WHITE SULPHUR SPRINGS, W.Va. — The wait is over.
Football is finally back for Saints fans, at least the ones who haven’t made the trip up to The Greenbrier resort to check in on New Orleans, as Sean Payton, Drew Brees and company begin their on-field preparation in earnest for the 2015 season.
The Saints’ preseason opener against the Ravens at 6:30 p.m. Thursday is a different kind of football, only the first step, a game more about evaluation than emerging victorious.
“The most important thing we have to do in this camp is find the right 53,” Payton said.
The preseason opener offers the first big chance to make a lasting impression.
Two weeks into practice, little-known players — wide receiver Willie Snead, defensive lineman Bobby Richardson, defensive tackle Ashaad Mabry, linebacker Henry Coley, to name a few — have made an impression on the practice field, pushing themselves into the mix for playing time.
Veterans on the bubble, and the Saints have several, can feel the margin for error squeezing a little tighter as young players make a push. But a coaching staff can learn only so much on the practice field.
“I think it has to be shown at some point on the field in the game,” Payton said.
For that reason, the thing Payton wants to see most is a clean game, with a relative lack of mental errors. For obvious reasons, too many mental mistakes can cost a player competing for a spot, but there’s a more important reason that Payton would like to see the mistakes kept to a minimum.
The first preseason game is always sloppy, but the fewer mistakes are made, the better Payton and the rest of the coaching staff can get an evaluation of the roster.
“In order to get a good evaluation, players alignment, assignment, the right guys on the field, all those things so we can properly evaluate, as opposed to something that breaks a play down either way, and then on that snap, you really don’t get a good measure of what the runner had a chance to do or not,” Payton said. “You are wanting it to be clean.”
For the most part, the Saints have given their players every chance to limit those mistakes and put something special on tape.
New Orleans is only 70 to 75 percent into the installation of both its offensive and defensive schemes, and there will be very little, if any, Baltimore-specific plans put into the playbook. New Orleans didn’t even begin to take a look at the Ravens until Tuesday night.
The Saints won’t have their schemes fully installed until the third preseason game against the Texans. That’s when the starters — guys like Brees, Marques Colston, Cam Jordan and Jairus Byrd — really get their first test.
“I think when we play this first preseason game, it fits with the time we are here,” Payton said. “Everything doesn’t have to be in.”
With all of that in mind, the pressure falls on the players.
The first preseason game offers plenty of chances.
This will be the first time the Saints tackle live, a key part of an evaluation for any defender.
Running backs, receivers and tight ends have to show they can break those tackles.
And for guys fighting for spots on the end of the roster, the first opportunity to go live on special teams offers a prime opportunity.
“I’m trying to make the best out of every opportunity that’s put in front of me, whether that’s on special teams or defense, whenever my number’s called,” Coley said.
Those chances can be limited.
New Orleans is relatively healthy heading into the first preseason game, meaning most players will get between 20 and 30 snaps to prove themselves, depending on how the depth chart looks right now.
The key, the veterans say, is to embrace the opportunity and enjoy the first chance to play freely.
“It’s a lot of fun, too,” veteran wide receiver Josh Morgan said.
“You get to that point in training camp where you’re tired of hitting your teammates. You get to go out there and put on a show, show the coaches how you can perform under pressure.”
The New Orleans coaching staff will be watching closely.