After reporting for training camp and having conditioning tests and a team meeting Thursday, the New Orleans Saints will take the field at their Metairie training facility for the first time Friday morning.
Thus begins a grueling 44-day stretch for 90 players who will be vying for spots on the 53-man roster that Sean Payton and his coaching staff will be busy shaping for the regular season.
But before the roster is finalized for the Sept. 8 season opener against the Atlanta Falcons, five weeks of practice and four exhibition games will be important to determining some key position battles.
We all know Drew Brees is going to be the starting quarterback, Jimmy Graham will be the No. 1 tight end, and four-time All-Pro Jahri Evans is a lock for the starting job at right guard. But here are five spots that will bear watching starting Friday:
STARTING LEFT TACKLE: Charles Brown vs. Terron Armstead.
Barring a trade or a late unexpected signing of a veteran free agent that fell through the cracks in the spring and summer, either Brown or Armstead will get the best shot at replacing two-time Pro Bowl pick Jermon Bushrod.
Brown has finished each of his first three seasons on the injured reserve list and would be the likely candidate to succeed Bushrod, but he didn’t receive a glowing endorsement from Payton this spring.
Perhaps the selection of Armstead, a highly regarded but raw rookie, in the third round of the draft in April might light a fire under Brown, a former second-round draft pick, but the first thing he has to do is stay healthy.
NO. 3 WIDE RECEIVER: Joe Morgan vs. Nick Toon and Kenny Stills.
Everybody knows about Morgan’s speed after he averaged 37.9 yards per catch on just 10 receptions last season, but he’ll be vying with Toon and Stills to get in the wide receiver mix.
Morgan, an undrafted free agent, dazzled fans in his first two seasons in training camp and appeared to be the replacement for Devery Henderson as the field-stretcher, but he’s also had moments where he had trouble hanging on to the ball.
Toon, a fourth-round draft pick last season, didn’t get much of a chance after being injured in the first week of training camp and missed the entire season after having foot surgery.
Stills was a productive receiver at Oklahoma, which can’t hurt him in this offense.
SAFETY: Kenny Vaccaro vs. Roman Harper.
Harper didn’t have the best season last year, and there are many who believe Vaccaro, the team’s first-round pick and the 15th overall player chosen in the draft, will take a good portion of Harper’s snaps this season.
Harper will begin training camp on the physically unable to perform list, but could be ready for the season. Regardless, Vaccaro will be trying to make a lasting impression as a versatile safety who at the least will play a lot in the nickel and dime packages if he doesn’t win a starting job.
STARTING HALFBACK: Mark Ingram vs. Pierre Thomas.
Once again, this one will be a toss-up for Payton, who’ll use all of his halfbacks the way he’s used them since 2009 — depending on down and distance — to use their strengths to attack opposing defenses.
In that case, it really doesn’t matter who is the starter and who comes in on second or third down — with Darren Sproles and Travaris Cadet in the mix as well.
Ingram finally got healthy in the second half of the season after having two offseason surgeries, and Thomas has been a dependable rusher and receiver since making the team as an undrafted free agent in 2007.
BACKUP QUARTERBACK: Seneca Wallace vs. Luke McCown.
It would be easier if the Saints didn’t have to have a quarterback derby to be the backup to Brees, because everyone knows what that would mean.
But every team has to have a backup quarterback, just in case, so Wallace and McCown, a pair of NFL journeymen, will get the opportunity to be the main man behind Brees.