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Saints Training Camp: Top 10 Storylines

Charles Brown (#71) is the most tenured among the New Orleans Saints who are seeking the starting job at left tackle (Photo: Parker Waters).Charles Brown (#71) is the most tenured among the New Orleans Saints who are seeking the starting job at left tackle (Photo: Parker Waters).

NEW ORLEANS -- My Top 10 storylines on the eve of training camp. Players report July 25.

1. A MAGNET WITH NO NAME! That's how Coach Sean Payton described the team's depth chart at left tackle during the offseason. With the departure of free agent left tackle Jermon Bushrod to the Chicago Bears, the Saints must find a replacement from among three candidates: the oft-injured Charles Brown, third-round draft pick Terron Armstead and veteran Jason Smith, a perceived bust after being selected by the St. Louis Rams with the second overall pick in the 2009 draft. My bet is on Armstead before all is said and done.

2. RYAN FOR THE DEFENSE! Rob Ryan becomes the Saints' third different defensive coordinator in as many seasons, succeeding Steve Spagnuolo who was fired after his unit yielded the most yards in NFL history (7,042) in 2012. Spags' read-and-react 4-3 scheme has been scrapped in favor of Ryan's blitzing, attacking 3-4 scheme, reminiscent of the style employed by DC Gregg Williams from 2009 through 2011 before his fall from grace. This is Ryan's third team in four seasons (Oakland, Dallas and now NO).

3. PRESSURE POINTS! In Ryan's new-look defense, inquiring minds want to know where will the pressure come from and who will lead the charge on opposing quarterbacks? Junior Galette? Will Smith? Cam Jordan? Martez Wilson? Jordan led the team with eight sacks in 2012 and might be poised for a breakout season. The sudden loss of free agent outside linebacker Victor Butler to a torn ACL in OTAs certainly didn't help matters.

  SAINTS ON THE BUBBLE 1.0
LT Charles Brown - Make or break season for second-round pick in 2010 who has finished two of his NFL seasons on IR. Time for him to step up and justify second-round pick.
SS Roman Harper - Will be pushed hard to keep starting job; might be looking at a reduced role.
*CB Patrick Robinson - If reports are accurate that he suffered off-season knee injury (NFL Network analyst Darren Sharper on WWL radio), P-Rob might not be ready to open training camp. That would not be good news for an already thin position.
OLB Will Smith - Oldest original Saint on team with nine seasons in Black and Gold. Took a pay cut to remain with team; due $3 million base in '13. Trimmed down to 270-ish, he will be asked to play stand-up OLB in 3-4. 

LB Chris Chamberlain - A Spagnuolo-influenced signing who missed last season with a torn ACL

* Injury related.

4. HE'S BACK! -- Coach Sean Payton returns after an unprecedented year's suspension for his role in the Bounty scandal. He returns as one of sports highest-paid coaches, armed with a five-year, $39.5 million deal, compliments of owner Tom Benson. Without question, getting Payton back is the team's No. 1 off-season move.

5. IS MORGAN READY? After his DWI arrest in the offseason, one questions whether young wide receiver Joseph Morgan can deal with the responsibilities and obligations that go along with being a public sports figure. He certainly showed he has the ability last season as a downfield receiver, scoring three times and averaging 37.9 yards on 10 catches. After Marques Colston and Lance Moore, the No. 3 job appears to be Morgan's to lose with unproven Nick Toon and fifth-round draft pick Kenny Stills Jr. in pursuit.

6. BREES' UNDERSTUDY! Seneca Wallace, Luke McCown or rookie free agent Ryan Griffin? Truthfully, Who Dat Nation probably doesn't even want to consider which reserve QB moves under center if something should happen to Drew Brees. But the reality is something could happen to Brees and there needs to be a backup who has the confidence of coaches and teammates, which Chase Daniels did before his exit to the Kansas City Chiefs in the offseason.

7. SAFETY FIRST! As the 15th overall pick in the 2013 draft, everything points to safety Kenny Vaccaro moving into the starting lineup this season. The question is when, not if. Goodness knows, the back end of the Saints defense needs better production. Neither Malcolm Jenkins nor Roman Harper has exactly distinguished himself as a playmaker. Look for Vaccaro to get on the field in some capacity early and often, either as a full-time starter or in the various cover packages.

8. HALF FULL, HALF EMPTY? New scheme, new defensive coordinator, perhaps even new roles for veteran defenders Jonathan Vilma and Will Smith. Both players agreed to take pay cuts to remain with the team, a move based on self-preservation perhaps. But it also shows that the coaches believe they still have something to offer. Time will tell. Contrary to what some observers think, neither player is a lock to make the team.

9. PLAYERS TO WATCH: CB Keenan Lewis, second-year DL Akiem Hicks and rookie free agent LB Chase Thomas. A native of New Orleans, Lewis easily is the team's best FA acquisition who has Pro Bowl potential. Hicks has the potential to contribute mightily in this 3-4 scheme, probably as a defensive end. He is big, rangy, athletic and plays with a chip on his shoulder. He showed glimpses last season. It will be hard keeping Thomas off the final 53 because of his athleticism and special teams play.

10. THE BUBBLE LIST: Every year, a handful of veterans enter training camp with their jobs on the line. Different factors come into play - age, health, salary, etc. But basically it comes down to a numbers game. My watch list includes two popular players (Will Smith, Roman Harper) who need good camps to solidify their roster spots. I'm not saying they won't make opening-game 53 but they are vulnerable (see chart).

NOTES: Former Saints RT Jon Stinchcomb will be part of the CST broadcast team during the exhibition season. He will join Tim Brando in the booth working as an analyst.

 

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