Things to watch at Saints' minicamp

I’m scheduled to make the trek to New Orleans later Monday, to cover the Saints’ minicamp that starts Tuesday.

I’ll be watching for all sorts of stuff, but let’s pick a few of the more important things I’ll be keeping an eye on.

The atmosphere. Normally, there’s not much difference, other than faces and names, from one NFL minicamp to another. But this isn’t a normal year for the Saints. In fact, they’re going through one of the most unique periods any franchise in any sport has faced. The Saints are without suspended head coach Sean Payton. Assistant head coach Joe Vitt, the guy standing in Payton’s place right now, will be suspended for the first six games of the season. General manager Mickey Loomis will be suspended for the first eight games. Unless they win appeals, middle linebacker Jonathan Vilma will be suspended for the entire season and defensive end Will Smith will be suspended for the first four games.

Oh, and throw in the fact that quarterback Drew Brees hasn’t reached a long-term deal or signed his franchise tag. Unless something changes dramatically and rapidly, Brees won’t be at this minicamp. It’s going to be weird to see the Saints without Payton and Brees.

The Saints are doing the only logical and smart thing. They’re just following Payton’s system. That makes sense because it’s been successful and this is an experienced coaching staff and there are plenty of veteran players. The Saints are trying to carry on with business as usual, but I’m curious to see if it looks like anything close to normal.

The defensive line. The word out of the early organized team activities is that the Saints are trying all sorts of different things up front. They’ve moved linebacker Martez Wilson to defensive end and they’re using some formations where they’re moving defensive ends to defensive tackle. That might not be a bad idea because the Saints have to get better with their pass rush up front.

Smith is New Orleans’ only proven pass rusher and the Saints have to pressure quarterbacks while he’s suspended and he can’t do it all by himself. I’m curious to see what Wilson looks like as a defensive end. I’m also looking forward to watching Junior Galette and Greg Romeus. Those are two young defensive ends with plenty of upside and this could be the year they get to play a lot.

Steve Spagnuolo. The new defensive coordinator is putting in a whole new defensive system. Previous coordinator Gregg Williams was noted for his exotic blitz packages. Spagnuolo is known for taking a more conventional approach. He likes to get most of his pressure from the front four and let the back seven focus on pass coverage.

I think the Saints have made some very nice moves adding linebackers Curtis Lofton and David Hawthorne and there’s some talent in the secondary with Jabari Greer, Patrick Robinson and Malcolm Jenkins. But strong safety Roman Harper isn’t known for his coverage skills. Harper’s had a lot of success as a blitzer. I’m curious to see if Spaguolo will try to make Harper fit into his scheme or if he’ll allow Harper to continue to do what he does best.

I’m thinking Spagnuolo might be wise to bend on this one a little bit because Harper’s ability on the blitz could help a front four that needs plenty of help.