All of the new faces in the New Orleans secondary already feel familiar to Keenan Lewis and Kenny Vaccaro.
And the Saints haven’t even left for training camp, although that flight to West Virginia looms in the next couple of days.
New Orleans had plenty of time to build chemistry during the team’s summer workouts, allowing the secondary to easily absorb and integrate the waves of new cornerbacks brought in to shore up a spot that last season left a lot to be desired, other than Lewis. Now, as the Saints prepare to report for training camp Wednesday at The Greenbrier, both Lewis and Vaccaro are optimistic about the secondary’s chances.
“We all meshed together well,” Vaccaro said Sunday at the Keenan Lewis Foundation’s annual youth camp at Behrman Stadium in Algiers. “Having (Jairus) Byrd back healthy, getting a full offseason of him, me and him being able to practice together did wonders. With the addition of (Brandon) Browner, his attitude, his leadership that he brings to the team, it’s going to be good for us.”
Chemistry is key for a group that struggled to communicate last season, plagued by missed assignments and blown coverages.
“We’re all like brothers now,” Lewis said. “Everybody put their egos aside from last season, which was full of distractions. Whatever caused that distraction, we just can’t go there. We’ve got to uplift one another.”
Lewis remains the secondary’s cornerstone, a lock-’em-up lead corner capable of shadowing the other team’s best receiver. With the rest of the defensive backfield struggling around him last season, Lewis held solid, posting two interceptions and 13 pass breakups.
Now that help has arrived in the form of Browner, CFL import Delvin Breaux and a pair of rookies (P.J. Williams and Damian Swann), Lewis wants to show he’s still as effective as ever.
“The goal is to show I’m still young. ... Seven years now in the league, I can still compete like those guys who are 20, 19 years old,” said Lewis, now 29. “My goal’s just to show the world that I should be mentioned. I feel as though I’m just good as the (Darrelle) Revises and the (Richard) Shermans and those guys.”
Browner, who helped his team to Super Bowl titles each of the past two years, shores up the other starting spot, a job that was a revolving door most of last season. Breaux, Williams, Swann or veteran free agent Kyle Wilson could end up competing for the nickel spot, a role that essentially has become a starter in today’s NFL.
At safety, the faces aren’t new per se, but the circumstances are different.
Byrd spent most of last summer trying to recover from back surgery and, as a result, he and Vaccaro found themselves behind heading into the season. This summer, Byrd missed only one practice, giving a safety tandem that failed to live up to its billing last year plenty of time to gel — long before the Saints ever set foot on The Greenbrier’s practice fields.
“You start building that bond, that relationship, that kind of feeling of knowing what each other’s going to do in certain circumstances,” Vaccaro said. “Once you’ve got that, they can’t beat you.”
Now that the chemistry’s set, Lewis wants to see the Saints’ revamped secondary making plays this August. Lewis wants the new group to make life difficult for the future Hall of Famers the Saints will see under center for most of the three weeks they spend in West Virginia.
“Go out there and compete 100 (percent), no matter what,” Lewis said. “Every throw Drew (Brees) lets out of his hand. Tom Brady, we’re practicing against him, whatever he lets out of his hand, just competing and getting close to the ball, so when we get to the season, it’s second nature.”
Unlike last year, when the Saints secondary was touted as potentially one of the league’s best as training camp opened, there is little buzz surrounding the New Orleans defensive backs this summer. Lewis likes it that way.
This new, revamped group has something to rally around.
“A lot of guys, I feel like they’re sleeping on us,” Lewis said. “Time to wake them up.”