Globe NFL writer Albert Breer is visiting select training camps around the East Coast, and will report from each one he visits, although for today’s entry, the team came to him as the Saints visited Foxborough for a dual practice with the Patriots ahead of their preseason game on Thursday. To review his previous reports, check out his training camp tour page.
About 160 players crowded onto two practice field makes for an interesting scene, but the Patriots-Saints joint practice this morning seemed to be remarkably efficient and well-run. For the first third, the teams split apart for individual drills. After coming together, the two clubs did some 7-on-7s, but more 11-on-11 situational work than anything.
If there’s one thing that sticks out about the 2010 Saints, it’s the lack of sizzle around their camp. After a few dozen (or more) victory laps after the season, much of the off-season and the early parts of training camp have been decidedly boring.
That’s good news for a team that avoids, as Bill Parcells (a former boss of Sean Payton’s) used to say, “taking the cheese.” The less buzz the better for these Saints as they go back to work.
THREE THINGS TO SORT OUT
Secondary issues: Darren Sharper is coming off microfracture surgery, and could well start the season on the physically unable to perform list. That leaves the secondary in flux. If Sharper can’t start the year, then 2009 first-round pick Malcolm Jenkins, a combo corner/safety, takes his place alongside Roman Harper. Incumbent starters Tracy Porter and Jabari Greer, a real solid duo, are joined by first-round pick Patrick Robinson.
Is this kind of depth and potential good problem to have? Sure it is. But someone will have to make up for the playmaking Sharper provided, playing in a defense predicated on knocking the ball loose.
Run defense: The Saints defense may have improved last year, but it hardly became a juggernaut. In fact, the offense’s ability to build leads helped mask the troubles of the NFL’s 21st-ranked run defense, which allowed 4.5-yards per carry. The Saints have looked for help at defensive tackle, targeting Jared Odrick in the draft (he went four spots in front of the Saints to Miami) and Fred Robbins in a trade (which didn’t work out). Sedrick Ellis can play, but getting better play next to him is a concern. Another concern is Scott Fujita’s strong-side linebacker spot. Clint Ingram was signed to replace Fujita, who went to Cleveland, but is currently sitting on the PUP.
Handling success: The Saints are saying and doing all the right things. But until the games start, we really won’t have a real gauge on how well they’ve been able to manage the euphoria surrounding last year’s title. The message has been sent, though.
“Certainly you recognize that, coming off a season like that, that carryover, you have to start again,” said Payton. “It’s not like you’re picking up where you left off.”
TYING IN THE PATRIOTS
Sean Payton approached Tom Brady this week and asked about the challenges the Patriots faced in their Super Bowl years, and asked about the difference between coming off the 2001 season (the Patriots missed the playoffs) and the 2003 season (the Patriots repeated as World Champions).
“Certainly, you gain an appreciation for the challenge and just because you’ve got a lot of your team back, that means nothing,” Payton said. “It’s a new year, and the best team will win the championship this year.”
THE QUOTE THAT CAPTURES
“Are you gonna prepare? Are you gonna work? Do you have the right leadership in the locker room? Are you talented enough? The locker room and the leadership, what they expect, how competitive we’ve tried to make practice, I think those are some of the keys. It’s still about playing good football. The first thing you bring up is having the hunger and desire to do it again. It’s a great challenge.” — Coach Sean Payton
I missed out on my morning run this morning, so there’s that. Otherwise smooth sailing to Foxborough from Boston. But once I got here, it was hard not to notice the smothering humidity. Almost like the Saints brought it with them from the Bayou.
THE GUY TO WATCH
DB Malcolm Jenkins. The team’s 2009 first-round pick was a part-time player last year, but figures to play a prominent role in 2010. He’s had a solid camp and, even if he isn’t an elite man-to-man defender, he’s a physical, versatile piece that can help defensive coordinator Gregg Williams disguise coverages. The question is where he lines up. Is he Sharper’s replacement? If Sharper’s back, is he a corner? Could he push Harper? The Saints seem committed to finding a spot for him.
Keep an eye on third-round pick Jimmy Graham, the former University of Miami basketball player who switched to football in his last year on campus. The Saints are going to find a way to use the athletic, 6-foot-6, 260-pounder as he continues to develop as a football player. … At this point last year, left tackle Jermon Bushrod was a backup and afterthought. This offseason, he engendered enough confidence for the club to deal off former Pro Bowler Jamaal Brown, whose injury opened the door for Bushrod last year. He’ll be an interesting guy to watch. … One under-the-radar thing: The defensive players have spoken about the added confidence they have in Williams’ defense. If that unit continues to improve, Williams could well get a second chance as a head coach. Williams carries himself like the Buddy Ryan disciple he is, the players love him, and he could be an interesting hire for someone in 2011.