One of the most-asked questions of the New Orleans Saints’ offseason was finally answered Friday when four-year veteran Charles Brown lined up at left tackle for the first play of team drills of training camp.
The Saints need someone to replace two-time Pro Bowler Jermon Bushrod after he left in free agency and speculation about who it would be — Brown, Jason Smith or rookie Terron Armstead — was a hot topic for more than four months.
Smith worked with the second team and Armstead with the third unit.
While it might not mean much after just one practice, Brown, who’s finished the past two seasons on injured reserve, said it was important for him to be with the first unit after getting a chance in the June minicamp.
During that time, he said he developed some chemistry with left guard Ben Grubbs — which was invaluable to him.
“It is a big deal,” he said of starting on the first day of camp. “I’m just trying to keep my mistakes to a minimum, if any at all, and keep learning every day and keep growing.”
Strong safety Roman Harper, who was put on the physically-unable-to-perform list this week, surprised everyone when he was on the field and working with the first-team defense Friday.
Saints coach Sean Payton said Thursday that Harper had sports hernia surgery and would likely be out a couple of days.
But Harper, who had the surgery last month, made a quicker recovery.
“I felt good, and, for the most part, the reps I got moved around pretty good,” Harper said. “It’s coming along at a good pace right now. I’m where I need to be on the schedule.”
In the first team drills of camp, Rob Ryan’s new 3-4 defense clearly held the upper hand during the 19 plays that were run — including the first play when Drew Brees was intercepted by cornerback Keenan Lewis.
Lewis, the Saints’ top acquisition in free agency, ran stride-for-stride down the right sideline with speedy wide receiver Joe Morgan and made the interception as the fans roared.
Lewis later said he figured Brees might take a shot down the field early.
“I’ve watched Drew a lot … he’s a home-run hitter and he likes the home-run play every now and then to get the offense going,” Lewis said. “I kept that in my mind. When you go against one of the best, you’ve got to be thinking that he’s going to take a shot.”
Counting Lewis’ interception, which drew praise from Payton, the defense came up with three takeaways in the first eight plays of team drills and also recorded a sack during the 19-play session.
Brees and running back Pierre Thomas botched a handoff that was recovered by defensive end Cameron Jordan and cornerback A.J. Davis intercepted backup quarterback Luke McCown on the second team’s first play.
Fans started forming a line to get into the practice facility to watch the workout late Thursday night when local resident Reno Tyler showed up around midnight.
But he soon gave up his spot at the front of the line to Anthony Ramirez of Houston. Ramirez, who was celebrating his 19th birthday Friday, was there with his girlfriend and parents with the goal of getting Payton’s autograph.
“I’ve been up since 8 o’clock Thursday morning and I’m still up,” Ramirez said before the gates opened up for 2,613 fans to file through. “I’m ready for my autograph.”
Five observations from Friday:
1. New cornerback Keenan Lewis, a New Orleans native, got off to a rousing start with an interception of Drew Brees on the first play of team drills.
2. Earlier, Lewis disciplined himself with five pushups after dropping what should have been a pick in an 8-on-6 drill — drawing cheers from fans for the extra work, not the drop.
3. The new 3-4 defense was around the ball a lot early in team work and had three takeaways — two off the first-team offense — in the first eight plays.
4. Coach Sean Payton wants to re-emphasize the running game, which showed with four called runs in the seven snaps the first-team offense had in team drills.
5. Hearty cheers from 2,613 fans kept the energy level of the opening practice high. The line for the stands started around midnight.