METAIRIE, La. -- New Orleans quarterback Drew Brees recalled an expression describing "experience" as "something you gain when you don't get what you want."
The Saints haven't been to the playoffs in two seasons. And Brees saw a connection between those disappointments and higher attendance for voluntary workouts this offseason than either he or head coach Sean Payton could recall since their arrival in New Orleans in 2006.
"You can say the last two years we've not gotten exactly what we set out to get," Brees said. "I feel like we've learned a lot along the way. I feel we've assembled a great group of veteran free-agent guys who have been a part of good teams and know what it takes to win and be professional and fight through adversity. ... We're much better prepared for the journey this year than we ever have been."
Ideally, Payton said, each player should take part in 40 offseason workouts. The coach said about 90 percent of the roster hit that mark, which is "clearly the highest that we've had since we've been here."
When they return to practice on July 31, all but three players on the roster are expected to be healthy. Receiver Lance Moore, who had left shoulder surgery in April, may not be ready, Payton said. The same goes for reserve center Nick Leckey, who had right ankle surgery to remove bone spurs.
Rookie linebacker Stanley Arnoux, a fourth-round draft pick who ruptured his left Achilles tendon in rookie camp, won't be ready for any of training camp and may miss all of 2009. However, if his rehabilitation moves quickly, he could be a candidate for the physically-unable-to-perform-list, Payton said, meaning he could return after the sixth week of the regular season.
The Saints made significant changes on defense, and high offseason attendance allowed new coordinator Gregg Williams to introduce much of his new scheme, which appears to involve a lot of blitzing and the flexibility to switch from four down linemen to three.
"What I've liked is the way that they're flying around to the ball," Payton said. "We're getting a lot of different looks and a lot of challenging looks. They have grasped it pretty quickly."
There are a handful of new defensive backs, such as veterans Jabari Greer and Darren Sharper, first-round draft pick Malcolm Jenkins, and fourth-round draft pick Chip Vaughn. The Saints also moved Usama Young to free safety. Meanwhile, second-year cornerback Tracy Porter is healthy after missing most of last season with a wrist injury.
At defensive end, the Saints have retained depth because projected starters Will Smith and Charles Grant might be suspended for the first four games -- punishment related to positive tests last year for a banned diuretic.
"I am pleased with the depth behind them," Payton said, mentioning Bobby McCray, Jeff Charleston, Paul Spicer and Anthony Hargrove. "The big challenge is what that forces you to do as you prepare for the start of the regular season and then, when (Smith and Grant) return, in creating those two (roster) spots."
Payton said his sense of the team's progress will improve when practices in full pads begin later this summer, but added that the Saints will enter training camp with two-thirds of the play book installed.
"We could play a game today," Payton said.
For Brees, maximizing chances to work together was more than about learning plays.
"A big part of forming the team is getting to know one another and building that trust and confidence level with each other," Brees said. "When it comes to crunch time in a game, when it's the end of the season and you can look next to you ... and you can see a guy who has put in as much time and effort as you have, that's what pulls you through."
Copyright 2009 by The Associated Press