NFL.com has dispatched several writers to report on the 32 training camps. Aditi Kinkhabwala details her visit with the New Orleans Saints. (Click here for the complete archive of Training Camp Reports.)
WHERE IS NFL.COM?
In Metairie, La., at the New Orleans Saints' practice facility, where the team has newly refurbished meeting rooms, and where the air is sticky, thick and HOT.
1. Drew Brees is not afraid of anything. The Saints quarterback is not cowed by the idea of not having his head coach all year. (Brees said he's "excited" to prove what the Saints can do.) He's not worried about who the head coach will be five weeks from now, when interim head coach Joe Vitt starts his six-game suspension. (Brees: "It's business as usual.") He won't even shy away from his own attention-grabbing declaration that "Nobody trusts him," with "him" being Commissioner Roger Goodell. (The reigning Offensive Player of the Year said that to Sports Illustrated's Peter King. Two days after those words were published, when I asked him if he'd elaborate, he wouldn't take them back. He firmly said he'd been honest and direct, he said his intent was never to be disrespectful and he strikingly said, "If there's any dialogue that needs to take place, I would talk to the commissioner directly.")
2. Jimmy Graham is going to have another monster year -- Brees is guaranteeing it. Sometimes the offense meets as a whole. Sometimes the various position groups meet alone. When it's the latter, the quarterbacks will watch film, the tight ends will watch the same film, and then a quarterback will come scurrying into the tight end room with a message, from Brees to Graham. On what Graham should have done. Every day. "Sometimes it's so bad that he has to get up and come in there himself," Graham said. The line got laughs, but the third-year tight end was entirely serious, especially when he said Brees "has been awesome in my development." And when he said Brees "is always trying to make me a better player." And, "to have your quarterback have that much confidence in you and to want and help you to get there is special." It's not just Brees, of course. A year after Graham had 99 catches, 1,310 yards and 11 touchdowns, Vitt said he gave the former basketball player a long list of things to improve upon. No. 1 on the list, Graham said, is his yards after catch. Regardless, there won't be any backsliding this year.
3. New coordinator Steve Spagnuolo is definitely making this defense better. The obvious is his new scheme: more matchup zones, fewer man-to-man coverages; less of the constant blitzing, more unpredictable pressure. The not-so-obvious is how he takes himself from one position drill to the next, getting right up close and teaching individually. "It's good that he's hands-on like that," linebacker Scott Shanle said.
THE NEW GUYS
Johnny Patrick: The Saints' third-round draft pick in 2011, Patrick was hurt in the preseason last year and only played in nine games. But if all goes as safety Malcolm Jenkins predicts, Patrick should be like a new player this year. "The thing about Johnny is that he's a natural football player," Jenkins said. "He makes a lot of plays that are just pure ability. He's made a few plays this camp so far, and it's eye opening."
Curtis Lofton: Whether or not Jonathan Vilma wins his appeal on the yearlong "Bountygate" suspension, Lofton has already established himself as a force at middle linebacker. The former Falcon is just part of the upgrade at linebacker for the Saints; former Seahawk David Hawthorne is another big addition.
The Glaring Sean Payton: It's huge, it's hanging up high in New Orleans Saints' indoor facility and it's got that famously piercing -- and scary -- Payton glare. That's right: There's a blown-up picture of the suspended head coach and the words "DO YOUR JOB" looming over the Saints every day. And yes, the first time Shanle saw it, he told general manager Mickey Loomis, "I feel like I did something wrong." Shanle laughed about it Wednesday, saying, "It's got a great presence, that's for sure. Anybody who has played for the Saints has drawn that look from coach Payton."
"How are y'all going to cover the fade in the red zone?"
-- Tight end Jimmy Graham, butting into Jenkins' explanation of the Saints' new zone defense. Jenkins, without pausing for even a beat, responded, "All we're going to do is put a linebacker out on Jimmy Graham and just leave him there because he'll shut it down."
- At the end of a two-and-a-half hour practice in the blazing heat, the Saints ran gassers (the awful sprints across the width of the football field). The 33-year-old Brees finished first in about five straight. "That means he's in shape," Vitt said dryly.
- Brees said it's like Payton is in "solitary confinement," and maybe that's not so wrong. Think about this: Hawthorne has never even met Payton. After spending his first four NFL seasons in Seattle, the linebacker signed with the Saints two weeks after Payton was suspended.
- Don't believe Brees, or any of his teammates, when they claim the Saints aren't using "Bountygate" punishments (and being without their coach) to bolster the chip on their collective shoulder. Oh yeah, is that ever a rallying cry.
- New Orleans hotels need to get the NFL Network.
The Saints don't yet have an interim interim head coach for the first six games of the season, when Vitt is serving his suspension. But Shanle said it best: "As long as you have Drew Brees, it really doesn't matter who your interim head coach is. He's the interim head coach." And that's the crux of it.
Fine, the Saints don't have their coach. Fine, they don't have their defensive captain. They'll still be fine. The offense returns 10 of 11 starters, Brees is one of the best -- if not the best -- quarterbacks and leaders in the game, and there's something about the way he says it's time for the Saints to "take it to the next level" that makes it not just sound like lip service. (Remember, they were 13-3 a year ago.) The Atlanta Falcons will be good in the NFC South, and the Carolina Panthers should be improved, too, but the Saints are still, well, the Saints.