The New Orleans Saints are back in the football business, but exactly when the team will take the field for its first practice of training camp is unclear.
There is still much to be finalized in the wake of the NFL Players Association’s executives and team representatives ratifying a new 10-year labor agreement with the league Monday, ending the longest work stoppage in league history.
But this much is known: Training camp will begin in a matter of days, not weeks; and New Orleans will open the preseason as scheduled, Aug. 12 in the Superdome against San Francisco.
Under terms of the new collective bargaining agreement, which still must be formally accepted by the rank and file, teams cannot report to training camp more than 15 days before their first preseason game. That means the earliest New Orleans could open camp would be Thursday, though the training facility might open sooner for players who voluntarily show up for conditioning and classroom work.
The Saints shed little light on what comes next, though they did issue this statement from owner Tom Benson:
“We are all very pleased to announce that football is back. And we believe collectively that our game will move forward stronger than ever. I wish to offer a sincere debt of gratitude to our fans for their patience and understanding.
“But now it is time to get back to the real business of football, and that is getting our team on the field to practice and play games. The Saints organization has been ready and prepared for this day and we look forward to having Saints football back for our fans very soon.”
Under terms of the new CBA, the first day of training camp would be limited to physicals and meetings. The first two days of practice cannot include pads or contact, meaning the Saints could be on the field as early as Friday and conduct practice in full pads for the first time as soon as Sunday.
Teams are limited to one padded practice per day, which isn’t a major departure for the Saints. Throughout coach Sean Payton’s previous five seasons, he has often had one padded practice and one without pads during two-a-days.
In recent years, New Orleans has opened several practices early in training camp to fans, but the Saints have yet to announce their policy on opening practice.
The New Orleans front office has much to do before it can conduct training camp as it has just 47 players under contract. Training-camp rosters are set at a maximum of 90 players.
The remaining spots will be filled from a variety of sources. There are 26 unrestricted free agents who played for the Saints last season. Several are players the team likely wants to re-sign, such as tackle Jermon Bushrod, linebacker Scott Shanle, safety Roman Harper, wide receiver Lance Moore, center Jonathan Goodwin, tight end David Thomas, fullback Heath Evans and defensive tackle Remi Ayodele. Guard Carl Nicks, one of three restricted free agents, likely will be a priority as well.
Several others in the unrestricted group likely weren’t in New Orleans’ plans for 2011, but the inability to teach the team’s systems to newcomers because of the 135-day lockout might make marginal players that are knowledgeable of the Saints’ systems more attractive.
The free-agency period normally starts in March but did not take place during the lockout. Negotiations with veteran players can begin Tuesday, and signings can begin Friday. Though the free-agency period is greatly condensed, the Saints likely will look to add a few unrestricted free agents from other teams.
New Orleans has six draft choices to sign, and they could sign as early as Tuesday. The Saints likely will fill out the roster with assorted undrafted rookies and others on the open market.
Additional roster business could include the renegotiation or termination of contracts of players such as running back Reggie Bush and cornerback Randall Gay, whose scheduled salaries for this season might be too high for the organization’s liking. Bush is scheduled to make $11.8 million and Gay, an eight-year veteran from LSU who played in just four games last season because of a concussion, is scheduled to earn $3.5 million in base pay.
The preseason is expected to go an as scheduled except for the Aug. 7 Hall of Fame Game, the traditional preseason opener, which was canceled last week. The Chicago Bears and St. Louis Rams were scheduled to play in that game in Canton, Ohio.
Another casualty of the lockout was the series of three joint practices the Saints were scheduled to have with the Houston Texans leading up to those teams’ preseason game Aug. 20 in Houston. The teams announced the cancellation of those workouts earlier this month.