Saints camp report: Top concern isn't Bountygate aftermath, but defense

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Drew Brees and Joe Vitt are the headliners, but Steve Spagnuolo's 'D' might have the critical role. (US Presswire)  
Drew Brees and Joe Vitt are the headliners, but Steve Spagnuolo's 'D' might have the critical role. (US Presswire)  

Nothing was normal for the Saints this offseason, or this preseason.

Adversity was everywhere, they continued to face truly unique challenges -- naming multiple interim head coaches for various times in the season, coping with their head coach being suspended for a year, and now, knowing general manager Mickey Loomis and key pass rusher Will Smith are about to depart for their suspensions as well.

Making matters worse, as they prepared for their final preseason game of the season, a hurricane was hurtling towards New Orleans, causing more upheaval. The Saints cancelled practice Monday, gave the players time to evacuate their families, then brought the operation up to Cincinnati for practice on Tuesday before flying to Nashville on Wednesday afternoon.

After the game, rather than head back as teams normally would, the Saints instead had to spend the night in Nashville, with the New Orleans airport closed. The plan was to fly back home Friday morning at some point, give the players the weekend off, and then resume practice on Monday. The good news is that the power did return at their team headquarters on Thursday, and both that facility and the Superdome were in good shape.

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Given what the past six months have been like, I suppose on some level that felt normal for the Saints. And this organization obviously has experience in adjusting on the fly, with Katrina the greatest example of that.

"That's the way this team is built," interim head coach Joe Vitt said. "That's the way this organization is built. I think that it really just shadows the resiliency of our community. This community faces these types of things it seems every year. We stand beside our community, encourage them to take shelter, and everybody can be safe in this thing."

Yet for all of the Bountygate hoopla, and the lingering appeal decisions and court cases, expectations remain very high for this bunch. Loomis managed to add key free agents like guard Ben Grubbs and linebacker Curtis Lofton, and, most important of all, sign quarterback Drew Brees to the biggest contract in league history.

Vitt said the coaching staff has been united throughout the unusual circumstances, calling it "like a board of directors," and said that he backed off the game-day operations in the final preseason game so that offensive line coach Aaron Kromer, who will coach the first six games until Vitt returnbs, could handle more of the game management duties as well as make the calls in the run game.

"I've stepped away and his role has increased," Vitt said following the 10-6 loss to the Titans at LP Field.

Few teams have embraced the "us against the world" mentality as the Saints have in recent years, and they've sort of been the modern era Raiders in some respects, going a bit rogue, finding their fair share of controversy. So the events of this offseason will only intensify that mindset, with everyone from the league office to opposing fans now clearly in their crosshairs. That motivation, and the leadership of Brees, and their abundant offensive talent, should be enough to carry them back to the postseason even without Payton pulling the strings on Sundays.

Team Objectives

Get defensive: When you have recently won a Super Bowl, no one is going to get all upset over some preseason results. But given how the season ended last season -- with Alex Smith and the 49ers, of all teams, carving up New Orleans through the air in the playoffs -- some of the defensive performances in the exhibition games have been disappointing.

Yes, the Saints have faced some elite offensive teams like Houston and New England, and the Patriots looked pretty bad against them with the starters barely playing. But Jacksonville put up 27 points in the third game, and Blaine Gabbert had them staked to a 17-3 lead early on. The Texans sliced through the Saints far too easily early in the following week. They rallied to force some turnovers and get back in the game, but this last week of practices will be an essential tuneup for the defense as it goes against one of the best attacks in the NFL.

They must make sure everyone is on board with Steve Spagnuolo's new defense. Sure, they're going to score points in droves, but it's difficult to win in a shootout every week.

Explore trade market: The Saints have a surplus of players at running back and wide receiver in particular, and getting some sort of value for guys they might otherwise have to release would be a goal as the roster deadline approaches, and even through the weekend, with teams adjusting their 53-man as Week 1 approaches. With Pierre Thomas and Mark Ingram around, and Darren Sproles the ultimate change-of-pace back, a team like Detroit might covet Chris Ivory. And Ivory, a strong inside runner, has been pushed by Travaris Cadet this camp.

Vitt sounded a cautious tone about dealing a back -- "I don't think you can ever have enough running backs in this league," he said -- and, as for the likelihood of a trade, said, "not right now." However, he did allow that the team was "nicked up" at linebacker and would exhaust all options to improve the roster.

Loomis is not in the business of stocking other club's rosters, but with receivers like Courtney Roby and Adrian Arrington making big strides, and Nick Toon a high draft pick, and a Big Three of Marques Colston, Lance Moore and Devery Henderson on the roster, something is going to have to give. Greg Camarillo was brought in to help man the slot, and with Toon and Arrington banged up recently, things became even more murky. (Arrington is still recovering from surgery, while Toon got back in the lineup Thursday night for the preseason finale).

Making any kind of deal is tough in this league, and it's particularly difficult to get value now when teams figure you are just going to cut the player in question, anyway, but if a team wants a player and is low in the waiver order -- or doesn't want to risk someone else signing him -- then a trade can make sense.

Solidify linebacker: If there is an area of concern on the roster, it's here. It began in the offseason, with longtime middle linebacker Jonathan Vilma's health a concern, and with his suspension looming. The Saints signed Lofton and David Hawthorne to try to replenish, but both of them are ailing now. So they acquired oft-injured Barrett Ruud from Seattle ... but, again, can he stay healthy? With that in mind, landing a linebacker in exchange for an expendable offensive player -- rather than a draft pick -- might make more sense for the Saints.

"Our pro personnel people do an outstanding job in acquiring talent for us," Vitt said following the injuries to the starting linebackers. "We'll see what talent is available to us on other rosters in potential trades or picking someone up when they're waived, but we're happy with what we have now."

Position Battles

Fourth running back: Ivory is the incumbent, with more experience, but Cadet has continued to make an impression. He caught eight balls for 80 yards in the Hall of Fame Game, led the team in rushing in the second game, caught a 24-yard touchdown in the third game. Ivory fumbled against the Texans but finished the game strong. This could come down to trade value, and whether or not the Saints believe they could stash Cadet, a rookie out of Appalachian State, on the practice squad, and what they might be able to find for Ivory via trade. It's going to be difficult to carry the kind of numbers at running back and receiver that the talent warrants, and I suspect if they can move Ivory for value, that Cadet gets a chance to make the team. Ivory got the start last night, but this could be a situation where he is being showcased as well, and Cadet, handling return duties for Sproles, fumbled on the opening drive, never a good sign.

Fourth corner: Actually, the final 2-3 spots at this position were up for grabs going into last night's finale. Marquis Johnson played for Spagnuolo with the Rams, and has performed well in the preseason. He could find himself getting decent playing time in sub packages, as I figure teams will be looking to spread the Saints out quite frequently. Fifth-round pick Corey White has flashed enough, and has special-teams skills, so it would be quite surprising if he didn't crack the roster as the fifth corner. The top three -- Jabari Greer, Patrick Robinson and Johnny Patrick -- is pretty much set.

Depth wide receiver: Once again, the ability to flip one of these guys for an asset will be a factor. Arrington's knee surgery threw a wrinkle into his strong camp, and opened up a shot for others to show what they can do, with Roy and Joe Morgan getting the start against the Titans. (Morgan, however, left the game with an arm injury.) Toon's draft status essentially saves him despite his missed time, and Arrington could be the odd man out depending how the Saints divide up the numbers. They were carrying nine receivers into this game, and had something to like about just about all of them.

Somebody to Watch

DE Cam Jordan: There were teams looking at Jordan as a legit top-10 talent in the 2011 draft and he looked like a steal for the Saints. New Orleans needed pass rushers, especially young ones, and this kid looked the part ... then he pretty much had a lost season, registering a single sack and never really finding his way in the defense. Now, with the only established pass rusher on the roster -- Will Smith -- headed to his suspension -- they need to get Jordan going from the onset. He should be the jolt of speed and dynamic ability this team badly needs on that side of the ball, but he has everything to prove in 2012. If he can't be some sort of a presence opposite of Smith, then the Saints are going to have to continue to gamble in order to get a pass rush, and as we saw in the playoffs, dying by that sword can be bloody indeed.

Injury Roundup

  The Saints held out 26 regulars from their preseason finale, trying to avoid more injuries and rest their wounded. "We have a great chance to go into the Redskins game as healthy as we've been all year," Vitt said.

  Sproles (knee) is banking on being back for Week 1 and Vitt maintains that will be the case.

  Lofton (high ankle sprain) will be a close call for the opener with Washington, though he hasn't been ruled out.

  Hawthorne (knee) required surgery to repair a meniscus tear after the preseason game with Jacksonville, and his status for Week 1 will likely come down to weekend as well.

  The Saints believe Greer (sports hernia surgery) is on track to play Week 1.

The Last Word

Discount the Saints at your own peril. Yes, the first six weeks will be filled with more quirks and adjustments and Vitt makes way for offensive line coach Aaron Kromer, and then comes back to replace him. But order will be restored soon enough, and this team could very well be primed to get better as the season goes on.

They face a formidable schedule, to be sure, and besides getting to indoctrinate Robert Griffin III into the league in Week 1, must face Cam Newton, Aaron Rodgers, Peyton Manning and Philip Rivers all within the first eight weeks of the season. Those stars will put points on the board against this defense, but I expect this offense to counter more than enough to get back in the playoffs. Will they cruise to another 13-3 season and run away with the NFC South? No, and the competition in that division will be better.

But even without Payton, I'll take my chances with Brees. Some scouts have pointed out to me the propensity for Brees to force things and try to do too much even with Payton there to rein him in, but the veteran is smart enough to curb himself, I believe, and get the Saints another home playoff game.


Before joining CBS Sports, Jason La Canfora was the Washington Redskins beat writer for The Washington Post for six years and served as NFL Network's insider. The Baltimore native can be seen every Sunday during the season on The NFL Today.
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