Mickles: Five things to watch at Saints minicamp

Advocate sportswriter

Advocate staff photo by MATTHEW HINTONSaints offensive tackles Charles Brown, left, and Jason Smith practice May 30 at the team's training facility in Metairie.
Advocate staff photo by MATTHEW HINTONSaints offensive tackles Charles Brown, left, and Jason Smith practice May 30 at the team's training facility in Metairie.

By the time the New Orleans Saints step onto the field Tuesday morning for the first of five minicamp practices over three days, it will have been 156 days since their fans last saw them on a football field.

The last time certainly wasn’t anything to remember.

It was the afternoon of Dec. 30 in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome and the Saints’ second-half collapse in a 44-38 loss to the Carolina Panthers was an appropriate ending to a miserable 7-9 season.

Minus coach Sean Payton, the 2012 Saints were a shell of the team that won 41 games — including Super Bowl XLIV — in a three-year span from 2009 to 2011.

Their loyal fans, who felt the penalties levied by NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell in the pay-for-performance scandal helped sabotage the season, could only shake their heads in obvious dismay.

With Payton bringing a sense of normalcy back this spring, the Saints go into the final two weeks of their nine-week offseason program with the focus clearly on the upcoming season and not what happened a year ago.

With that in mind, fans will be eager to get their first look at what they can expect this fall during three open minicamp practices Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday at the Saints’ training facility in Metairie. All three practices begin at 10:15 a.m.

Here are five things to look for if you’re planning to go:

1. Keep an eye on left tackle.

Clearly the biggest question mark of the offseason, the Saints’ coaches hope to have a better idea of who’ll take two-time Pro Bowl pick Jermon Bushrod’s place by the end of the minicamp.

In the first week of OTAs, Jason Smith worked with the first team, and third-round draft pick Terron Armstead got the second-team reps. This week, they flip-flopped with Armstead getting first-team snaps and Smith going with the second team.

It’s possible that Charles Brown, who was out in the first week of OTAs, could get his shot this week to see who goes into training camp as the starter.

2. The new-look 3-4 defense.

After giving up an NFL single-season record 7,042 yards in 2012, Payton quickly moved to rectify the problem when he fired defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo and announced that he would switch to a 3-4 defense.

A little more than two weeks later, Payton hired former Dallas Cowboys defensive coordinator Rob Ryan to change the culture of his defense and take some of the pressure off Drew Brees and his record-setting offense.

While there are no pads or hitting during minicamp, fans will get an opportunity to see how it works and get a first look at veteran newcomers in cornerback Keenan Lewis, end Kenyon Coleman, outside linebacker Victor Butler and safety Jim Leonhard and two rookie draft picks — safety Kenny Vaccaro and defensive tackle John Jenkins.

3. The battle for No. 3 wide receiver.

Considering what happened with the defense last season, it’s amazing that offense would take two of the top three spots.

But this is another key area the Saints have been working hard at as they try to identify a replacement for Devery Henderson, who was not re-signed, as another target for Brees behind Marques Colston and Lance Moore.

The top candidates are speedy Joe Morgan, who averaged 37.9 yards per catch last season, and Nick Toon and fifth-round draft pick Kenny Stills Jr. The problem is Morgan has limited experience, while Toon, who was on IR last season, and Stills have never played in a regular-season game.

4. Old faces in new places.

Mainly because of the switch to a 3-4 defense from the familiar 4-3 the Saints have used for the better part of two decades, some of the returnees will find themselves in new spots.

The biggest changes are for former 4-3 defensive ends Will Smith and Junior Galette, who will now be called on to be rush linebackers in Ryan’s new 3-4. Martez Wilson, who played linebacker as a rookie in 2011 before being moved to defensive end last season, has returned to linebacker.

Cameron Jordan, the team’s sack leader last season at left end, has moved over to the right side to take advantage of his size and speed. Also, defensive tackle Tom Johnson is lining up more at end and defensive tackle Akiem Hicks is cross-training at both the end and nose tackle positions.

5. The back end of the defense.

The Saints’ coaches have spent the better part of two weeks mixing and matching in the secondary as they try to come up with a solution for a defense that ranked 31st against the pass a year ago.

Lewis and Jabari Greer have taken turns with the first-team defense at left cornerback, while Patrick Robinson and second-year pro Corey White have alternated on the right side.

Things are competitive at safety as well as incumbent strong safety Roman Harper is battling Leonhard, while Rafael Bush, Vaccaro and Isa Abdul-Quddus try to make their mark while free safety Malcolm Jenkins is recovering from a hamstring problem.