
Brown, the former Southern Cal standout, has had a long history of injuries since entering the league, but it is his job to lose, if he can stay healthy.
If not, then rookie Terron Armstead of Arkansas Pine-Bluff could be inserted into the starting lineup.
If the Saints can keep Brees healthy, I think they are a playoff contender, especially with Payton back in the mix.
2. GENERATE A CONSISTENT PASS RUSH
This feature has been lacking on the Saints since the 2006 season.
The Saints don’t have a signature pass rusher on the team today, and while they have some “maybe” players, there is not much on their resumes at this point.
It is amazing today to think that the Saints have been such a successful team without having a consistent pass rush. The most sacks the Saints have had in one season in the Payton-era was 38 in 2006.
Since then, they have recorded 32 sacks in 2007, 28 sacks in 2008, 35 sacks in 2009, 33 sacks in 2010, 33 sacks in 2011 and 30 sacks in 2012.
In today’s game, you need to have the ability to pressure and sack the quarterback at crucial times in a game.
Right now the Saints don’t have that type player on the roster.
In all honesty the Saints thought that Victor Butler, who was signed as an unrestricted free agent from the Dallas Cowboys, might give them that element.
He suffered a season-ending knee injury during offseason workouts, and again, this part of the Saints is a mystery.
New Saints defensive coordinator Rob Ryan is going to find out quick that not having someone like he did in Dallas in DeMarcus Ware means he will have to find some very innovative ways to get consistent pressure on the quarterback.
3. DEVELOP YOUNG PLAYERS ON DEFENSE
The Saints have a host of young and talented players on the defensive side of the ball.
I liked what I saw with the development of defensive end Cameron Jordan last season, and defensive end Akiem Hicks has the athleticism to one day be a very good starting defensive end in the NFL.
Those two young defensive ends, along with development of outside linebackers Junior Galette and Martez Wilson, rookie nose guard John Jenkins, cornerbacks Patrick Robinson and Corey White and safety Kenny Vaccaro are keys for this defense to get better in 2013.
4. CONTROL THE CLOCK BETTER WITH RUN GAME
Last season, the Saints got away from what was so successful for them in 2011 and 2009. The Saints were sixth overall in the league in rushing in 2011, but last season they again became the Brigham Young of the NFL.
You can’t always have Brees throwing 45-50 times per game and expect to win.
The percentage of winning games when you throw more than 47 times per game drops off dramatically.
Expect the Saints to again go back to more of a run-oriented attack and balance the scales more with the rushing attack.
It also keeps a developing defense without a signature pass rusher off the field.
Watch for Mark Ingram to be the “bell cow” rusher for the Saints in 2013 with also a big dose of help from Pierre Thomas.
5. UTILIZE LEWIS AND VACCARO
New additions in Keenan Lewis and Vaccaro will have to play big for the Saints.
Lewis, a former O. Perry Walker High standout and New Orleans native, was the biggest free agent addition to the Saints in 2013.
He is the perfect size for what Rob Ryan wants in a cornerback. The 6-foot-1, 210-pound former Pittsburgh Steelers cornerback has the size, physicality and arm length Ryan craves in a cornerback.
I just wish he could catch the ball better when it is thrown in his direction. He makes a lot of knockdowns as a cover man, but making the big interception could really bolster this defense.
I have to admit I was and still am a big Jarvis Jones advocate. Jones was a superb college pass rusher at Georgia and I think that will translate very quickly to the NFL with the Pittsburgh Steelers, but I also think highly of safety Vaccaro.
The former Longhorn standout is physical, very strong in run support, he has excellent football instincts and he matches up well in one-on-one coverage spots against the very athletic tight ends.
Vaccaro doesn’t have great hands for the interceptions, but he has top-of-the-line football instincts and a knack for putting himself in a position to make a play.
I expect big things and quickly from the former University of Texas standout.
6. BEST TANDEM OF TIGHT ENDS IN THE NFL
With the numerous injuries to Rob Gronkowski and the very serious court issues surfacing for Aaron Hernandez with the New England Patriots, the Saints one/two punch of Jimmy Graham and Ben Watson gives them the best tight end tandem in the NFL today.
If there is a superstar on the Saints team other than Brees, it is Graham. He has great size, tremendous length, excellent hands and athleticism and he is a nightmare to cover in the red zone.
In Watson, the Saints are getting a crafty veteran who has excellent athletic gifts, sure hands for the catch in the medium range areas of the field and he is a very good blocker.
NFL teams have trouble matching up against one very athletic and sure handed receiving target at tight end, and the Saints have two of them to go up against.
7. FINDING A STRETCH RECEIVER
As good as the Saints offense is, it is really effective when they can stretch the deep part of the field. Devery Henderson was an effective “deep threat” for a number of years with the Saints, but last season you saw some dropoff in his play and also some loss of speed.
Joe Morgan has the speed to be that type player, but he needs to show more focus and understand the complicated Saints playbook better.
Last season, Morgan made some highlight film catches, but he was not in the lineup more because he didn’t always know what to do from play-to-play.
If he gets a better grasp of this offense, he is the guy to really help stretch the field. Without him doing that, the Saints will have to develop rookie Kenny Stills, who is more of a faster version of Lance Moore than a “stretch” receiver.
The Saints will also have to see if Jarred Fayson, who really impressed me in the team’s offseason workouts, or a real speed-burner but rough around the edges route runner in Saalim Hakim, can fill that void.
Teams will adjust and try to cut off the short-to-medium range areas of the field, so the Saints must find that “stretch” receiver.
8. SHORE UP SPECIAL TEAMS
Punter/kickoff artist Thomas Morstead is one of the best in the business and the best special teams performer for the Saints since Morten Anderson, but this team broke down at times last season with their coverage units and also in the return game.
Just take a glimpse of the New York Giants game and see that opposing teams spotted a vulnerable part of the coverage units.
While the return numbers for Darren Sproles and Travaris Cadet were good, there weren’t enough to be those big returns to shorten the field for the Saints offense.
Other than a turnover on defense, nothing gets a team pumped up more than a special teams score.
Kicker Garrett Hartley has shown he has the skills to be a very good kicker in the NFL, but at times, he has some focus issues. With Payton back running the show, he better not miss too many because Payton will pull the plug on him quick.