|Drew Brees (right) is used to leading the charge for the Saints, and his work is paying off.|
METAIRIE, La. -- Drew Brees could rightfully take a bow for his participation in the NFL's labor negotiations, sticking his neck out like few quarterbacks ever have and being a valuable resource throughout for NFL Players Association boss DeMaurice Smith.
But the rewards of this offseason are just starting to manifest for the Saints' quarterback.
While the full merits of the player-run "camps" over the offseason remain to be seen, there seems to be little debate that few put on as good a show as Brees and Jonathan Vilma did for their teammates, running a well-attended six-week program at Tulane that's already showing its benefits. Some of those: Players reported largely in the kind of physical shape they would've if there wasn't a lockout, and the team hit the ground running, as much as could be expected, when training camp commenced.
Oh, and there's also this: a coach who feels about as good about his team as any in the league.
"I said this in the meeting the other night -- I love this roster," Sean Payton told me, following Friday's practice. "Now, we've got a lot of work to do. But we've got a lot more depth than we've had in years past. We're deeper in the defensive line, at linebacker, we've got a good young group at receiver.
"So if you just look, and periodically we'll do this, we'll put it up compared to a season ago, two seasons ago, we'll put it up to teams in our division, and I think early on, this has been something that gets everyone excited."
New Orleans dealt off Reggie Bush before the ink was even dry on the litigation settlement last week, and replaced him with a reasonable facsimile in Darren Sproles. Losing center Jonathan Goodwin was a blow that the Saints didn't expect, but they quickly moved to replace him with six-time Pro Bowl pick Olin Kruetz, who wasn't re-signed by the Bears. And when Remi Ayodele bolted for Minnesota, the team swiped Aubrayo Franklin from San Francisco, having already added Shaun Rogers before the lockout.
Don't forget, too, the Saints drafted Cameron Jordan in April to further upgrade their defensive front, then pushed their chips to the middle of the table, paying a bounty to New England to get another first-round pick and took Mark Ingram, who already looks like he could star in New Orleans' high-octane attack.
Now consider this: All that is in addition to a slew of young players, guys like Malcolm Jenkins, Patrick Robinson and Jimmy Graham, already on the roster expected to grow this fall. And add in the fact that the Saints, like a handful of other teams, have the inherent advantage of continuity in this, the strangest of football years.
"We mentioned this, and a lot's been discussed in regards to the newer staffs. It's a bigger challenge," Payton said. "I just look back to what we had to do in '06, that first year, and all the evaluations that need to take place. The practice snaps were so important for us in the spring, and the early part of training camp.
"And I think it is, it's not easy, but it's probably a little easier on the teams with a lot of carryover, whether it's coaching staffs that have been there, players that have been there. This is a team with a lot of guys back that have been here, not only this year, but the last few years. That leadership is important and was certainly important through the spring."
And there's where it all comes back to those workouts at Tulane.
The structure of player-run workouts varied wildly throughout the league. Some were loose and unorganized. The Saints were not.
Club officials apprised of the details say that Brees and Vilma ran what could legitimately be described as a "camp," rather than simple workouts. So while some teams are deliberately pacing through these early post-lockout days, New Orleans can move just a little bit faster, compounding the edge of having a system that's been in place for years now.
"I think the biggest challenge for us was making sure the young guys understand how we practice. Guys were staying off the ground, making sure guys were staying healthy," Payton said. "That being said, we have a veteran team with a lot of experience.
"I think Drew Brees and Jonathan Vilma did a great job, under the circumstances during the offseason, of putting the camp together. And I thought they were in good shape. When we ran the conditioning test, they ran it well. And our job now is to make sure the installation is slowed down enough so we're getting a good read on putting the roster together."
But the fact is, this team has more in place than most.
Last week, the team started practice outside under the unrelenting Louisiana humidity. Dark clouds soon gathered, and as lightning started striking, Payton gathered his group and pulled them into the club's field house.
What followed was the crispest and most fluid practice I've seen through the first nine days of training camp, staged by a team -- through the eye test -- that looks big, fast and deep all over the field.
That the Saints look this good in August won't win them any championships, nor will a player-run program put on by a quarterback and linebacker in the spring.
But if you add those two things together and consider a coach speaking as confidently about his team as any in the league, and that club having championship credentials, it's enough to make you think, like these guys do, that there could be some awfully big things ahead in New Orleans.
Follow Albert Breer on Twitter @albertbreer.