NEW ORLEANS -- Finally, mercifully, the most controversial offseason in club history has come to an end and the New Orleans Saints now can begin in earnest their pursuit of NFL history.
The team is scheduled to report Tuesday for physicals, conditioning and meetings, signalling the opening of training camp under acting head coach Joe Vitt.
Players will participate in non-padded practice sessions from 4 p.m. to 6:45 on Thursday and Friday with the first practice in pads set for the same time on Saturday.
With every training camp comes story lines but Camp 2012 is like none other because of the collateral damage caused by the bounty scandal. I'll be curious to see its residual effect and how it serves to motivate this team. Players already seem to have adopted an "us against the world'' mentality and are determined to prove their many naysayers wrong.
Here are my Top 10 story lines on the eve of training camp:
(1) First and foremost, the most compelling issue involves the season-long loss of Coach Sean Payton who has been suspended through Super Bowl XLVII in New Orleans for his role in Bounty gate. How will this team respond without its leader and one of the game's most creative offensive minds? (1b) How will the team deal with new day-to-day leadership at the top, beginning first with Vitt through training camp, then a substitute for Vitt while he serves his season-opening 6-game suspension, and finally when Vitt returns for the final 10 games?
(2) How will the loss of Payton impact QB Drew Brees, who recently signed a record five-year, $100 million contract that guarantees him $60 million, including a $37 million signing bonus? Since joining forces in 2006, they have become one of the most successful coach-quarterback tandems in the NFL. It's likely that Brees will have a bigger role in game planning in Payton's absence.
(3) Does GM Mickey Loomis appoint one coach to replace Vitt (Pete Carmichael Jr., Aaron Kromer or Steve Spagnuolo) or take a coach-by-committee approach by placing all three men in charge. Too, does Vitt return to his acting head coach spot upon his return, or if things are going well for the first six games, does the team take the approach that if it ain't broke, don't fix it and stay with the early season coaching plan?
(4) What kind of impact will Spagnuolo have on a defense that failed to put consistent pressure on the quarterback and made too few game-changing plays in 2011 (note: starting safeties Malcolm Jenkins and Roman Harper combined for no INTs last season)? Spagnuolo's scheme calls for more zone coverage behind a conventional 4-man pass rush.
(5) How will the defense respond without suspended players RDE Will Smith for four games and MLB Jonathan Vilma for an entire season. Key off-season additions include DT Brodrick Bunkley, rookie DT Akiem Hicks and veteran DT Remi Ayodele and middle linebacker Curtis Lofton and outside linebackers David Hawthorne and Chris Chamberlain.
(6) On offense, Pro Bowl LG Carl Nicks and WR Robert Meachem are gone, replaced by veteran G Ben Grubbs and fourth-round draft pick Nick Toon, who will compete with Adrian Arrington and other less heralded players (Joseph Morgan and Chris Givens?) for roster spots behind incumbent wide receivers Marques Colston, Lance Moore and Devery Henderson. This could be Arrington's final opportunity in New Orleans. He needs to stay healthy and be productive.
(7) Will second-year RB Mark Ingram return to form from offseason knee surgery and rejoin a deep backfield that includes Pierre Thomas, Chris Ivory and versatile Darren Sproles? I did not anticipate the number of touches Sproles received last season and he surprised me with his durability.
(8) Loomis' season-opening eight-game suspension for his role in Bounty gate has been overshadowed somewhat by the suspensions to Payton, Vitt, Vilma and Smith. How well the football operations performs in his absence under Khai Harley, Ryan Pace and Rick Reiprish could be critical to the team's in-season success.
(9) Finding quality depth along the offensive line is essential. In my opinion, the jury remains out on G/C Matt Tennant and T Charles Brown, perhaps prompting the selections of collegians T Marcel Jones and G Andrew Tiller in the later rounds of the 2012 draft. C Brian de la Puente and T Zach Strief filled in nicely as starters last season and need to prove last year wasn't a fluke.
(10) How will third-year TE Jimmy Graham follow up on a blockbuster season and respond to being a marked man in the passing offense? All eyes will be on veteran TE David Thomas who has decided to resume his career after being sidelined last season with a concussion. TE Michael Higgins provides additional depth. This position is critical to Brees' success and the overall success of the offense.
MY EARLY BUBBLE: WR Adrian Arrington, LB Scott Shanle, T Charles Jones, FB Korey Hall, WR/KR Courtney Roby.
PLAYER TO WATCH: DE Martez Wilson, who is making the switch from OLB to defensive end with an emphasis on rushing off the edge.
BIGGEST LOSS FLYING UNDER THE RADAR: Free agents LG Carl Nicks, WR Robert Meachem and CB Tracy Porter garnered the headlines when they signed with Tampa Bay, San Diego and Denver, respectively. But LB Jo-Lonn Dunbar is a sizable loss in my book because of his versatility and ability to play special teams. He signed with the St. Louis Rams.
DEEP THOUGHTS: The starting secondary appears to be set with CBs Jabari Greer and Patrick Robinson and safeties Roman Harper and Malcolm Jenkins. Backups include CB Johnny Patrick and safeties Jonathon Amaya and Isa Abdul-Quddus. Fifth-round draft pick DB Corey White and veteran CB Elbert Mack also figure in the mix but there are roster spots up for grabs here.
KEY POSITION BATTLES
K -- Garrett Hartley vs. John Kasay. Hartley returns after missing 2011 season with hip injury. Kasay is the grizzled veteran trying to extend his career.
FB -- Jed Collins vs. Korey Hall (team cannot afford to keep two fullbacks on final 53, despite Hall's contributions on special teams).
OLB -- Veteran Scott Shanle vs. the field. It seems each year Shanle must prove himself and this year is no different after the influx of LBs during the offseason.
WR -- Speedster Devery Henderson is getting a little long in the tooth at age 30 and the competition is getting tougher to stay among the top 4 wideouts. He needs to stay in that number to justify his contract.
DE -- With Will Smith expected to miss the first 4 games, that RDE spot is up for grabs among Junior Galette and Martez Wilson and others.
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