WHITE SULPHUR SPRINGS, W.Va. — Garrett Grayson has become the victim of a numbers game during the Saints’ first two practices of training camp.
There simply aren’t enough snaps to go around. The New Orleans Saints need to get Drew Brees ready for the start of the season, get a good enough look at Ryan Griffin and Luke McCown to settle the backup battle and somehow find a way to get Grayson enough work to help the third-round pick develop.
It’s a lot to manage. With only about 30 passing plays taking place in team drills during each practice, someone is always going to walk off the field wishing he had received more work.
“I think to try and look at every practice where it is balanced is more challenging, so there will be days where one of them gets more work than the other when talking about the other three,” coach Sean Payton said.
There’s no easy solution to this — on the field. But when one of the players ends practice feeling like he didn’t get enough reps, he can now walk into the building, slide on a headset and put himself through the plays that took place during practice.
A handful of teams have begun using virtual reality, and the Saints have joined those early adopters: They began trying out the technology this week.
During Friday’s practice, there was a 360-degree camera set up on the practice field that filmed the action taking place on the field. After practice, players can put on a headset that will show them what was happening on the field as they move their heads around.
So, for instance, if the middle linebacker was wearing a headset, he could turn to the right and see the outside linebacker or turn to see the safeties behind him. The Saints are just beginning to figure out how to use the technology, but they are intrigued by the possibilities.
“I think the first thing that comes to mind is the quarterback, the (middle) linebacker, personal protector where they can get additional reps up here, maybe a little bit more significant than just the two-dimensional film,” Payton said.
After the quarterbacks got a look at the technology following Thursday’s practice, quarterback Drew Brees slipped on the headset and asked to be inserted into tackle Zach Strief’s role so he could see what it was like to try to block Houston Texans star pass rusher J.J. Watt.
That’s completely possible, but the option doesn’t exist. The technology is limited to plays the team builds with its own camera. They are then indexed in a catalog, creating a menu of plays and scenarios to choose from.
Those who have gotten an early look at the technology are blown away by it. A quarterback can experience the spacing that can’t be translated by looking at film or rendering of players on a monitor. He can slip on the headset and see how a linebacker drops, how the safety rotates, the angle of a particular route. Or he can go in and work on identifying fronts and leverages.
The possibilities are endless.
“It’s a unique tool, and it’s never been done before,” backup quarterback Luke McCown said. “It never ceases to amaze me what technology is bringing to the game.”
Payton has long been intrigued by the technology. He presented the idea of it to a wide audience this winter when he talked about how it could be used to train a young quarterback during a sports and analytics conference in Boston.
The Saints first got a look at the technology when wide receivers coach John Morton went to Stanford to check it out and meet with STRIVR Lab’s Derek Belch, a formal kicker for the Cardinal who dreamed up the technology while completing his master’s degree. It’s not known whether the Saints are using STRIVR or a competing company.
The New Orleans coaching staff continued to discuss the technology during the offseason and decided to try it out at training camp.
At the February conference, Payton said he believed the technology will be invaluable for quarterbacks. He’ll now have this tool in his arsenal as he works to develop Grayson.
Perhaps the greatest benefit is that Grayson — or another player — will be able to put himself through reps, outside the pressure of the practice field, until he masters each concept and sees everything he is supposed to see, in real time.
For someone like Brees, he’ll be able to face the scout-team defense, running the upcoming opponent’s scheme, and go through it as many times as he likes until he notices all the nuances he’s supposed to see.
Right now, the quarterbacks love playing with the technology. Unfortunately, they fear it won’t be long before other players want to put on the headset.
“When it gets around,” McCown said, “there will be a lot of position groups to advocate for it.”