Free agency, the combine and the owners meetings are in the rearview mirror and the draft is just a few days away. But it’s time to get back to football on the field. Here’s a quick look at the New Orleans Saints as they open their offseason workout program Monday:
Biggest challenge facing head coach Sean Payton: Obviously, it’s trying to find a defense that can complement his potent offense -- the same challenge that has plagued Payton for most of the past decade. The Saints have made only minor adjustments on defense so far, led by a new veteran “quarterback” in middle linebacker James Laurinaitis and a new disruptive defensive tackle in Nick Fairley. But the draft, the full-time switch to defensive coordinator Dennis Allen and the improved health of S Jairus Byrd and CB Keenan Lewis should all help, too.
Player on the rise: Cornerback Delvin Breaux came out of nowhere last year (actually, he came out of the Canadian Football League) to emerge as a bona fide No. 1 cornerback for the Saints. If he can continue on that path in Year 2 and Lewis can return to form, the Saints could have much-needed stability at the position for the first time in three years. They would also love to see continued progress from 2015 rookies Andrus Peat, Stephone Anthony and Hau’oli Kikaha, among others.
Player who has the most to prove: Peat comes close, since he didn’t do much as the Saints’ top draft pick last year. But the answer here is Byrd, who is heading into Year 3 of his six-year, $54 million contract. Injuries have been Byrd’s biggest problem so far, including a major knee injury that wiped out most of his 2014 season and lingered into 2015. But the three-time Pro Bowler is healthy now, so the Saints need him to finally reach that elite level he displayed for so many years as a turnover machine with the Buffalo Bills.
Surprise player to watch: Second-year cornerback P.J. Williams is a candidate for this category since he is so far off the radar after missing his entire rookie year with a hamstring injury. Williams remains an unknown, and he showed some ups and downs last summer. But the 6-foot, 196-pounder was a third-round draft pick out of college power Florida State. So he could easily step up and compete for the nickel corner job this season.
Position that should be addressed in draft: The defensive line should be the top priority. I rank defensive end slightly ahead of defensive tackle, but both spots should be in play. The Saints need to get much more disruptive up front beyond Pro Bowl defensive end Cameron Jordan. Ideally, they could find a true 4-3 defensive end with the ability to play on run downs. That’s why Clemson’s Shaq Lawson should be among their top targets in Round 1.