Who will be the team's backup quarterback, Hill or Winston?
Here are five storylines worth following for the New Orleans Saints entering training camp and throughout this season, as the team attempts to win the NFC South Division for the fourth consecutive year and to advance to the Super Bowl:
1. SAINTS BACKUP QUARTERBACK COMPETITION
There's every reason to believe Taysom Hill is the Saints' backup quarterback, even though the team signed Jameis Winston - a five-year starter for Tampa Bay and the former No. 1 overall pick in the NFL Draft - as a free agent. Hill has had three years in the Saints' system, which means the Saints have had three years to study his skills and to cater plays to what Hill's strengths are. And the Saints have a lot of faith in him; his two-year contract this offseason, accompanied by a significant pay raise, speaks to New Orleans' belief in him. But Winston is really, really talented and the fact is that the Saints' system and coaching could do a world of good for him. If he can be coached out of the risk-taking that led to an NFL-leading 30 interceptions last season, that will go a long way toward allowing his abilities to shine. Every snap taken and throw made by each will be scrutinized, because after last season - when Brees missed five games with a thumb injury - the Saints understand how important it is to have a good backup. It's a good situation to have.
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Speaking of Taysom Hill, what has the NFL done to catch up to him? This question will be solved more so during the regular season, but he arguably is the most versatile player in the league. That versatility gives the Saints a dimension other teams are attempting to mimic offensively, but can Hill keep it up while wearing a bigger target on his back? Or, will he even need to keep it up, if free agent receiver Emmanuel Sanders is what he's expected to be and Alvin Kamara and Jared Cook are healthy all season? It'll be interesting to see how his role plays out this season, especially since he could be the No. 2 quarterback instead of No. 3. New Orleans could be willing to take fewer chances with Hill, depending on the production and health of other players, and his possible importance as the top backup.
3. DREW BREES' LAST DANCE?
This is kind of quarterback-heavy, but it's warranted because we'll be watching Brees, too. All the tea-leaf readers seem to believe this will be the 20th, and final, NFL season for the quarterback who'll enter the season as the league's all-time leader in passing yards, passing touchdowns, 5,000-yard passing seasons, completion percentage, completions, and a handful of other marks. He wants another ring, his teammates would love to help him win another ring (plus, they get the bonus of earning one themselves) and it would be the perfect way to end a Hall-of-Fame career. As has been the case the last several seasons, his pitch count will be monitored to make sure he's as fresh as he can be. Also, there will be a spotlight on Brees' relationship with his teammates, to see if the bond that seemed frayed this offseason, then repaired, truly is repaired. That's much more difficult to detect on a practice field than inside the locker room, but it still will be a topic of conversation throughout the season. It should be noted that teammates don't have to "love" one another in order to perform well. But it helps.
4. CONSISTENCY ON DEFENSE
On paper, the Saints' defense appears to have the parts to be one of the best defenses in franchise history. Not Dome Patrol-level stifling, but we saw several instances last season where the defense didn't just hold up its end, it was the deciding factor in victory and managed to post several dominant performances. There's star quality on all three levels - defensive end Cameron Jordan, linebacker Demario Davis, cornerback Marshon Lattimore - and there are sufficient play-makers around them that it's no stretch to believe this can be, and should be, a top 10 defense. Consistency has been missing, but the group now has been together long enough and has played well enough that it should have a great grasp of what defensive coordinator Dennis Allen wants. And it should have a great expectations of itself. There are some kinks to be worked out at linebacker, because there are unknowns outside of Davis. The team may compensate with sub packages that involve more safeties and nickel defensive backs, but still, there'll be a lot of talent on the field and in the rotation. Usually, though, it starts with wins in training camp against one of the league's top offenses. If it can win days in camp, that carries over into the season.
5. ALVIN KAMARA BACK TO 100%
Kamara is healthy. The Saints need him to stay that way. Granted, he - and every other player in the NFL - will get dinged up along the way and will have to manage a certain amount of discomfort. But the Kamara of last season wasn't the Kamara of his first two seasons. Still, even nursing ankle and back injuries, he totaled 1,330 yards from scrimmage and six touchdowns, led the team in rushing (797 yards) and was second in receptions (81), and averaged 4.7 yards per carry. Lots of players, and teams, would take his "off" year in a heartbeat. But when Kamara is "right," few running backs are on his level. If he's right, the Saints' offense is at its best.