After waiting three and a half months to turn the page on their disappointing 2012 season, the New Orleans Saints don’t have to wait much longer.
With lots of new faces in the locker room — partly a byproduct of their 7-9 season — the Saints begin their nine-week offseason program Monday, the first day that players are allowed to work with strength and conditioning coaches.
The offseason program is divided into three phases. Phase One lasts two weeks (Monday through April 26); Phase Two goes three weeks (April 29 to May 23); and Phase Three spans the final four weeks (May 28 to June 13).
There also is a three-day minicamp for rookies and other first-year players in May and a mandatory three-day minicamp for all veterans under contract in June.
In addition to adding some new pieces to the puzzle, the Saints will have coach Sean Payton back following his bounty-related suspension, although he and his position coaches, by 2011 Collective Bargaining Agreement rules, must wait until the third week of the program to get on the field with players.
Quarterback Drew Brees, who missed all of the team’s offseason work last spring while negotiating a long-term contract, was among the players who have talked about getting back to work and putting 2012 in the past.
“We’re all champing at the bit,” Brees, one of 67 players under contract as of Friday, said last month. “We’re obviously excited to have Coach Payton back — just excited to get back to work, really. I always look forward to that downtime with the family, but I cannot wait to get back to work when the time comes.”
The Saints signed seven unrestricted free agents, including four defensive players who are expected to provide help in the transition to a 3-4 alignment, after they allowed an NFL single-season record of 7,042 yards in 2012. Their prize pickup is cornerback Keenan Lewis, a New Orleans native who played his first four seasons with the Pittsburgh Steelers.
Other defensive signees include a pair of former Dallas Cowboys who played the past two seasons under new Saints defensive coordinator Rob Ryan — outside linebacker Victor Butler and defensive end Kenyon Coleman — along with safety Jim Leonhard.
On offense, the Saints signed tight end Benjamin Watson, quarterback Luke McCown and tackle Jason Smith. Watson and McCown will get their shots to be backups to Jimmy Graham and Brees; Smith, the No. 2 pick in the 2009 draft, likely will vie with returnee Charles Brown to replace Pro Bowl tackle Jermon Bushrod, who signed with the Chicago Bears.
The first two weeks of the program are limited to strength and conditioning work and rehab for players who finished last season on injured reserve.
The second phase includes player instruction and on-field individual drills with coaches, although offensive players are not allowed to go against defensive players. Also, some special teams work is allowed.
The final phase includes organized team activities, a series of 10 on-field workouts spread over four weeks in which 11-on-11 drills are permitted without contact. Helmets are the only gear permitted during this phase.
The rookie and first-year player minicamp is scheduled for May 10-12, while the full-squad minicamp is June 4-6. That minicamp will precede the final week of OTAs before players get a six-week break before the start of training camp in late July.