Saints training camp preview

Preview by position

QUARTERBACKS

TOP RETURNEE: Drew Brees.

KEY LOSS: Chase Daniel (UFA, Kansas City).

TOP NEWCOMERS: Seneca Wallace (FA, Cleveland), Luke McCown (UFA, Atlanta).

PROJECTED STARTER: Brees.

SPOTLIGHT IS ON: Brees.

OUTLOOK: Despite throwing for more than 5,000 yards for the third time in five years and tossing 43 TDs, Brees is going to be motivated to play even better after an up-and-down 2012 campaign. He threw 19 interceptions last season — the second-most of his 12-year career — and his 63.0 percent completion rate, while still pretty good, was well off the NFL record of 71.2 percent he set one year earlier. With Daniel gone, Wallace and McCown will battle to see who becomes Brees’ backup.

RUNNING BACKS

TOP RETURNEES: RB Pierre Thomas, RB Mark Ingram, RB Darren Sproles, RB Travaris Cadet, FB Jed Collins.

KEY LOSS: RB Chris Ivory (Trade, N.Y. Jets)

TOP NEWCOMER: RB Khiry Robinson (FA, West Texas A&M).

PROJECTED STARTERS: Thomas (RB), Collins (FB).

SPOTLIGHT IS ON: Ingram.

OUTLOOK: The Saints ranked 25th in rushing at 98.6 yards per game, so some marked improvement there — like when they averaged more than 130 yards in both 2009 and ’11 — would help Brees and the offense a lot. Ingram, who finally got healthy at the end of last year, Thomas and Sproles again will form the backfield by committee Sean Payton likes to employ depending on down and distance. Cadet showed something as an undrafted free agent last year, and Collins is a trusted blocker and capable pass catcher.

WIDE RECEIVERS

TOP RETURNEES: Marques Colston, Lance Moore, Joseph Morgan, Courtney Roby, Saalim Hakim, Nick Toon, Andy Tanner (practice squad).

KEY LOSS: Devery Henderson (FA, Washington).

TOP NEWCOMERS: Kenny Stills (D5, Oklahoma), Preston Parker (FA, Tampa Bay).

PROJECTED STARTERS: Colston, Moore.

SPOTLIGHT IS ON: Morgan, Toon.

OUTLOOK: Once again, the Saints return the most productive players in their deep receiving corps as Colston and Moore are back after huge seasons. Armed with a new contract last year, Colston had 83 catches and led the club in receiving yards (1,154) and TDs (10) with his length and size often being no match for smaller cornerbacks. Moore broke the 1,000-yard mark in receiving for the first time in his career and had 65 receptions. Henderson was not re-signed, so the third receiver spot is wide open with Morgan, Toon and Stills getting a crack at it.

TIGHT ENDS

TOP RETURNEES: Jimmy Graham, Michael Higgins.

KEY LOSS: David Thomas (released).

TOP NEWCOMER: Benjamin Watson (UFA, Cleveland).

PROJECTED STARTER: Graham.

SPOTLIGHT IS ON: Graham.

OUTLOOK: While he had better numbers in 2011, mainly because of an ankle injury and a season-long wrist problem, Graham was still effective last year with 85 receptions for 982 yards and nine touchdowns. Because of his size and his penchant for making the tough catches, Graham takes a beating, so the Saints are hoping to keep him healthy this year. Watson should add more punch to the offense as a veteran receiver and solid blocker, while Higgins hopes to land a roster spot as the third guy.

OFFENSIVE LINE

TOP RETURNEES: G Jahri Evans, G Ben Grubbs, T Zach Strief, C Brian de la Puente, T Charles Brown, G/C Eric Olsen, T Bryce Harris, G Andrew Tiller, T Marcel Jones, G Ricky Henry.

KEY LOSS: T Jermon Bushrod (UFA, Chicago).

TOP NEWCOMERS: T Terron Armstead (D3a, Arkansas-Pine Bluff), T Jason Smith (FA, N.Y. Jets).

PROJECTED STARTERS: Brown (LT), Grubbs (LG), de la Puente (C), Evans (RG), Strief (RT).

SPOTLIGHT IS ON: Brown.

OUTLOOK: The Saints weren’t as stout as they have been in the past up front after losing All-Pro guard Carl Nicks, and this year they have to make up for the loss of Bushrod, a two-time Pro Bowl pick. One of the keys to the season will be who succeeds Bushrod and wins the starting job at left tackle to protect Brees’ blind side. Brown, Smith and Armstead will battle in camp for the right to join the other four returnees, who again did a pretty good job at pass protection in allowing just 26 sacks on 700 dropbacks. Olsen, who lines up as an extra tight end, and Harris are capable backups.

DEFENSIVE LINE

TOP RETURNEES: DE Cameron Jordan, DT Brodrick Bunkley, DE Akiem Hicks, DT Tom Johnson, DT Tyrunn Walker.

KEY LOSSES: DT Sedrick Ellis (FA, Chicago), DE Turk McBride (UFA, Chicago).

TOP NEWCOMERS: DE Kenyon Coleman (UFA, Dallas), DT John Jenkins (D3b, Georgia), DE Jay Richardson (FA, Seattle).

PROJECTED STARTERS: Jordan (LE), Bunkley (DT), Coleman (RE).

SPOTLIGHT IS ON: Jordan.

OUTLOOK: With the Saints going to a 3-4 scheme under new defensive coordinator Rob Ryan, the coaching staff moved three linemen to linebacker — including veteran Will Smith. But they have a solid nucleus to build their new line around as Jordan, who is entering his third season, is coming off a year in which he led the team with eight sacks. Coleman, who has played the past four seasons for Ryan, is regarded as a solid run-stopper as a 3-4 end. Bunkley will handle things in the middle while the 359-pound Jenkins learns the ropes. Hicks slides out to the end spot, while Johnson is a solid backup in the middle. Richardson also has played under Ryan.

LINEBACKERS

TOP RETURNEES: ILB Curtis Lofton, ILB Jonathan Vilma, OLB Will Smith, OLB Junior Galette, OLB Martez Wilson, ILB David Hawthorne, ILB Will Herring, ILB Chris Chamberlain, ILB Ramon Humber.

KEY LOSSES: OLB Jonathan Casillas (UFA, Tampa Bay), OLB Scott Shanle (not re-signed).

TOP NEWCOMERS: OLB Victor Butler (UFA, Dallas), OLB Rufus Johnson (D6, Tarleton State), OLB Chase Thomas (FA, Stanford).

PROJECTED STARTERS: Wilson (OLB), Lofton (ILB), Vilma (ILB), Smith (OLB).

SPOTLIGHT IS ON: Wilson, Galette.

OUTLOOK: The Saints took a big hit when Butler, one of their top free-agent pickups and a projected starter, suffered a possible season-ending knee injury in OTAs. But they have a lot of depth across the board with the addition of Smith, who could be the pass-rushing linebacker, Wilson and Galette, a solid pass rusher. Wilson likely will get the opportunity replace Butler. The Saints also have a lot of depth inside with Lofton and Vilma as well as Hawthorne, who was hampered by injuries last season, vying for playing time as well.

DEFENSIVE BACKS

TOP RETURNEES: CB Jabari Greer, CB Patrick Robinson, S Malcolm Jenkins, S Roman Harper, S Isa Abdul-Quddus, CB Corey White, S Rafael Bush, CB A.J. Davis (practice squad), CB Ryan Steed (practice squad), S Jerico Nelson (practice squad).

KEY LOSSES: CB Johnny Patrick (released).

TOP NEWCOMERS: CB Keenan Lewis (UFA, Pittsburgh), S Kenny Vaccaro (D1, Texas), S Jim Leonhard (UFA, Denver), CB Chris Carr (FA, San Diego).

PROJECTED STARTERS: Greer (LCB), Lewis (RCB), Jenkins (FS), Harper (SS).

SPOTLIGHT IS ON: Lewis, Vaccaro.

OUTLOOK: The Saints ranked 31st against the pass last season, which led the coaching staff to seek a major upgrade during the offseason. They started by signing Lewis, an up-and-coming cover corner, to pair with Greer to help on the outside and then got Vaccaro, a versatile and physical player, with the 15th pick in the draft to help shore up the middle. He should fit in nicely with Jenkins and Harper, either in a safety rotation, or in the nickel and dime. The Saints built even more depth with the addition of Leonhard, another veteran, to go with Robinson, White, Abdul-Quddus and Bush.

SPECIAL TEAMS

TOP RETURNEES: K Garrett Hartley, P Thomas Morstead, LS Justin Drescher, KOR/PR Darren Sproles.

TOP NEWCOMER: None.

PROJECTED STARTERS: Hartley (K), Morstead (P), Drescher (LS), Sproles (KOR/PR).

SPOTLIGHT IS ON: Morstead.

OUTLOOK: Hartley has had some accuracy issues in the past and was 18-of-22 in field-goal attempts last season, while Morstead was a Pro Bowl pick after setting a club record with a 50.1-yard gross average — becoming one of only seven players in NFL history to average more than 50 yards in a season — and had a healthy net average of 43.2 while racking up 45 touchbacks on kickoffs. Sproles is still the main return man after averaging 8.0 yards per punt return and 26.8 yards per kickoff return. Drescher again was solid handling the long-snapping.

On the bubble?

Players who may be in a fight to keep their roster spot:

T Charles Brown

The Saints usually keep one backup tackle, so he’ll have to impress in camp if he doesn’t win the starting job on the left side.

K Garrett Hartley

Won a training camp duel with John Kasay last summer, but he could be pushed this time by free agent Jose Maltos.

LB Will Herring

Can the special teams standout earn his keep in the new 3-4 defense after being released and then re-signed in the spring?

CB Patrick Robinson

The former first-round draft pick should be safe, but he could find his role diminished after starting all 16 games in 2012.

WR Courtney Roby

He’s highly valued for his special teams work, but he has only two career receptions in five seasons with the Saints.

Who dat?

If you’re going to practice, check out these new guys:

DE Kenyon Coleman

He’s touted by new defensive coordinator Rob Ryan as one of the best run-stopping 3-4 defensive ends in the league.

S Jim Leonhard

The veteran safety brings intensity to the back end of the secondary after playing for Ryan’s brother, Rex, with the Jets.

CB Keenan Lewis

One of the league’s up-and-coming young cornerbacks should make a big difference with his speed and length.

S Kenny Vaccaro

First-round draft pick has an aggressive nature and an ability to play multiple positions and cover all receivers.

TE Benjamin Watson

The solid receiver and blocker could open things up even more for Jimmy Graham, especially on the deep throws.