We're a little less than a month away from the start of training camp, and like most NFL teams it's so early in the season there are a lot of questions about the roster and how the team's current perceived weaknesses will hold up. Those are of course near impossible to predict, but areas of focus are still possible to pinpoint. I've narrowed it down to five things I'll be focused on come training camp, which is when the work really gets serious. Here's the biggest question marks as I see them:
#1 Can Rob Ryan Truly Improve the Defense?
It's going to be extremely hard for Rob Ryan to do worse than Steve Spagnuolo did last year. Almost impossible. There is nowhere to go but up for this defense. From that standpoint, Ryan almost has the easiest job in the world. But will we see marketed improvement? It's not so obvious when you consider the only real possible upgrades at this point are Keenan Lewis and possibly Kenny Vacarro (maybe Kenyon Coleman?). Beyond that, the players are largely the exact same, and the Saints are asking them to play in a scheme they've never played in for the most part. So you're asking a group of players that combined for the worst defense in NFL history a year ago to play a scheme they are even less familiar with. Part of me thinks it can't go any worse, but a small dark part of me wonders how you can improve when the players are largely the same? I buy in slightly to the theory that a 3-4 scheme utilizes the talents of some players better (Cam Jordan, Junior Galette, Martez Wilson). But, I'm not convinced some others will be better in this scheme (Jonathan Vilma, Curtis Lofton, Will Smith, Brodrick Bunkley). In fact, some of these guys could play worse in this scheme. Just a thought. Rob Ryan has his work cut out for him and how well the Saints do in 2013 will in large part depend on the impact he makes.
#2 Who Starts at Left Tackle, and Can They Play Well?
Jermon Bushrod was always pretty good, but I hesitate to elevate him much higher than "above average". Based on that, the Saints don't need an all world left tackle, they just need a guy that's going to be durable and hold his own. Charles Brown, Jason Smith and Terron Armstead are the competition at left tackle. One of them will win this competition, but there's no promise that once one wins he'll perform up to standard. The Saints need this to work out, though, because if left tackle becomes a place of really poor performance it will force the Saints to focus on that side with double teams and chips, which then exposes other holes on the line.
#3 Will Someone Not Named Colston or Moore Step Up at Receiver?
Joe Morgan in my eyes, while very promising, is still not fully developed as a prospect and he didn't help matters with his DUI this offseason. Behind him there's huge question marks. Who will step up and be the guy? The days of Devery Henderson and Robert Meachem rounding out a largely perfect receiving core are over, and the Saints need guys to step up to enhance the passing game. Not just that, they need receivers to block well and do all the little things this offense will ask of them. I'm not convinced they have the talent at receiver behind the two starters right now so the team is desperate for somebody to step up. Even if Morgan continues to improve, they need at least one more guy to show some flashes.
#4 How Much Does the Return of Sean Payton Matter?
I think we all count on coach Payton's return being a huge difference. His mere presence alone will get more out of the players, more out of the coaches, and help the offense perform at peak level. But is that a fail safe assumption? Payton coached teams went 7-9 in 2007 and 2008. He is not immune to a bad season, particularly if left tackle is a wreck, the receivers don't play well, and the defense doesn't improve.
#5 Calling for a Pass Rush.
The Saints' pass rush was a disaster last year. Losing Victor Butler has already hurt the 2013 pass rush. No more excuses for Martez Wilson and Junior Galette. The scheme is a 3-4 now, they need to get to the quarterback consistently. If they can't do that well then they serve no purpose on the roster. The Saints' defense needs pressure to be successful, almost all good defenses do. They had none of that last year.