When the New Orleans Saints officially report to Training Camp 5 weeks from tomorrow, some of the most closely watched story lines of the upcoming 2017 NFL season will be played out in "real time" for the team's fans, as the team returns home to their Practice Facility in Metairie (suburban New Orleans) to train for the first time since the 2013 season.
While they're there, Saints fans will get the chance to witness first-hand up close and personal, the beginnings of a team that will eventually become the 53 final players who will go into the 2017 season and hopefully put an end to New Orleans' 3-year drought that has seen them forced to sit at home during the NFL Playoffs.
As it is, when you take into consideration that 2013 was the last year that the Saints were in the Playoffs and that they trained in Metairie that year as well, then maybe there's something to be said about the organization's decision to return to New Orleans this year, other than just simple logistical convenience or "doing it for the fans".
Not that we should believe in "superstition", mind you.
Nevertheless, Saints fans will get to see their beloved heroes now right close to home (for those who are in Louisiana or the surrounding Gulf Coast region, anyway) without having to travel all the way to The Greenbrier Resort in West Virginia (who were more than gracious and hospitable hosts) to watch the team train for the upcoming season.
Once Training Camp does get underway, fans will want to pay particularly close attention to a handful of players who more than likely, will have a major impact upon the Saints' upcoming 2017 NFL season.
Yes, Drew Brees is the most obvious one --- but this morning, we're giving you 5 players specifically who we believe you'll want to pay particularly close attention to, once Training Camp gets started in 5 more weeks from now.
And we'll begin first, with a couple (yes, a couple) of guys at #5........
#5. (TIE) A.J. KLEIN AND ALEX ANZALONE, LINEBACKERS
The Saints linebacker corps could be one of the most improved areas on the team this coming year, and in that group of players are two gentlemen whom I believe will make a major impact on the upcoming 2017 Saints season for one simple reason: SPEED.
It's fairly obvious after watching the Saints defense in OTA's and during Mini-Camp team drills that they liked Klein for a variety of reasons in Free Agency, but clearly his speed and his ability to cover RB's and TE's in pass coverage are what stood out.
The Saints are expected to begin shifting towards more looks in the "Tampa 2" defensive alignment with the addition of new linebacker coach Mike Nolan; and more often than not players within the "Tampa 2" don't usually have the prototypical size of other NFL defenders, so therefore the stress is put on other intangibles --- most notably speed (which Klein obviously has).
But Klein isn't the only player that the Saints went out and got this off-season, who possesses those intangibles.
There's also Alex Anzalone, the rookie 3rd Round Draft pick from the University of Florida who stood out at Mini-Camp and was the starter at "Will" LB next to Klein (the starter at the "Mike") in the team's nickel defense base during team drills during the opening practice session.
Clearly the Saints scouting department loved what they saw in "Thor" (as Saints fans now call him), likely because he can play ALL 3 linebacker positions but also because of how fast that he moves from sideline to sideline and how well he holds up in pass coverage.
The Saints defense appeared to be noticeably "quicker" and "faster" in Mini-Camp, and that's due in part to what the additions of Klein and Anzalone have brought that was unquestionably lacking the past few years (when Saints LB's were busy getting completely embarrassed at times).
If the Saints defense shows some major improvement in 2017, you'd better believe that it will be because Klein and Anzalone are a big part of it as 2 out of the 3 starters at linebacker in the Saints base defensive scheme.
#4. RYAN RAMCZYK, OFFENSIVE (LEFT?) TACKLE
I'm pretty certain that if you had walked up to former University of Wisconsin offensive tackle Ryan Ramczyk (pronounced RAM-CHECK) right after the 2017 NFL Draft a few months ago and told him that he was going to be the starting left tackle for the Saints as a rookie this year, he would have thought you were (to borrow a phrase from President Trump:) a complete "nut job".
If you're a fan of the Saints, then you know by now that the team has lost starting offensive left tackle Terron Armstead from anywhere to 4-6 months (and possibly longer) with a torn labrum (shoulder) that he injured last Wednesday in Mini-Camp.
That leaves the Saints essentially with 2 options, neither of which are desirable but appear to be the options that still make the most sense at the moment.
Option #1 is to move left guard Andrus Peat over to left tackle, since he was actually an All-American left tackle when he played at the University of Stanford.
But Peat has become a solid player at left guard; and the Saints are hesitant to upset the good situation that they currently enjoy at that LG spot by putting him instead at a position (LT) where he has struggled at times previously as a back-up.
Option #2 then is to put the rookie Ramczyk at the left tackle spot, since he too excelled at the left tackle position in college as Peat did --- even though the Saints drafted Ramczyk with the intent of having him learn and then eventually take over the starting right tackle spot from long-time veteran RT Zach Strief.
Putting a rookie in as a starter at left tackle, especially since it protects the QB's "blind spot", is a tricky proposition for any NFL team including the Saints. But the Saints at this stage of their preparations for the upcoming season seem inclined to go with the "next man up" principle.
Saints fans can only hope that Ramczyk is up to the challenge of holding down the LT spot in Armstead's absence, because if for some reason that he isn't, it could quickly become a long year. Without question, how well Ramczyk fares (or doesn't) will have a have a major impact on the team's overall success (or failure) in 2017.
#3. MARCUS WILLIAMS, FREE SAFETY
When you talk about the phrase "draft day steal" these days, it usually applies to a player whom is still available in the middle or late rounds of the Draft, that should have been selected higher based on their level of overall talent at the position that they're being chosen for.
However, it's safe to say that never in their wildest of imaginations, did the Saints ever think that they'd essentially be able to get THREE number #1 / 1st Round caliber players within the first 42 overall picks --- which is exactly what happened when the Saints were able to add 2nd Round pick Marcus Williams of the University of Utah to their draft haul that had already included All-American "lock down" Ohio State CB Marshon Lattimore (#11 overall) and the previously mentioned Ramczyk at #32.
After witnessing Williams in action thus far, it's blatantly obvious in the opinion of many observers at the moment that NFL scouts simply either overlooked or undervalued Williams' capabilities, and on a massively grand scale.
Williams' "ball hawk" skills stand out especially, as well as his remarkable athleticism that has seen him make some impressive pass break-ups and interceptions during team drills, including one play where it appeared he might have actually jumped a good 11 plus feet off of the ground.
Perhaps even more impressive is his maturity and veteran-like poise and presence on the field, which has been credited by New Orleans Advocate beat writer Nick Underhill's observation that Williams has been able to "get up to speed" a little bit quicker than most rookie NFL safeties, since he played 'single high' coverage while at Utah (which isn't common at the collegiate level).
That became evident once again at Mini-Camp, where Williams once again showcased the demeanor that is uncommon to see from rookies at this stage of their development; especially for one who was clearly overlooked by the so-called experts prior to the 2017 NFL Draft.
Even better yet: Williams developed a reputation as a "hard hitter" at Utah, something that he hasn't even been able to show yet since the Saints don't finally practice in full pads for at least another 6 weeks. But suffice it to say, he'll be "laying the wood" on opponents on NFL Sundays. as much as he'll be feared for his "ball hawk" abilities.
The bottom line simply is that the Saints got a BIG-TIME "draft day steal" in Williams, and it will make an already improved and much deeper defensive secondary all the more better --- no doubt allowing him to have a major impact on the defense's overall success in 2017.
#2. HAU'OLI KIKAHA, DEFENSIVE END
There isn't any question whatsoever that one of the biggest story lines surrounding the Saints this summer will be the return of 3rd year defensive end Hau'oli Kikaha; and how he possibly could rejuvenate the Saints pass rush off of the outside edge to complement All-Pro defensive end Cam Jordan on the opposite side of the defensive line.
The Saints had 30 sacks in 2016, which ranked 27th in the League; and it's that lack of a rush off the outside edge that was notably missing especially with Kikaha's absence.
By now, you're likely aware that Kikaha tore the ACL in his left knee last off-season in the Saints' final session of OTA's, for what was the THIRD time of his playing career (and all within the past 5 years) -- which ended his 2nd season in the NFL before it even had a chance to get started.
And though Kikaha has been rehabbing the knee for nearly a year now and appears to be fully healed, enough so that he participated in the walk-through portion of team drills at the recent Mini-Camp, it's still a far cry from getting hit at full speed once the players put on full pads in the first week of August.
But for Kikaha, the biggest part is the mental aspect of the injury, as much as it is the physical part.
"Every bit of it is mental," Kikaha told reporters last week. "You can imagine, obviously, going through something like that."
Sports medicine expert Dr. Howard J. Luks, M.D. said in a recent study that athletes recovering from a torn ACL (not to mention a 3rd one to the very SAME knee) actually suffer with instances of severe emotional depression and says evidence suggests that there is a significant emotional or psychological component associated with the ACL recovery process as a whole.
Actually, overcoming a 3rd torn ACL at the NFL level has been done before; most notably by Carolina Panthers linebacker Thomas Davis, who has successfully overcome tearing the same ACL in his right knee in three different NFL seasons (2009, 2010, and 2011).
Davis returned to action in 2012 for his first full season since the initial ACL tear in 2009, and has posted at least 100 tackles in every season since (2013 through 2016). He was also named to the Pro Bowl in 2015 and again last year in 2016, and helped the Panthers make it all the way to Super Bowl 50 two years ago.
If Kikaha hopes to achieve what Davis has done for the Panthers, it will all have to come from "between the ears", as much as it will from his knee holding up to the physical stress once again of NFL contact.
If Kikaha is able to stay focused on the task at hand and not allow the mental anguish he experienced last year with thinking his career was finished, creep into his mind while trying to show everyone that he can still play; it potentially could go a long way in Kikaha becoming another ACL recovery 'success story' --- and have a major impact for the Saints defense this year, while he's at it.
#1. ADRIAN PETERSON, RUNNING BACK
If you've managed to read this article all the way down to this far, then you had to know that it was Peterson who would get the top spot based solely on the "hype" surrounding his addition to the team, and most of it coming from his new Saints teammates who have been openly gushing over him like a pack of teenage girls at a One Direction concert (sorry, Justin Bieber).
Peterson certainly and undeniably looks to be in what might be the best physical shape of his 10-year NFL career, and if the former Minnesota Vikings star and 4-time All-Pro is even just as half as good as he was just 5 years ago when he rushed for over 2,000 yards and won the 2012 NFL MVP award, Saints fans will be dancing (literally) in the streets.
There isn't any doubt whatsoever what a healthy and rejuvenated Peterson would mean to the Saints offensive attack, especially with a running game that will also feature starter Mark Ingram (who's still a damn good football player in his own right, lest we forget) and rookie RB / brand new "scat back" Alvin Kamara.
The issue however is that seeing Peterson working out in shorts and a t-shirt is A LOT different than seeing him taking hits and receiving physical contact once the full pads come on.
That's not to say that Peterson isn't capable of still playing at a high level, but rather just a cautionary tale of the Vikings, a team allegedly close to being a "Super Bowl contender", would just willingly allow him to walk away after he was the face of that franchise for so many years.
It would be the equivalent of the Saints allowing Drew Brees to walk away without even so much as making the effort to keep him in New Orleans after all that he's meant to the franchise.
Throughout several modes of Social Media, Vikings fans have taken the liberty of telling everyone that Peterson is "washed up", and that the Saints will end up regretting the signing in the long run.
Adrian Peterson is washed up, constantly injured but all these saints fans still hype though
— Nick Lewis (@Nicklewisss5) May 3, 2017
Whether or not that ends up being the case, is a bit too early to determine at this point; but one would imagine that Training Camp and some limited action (if he even plays at all) in the Pre-Season could reveal quite a lot as to just where Peterson's actual status truly is at this point.
Is Peterson "damaged goods" as Vikings fans claim?
Or is he back to his 'old self', and ready to run ROUGH-SHOD over the rest of the NFL as he has done so many times before in the past decade?
If the answer is the latter, then the rest of the League had better watch out, or even better yet: just GET OUT OF THE WAY......