The smell of sausage jambalaya wafting its way through a Creole restaurant kitchen. The sound of jazz emanating from a dimly lit nightclub on a street in the Vieux Carre. Café Au Lait and beignets at the Café DuMonde on a Sunday morning with a special someone seated across from you. Those are just a few of the descriptive phrases that I can use to describe my beloved hometown of New Orleans, Louisiana.
I’m looking forward to seeing, hearing, and smelling all of those things with my senses, as I return to New Orleans next month for a week and a half vacation. Not only will I be going to visit friends and relatives that I literally haven’t seen in years, but I’ll also be seeing my beloved hometown New Orleans Saints football team in action — as I attend the remainder of Saints Training Camp in suburban Metairie (a ten minute drive from my little brother’s house in Harahan, without traffic).
The Saints of course will open their Training Camp in a little less than two weeks from now in the lush West Virginia countryside, at the lavish resort known as Greenbriar. It’s a welcome respite from the brutal heat and humidity of south Louisiana at this time of the year, and part of Sean Payton’s master plan to keep his troops healthy and happy (and establish camaraderie) as they train in preparation for the upcoming season.
With the Saints already being an established power in the NFC (dare should I say one of the NFL’s truly “elite” franchises?), it stands to reason that they will be scrutinized in every thing that they do as they try to win another championship before Drew Brees’ inevitable retirement — which may take place sooner than expected were the Saints able to hoist the Lombardi once more before his contract expires. Now that I’ve shared this little bit of background with you, here are the 5 Things I Want to See in Saints Training Camp…..
1. The Rookie
Brandin Cooks has arrived in NOLA with much fanfare, as the player that the Saints traded a 3rd round pick for to move up into Arizona’s 20th spot on opening night of this year’s draft. The 2013 Biletnekoff Trophy winner with Oregon State and head coach (and former Saints assistant) Mike Riley, Cooks has taken on some very lofty expectations (such as already being projected as a Rookie of the Year candidate). His mere presence alone is expected to be a boon to an offense that had grown a bit predictable last year, and his incredible speed and athleticism could help the Saints vault back into the top of the pecking order in the NFC.
2. The Apprentice
Anyone who’s followed my work recently knows that I’ve been one of the harshest critics of former Tulane and current 3rd string QB Ryan Griffin. That’s not because he went to Tulane (I grew up a Tulane fan as a kid because we had season tickets), but rather it’s because I don’t believe he can be a starting QB in the NFL. To be sure there are some fellow Saints fans out there who will disagree with me, but the question they must ask themselves is: if Brees went down, do I feel comfortable that Griffin can come in and lead the Saints to victory? Trust me when I say, there’s a reason why the Saints chose to bring veteran QB Luke McCown back to be the no. 2 man behind Brees.
3. The Running Game
Earlier in the off-season, Saints head coach Sean Payton made the inference that the Saints offense this coming season would be looking to return to a more “power” running style; similar to the one earlier in the Loomis-Payton Era that featured now retired All-Pro Deuce McAllister, and veteran RB Mike Bell during the 2009 Super Bowl run. Often-criticized RB Mark Ingram, now in his 4th season in the League, is expected to be the focal point of that attack, along with promising back-up Khiry Robinson, who has shown flashes of his potential as an every-down back. However, don’t overlook rookie UFDA Timothy Flanders of Sam Houston State, who I believe has the ability to be a major surprise.
4. Rob Ryan, Act 2
The off-season has seen the defensive side of the ball (particularly the secondary) become a top priority of Saints brass; with the publicized free-agent signings of former Bills All-Pro free safety Jairus Byrd, and veteran Pro Bowler and future Hall of Famer CB Champ Bailey. Promising rookie CB Stanley Jean-Baptiste out of Nebraska could see extensive action, and the return of hard-hitting young strong safety Rafael Bush and CFL signee Marcus Ball (who can play both safety positions) will provide depth to a unit that already featured two outstanding members in SS Kenny Vaccaro and CB Keenan Lewis. Rookie LB’s Khairi Fortt (Cal) and Ronald Powell (Florida) should contribute as well — making defensive coordinator and master-mind Rob Ryan as giddy as a school-girl over the potential for this unit to be one of the League’s very best.
5. The Kicker
The Saints are a team with Super Bowl expectations, but they’re also are a team with a tight window of opportunity; so making even the very slightest of improvements are a big deal. Yet, as great of a team that the Saints are, they still have a glaring weakness: the kicker position. After Super Bowl-season hero Garrett Hartley was shown the door over his baffling inconsistency, veteran kicker Shayne Graham was brought in. Graham won a Playoff game at Philadelphia, but appears to be past his prime in my view. Young journeyman K Derek Dimke was brought in to compete with Graham, but do we trust either to make a game-winning kick in a NFC Championship game? Coach Payton should be “blowing” up veteran free-agent Rob Bironas’ phone right about now, since having a reliable kicker can be the difference in winning a title or not.