Who is playing left tackle? Though the New Orleans Saints defense was bad last season, the biggest and most important question comes on offense. No matter what improvement the defense sees, it will be all for naught if Drew Brees is on his back. As of now, it has become a three horse race between Charles Brown, free agent signee Jason Smith, and rookie 3rd rounder Terron Armstead. Armstead clearly has the most upside but scouts question whether he is ready to play now. Smith is looking to show why he was once drafted number two overall. Brown is the favorite if he is able to stay healthy, which has been problem throughout his career. Though each has question marks, each is capable. It will take training camp and preseason to decide who ultimately wins the job.
Where is pass rush going to come from? As far as the defense goes, this is most pressing question. Free agent signing Victor Butler seemed to be the answer, but he is lost for the season with a torn ACL, leaving the question again unanswered. The Saints have options, though all of them unproven. The most likely candidates at this moment are Junior Galette and Martez Wilson, two of the more athletic players on the Saints. Will Smith will be making the switch to 3-4 end and it still remains to be seen how that experiment works. Two under the radar guys to watch for are 7th round rookie Rufus Johnson and undrafted free agent Chase Thomas.
What the fate of long time defensive fixtures? With the transition to the 3-4, the roles of three of the most popular and tenured defensive players are in question—Smith, Jonathan Vilma, and Roman Harper. All have their challenges. Smith has been accustomed to the 4-3 end position and it still remains to be seen if he can play the 3-4 outside linebacker spot. Harper’s weakness has always been coverage and that will be needed in Rob Ryan’s aggressive scheme. And the drafting of Kenny Vaccaro would also seem to signal a largely diminished role for Harper. It will be interesting how he is used because he still has some useful skills, especially in defending the run. Finally, Vilma became a Saint after the Jets realized he was ineffective in the 3-4. With this switch to the 3-4, Vilma is older and a step slower than he was at the time he got traded. All this being said, it is no guarantee that Vilma will patrol one of the inside linebacker positions.
Can Akiem Hicks and Cam Jordan build on their strong seasons? Jordan and Hicks are young players that showed a lot of promise last season in the 4-3, despite the fact neither of these are natural scheme fits; however, they still made the most of their opportunities. Hicks got very limited action last season, but was very disruptive in the little time that he did get. Hicks is athletic and versatile and can rotate between the nose tackle and 3-4 defensive end position. Jordan, quietly, had a nice season posting a team high 8 sacks and proved his ability as a pass rusher. Jordan actually played 3-4 defensive end in college. It will interesting to see how both players play in their natural system. They, along with rookie John Jenkins and Broderick Bunkley, should provide a solid rotation along the three man front.
Who will be the 3rd wide receiver? With the departure of Robert Meachem last year and Devery Henderson this year, the Saints are in need of a third receiver behind Lance Moore and Marques Colston. Like the pass rusher situation, the Saints have a few options. Joe Morgan seems to the odds of favorite because of his speed and ability to stretch the field. However, he will see competition from the likes of Nick Toon and Kenny Stills. All three have a different skill set, so Payton will have an intriguing decision to make depending on what he is looking for. If none of these three emerge, Payton will more than likely look for more significant contributions from Darren Sproles and free agent Ben Watson.