METAIRIE, La. – The New Orleans Saints open training camp for the 2022 NFL season Wednesday at the Ochsner Sports Performance Center. Here’s a closer look at the key storylines:
Training camp is a success if … Jameis Winston, Michael Thomas, Marcus Davenport, Taysom Hill, Marcus Maye and Payton Turner look healthy. We already saw Winston back on the practice field in OTAs and minicamp this summer as he recovers from a torn ACL. And we’re expecting to see those other key players back soon. If all are ready to contribute by Week 1, new coach Dennis Allen will have a much more loaded roster to work with than his mentor, Sean Payton, did in his final season. Thomas is the biggest X-factor after missing the entire 2021 season and 2022 spring practices with an ankle injury that required multiple surgeries. But he should be back as early as Day 1 of camp – even though the Saints will surely take a cautious approach throughout the preseason.
Fiercest fantasy-relevant battle: The revamped WR corps. Speaking of Thomas, this group has come a long way since last season, when the Saints finished last in the NFL in passing yards. Not only is Thomas back, but they traded up to draft Chris Olave 11th overall and signed veteran Jarvis Landry. Suddenly, they have three alphas in a group that was desperate for one last year. Yes, Thomas should be the No. 1 target, but all three could limit the others’ fantasy ceilings – especially if Olave emerges as the type of downfield threat Winston likes to target. Meanwhile, last year’s trio of Marquez Callaway, Tre’Quan Smith and Deonte Harty will be fighting for secondary roles.
Player with the most to prove: Winston. This will be a season-long storyline, but it needs to start with a strong summer. The Saints considered replacing Winston this offseason when they pursued a blockbuster trade for Deshaun Watson. But since then, they’ve given Winston every chance to thrive by signing him to a two-year deal and supporting him with Olave and Landry. The former No. 1 overall draft pick took a big leap forward in his first season as New Orleans’ starter last season, proving he could avoid the turnovers that plagued his first five years with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. He went 5-2 with 14 touchdown passes and three interceptions. But the sample size was cut short by the knee injury, and he averaged only 186 passing yards in his six complete games while the Saints relied heavily on their defense. Now Winston needs to prove he can sustain that efficiency while airing it out even more.
Biggest question on defense: Can they survive their offseason safety dance? The Saints have become one of the NFL’s best defenses over the past five years. But they lost starting free safety Marcus Williams to free agency and starting strong safety Malcolm Jenkins to retirement. New Orleans appears to have found capable replacements in free agents Tyrann Mathieu and Maye. But Mathieu needs to show he’s still in peak form at age 30; Maye needs to show he can recover from an Achilles injury and play with more consistency; and the Saints need to show they can be just as effective with a different approach at the position. Williams was a true safety net as a deep center fielder. Mathieu and Maye bring different styles and will likely play more interchangeable roles than their predecessors.
Camp prediction: The Winston-Olave duo will generate some buzz. Again, I expect Thomas to be the Saints’ No. 1 receiver when healthy – and all indications are that Thomas’ recovery is on track. But I also know how “buzz” works in training camp and the preseason, where it only takes a few big highlights to generate excitement. And Olave has the type of speed and big-play ability to catch some of those home-run balls. Olave might not have the same target volume as other rookies this year because he’s in a crowded group. But we should start to see glimpses of his future No. 1 ability like we did with Thomas in his rookie camp – when Payton famously suggested, “I don't follow fantasy football, but, shoot, I'd try to have him.”