Saints cornerback Champ Bailey has played for more than a handful of playoff teams during a career that has seen him selected to 12 Pro Bowls.
In his first preseason with New Orleans, Bailey senses enough talent around him to compete for what would be his first Super Bowl title. They key, Bailey said, is not taking that talent for granted.
“We’ve got some pieces here to win it. We’ve just got to make sure we don’t worry about too far ahead, just worry about what’s in front of us,” Bailey said. “We’ve just got to make sure we don’t get too big-headed and keep grinding.”
It has been a while since the Saints missed the playoffs with coach Sean Payton roaming the sideline — since the 2008 season, in fact. New Orleans has been to the post-season in four of the past five years, the lone exception being 2012, when Payton served his one-season bounty ban.
Last season, the Saints went unbeaten in the Superdome, won 11 regular-season games and got the first road postseason victory in franchise history at Philadelphia. The season ended at eventual Super Bowl champion Seattle in the divisional round.
New Orleans has made a few key roster moves aimed at bolstering the secondary and improving an already prolific passing game. The Saints aggressively pursued — and signed — free-agent safety Jairus Byrd, who had 22 interceptions in his first five pro seasons in Buffalo and has made three Pro Bowls. On offense, New Orleans traded up seven spots to draft Oregon State receiver Brandin Cooks, regarded by his new teammates as the fastest player on the squad.
Meanwhile, most of the key contributors from last year’s squad are back, with several looking highly motivated as they approach the end of their contracts.
“We know what we look like on paper. We look pretty good,” said quarterback Drew Brees, who has thrown for more than 5,000 yards and at least 39 touchdowns in each of the last three seasons. “Now we have to go out and put it all together. We have to put together the team we know we can.”
Here are some things to watch for with the Saints in 2014:
Shortly after the Saints signed Byrd to a six-year, $54 million deal, the star safety had elective back surgery. That forced him to miss all of the Saints’ on-field work in the offseason and the first two games of the preseason. He was finally cleared for full contact in time for the third preseason game. His knack for being around the ball has stood out in practice since his return, including his difficult, one-handed interception of Brees, which the quarterback called “a ridiculous play.” Bailey said he has long wanted to play with a safety like Byrd. “You know he’s going to be wherever the ball is,” Bailey said. “It’s good to have that safety net.”
End Cam Jordan and outside linebacker Junior Galette combined for 241/2 sacks and return to a defensive line that has all key players back. On the interior is massive and powerful Akiem Hicks, who had 41/2 sacks and 56 total tackles last season while constantly being double-teamed.
The Saints say Cooks is not only blazing fast but has been a quick study, meaning he has a chance to grab a significant role in Payton’s pass-happy offense. The hope is that his speed will provide more space for All-Pro tight end Jimmy Graham and Saints all-time leading receiver Marques Colston. “His role and each week, how it unfolds, is to be determined, but I think he learns well,” Payton said. “He’s picked things up fairly quickly.” He has stood out in training camp practice with his long receptions in 11-on-11 drills. He also scored a 25-yard TD in his first preseason game.
In his first season as defensive coordinator, Rob Ryan took a unit that ranked last in 2012 and made it the league’s fourth best in yards allowed. Most of his best players from last season are back and still young. The addition of Byrd offers hope of producing more turnovers, which Ryan’s unit lacked last season.
Between late last season and this preseason, Mark Ingram has strung together a number of strong performances. Entering the final year of his contract, he aims to prove his improvement as a rusher, pass blocker and pass catcher make him a bona fide every-down back. The Saints are also eager to see if Khiry Robinson can build on some encouraging runs he had as a rookie. Meanwhile, versatile veteran Pierre Thomas promises to push Ingram and Robinson for playing time. “They are going to have to outwork me. They are going to have to put me on the bench, and that’s going to be hard to do,” Thomas said.