Saints report for camp with questions looming
METAIRIE, La. (AP) -- Questions about low expectations surrounding the Saints this season had coach Sean Payton reminiscing Wednesday night about the time he told general manager Mickey Loomis that he wasn't sure New Orleans would even win one game.
That was back in 2006, Payton's first year on the job, after a lopsided preseason loss to Dallas. Things turned out a lot better than even the coach expected; that run ended one victory short of a Super Bowl berth.
Payton's point was that reporting day for training camp is no time to be pessimistic -- even after three straight years of losing records and a recent offseason that brought injury misfortune at key positions on both sides of the ball.
"This is the time of year where hope is across the whole league, and then as the months go forward it begins to diminish in some cities and we've got to find a way this year to make sure that's not happening here," Payton said.
"It's still about the right group of individuals who put the team ahead of any individual achievements or goals and a coaching staff that does the same thing."
While Payton and Loomis didn't discount the significance of losing top defensive tackle Nick Fairly for the season and starting left tackle Terron Armstead for about half the season, the coach did predict that Armstead would play this season and praised the organization's efforts to build depth on a defense that has been New Orleans' weakness the past three seasons.
Payton also praised the peak physical condition of 38-year-old star quarterback Drew Brees and explained decisions this week to move on from injury-plagued starting linebacker Dannell Ellerbe and running back Marcus Murphy, a 2015 seventh-round draft choice.
He also discussed center Max Unger's prognosis for an opening day return and his hope that, unlike last season, he won't need to move 2015 first-round pick Andrus Peat from left guard to left tackle during Armstead's absence.
Here are some of the top topics Payton and Loomis addressed in advance of Thursday's first practice of training camp, which has returned to club headquarters after three years at the Greenbrier Resort in West Virginia:
LINE ITEMS: Payton said late first-round draft choice Ryan Ramczyk and veteran Khalif Barnes will get the opportunity to compete for the starting job at left tackle until Armstead comes back. But he didn't rule out moving Peat to left tackle, either. Asked if he envisioned Peat opening the season at guard, Payton said, "I'd like to say yes."
Payton also said Unger's rehabilitation from foot surgery has gone well during the past five weeks, raising his prospects for returning for the regular-season opener, if not late in preseason.
"We're in that vicinity," Payton said. "His process has come along real well."
FAIRLEY'S FUTURE: Loomis and Payton did not sound optimistic that Fairley, who signed a four-year extension this offseason, would ever play again because of a heart condition with which he was diagnosed this spring.
"I would never sit at this table and use that word, `never,'" Payton said. "As we sit here today, though, we prepared ourselves for him not playing this season."
Payton said a part of him wants to celebrate the diagnosis to the extent that catching it helps Fairley's long-term health beyond football. Fairley's absence also raises questions about his contract, which Loomis said he'd rather not discuss.
"There are some difficult questions there," Loomis said of Fairley's contract. "We're a lot more concerned about Nick himself than we are about that."
With Fairley out, Payton said Tyeler Davison, a 2015 fifth-round draft choice, is one of the players who look promising.
"Hopefully he can have a real good year because we need him to be successful," Payton said.
BETTING ON BREES: Payton said Brees was among the top performers Wednesday in the club's conditioning test, which not every player passed. Payton declined to say who fell short in that area, but said that Brees is in "great shape." Brees led the NFL in yards passing last season. Payton also called veteran running back Adrian Peterson's conditioning test "outstanding."
ON THE OUTS: Payton said that while Ellerbe was effective when he played the past two seasons, "there were just far too many games where he wasn't available." Payton added that having a starter in and out of the lineup "can prohibit maybe someone else from stepping up."
Payton said the Saints have several candidates to take over at weak side linebacker. On Tuesday, New Orleans placed Ellerbe on injured reserve with the intent to release him when his foot heals.
The coach said Murphy was to some extent a victim of numbers. The Saints believe running back is among their deepest positions and needed to add players at other positions on offense and defense.
As a rookie, Murphy returned a punt for a touchdown at Carolina, but was unable to maintain the return job because of fumbles.
"We felt like the depth we have at running back allowed us" to cut Murphy.