The Saints won’t be on the field next week for minicamp.
Instead, the team will remain in the classroom and get the work it needs that way, as it has throughout the rest of the summer, before going on a break ahead of July’s training camp.
This approach is a step away from the norm, though the coaching staff made it because it feels it is the most productive use of time.
Still, that means we aren’t getting a first look at the team yet. So, if this were a typical year, these are the 20 things we’d be looking to learn about the team these summer sessions.
1. Michael Thomas’ health
There might not be a more important story for the offense than Michael Thomas’ health.
Yes, including quarterback. Thomas is that important to the offense and was a big reason why the team could get by without Drew Brees for a stretch of games the last two seasons.
Thomas is now several months removed from the ankle injury that plagued his 2020 season. There haven’t been any workout videos of Thomas to overanalyze, but he has posted photos that suggest he has bulked up and added significant muscle mass since the last time we saw him. All signs are positive after Thomas was limited to 40 catches and 438 yards over seven games last season.
And those signs need to remain positive. The New Orleans offense will find a way to move the ball and score points with Thomas on the field. Take him off, and that task becomes much more difficult.
2. Jameis Winston’s progress
The last time we saw Jameis Winston on the field for an extended period of time was during training camp last season, save for emergency duty against the 49ers last year. His performances during those practices provided plenty of highlight moments, but he was also sporadic and, at times, looked uncomfortable. He did seem to improve as time went by.
Making any judgments off of those sessions is unfair since Winston was still learning the offense and didn’t benefit from an offseason program to get familiar with the offense. Now, he should have it all down and be ready to go. That allows for a fair evaluation of what he can do.
There is only so much you can learn in OTAs and minicamp. A quarterback’s decision-making is one of those things. We really won’t be able to have honest conversations about him until we see that he’s curbed some of the aggressiveness that led to him ending up in his role with the Saints.
3. How quickly is Taysom Hill getting rid of the ball?
Taysom Hill shouldn’t get written off.
Not yet, anyway.
The Saints will hold a competition at quarterback, and whoever performs best this offseason will win the job. Hill is still very much in the mix. However, he won’t win the job if he doesn’t show improvement in his processing and how quickly he’s getting rid of the ball.
During his starts last season, Hill held the ball for an average of 3.02 seconds. While having a time a little longer than typical for Brees is perfectly fine since Hill has a bigger arm, those seconds were often filled with indecision. So, one of the things New Orleans probably wants to see is quicker decisions from Hill.
4. How are the quarterbacks attacking the field?
We can all agree that seeing some deeper passes as part of the offense would be a nice change after the last few seasons.
Defenses were far too often able to condense the field and focus on underneath routes. The Saints still found a way to win many games and move the ball, but the approach was different.
Seeing smart decisions to attack down the field would be a significant difference from the last couple of years.
5. Where is Cesar Ruiz lining up?
Last year’s biggest story is still going strong this year.
Early money has Ruiz staying at right guard, though nothing has gotten decided, and it wouldn’t be surprising if he ultimately ends up back at center. Most of his issues last season came from dealing with the more complex responsibilities that come at guard.
Ruiz wouldn’t be able to answer the questions about his game during summer camps. So, these practices would only serve as a gauge to see how the team sees him heading into training camp.
6. How is Marquez Callaway progressing?
The gem of the Saints’ 2020 rookie free-agent class, Marquez Callaway, put together enough positive moments to become legitimately optimistic about his future.
The wide receiver won his routes, flashing some physicality to his game along the way. His ability to win the dirty way is what made it look like he has some sticking power despite having his first season limited by injuries.
New Orleans currently appears comfortable going into the season with Michael Thomas, Tre’Quan Smith and Callaway sitting atop the depth chart. Callaway needs to continue to progress and become a more versatile weapon for that gamble to pay off. Sixteen of his 21 receptions last year came on hitches, crossing and out routes.
The hunch here is that Callaway’s targets will become more diversified in a more stretched-out offense, but we need to see it.
7. How is Deonte Harris getting used?
There is no longer a question about which routes Deonte Harris can run. He won on just about every route last season except for slants, which will likely come in time.
We don’t know if the team has bigger plans for Harris now that he’ll be with a different quarterback. The offense will presumably look to open up a little bit more, which could lead to more opportunities and a more significant role for Harris.
8. Adam Trautman’s comfort with the offense
The Saints have a lot riding on Adam Trautman.
The second-year tight end has a ton of potential and showed glimpses of it last season, but he’s entering his second season as a guy who caught 15 passes for 171 yards. Trautman will need to do a lot more before his production becomes assumed.
And the Saints will need him to be that, given there are no sure things on the roster at this position. Seeing if Trautman is ready for that role would alleviate many of the concerns surrounding the offense.
9. How many passes is Nick Vannett catching?
Nick Vannett said one of the things that sold him on the Saints was Sean Payton’s vision for him as a pass-catching tight end.
If Payton sees that in Vannett’s future, there is reason to be optimistic about the tight end having a decent role in the passing game. Still, this player has never caught 30 passes in a season and got held under 20 during his four other seasons. Seeing will be believing.
The Saints don’t need a ton out of Vannett, but if he can eclipse 30 catches and come up on 300 yards, that would play a significant part in replacing the team’s production from its tight ends last year.
10. How does Landon Young move?
Landon Young allegedly has some wheels.
The rookie offensive tackle is said to have run a 4.91 40-yard dash at Kentucky’s pro day. His tape suggests that he has some movement skills as well, but that type of speed is another level for a 6-foot-7, 321-pound player. Would love to see that in person.
Young shouldn’t get asked to play a significant role this season unless something happens to change that outlook, but he could have an opportunity to compete for a bigger role in the future.
11. How does Paulson Adebo look in coverage?
There is really no need to belabor the point here. If Paulson Adebo showed up to summer camps and locked guys down, everyone would feel much better about the prospects of this defense.
But since there are no practices, we’ll have to wait a little bit longer to see how Adebo has grown over the last year after opting out of his final season at Stanford.
12. How much range does Pete Werner have?
Pete Werner should settle in quickly and be able to diagnose and make plays in the NFL.
All that is really needed is for him to get on the field and show that he has the playing speed to make plays in the flats. Everything else should translate quickly.
If all the boxes get checked, the Saints should have a solid duo at linebacker with Werner and Davis.
13. What other linebackers are in the mix?
Behind the top two, there isn’t much clarity on how New Orleans views the rest of the depth chart.
How does Zack Baun fit? The team once viewed him as a middle linebacker. Is that vision still there, or will he be stuck playing a handful of snaps in the base defense as a strongside linebacker?
The team was once high on Chase Hansen. Does he have a role? Andrew Dowell also had a strong camp and could compete for a roster spot.
14. What is the rotation at defensive end?
This is definitely a spot where offseason hype would have taken off and not meant much of anything. Still, it would have been interesting to see how the team sees the rotation at the defensive end.
Presumably, Cam Jordan and Marcus Davenport would have gotten the first reps, but it’s anyone’s guess how everything else comes together. Is Payton Turner next up? Where does Tanoh Kpassagnon slot in? What about Carl Granderson?
There are no live reps in the trenches during summer camps. But a little bit of clarity on how things are shaping up would help us frame the conversation properly until the real football begins.
15. Who is starting opposite Marshon Lattimore?
Is it Adebo? Patrick Robinson? P.J. Williams? Ken Crawley?
The answer today doesn’t determine anything, and in fact, if memory serves, Lattimore spent the early portion of his first camp running reps with the second team. So, this would only truly be notable if Adebo came out of the gates running ahead of the pack.
16. Is Keith Washington competitive?
Don’t forget that Keith Washington is still on the team.
Last year’s camp darling had a nose for the ball and intercepted at least six passes during training camp. New Orleans could have some quality depth with upside on the roster if he’s continued developing and refining his skills over the last year.
Projecting Washington as someone ready to compete for snaps would be a stretch since we haven’t seen his progress since last year, but the cornerback is in the right spot if he wants to make a run and shake up the narrative.
17. How is Cam Jordan moving?
Cam Jordan didn’t reach his typical level of production last season, finishing the year with 7 ½ sacks after recording 12 or more each of the three prior seasons.
Seeing Jordan move well would have at least alleviated some of the early concerns about how he’ll look next season.
18. Who is playing nose tackle?
I think some of the concern about this position is at least a little bit overblown. Being strong against the pass is much more important than being good against the run, and the Saints always find an answer at nose tackle.
There are some decent internal options with Shy Tuttle, Malcolm Roach and Jalen Dalton. Many might not know Dalton yet, but he had a good camp before getting injured last season.
The early guess is that Tuttle is the frontrunner, but he’ll face competition in camp.
19. Which punter displays the most hang time?
Blake Gillikin or Nolan Cooney. Who will replace Thomas Morstead at punter?
There will be many things that will separate these two during training camp, but one of the more obvious and easier things to measure is their hang times.
After that, you can look at hand-to-foot time and some other things, but hang time is always the starting spot.
The main thing to watch? Just football players back on the field during somewhat more normal times.
Last season never felt real. This one will still be a little bit odd, but not as much. Seeing these guys practice without the anxiety of the season getting shut down will be a welcome change.