Next man up.
Those three words have become part of the everyday sports vernacular. One player goes down; another steps up.
It certainly applies to the Saints, who suffered a crack in their newly-poured defensive foundation under first-year coordinator Rob Ryan.
That said, the unexpected and potentially season-ending loss of recently acquired outside linebacker Victor Butler during routine drills in Tuesday’s organized team activity speaks to the fragility of a player’s career and how quickly things can change.
It can happen in the blink of an eye — or, in this case, an accidental banging of knees with running back Mark Ingram during the third-to-last “no-pads’’ workout before summer break.
The sudden loss of a projected starter in Ryan’s new 3-4 scheme creates a golden opportunity for someone else to win a starting job — or, at the least, gain significant playing time.
That serves as a starting point for the five most compelling issues facing coach Sean Payton as the clock winds down to the start of training camp July 26.
It’s 40 days and counting.
1. With Butler sidelined, where will the pass rush come from?
Butler figured to play a key role coming off the edge, though that merely was a projection because he only showed glimpses in Dallas in a backup role. Barring the acquisition of additional rush personnel, Junior Galette, Martez Wilson and Will Smith are expected to lead the charge.
Defensive end Cameron Jordan shows great sack potential, and undrafted rookie free agent Chase Thomas is an intriguing prospect. Look for Ryan to find unconventional ways to attack the quarterback from a variety of angles, similar to the style employed by Gregg Williams. The roster still lacks a marquee pass rusher partly because of salary cap constraints, so it essentially will be pass rush by committee.
2. How many pieces are missing in Ryan’s new puzzle of a 3-4 defense ?
Depending on the analyst du jour, the Saints’ returning defensive personnel either is best suited to play a 3-4 or a major roster overhaul is in order. The bottom line is Butler and former Cowboys defensive end Kenyon Coleman (both considered second-tier free agents) were the two main additions to the front seven, and Butler is sidelined.
Besides rookie defensive tackle John Jenkins, everyone else who figures prominently this season is a holdover from 2012. Middle linebacker Curtis Lofton is the glue that holds the front seven together. The elder statesmen — Smith and linebacker Jonathan Vilma — need to contribute, and the young players have to grow up in a hurry for this group to succeed.
With regard to getting gashed in the running game (see last season), Ryan said the problems under former defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo have been fixed schematically. Time will tell.
3. Who is Bret Ingalls, an d ho w will he revamp t he front line?
Ingalls is in his fifth year with the Saints, having served the first four as running backs coach. He succeeds Aaron Kromer as offensive line coach and has big shoes to fill, beginning with finding a competent replacement for two-time Pro Bowl left tackle Jermon Bushrod, who rejoined Kromer with the Chicago Bears.
During his five-year tenure in New Orleans, Kromer had the luxury of coaching a handful of outstanding O-linemen, such as Jahri Evans, Ben Grubbs, Carl Nicks, Jeff Faine and Jonathan Goodwin. But Kromer also made other, less-heralded players better — Jon Stinchcomb, Zach Strief, Brian de la Puente and Bushrod, to name a few.
Now Ingalls must find a player to protect quarterback Drew Brees’ blindside. The leading candidates are Charles Brown, veteran Jason Smith and rookie Terron Armstead.
4. With Chase Daniel gone, who will step up as Brees’ backup?
Now that Chase Daniel has moved on to Kansas City, 10-year veterans Seneca Wallace and Luke McCown and undrafted rookie free agent Ryan Griffin will battle it out in training camp. Because of other pressing needs, especially on defense, Payton is expected to keep two quarterbacks on the 53-man roster, with a third perhaps on the practice squad or within arm’s reach.
McCown went to camp with the Saints a year ago and was cut, with Daniel holding down the backup job and Sean Canfield waiting in the wings. Wallace has the early edge, but Griffin is the wild card. He shows promise and has knowledge of the pro passing game under Tulane coach Curtis Johnson, a former Saints assistant.
If Griffin plays well in the preseason, the Saints might run the risk of losing him to another team. Then again, a deal could be struck to keep Griffin down on the farm. Keep in mind that Brees will be 35 in January, so Wallace and McCown would be temporary fixes.
5. Marques Colston, Lance Moore and ... the envelope, please?
In the big picture, tight end Jimmy Graham could play the role of a wide receiver, and sometimes he does anyway. But on the depth chart, a handful of true wide receivers will battle for the remaining four spots behind Colston and Moore, including Joe Morgan, Nick Toon, draftee Kenny Stills, Courtney Roby, Andy Tanner, Chris Givens and Saalim Hakim, among others.
Morgan and veteran Devery Henderson (who’s now with the Washington Redskins) essentially shared the No. 3 receiver’s role last season, although Morgan proved to be a bigger downfield threat by season’s end.
The priority for Morgan is to get his personal life in order (after a DWI arrest) and show that the coaching staff can depend on him.
Toon missed all of 2012 with a foot injury. Stills, who some draft analysts had going higher than the fifth round, is the wild card.
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