Saints' camp boasts budding talents

WHITE SULPHUR SPRINGS, W.Va. -- Sean Payton's personal "Caddyshack" experience put the New Orleans Saints in paradise for training camp.

During his Bountygate suspension, Payton caddied for pro golfer Ryan Palmer in the Greenbrier Classic. During the tournament, Payton stared at the plush, coal-rich Blue Ridge Mountains and other beautiful surroundings and said, "Wow, what a wonderful place to hold a training camp." Greenbrier owner Jim Justice said, "Done deal."

Rodney Dangerfield didn't have that kind of clout in the movie.

In fewer than 100 days this year, Justice ripped into the mountains and created two grass fields, a lower artificial field that will turn into an indoor facility and a two-story building for the team. Eventually, Marshall University and West Virginia University will use the facility for training purposes.

Saints general manger Mickey Loomis said he likes the idea of changing training camp routines every four years or so. The Saints signed a three-year contract at Greenbrier. They should already be ready to sign an extension.

Here is what I learned at Saints camp.

1. Ryan Express on defensive line: New York Jets coach Rex Ryan always had an eye for defensive linemen. Last year, he put Sheldon Richardson at end on the other side of Muhammad Wilkerson and formed perhaps the best 3-4 end tandem in football. Brother Rob, New Orleans' defensive coordinator, could challenge him.

In the Saints' switch to the 3-4, defensive end Cameron Jordan became a star. Jordan had 12½ sacks in Rob's first year in the 3-4. This year, Akiem Hicks is the next emerging star. Hicks, who plays left end, has been unblockable in practices. Jordan said Hicks has been beating double- and triple-team blocks. With Junior Galette rushing from outside linebacker, the Saints will be a disruptive defense.

2. Cooking up more offense: When he's not caddying, Payton is one of the more innovative offensive minds in the game. The addition of first-round choice Brandin Cooks will drive defensive coordinators crazy. Cooks' game is speed. The wide receiver could be a combination of Darren Sproles and Percy Harvin.

Payton could use him in some of the old Sproles roles out of the backfield. Cooks could run fly sweeps like Harvin. In passing situations, Cooks could use his speed to flat-out beat cornerbacks. The Saints' receiving corps had been tied to the group that produced a Super Bowl in 2009. Cooks is fresh and dangerous.

3. Great chance at the No. 1 seed: Are the Saints the most talented team in the NFC? Probably not, but New Orleans' .469 schedule is the second easiest in the NFC behind the New York Giants'. On paper, the NFC's top seed could be the Saints' to lose. Odds favor the Saints going 5-1 in the NFC South. If they beat the Atlanta Falcons on the road, they could go 6-0.

The Saints play the NFC and AFC North. They also have San Francisco at home and the Dallas Cowboys on the road. As the playoffs have proved, the Saints struggle on the road. Getting home field could give them the edge they had in 2009, when they beat the Minnesota Vikings in the NFC title game and went to the Super Bowl.

This week's practice didn't feature a Super Bowl team. Drew Brees sat out resting an oblique injury. Guards Jahri Evans and Ben Grubbs were injured. Payton doesn't need to rush their recoveries, but once they are back, the Saints should be ready to roll.

4. Terron Armstead's a sleeper: For more than a year, Payton said he had sleepless nights because of his left tackle position. He thought former second-rounder Charles Brown could handle the job last year. He couldn't. After 14 starts last season, Payton benched Brown and tried raw rookie Armstead.

Watching him in practice, Armstead looks like the real deal. At 305 pounds at last year's scouting combine, Armstead ran a 4.71 40, which is tight end speed. After a year with the Saints, he looks like the answer for Brees' blind side. His athletic ability and potential are off the charts. What impresses me most is his footwork. Pass-rushers go against him in practice and rarely catch him off balance.

5. Beware of the "Theory of 150": In 2007, I came up with the "Theory of 150." I was looking at an aging offensive line of the Chicago Bears, who were coming off a Super Bowl loss to Indianapolis. The starting offensive line had a combined age of 159, 31.4 per player. Four starters were in their 30s. Once a line gets that old, major repairs and a major drop-off are looming. I used the same theory for the Washington Redskins, Cowboys and Giants over the next few years.

A theory alert is developing for the Saints. Evans, Zach Strief and Grubbs are currently 30. At center, 35-year-old Jonathan Goodwin is competing against Tim Lelito. Armstead is 23. If Goodwin wins at center, the combined age of the line will be 152. This isn't to say the Saints won't be fine this year, but they are starting to get to the point where they must look toward the future. Payton places more value at guard than at tackle because the 6-foot Brees needs a clean pocket. If the pocket starts to collapse because of age, Brees could struggle.