Seated in a dugout during a charity softball game Wednesday night, Saints quarterback Drew Brees reflected on his team’s offseason workout program, which since April 21 had mostly consisted of physical conditioning and individual drills.
Fast approaching, however, was Tuesday’s start to organized team activities at Saints headquarters, in which 7-on-7, 9-on-7 and 11-on-11 drills that are non-contact but more closely resemble real football are permitted. And Brees could hardly hide his excitement.
“We’ve been working out in the weight room long enough,” he said. “It’s time to get to ... some actual football.”
The voluntary activities, commonly called OTAs, consist of 10 practices from Tuesday to Thursday, June 3 to 5 and June 16 to 19. There will be a mandatory minicamp from June 10 to 12.
Media can access the three-day minicamp and the Thursday, June 5 and June 18 OTAs.
Due to the lack of live contact, it’s highly unlikely any players battling for spots will secure one. But it’s a chance for some players — especially newcomers — to show they can learn the Saints’ systems and philosophies.
And it’s an opportunity to demonstrate their potential to contribute ahead of training camp beginning in July, exhibition games starting in August and the devising of the 53-man roster that will kick off the regular season in September.
Here are five key issues facing the Saints:
1. Cornerback: One spot is open. Who will get it?
Stanley Jean-Baptiste, the rookie second-round pick out of Nebraska, enters crowded auditions for the spots at cornerback under entrenched starter Keenan Lewis.
His 6-foot-4, 218-pound frame has folks physically comparing him to Seattle All-Pro Richard Sherman, but he’s part of a New Orleans group that heading into OTAs includes Champ Bailey, a 12-time Pro Bowler picked up in free agency; Corey White, a third-year player who started eight games for the Saints in 2013, among them a win and loss in the playoffs; and Patrick Robinson, a first-round draft pick in 2010 who missed most of last campaign with a knee injury.
By virtue of their experience, all of them are more accomplished than Jean-Baptiste, who has only played cornerback since 2011. But Jean-Baptiste can begin carving out his role by quickly mastering his assignments during OTA drills, even if it’s in nickel and dime packages and not at the No. 2 spot opposite Lewis.
According to Jean-Baptiste, his more-established teammates are already helping him adjust. “Everybody is taking everybody else in with open arms,” he said. “(I) appreciate that a lot ... (as) I’m trying to learn something new every day.”
2. Offensive line: Can inexperienced starters do the job?
In April, right tackle Zach Strief said he knows the responsibilities in 2014 for him, left guard Ben Grubbs and right guard Jahri Evans won’t stop at protecting Brees and the running backs. They know they must aid in the development of young offensive linemen like left tackle Terron Armstead (four starts including the playoffs) and Tim Lelito, who will be competing to start at center after starting twice at right guard in 2013.
Classes can resume in earnest Tuesday. Both Lelito and Armstead are in their second years. Armstead, after struggling in the first half of his debut, impressed. Lelito helped the Saints win two games; started at center in one 2013 exhibition; and, according to what Grubbs recently told WWL Radio, practiced at the position throughout his rookie campaign.
Armstead’s and Lelito’s youth didn’t have Brees worried about his line Wednesday. “I know they’re ready, and they’ll get each other ready,” he said.
Brees was sacked more than usual in 2013. But the number of sacks the Saints surrendered was still among the NFL’s lowest.
3. Pass catchers: There’s room for someone to step up
Saints All-Pro tight end Jimmy Graham is not expected at OTAs as long as his contract is unresolved. Receiver Brandin Cooks — the rookie first-round pick — is back at Oregon State finishing his junior year until mid-June.
That means extra reps for others. It won’t mean much to established contributors such as receivers Marques Colston, Kenny Stills and Robert Meachem or tight end Ben Watson.
But they could be valuable to someone like receiver Joe Morgan, who missed 2011 and ‘13 with knee injuries and wants to show he can still be the player who had three touchdowns and a staggering 379 yards on just 10 catches in 2012. They might be valuable to a player like Josh Hill, the No. 3 tight end as a rookie in 2013 who’ll be working alongside a couple of newcomers.
4. Victor Butler: Is he recovered from a knee injury?
It was at OTAs last year that outside linebacker Victor Butler suffered a season-ending knee injury. Since then, at his position group, Junior Galette posted the sixth-most sacks in the NFL (12); Parys Haralson proved to be a solid contributor; and Florida’s Ronald Powell was drafted in the fifth round.
OTAs could be a good chance for Butler to show what progress he has made since the injury while, among other things, Galette and Haralson look to build off last year; Powell tries to establish himself; and 2013 sixth-round pick Rufus Johnson seeks his first career regular-season appearance.
5. Fresh legs: Undrafted running backs seek roster spots
Four of the Saints’ five running backs from 2013 remain — Mark Ingram, Pierre Thomas, Khiry Robinson and Travaris Cadet. All but Ingram made the NFL as undrafted rookies signed by the Saints.
That obviously speaks to the massive opportunity for the two undrafted rookie running backs on the Saints roster for now: Timothy Flanders out of Sam Houston State — the all-time leading rusher in the history of the Southland Conference — and Derrick Strozier from Tulane, who spent the majority of his career with the Green Wave at corner but successfully tried out with the Saints as a running back.
Flanders and Strozier on Tuesday can begin blazing the path that might make them the next Cadet, Robinson or Thomas.