New Orleans Saints

Analyzing the Saints’ first phase of training camp

New Orleans Saints wide receiver Michel Thomas (13) tries to catch a ball that was knocked away in a drill during the NFL football teams training camp in White Sulphur Springs, W.Va.
New Orleans Saints wide receiver Michel Thomas (13) tries to catch a ball that was knocked away in a drill during the NFL football teams training camp in White Sulphur Springs, W.Va. Associated Press

It doesn’t feel like a matter of fact or fiction at this point, especially after watching the defense pick off Drew Brees four times on Saturday, The New Orleans Advocate reports.

We can say it: The defense has improved. Saturday was just the payoff to all of the smaller moments we’ve watched during the first phase of training camp.

The question is how much the defense has improved, and if it will lead to noticeable change. That’s still to be determined, but there are reasons for early optimism.

What we do know is that defensive coordinator Dennis Allen is building something here. A lot of the fundamental issues that plagued the defense last season appear to be evaporating.

The defense is intercepting passes with regularity, and breaking up even more. Fumbles are being forced. There’s better population to the ball. The missed assignments and substitution errors are occurring with less frequency.

These are all positive things. These are all things that should lead to improvement.

The questions that still need to be answered are upfront. If the team can find some form of a consistent pass rush, this secondary could be good enough to get the job done.

Even if it's fleeting, this feeling of optimism for the defense hasn’t been felt in New Orleans for a few years.

Then again, this week’s trip to New England could wash away a lot of the good feelings that have blossomed in the hills of West Virginia over the past few days.

Here are some other things we’ve learned at training camp:

Sleepers to watch

A handful of undrafted players have positioned themselves to compete legitimately for roster spots at this early juncture.

Ken Crawley: The undrafted rookie cornerback out of Colorado was an early camp darling in these parts. He flashed solid coverage skills early on and then caught the eye again while performing on special teams. He’s continued to build on that momentum, recording three broken up passes and two interceptions, bringing his total to three, over the last three practices.

De’Vante Harris:Not to be outdone, Harris, a product of Texas A&M, has been showing solid coverage skills and a similar ability to make plays. He might be more of an option to cover the slot than Crawley, though both players have logged reps there. The battle between these two players will be interesting to monitor.

Jack Allen: It remains to be seen what kind of versatility the center has, and if he can slide over and play guard in a pinch. But Allen has maybe been the best offensive lineman in the deep class of undrafted rookies. He plays strong and has a nasty streak to his game. With Max Unger entering the final year of his contract, the Saints might be looking at Allen with an eye on the future.

Tommylee Lewis: The 5-foot-7 receiver has been turning heads throughout camp. He’s flashed his versatility on offense by breaking a jet sweep for a touchdown and getting down the field for deep passes with some consistency. He’s likely going to have to make the team through his contributions on special teams, but Lewis could fill the role the Saints so badly wanted Joe Morgan to claim the last few years.

Jeff Schoettmer: The linebacker out of North Carolina has a nose for the ball. New Orleans has lacked depth at the linebacker position the last few seasons, and made some moves to address it, but Schoettmer could provide another layer of protection if he continues to perform.

Michael Thomas can play

Michael Thomas created some early hype by making some incredible catches during the first few days of camp, which raised expectations to potentially unreasonable levels.

There’s no question he can play. He’s shown off great hands, has enough speed to get deep, runs good routes and can get off jams. He has a plan for how he’s going to attack each route.

There might have been some over-eager proclamations made about what he’s going to do in this offense during the first couple days of camp, and it remains to be seen if he can live up to those things, but he’s going to be a player in this offense.

He’ll give the Saints the big slot receiver Brees likes, and should help the team make plays inside of the 5-yard line, where it sometimes lacked last season. That alone should be enough to make this a successful pick. Everything else is frosting.

Delvin Breaux ready to take next step

Last year, there was a cautious approach in these parts when talking about Delvin Breaux. It was clear he was the best cornerback in camp, but given that he was coming from the CFL and had never played a down in the NFL, the breaks were pumped, and the approach was cautious.

That mistake won’t be made again.

Breaux has easily been the best player on defense during camp. He’s dominated his one-on-ones, has picked off Brees in team drills, and generally has not been beaten on anything harmful outside of a pair of 50-50 deep passes thrown to Brandin Cooks.

He’s already one of the better man-press corners in the NFL. If he can continue to get better in zone coverages -- and it looks like he has -- Breaux should be primed to take the next step this year.

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