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Saints-Patriots primer: Who to watch besides Brady, Brees and Gronk

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- Get ready for those "iron sharpens iron" sound bites as the New England Patriots and New Orleans Saints take the practice field together Tuesday for the fourth time in six years.

Two of the NFL's all-time great power couples, Bill Belichick/Tom Brady and Sean Payton/Drew Brees, have grown quite fond of each other over the past decade while taking turns chasing Super Bowl rings and battling the league office. And that mutual admiration usually makes for some crisp practice sessions.

ESPN Patriots reporter Mike Reiss and ESPN Saints reporter Mike Triplett got together for a primer on what to expect this time around. The teams will practice in full pads Tuesday and lighter pads Wednesday before playing Thursday at Gillette Stadium at 7:30 p.m. ET.

Triplett: With Brady suspended for the first four weeks of the regular season, how much should the Saints expect to see him in practice vs. backup QB Jimmy Garoppolo? And what should they expect from New England's new dynamic TE duo of Rob Gronkowski and Martellus Bennett?

Reiss: It has been 50-50 for most of training camp and it would be a surprise if there is a significant deviation away from that. Brady is usually the first man in, followed by Garoppolo, but there are times that Belichick flips that around. As for the two tight ends, it has been one of the more impressive parts of training camp and I can’t imagine a better test for the Saints' defense. Gronkowski and Bennett create matchup problems, and Belichick has talked about why quarterbacks love throwing to them.

How different are the Saints on defense in 2016? What are the elements of the scheme that will challenge the Patriots?

Triplett: Well, they had better be a lot different this year after a historically bad 2015 season. Defensive coordinator Dennis Allen has taken over full time after replacing Rob Ryan late last year, and the Saints brought in veteran middle linebacker James Laurinaitis to help cut down on mistakes. Allen preaches a simpler, faster, more attacking scheme -- which sounds very cliché, but does seem to have the D off to a faster start this summer. And he likes to mix in blitzes. DE Cameron Jordan and CB Delvin Breaux are arguably New Orleans' top players on defense, with first-round DT Sheldon Rankins the most intriguing newcomer.

Mike, I remember our favorite matchup last summer was between two rising young stars, Saints WR Brandin Cooks and Patriots CB Malcolm Butler. Cooks broke out with eight touchdown catches over his final nine games. How did Butler do? And who else stands out on New England's defense?

Reiss: Butler earned a Pro Bowl berth to prove that his Super Bowl-saving interception was a steppingstone to a career on the rise rather than a one-time moment for an unknown player. One thing that stands out with Butler is his consistency. He played 98.8 percent of the defensive snaps last year, a team-high total, and hasn’t missed a practice through 10 training camp workouts. So Cooks-Butler will be fun to watch again. Elsewhere on defense, linebackers Jamie Collins and Dont'a Hiughtower are foundation players, while safety Devin McCourty is the quarterback in the secondary.

The Patriots haven’t had live tackling yet in camp. How have the Saints approached that, and whom should we watch on offense in terms of challenging the Patriots’ tackling?

Triplett: That has actually been a big point of emphasis for the Saints after back-to-back 7-9 seasons. Payton promised players it would be a more demanding camp, and he has delivered with longer sessions and several full-contact drills. The Saints have been preaching the spirit of competition, so expect them to be fired up. Although, as you recall, both sides were adamant about not spoiling these practices with fights last year.

Cooks will provide the biggest challenge, but physical rookie receiver Michael Thomas has been making waves in camp too. Mark Ingram has grown into a bona fide every-down back. And I'm curious to see how C.J. Spiller looks in this setting now that he's healthy after a very disappointing 2015.

Reiss: After seeing each other up close last summer, these teams wound up trading DT Akiem Hicks for TE Michael Hoomanawanui. How do the Saints feel about that now?

Triplett: I guess the Saints technically "won" that deal because they re-signed Hoomanawanui, while the Patriots let Hicks go to Chicago. Obviously it was far from a blockbuster, but Hoomanawanui has been solid as a blocker/occasional pass-catcher/part-time fullback. He changed their offense a bit, allowing them to play more three-TE sets.

The Saints' bigger regret is still DE Rob Ninkovich, whom they drafted in 2006, then cut twice. Payton mentioned Ninkovich earlier in camp -- as he does almost every year -- as the "one that got away." How is he doing heading into Year 11?

Reiss: Ninkovich has played in 188 straight games for the Patriots (including playoffs) and I’ve watched him work over right tackle Marcus Cannon consistently in one-on-one drills in camp. At 32, he looks like he’s still playing some of the best football in his career.

Triplett: Ouch. Maybe Payton schedules these joint practices every year as a reminder not to overlook anyone.