Saints' first offseason work sharpens focus on new faces
By BRETT MARTEL
METAIRIE, La. (AP) Patrick Robinson spied Drew Brees stepping up to throw deep down the middle, sprinted back toward his own end zone and made an outstretched interception of a ball that initially looked to be thrown beyond anyone's reach.
"Impressive," was how Saints coach Sean Payton described the play by Robinson, a cornerback who is one of several recent additions aimed at strengthening a club that nearly advanced to the NFC title game last season.
The onset of offseason practices this week has provided Payton and his staff a chance to begin forging roles for players such as Robinson, as well as fellow newcomers such as linebacker Demario Davis, safety Kurt Coleman, receiver Cameron Meredith and first-round draft choice Marcus Davenport.
It's also a chance to see if any of the club's younger running backs - such as rookie Boston Scott - might fill the void created by Pro Bowl rusher Mark Ingram's four-game suspension for use of a banned substance.
"Obviously, we hate to miss a guy like that. He's such huge part of what we do and such a great teammate, too," Brees said of Ingram after Thursday's non-padded practice, the first open to reporters this offseason. "We'll manage."
Alvin Kamara is on track to emerge as New Orleans' top running back after being selected as the Offensive Rookie of the Year last season.
But while Kamara played a more versatile running and receiving role that Payton calls a "Joker back," Ingram was a force on more traditional runs.
At only 5-foot-7, Scott is smaller than Ingram, but Payton won't discount the rookie's ability to compete for snaps Ingram might otherwise have gotten.
"He's shorter, but he's built pretty well. He is someone who has good instincts," Payton said.
"It's early, but he's done some really good things. There's a running ability he has as well. I wouldn't look at him as a "Joker" back, if you will. He's got some of those traits, but he does a pretty good job with some of the in-line runs."
The preseason performance of Scott, a sixth-round draft choice out of Louisiana Tech, as well as that of Trey Edmunds, a second-year pro out of Maryland, could determine how the Saints cope with Ingram's suspension.
"I'm going to work, do everything I can to learn the playbook and just grind," Scott said. "By the time preseason rolls around, I'll be ready."
The Saints hope they've bolstered the passing game by adding receiver Cameron Meredith during free agency. Meredith led Chicago in receiving two seasons ago, but is coming back from a major knee injury that wiped out his 2017 season.
Meredith did some route-running and catching on Thursday, after which Payton pronounced him "way ahead of schedule."
"He's going to factor in this year," Payton said.
Meredith, meanwhile, discussed his motivation to regain his 2016 form.
"It was a major injury. I'm not going to downplay it," Meredith said. "I'm excited to go out there and prove people wrong."
On defense, the Saints cannot yet be sure how well 2017 starting end Alex Okafor will come back from his torn Achilles.
In the meantime, Davenport is expected to get a lot of offseason work as the Saints try to refine his pass-rushing skills in time for the fall.
"He's a tremendous worker," Payton said. "He's coming along really well. There's a strength element you feel."
The Saints expect the linebacker group to be strengthened by Davis, a former defensive leader with the New York Jets, as well as the return of second-year pro Alex Anzalone, who started four games as a rookie before the rest of his season was cut short by a shoulder injury.
Both can play multiple roles.
"I'm down with whatever my coaches want me to do," Davis said. "I'm here to win."
Robinson, Payton said, has returned to the club that drafted him in 2010 a more confident and capable player after winning a Super Bowl with Philadelphia last season.
Robinson "has played on the biggest stages and had success," Payton said. "It's good seeing him back in our building."
Notes: Ingram was not at practice, even though the terms of his suspension allow him to participate in all offseason and preseason work. Payton said he disagreed with Ingram's decision, but respects it and has had friendly phone conversations with Ingram about it. Brees said he also has spoken with Ingram, adding, "I know Mark's doing what he needs to do to get himself ready to play this season. He's doing what's best for him and therefor what's best for the team."
For more AP NFL coverage: www.pro32.ap.org and www.twitter.com/AP-NFL
Updated May 24, 2018