Changes loom as Saints return to practice field

Advocate staff photo by PATRICK DENNIS -- Saints Sean Payton walks among stretching players during Saints training camp at the team's training facility on Airline Highway in Metairie in August 2011. Show caption
Advocate staff photo by PATRICK DENNIS -- Saints Sean Payton walks among stretching players during Saints training camp at the team's training facility on Airline Highway in Metairie in August 2011.

KENNER — Now that the Saints have switched to a 3-4 defense, coach Sean Payton must decide who will play which position.

Tuesday’s start of organized team activities will serve as Payton’s first on-the-field veteran evaluations since he returned from a season-long suspension in January and jettisoned then-defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo along with his 4-3 scheme.

The challenge this spring is to identify new positions for a slew of returning defensive linemen and linebackers, all with different levels of talent, ability and salaries. Contested positions include left tackle, No. 3 receiver, cornerback and safety.

The workouts are closed to the public.

“I think there’s going to be some flexibility when it comes to the transition,” Payton said Monday morning before teeing off at the Saints Hall of Fame Celebrity Golf Classic at Chateau Golf and Country Club. “There’s going to be a handful of players that ... we look closely at and then all of a sudden decide, ‘Hey, are we better off putting him at another position?’ There’ll be a few players that will ... learn more than one spot.”

Examples include veteran defensive end Will Smith, who will move to outside linebacker. Outside linebacker Jonathan Vilma will move to one of two inside linebacker positions with Curtis Lofton. Defensive tackle Akiem Hicks will learn how to play defensive end and nose tackle.

To understand the importance of these decisions, consider the Saints defense as a handful of gumballs where each finger has its own area of responsibility. If there’s space between fingers, the gumballs are sure to hit the ground — and last season there was plenty of it.

“His defense had worked in the past,” Smith said of Spagnuolo. “I think it was just a combination of everything going on outside the field, on the field, guys being suspended, coaches not being here, this and that. ... We weren’t for whatever particular reason able to play well as a defense. That’s the past — nothing we can do to change it.”

While Payton will help with the decisions, the architect of the new defense is coordinator Rob Ryan. His defenses are known to be aggressive, which is what helped the Saints enjoy success before last season’s historically horrid performance.

“It’s good to be back around the coaches and the players,” Payton said. “There’s a lot of new faces, but I think, shoot, it’s been a number of months. So you sort of get into a routine, and I’m anxious to be able to see some of these guys on the field that I haven’t seen (in person).”

Right tackle Zach Strief said these decisions are examples of leadership the Saints missed last season.

“You can sail a boat without a captain, but sometimes you don’t exactly know where you’re going,” he said. “Having him back is kind of redirecting us and getting us back on the right path. I think everything we’ve seen so far has proven that.”

Note

The Saints waived defensive end Braylon Broughton, who spent the 2012 season on the practice squad.