Drew Brees makes playoffs possible, but Saints must fix defense in camp

Three keys for Saints as they try to fix defense (1:42)

ESPN Saints reporter Mike Triplett breaks down the biggest question facing New Orleans as they head into training camp -- its defense. (1:42)

The New Orleans Saints open training camp on July 28 at The Greenbrier resort in White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia. Here’s a closer look at the Saints’ camp, which wraps up back home in Metairie, Louisiana, on Aug. 25.

Top storyline: Can New Orleans finally fix its defense? The Saints can be playoff contenders if they can just make their defense respectable. But that has proved to be a tall order in recent years, as they have been wasting the back half of quarterback Drew Brees’ prime. Their defense has ranked 31st or worse in three of the past four seasons -- and last year they sank to new lows by shattering the NFL record for TD passes allowed (45). Now Dennis Allen takes over full-time as defensive coordinator, and the Saints signed veteran middle linebacker James Laurinaitis to help clean up all of their assignment and alignment errors. But they need veteran defensive backs Jairus Byrd and Keenan Lewis to get healthy again. And they need to find some semblance of a pass rush, a task that became even more difficult when second-year DE Hau’oli Kikaha went down with a season-ending knee injury.

If the starting QB doesn’t … keep carrying the Saints on his back, they’re doomed. Brees turned 37 in January, but he remains one of the NFL’s elite quarterbacks. He led the NFL in passing yards in 2011, 2012, 2014 and 2015 (settling for second in 2013). And he tied the NFL record with seven TD passes in a 52-49 victory over the New York Giants last year. That’s why the Saints also need to lock up Brees to another long-term extension with just one year remaining on his deal.

Player who will have fans buzzing: WR Brandin Cooks. He’s not exactly a secret, especially to Saints fans and fantasy football owners. But the dynamic speedster looks ready to explode in Year 3. Over the final nine games last year, Cooks caught eight TD passes and had four games with 100-plus yards from scrimmage. And he turns just 23 in September.

Position battle worth watching: Wherever Andrus Peat lines up. The Saints’ top draft pick from 2015 is in better shape, and coach Sean Payton said he envisions him as a starter. But the Saints aren’t sure yet if that will be at right tackle or right guard. Peat played guard for most of OTAs (where he’s competing with Tim Lelito and Senio Kelemete). But New Orleans envisions the 6-foot-7, 316-pounder as a tackle long-term, so he also will get a chance to beat out veteran Zach Strief.

That rookie should start: Technically, defensive tackle Sheldon Rankins might not start every week, since he’ll rotate with veterans Nick Fairley and John Jenkins. But the 12th overall pick in the draft had better play a ton, and he’d better make a major impact. The Saints badly need the type of disruptive presence that Rankins provided at Louisville, where he had 14 sacks and 26.5 tackles for loss over the past two years.

Veteran whose job is in jeopardy: RB C.J. Spiller needs to prove last year was a fluke. He barely played in his first season in New Orleans because of the lingering effects from a summer knee injury. Now that he’s healthy, Spiller said he still believes he can “flourish” in a Saints offense that seems tailor-made for his skill set as a dynamic runner/receiver. But he needs to show it this summer -- or his roster spot could be in jeopardy in a deep position group.

Make-or-break summer: It still is possible for Byrd to find some success in New Orleans after two injury-plagued seasons. But this feels like the last chance for the 29-year-old, who signed a six-year, $54 million contract in 2014. Byrd missed most of OTAs and minicamp with the lingering knee injury he suffered two years ago. But he should be healthy for most of training camp and the preseason, which would be a first for the three-time Pro Bowler since he joined the Saints.

New toys: Although Cooks will be his go-to guy, Brees has some enticing new options. The Saints spent a whopping $7.2 million per year on former Indianapolis Colts tight end Coby Fleener in free agency, then they selected big Ohio State WR Michael Thomas in the second round of the draft. Fleener has obvious breakout potential, based on the way past TEs Jimmy Graham and Benjamin Watson thrived in New Orleans. Thomas could emerge as a red zone threat after the team released veteran Marques Colston.

What fans will be saying after camp: “It has to get better, right?” There still is plenty of reason for optimism because of Brees and New Orleans’ dynamic offense. And the defense can’t possibly be any worse. But it will be cautious optimism instead of blind faith. “Who Dat Nation” has been burned by two straight 7-9 seasons, the first back-to-back losing years in the Payton-Brees era.

For daily updates at camp, check out the New Orleans Saints clubhouse page.