The New Orleans Saints open their three day mini-camp today at their facility on Airline Drive, and I've compiled a list of things to keep an eye on, along with help from our pros Bobby Hebert and Hokie Gajan.
1. Turnovers - The Saints had the fourth best defense in 2013, but were not creating turnovers on a consistent basis. Saints Defensive Coordinator Rob Ryan has said during Saints OTA's that there is an emphasis on creating turnovers for his defense: “That was a glaring weakness last year on our defense. I think the effort was outstanding, our players are outstanding. We did pretty decent as a unit, but we want to be great, and to be great, you have to take the ball away. We identified that. Every coach on our staff individually has a responsibility for turnovers. We present it to the defense. It’s every one of us at different times, we present different aspects of getting turnovers. We talk about it, we show clips of it. We show some (Charles) Peanut Tillman punch-outs, we saw a few of those today. Great players can be imitated, and we’re trying to do that here. He was a Ragin’ Cajun wasn’t he? I like that there. He’s great to watch, so we’ve been trying to imitate him. Imitation is the biggest form of flattery. So we enjoy doing that; we’re working hard on that. We know we have to improve on that. Seattle won the Super Bowl; they took the ball away more than anybody. They raised the bar, so we have to match it.”
The Cajun Cannon Bobby Hebert says "the best defenses in the league create turnovers. If we can force more takeaways this season, I don't see why we can't have an elite defense in 2014."
2. Better Secondary - This one is rather easy for me. Anytime you can add a future first ballot Hall of Fame caliber player and one of the best safeties in the NFL to your defensive backfield, you should be better. And Jairus Byrd is even not on the field yet. But you can already see that the Saints Defensive backfield is going to be even better in 2014.
Champ Bailey's wisdom and passion for the game alone will make a difference, and the higher level of competition will greatly benefit the Saints defense. The Saints will be deeper and better in all coverages from dime, to mickel, to lining up. Fans should be able to tell right away that the Saints secondary will be considered one of the best in the NFL going into the 2014 season.
"What Bailey brings to the Saints is invaluable," said Bobby Hebert. "Champ Bailey has seen and done everything in this league, and he has done so at a high level for a very long time. He will not only help the Saints defense on the field, but his knowledge of the game will come in handy in those team meetings."
3. Centers of attention - We know that the Saints will have a new face snapping the football to Drew Brees this season. With the acquisition of Jonathan Goodwin last week, the Saints have assured themselves of having a quality player that knows the offense. Goodwin's experience playing with the Saints and helping lead the Black and Gold to the Super Bowl is a huge plus. And since that Lombardi Party, Goody has played in the NFC Title Game, the Super Bowl and the veteran Center is coming off another trip to the NFC Title Game with the 49ers this past January.
Goodwin, who will battle Tim Lelito for the starting job at center, talked about the challenges he faces: “It isn’t easy. I feel like I’ve been doing the same thing the past few years in San Francisco with Daniel Kilgore. In this league, when the younger guy can play, you know that’s what teams tend to go with, but guys did it for me. I have no problem doing it for him. We’ve already had conversations and started to build a relationship. I wouldn’t be out here if I didn’t want to play. Naturally I want to play. We’re going to fight tooth and nail, so either way, I think this team will be straight at the center position.”
Regardless of who wins the starting job, the Saints are in good shape here.
4. Learning the playbook - If there is one man that knows a a lot about everything football, it's our own Hokie Gajan, who brings over 32 years experience of being associated with the New Orleans Saints. “To me, this time of year it’s more about the new faces and the young guys,” he said. Hokie pointed out that during OTA’s, coaches are looking to make sure that the new additions to the team are picking up what is being handed to them. “This is a small part of the playbook installation going on right now. When they (players and coaches) get into film session that is where you can really tell how much progress is being made.
Gajan went on to say that how much progress players are making and how fast players are getting a grasp of things will be more important during Saints mini-camp. "Every player out here has talent. You don't make it this far without being a good player. But if you can't line up right, and if you can't do what the coaches ask you to do, then you won't make the team."
5. RB's and WR's - The Saints will no longer have the services of the dangerous Darren Sproles, and many wonder who will take his place. That answer may come in the form of several players. Bobby likes what he has seen thus far from RB Tavarius Cadet: “He has been very active at the OTA's. He's been able to catch passes that would have been for first downs and he has done a good job of running the football.” Bobby said that Cadet’s elusiveness and vision are two things that make him a very versatile back.
Other RB's Pierre Thomas, Mark Ingram and Khiry Robinson give the Saints different options with different styles. And thus far through two OTA's, former Tulane DB Derrick Strozier has taken advantage of his chances by making several nice runs.
The Cajun Cannon has said how important a camp this will be for WR Nick Toon. And at the last OTA, Toon had a good practice. "He had one of his better days. I thought he caught the ball well and he was able to get space between himself and the Saints DB's at times."
Keep it right here on WWL.com for full coverage of Saints mini camp all week long!