Akiem Hicks has chance for breakout season for Saints

Special to Sun HeraldJuly 18, 2014 

Falcons Saints Football

BILL HABER/ASSOCIATED PRESSAtlanta Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan (2) is sacked by New Orleans Saints defensive tackle Akiem Hicks (76) last season. This could be Hick's season to emerge on the national scene.

BILL HABER — AP

These are five things to watch for on defense when New Orleans Saints players report to fall camp on July 24 at The Greenbrier in White Sulphur Springs, W.Va.

Defensive end Akiem Hicks: With Cameron Jordan poised to earn Pro Bowl respect, it's now Hicks' turn to make a name for himself nationally. At six feet, five inches and 324 pounds, he has both the size and speed to work his way around and through offensive linemen, especially as Jordan earns more double teams.

Hicks had 4½ sacks last season, a number he should increase in 2014.

Free safety Jarius Byrd: The six-year NFL pro was the prize of the Saints' free agent upgrades this offseason. And his surprising back issues are the mystery of the spring. Saints coach Sean Payton said Byrd is expected back in time for training camp; he said Byrd's medical procedure was not serious.

Byrd has the ability to catch up after missing OTAs, but missing training camp will further stunt the new secondary's cohesiveness. Already, Byrd is being counted on to transform a stingy defense, scoring-wise, into a turnover collector.

Cornerback Patrick Robinson: The Saints took Nebraska's Stanley Jean-Baptiste in the second round of the 2014 NFL Draft, and signed future Hall of Famer Champ Bailey. So why have an eye on Robinson?

Because Robinson has all the tools right now to start or at the very least, play a lesser yet important role in sub packages. Robinson can learn from Bailey, who has experienced all there is to experience in the league in terms of offenses. Baptiste, known for his physical ball skills, isn't expected to make an immediate impact, leaving Robinson, a former first round pick of the Saints (2010), one more season to put his former injury woes aside.

Outside linebacker Victor Butler: He signed with the Saints after the 2012 season because he wanted to chance to start, to show all that he could do when given a starting opportunity. Then Butler, like fellow outside linebacker Will Smith, suffered a season-ending knee injury before training camp.

One year later, Smith is gone and Butler is planning his return. Will he start? Will he take snaps in the rotation? Either way, expect Butler to give the Saints yet another pass rusher. And you can't have enough pass rushers in a 3-4 defense, not with defensive coordinator Rob Ryan and his many hybrid schemes afoot.

Strong safety Kenny Vaccaro: He didn't play like a rookie last season. After all, Vaccaro did enough to appear to be a veteran, moving all over the field. He played with a reckless, macho, inspired attitude, starting in mini-camp as he went head-to-head with Pro Bowl tight end Jimmy Graham and later in the season against Atlanta's Tony Gonzales.

How tough was Vaccaro last season?

When he broke his ankle during a late-season loss to Carolina, his ankle twisting backward, he tried to put it back in place, get up and play. Approaching this season, he also vowed to not let the two concussions he suffered as a rookie slow down his pursuit of the ball.

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