Can Brees, Peterson lead Saints past Falcons in NFC South?
NEW ORLEANS SAINTS (7-9)
OPEN CAMP: July 27, New Orleans Saints headquarters, Metairie, Louisiana.
LAST YEAR: New Orleans was competitive in most games thanks to league-leading offense run by QB Drew Brees, but posted third consecutive 7-9 record because porous defense and some game-turning special teams blunders. Lack of depth on defense was exposed by injuries to CBs P.J. Williams and Delvin Breaux; club's top 2016 draft choice, DT Sheldon Rankins; top LB Dannell Ellerbe; and speedy edge pass rusher Hau'oli Kikaha. Saints struggled to pressure opposing QBs, and by extension, maintain coverage on receivers. Offensively, Saints have been elite since pairing of coach Sean Payton and Brees in 2006. No sign of decline yet, even with Brees 38 years old. WR Michael Thomas' quick adjustment to pro game and ability to make difficult catches were evident.
IMPORTANT ADDITIONS: RB Adrian Peterson, rookie CB Marshon Lattimore, LB A.J. Klein, RG Larry Warford, rookie LT Ryan Ramczyk, rookie S Marcus Williams, rookie RB Alvin Kamara, LB Manti Te'o, receivers coach Curtis Johnson, linebackers coach Mike Nolan, special teams coach Brad Banta.
IMPORTANT LOSSES: WR Brandin Cooks, DT Nick Fairley, RG Jahri Evans, S Jairus Byrd, RB Tim Hightower, LS Justin Drescher, receivers coach John Morton.
CAMP NEEDS: Largely because of injuries, Saints want to see young players emerge at defensive tackle and offensive tackle. Saints re-signed Fairley during offseason, only to have him go on non-football injury reserve list because of career-threatening heart condition. Starting LT Terron Armstead recently needed shoulder surgery expected to sideline him at least until November. Second-year pro David Onyemata could see elevated role at DT alongside Rankins. Ramczyk could be pressed into crucial starting role as rookie. Also key will be development of Lattimore and Williams in secondary. Saints also will have new long snapper and will be developing center in event starter Max Unger can't return from foot surgery by regular season opener.
EXPECTATIONS: Tough NFC South including defending NFC champ Atlanta means Saints could struggle and miss fourth straight playoffs, which also would raise questions about Payton's future. Brees has just this season left under contract, so twilight of record-setting career could hinge on Saints' success or failure as well. To win, Saints will need handful of players within first three pro seasons to develop and improve quickly.