New Orleans Saints 2014 training camp preview

After an action-packed offseason, the Saints believe they’re built to beat anyone in the NFL. But loading up on talent is only half the process. The rest begins when the Saints report to training camp Thursday in West Virginia, and things must get off to a good start if they want a fifth trip to the playoffs — and, more importantly, a second Super Bowl — in six seasons.

Training camp battles, position by position

QUARTERBACKS

ON SOLID GROUND: Drew Brees

IN THE MIX: Ryan Griffin, Luke McCown

UPHILL CLIMB: Logan Kilgore (FA-Middle Tennessee State)

WHERE’S THE INTRIGUE?: Griffin or McCown?

WHY?: Brees has passed for the most yards (10,339) and second-most touchdowns (82) over the last two years in the NFL. Barring a catastrophe, he’s the only Saints quarterback taking meaningful snaps in ’14. However, the race to be the top backup will be interesting. Griffin had his moments in offseason workouts and spent time on the 53-man roster as a rookie third quarterback last year, but veteran McCown is the returning second-string incumbent.

RUNNING BACKS

ON SOLID GROUND: RB Pierre Thomas, RB Mark Ingram, RB Khiry Robinson, FB Erik Lorig (FA, Buccaneers)

IN THE MIX: RB Travaris Cadet

UPHILL CLIMB: RB Derrick Strozier (FA-Tulane), RB Timothy Flanders (FA-Sam Houston State), FB Austin Johnson (practice squad)

WHERE’S THE INTRIGUE?: Cadet

WHY?: Though their experience varies, Thomas, Ingram and Robinson have had their moments for the Saints, and Lorig held a role in Tampa Bay for four years before joining New Orleans. However, Cadet’s been used sparingly as a running back since making the Saints as an undrafted rookie in ’12. Coaches say he reminds them of RB Darren Sproles, a prolific receiver/kick-returner who led the Saints in all-purpose yardage from ’11-13 before being traded to Philadelphia in March. Can Cadet justify those comparisons? Or will he lose out to an undrafted rookie, a type of player he knows the Saints love?

WIDE RECEIVERS

ON SOLID GROUND: Marques Colston, Kenny Stills, Brandin Cooks (D1-Oregon State)

IN THE MIX: Robert Meachem, Nick Toon, Joseph Morgan

UPHILL CLIMB: Brandon Coleman (FA-Rutgers), Charles Hawkins (practice squad), Steve Hull (FA-Illinois), Seantavius Jones (FA-Valdosta State), Andy Tanner (practice squad)

WHERE’S THE INTRIGUE?: Morgan, Toon

WHY?: Assign spots to returning starters Colston and Stills as well as Cooks, college football’s best receiver last year. Give veteran Meachem a good shot for leading the Saints in yards per catch (20.3) last year and his renowned downfield blocking. That means Toon and Morgan fight for spots among quite a crowd. Toon’s 6-4 height and Morgan’s astonishing 37.9 yards per catch in ’12 show why they’re in the mix. Toon, though, struggled in ’13 after missing his rookie year hurt in ’12. Meanwhile, third-year man Morgan is coming back from a torn ACL sidelining him in ’13 — another such tear caused him to miss ’11.

TIGHT ENDS

ON SOLID GROUND: Jimmy Graham, Benjamin Watson

IN THE MIX: Josh Hill

UPHILL CLIMB: Je’Ron Hamm (FA-Louisiana-Monroe), Nic Jacobs (FA-McNeese State)

WHERE’S THE INTRIGUE?: Graham

WHY?: After it took all offseason for the Saints and him to negotiate a four-year, $40 million deal that made him the tight end with the highest annual salary in NFL history, Graham will be under scrutiny the moment camp starts. Some may pounce if there’s the slightest hint that his production will slow from what it’s been. Yet betting against him wouldn’t be a smart wager: Despite playing through foot and wrist injuries, since 2011, Graham’s 36 touchdowns lead all NFL players, and he tops all league tight ends during that time with 270 catches and 3,507 receiving yards.

OFFENSIVE LINE

ON SOLID GROUND: LT Terron Armstead, LG Ben Grubbs, RG Jahri Evans, RT Zach Strief

IN THE MIX: C/G Tim Lelito, C Jonathan Goodwin (FA, 49ers), T Bryce Harris

UPHILL CLIMB: C Matt Armstrong (FA-Grand Valley State), T Manase Foketi (FA), T Marcel Jones (practice squad), T Ty Nsekhe (FA), T Tavon Rooks (D6-Kansas State), T Jason Weaver (FA), T Thomas Welch (FA, Bills), G Senio Kelemete (practice squad)

WHERE’S THE INTRIGUE?: Center

WHY?: Armstead, Grubbs, Evans and Strief all finished last season as starters on a unit whose run- and pass-protection ended the campaign on high notes. But center is a vacancy, created when Brian de la Puente — the starter there since 2011 — left in free agency. Lelito handled the bulk of snaps at center during offseason workouts after starting two games as a rookie at right guard in 2013. But the other contender for the job embodies perhaps the stiffest competition the young interior lineman could face: 13-season veteran Goodwin, a Pro Bowler when the Saints won Super Bowl XLIV who then reached a second Super Bowl and three straight NFC title games with the 49ers from 2011-13. No matter the victor, Goodwin will be counted on to help mentor Lelito and the other young linemen.

DEFENSIVE LINE

ON SOLID GROUND: DE Cameron Jordan, DL Akiem Hicks, NT Brodrick Bunkley, NT John Jenkins, DE Glenn Foster

IN THE MIX: DE Tyrunn Walker, DL Brandon Deadrick (FA, Jaguars)

UPHILL CLIMB: DE George Uko (FA-Southern California), DE Lawrence Virgil (FA-Valdosta State), NT Moses McCray (FA-Akron)

WHERE’S THE INTRIGUE?: Maybe nowhere.

WHY?: The Saints defense gave up the second-fewest passing yards and fourth-fewest total yards last year in large part because of a superb pass rush led by Jordan, whose 12.5 sacks propelled him to his first Pro Bowl. He had plenty of help from Hicks, Bunkley, Jenkins and Foster — who, with the exception of veteran Bunkley, are all younger than Jordan, himself only a fourth-year player. Though the run-stuffing could stand to improve (the Saints were 19th in rushing defense last year), this will be a hard group for newcomers to crack.

LINEBACKERS

ON SOLID GROUND: OLB Junior Galette, ILB Curtis Lofton, ILB David Hawthorne, OLB Parys Haralson, ILB Ramon Humber, ILB Kevin Reddick

IN THE MIX: OLB Victor Butler, OLB Keyunta Dawson, OLB Kyle Knox, OLB Rufus Johnson Jr., OLB Ronald Powell (D5b-Florida), ILB Khairi Fortt (D4-California)

UPHILL CLIMB: OLB Kasim Edebali (FA-Boston College), OLB Cheta Ozougwu (FA, Bears), LB Todd Davis (FA-Sacramento State)

WHERE’S THE INTRIGUE?: Butler

WHY?: While pass-rushing specialist Butler missed all of 2013 for the Saints after an ACL tear during offseason workouts, Galette had a career year in sacks with 12. Lofton, Hawthorne and Haralson all contributed value to the NFL’s fourth-best defense, while Humber, Reddick and even Dawson had their moments as backups on defense or on special teams. So can six-year veteran Butler find his spot in the rotation in his second season with the Saints after showing encouraging signs at workouts this offseason, or could others in the mix overtake him?

DEFENSIVE BACKS

ON SOLID GROUND: S Jairus Byrd (FA, Bills), S Kenny Vaccaro, CB Keenan Lewis, S Rafael Bush, CB Champ Bailey (FA, Broncos), CB Corey White, CB Stanley Jean-Baptiste (D2-Nebraska)

IN THE MIX: CB Patrick Robinson, CB Rod Sweeting, CB Trevin Wade, S Vinnie Sunseri (D5a-Alabama)

UPHILL CLIMB: CB Derrius Brooks (FA), CB Brian Dixon (FA-Northwest Missouri State), CB Terrence Frederick, S Marcus Ball (FA), S Pierre Warren (FA-Jacksonville State), S Ty Zimmerman (FA-Kansas State)

WHERE’S THE INTRIGUE?: Lewis’ partner

WHY?: The investments in safeties Byrd (six-year, $54 million contract), Vaccaro (2013 first-round pick) and Bush (two-year, $4.5 million deal in restricted free agency) as well as their good campaigns last season illustrate why they’re on solid ground. Meanwhile, at cornerback, Lewis is entrenched after picking off a career-high four throws and surrendering the NFL’s third-fewest yards in pass coverage. But it’s anyone’s guess who starts opposite Lewis. The field is loaded: Bailey, a 12-time Pro Bowler; White, a starter in eight total games in ’13; rookie Jean-Baptiste, towering at 6-4; and Robinson, a first-round pick in 2010 who nonetheless missed most of last season with a knee injury.

SPECIALISTS

ON SOLID GROUND: P Thomas Morstead, LS Justin Drescher

IN THE MIX: K Shayne Graham, K Derek Dimke (FA)

WHERE’S THE INTRIGUE?: Kicker

WHY?: Dimke, 24, kicked with power and accuracy in offseason workouts, at times making more field goals than the returning Graham did in drills. But the job is still Graham’s to lose. Dimke hasn’t played in a regular-season game. Meanwhile, Graham has kicked in 157 games for nine teams since 2000, maintaining a career field-goal average of 85.5 percent. He was 6-of-8 last year in four games with the Saints, including two playoff contests.

Five rising stars

1) DL Akiem Hicks: After finishing first in tackles on the Saints defensive line and third in takedowns behind the line of scrimmage in 2013, this third-year man is a consensus candidate to break out.

2) RB Khiry Robinson: An undrafted rookie last year, this running back served notice he could be a special one by rushing for 102 yards and a touchdown on 21 carries in the playoffs. At offseason workouts, it looked like he was picking up where he left off.

3) WR Kenny Stills: Speedy rookie receiver Brandin Cooks is the media darling heading into camp. But don’t overlook second-year man Stills, who proved to be a devastating long-ball threat by catching five touchdowns of between 34 and 76 yards last year.

4) LT Terron Armstead: Minus a shaky first half in his rookie debut last year, Armstead performed like a seasoned veteran in the two regular-season games and two playoff contests he played in last year. He might protect Drew Brees’ blind side for years to come.

5) DE Glenn Foster: Before joining the Saints as an undrafted rookie, Foster never had more than 2.5 sacks in a season in college. In his first NFL campaign last year, he got three despite missing four games. Expectations are high he’ll build off that.

Five on the bubble

1) CB Patrick Robinson: After starting for a D that surrendered the most yards in NFL history in 2012, the Saints’ first-round pick from ’10 saw his role being diminished before suffering a season-ending knee injury early in ’13. Auditions at his spot are crowded.

2) WR Joseph Morgan: The deep-ball threat has completely missed two of his three seasons with the Saints with torn ACLs, including ’13. He’ll be in the mix for a job, but he’ll want to show his speed and hands are still what they were before his last injury.

3) QB Luke McCown: If the 11-year veteran retains his No. 2 job, the Saints might still carry three QBs, which they did in ‘13. But McCown won’t be third-string if he can’t beat out Ryan Griffin, an undrafted rookie out of Tulane in ’13 who was the No. 3 last season.

4) DL Tyrunn Walker: He’s been on the 53-man roster since his rookie year in 2012 but only active for seven regular-season games, all in ’13, when he was in and out of the lineup with leg problems. It’d be a good time to have a standout camp.

5) K Shayne Graham: The veteran went 6-for-8 in four games last year for the Saints and was a big reason why they got their first road playoff victory (at Philadelphia). But he’s got a big-legged challenger in Derek Dimke, 24, seeking his first NFL start.