Every training camp opens with plenty of questions. Well, here's my attempt at answers.
These are the five players I believe have the most to gain — and to lose — at training camp, which starts Thursday at Millsaps College in Jackson, Miss. Their success and failure isn't just important to the future of these players. It's important to the New Orleans Saints, who know these players have to succeed if they are to have a successful season.
Here are my selections, in alphabetical order:
Randall Gay, cornerback
The Saints brought the hometown boy back to the Bayou. He went to LSU and is a Louisiana native. That wasn't a hard sell.
What will key is fitting into a Saints secondary that is desperate for help after last year. The Saints were the worst secondary in the NFL when it came to stopping the deep ball, and that contributed to their No. 30 pass defense.
The Saints signed Gay and Aaron Glenn, and drafted Terry Porter. They hope the return to health of Mike McKenzie, a bounce-back season from Jason David and steadier play from Jason Craft will create plenty of competition in camp.
But Gay has to produce. Here's why. NFL teams are passing more than ever, which means more defenses are forced to use nickel and dime packages to stop them. That means keeping three cornerbacks on the field. In that case, Gay might as well be a starter right now. He might end up winning the right cornerback job opposite McKenzie, but even if he doesn't he'll be out there plenty.
The Saints have to improve their play against the deep ball, and a corner like Gay should help, especially if he's in the slot. Protecting against the deep post was a problem for the Saints, and Gay has the strength and speed to keep up with the smaller slot receivers that are now in vogue in the NFL. Plus, he's battle tested, having played in two Super Bowls with the New England Patriots. People forget he started 9 games as a rookie for the Pats leading up to their win in Super Bowl XXIX.
Gay played the nickel in New England, and that's how he should project for the Saints. Slotting him in that role automatically upgrades New Orleans' back line of defense and should lessen the number of deep balls given up. But, he must show he's grasped defensive coordinator Gary Gibbs' system and that he can he can keep plays in front of him and not let them get behind him.
Jonathan Goodwin, center
The Saints are putting a lot of faith in Goodwin, who will get the first crack at replacing the departed Jeff Faine at center. At 6-foot-3, 318 pounds, he's much bigger than Faine. He also has experience as a guard and center in Sean Payton's offense. From that perspective, Goodwin should be fine.
But Goodwin has made a grand total of 15 starts in six NFL seasons, and just 2 in his two seasons in New Orleans. Why? Well, Faine was in front of him for one thing. But for another, he's never excelled at the NFL level. He's never been able to elevate his game, either in practice or limited game action, to warrant serious consideration as a starter (he made 10 starts for the Jets in 2005, but that was more due to injury).
Goodwin will benefit from the experience around him, as the other four linemen return. And Goodwin's frame suggests that he could give the Saints running game some serious help. But he'll have to show from the outset that he can handle the intangibles of the job — line calls, recognizing defenses and communication — or his hold on the job will be tenuous. The Saints signed Matt Lehr — a former starting center in Dallas — just in case.
Deuce McAllister, running back
Let's make this very simple — McAllister is recovering from two knee surgeries and will be 30 in December. He will cost the Saints a lot of money the next few years. There are also new options on the roster, such as Pierre Thomas, who emerged as an intriguing player after McAllister's injury.
There is a lot working against McAllister. But he's done this before, recovering from what seemed to be a career-threatening injury, only to come back and have a solid season the following year. The 6-foot-1, 232-pound back is the perfect complement to Reggie Bush, and one only needs to look at Jacksonville to see what a young, quick back like Maurice Jones-Drew can do for the career longevity of an aging veteran like Fred Taylor.
But "Fragile Fred" hasn't had a serious injury in years. McAllister's surgeries may make him cost prohibitive.
When the Saints and McAllister agreed to an alteration of his contract earlier this year, it was with the understanding that McAllister would show the team in training camp that he was ready to play. So, here we are. Time for McAllister to show up and show what he can do. If he can be the bruising, between-the-tackles runner he was two years ago, then McAllister will make the team — and defy the odds again. If he can't, he may not make the final cut.
Robert Meachem, wide receiver
The Saints spent a first-round pick on him and Meachem never got on the field. His ugly season included injuries and an inability to grasp the playbook.
A year later Meachem is healthy and, by all indications, is on the same page with the offense. Head coach Sean Payton said the second-year wide receiver had one of the best offseasons of any Saint.
That's good news for New Orleans, which already has a plethora of options. But one of the reasons the Saints re-signed both Terrance Copper and Devery Henderson was Meachem's inability to get on the field in 2007.
Marques Colston, Copper, Henderson and Meachem would give Payton a lot of options and formations to play with. An effective four-wide receiver set with Bush in the backfield would give defenses fits.
What must Meachem do? Show he can catch the football, stretch defenses and make tough catches. If he can't, expect him to have difficulty shaking David Patten for a starting job, or even Copper for a backup job.
DeMario Pressley, defensive tackle
You were expecting first-round pick Sedrick Ellis? That would be too easy.
Pressley is going to be the quicker tackle of the pair. He's taller, more wiry and a bit quicker. Now, that doesn't mean I'm down on Ellis. It simply means they're different players.
The Saints need a better interior pass rush in 2008, that's no lie. With Will Smith and Charles Grant signed long-term, the Saints are seeking a pair of tackles that can eventually take the place of Hollis Thomas and Brian Young. Most project Ellis to take the right side, with Thomas and Kendrick Clancy taking the left.
Pressley is 6-foot-3, 295 pounds, and admittedly has to work on his technique. But with Thomas and Clancy he doesn't have to be a big-time guy right away. What he has to show in camp is that he's mastered what he's learned this offseason and can apply it. He'll need to add new information and he'll have to show that he can rush the passer, something the Saints desperately need. If he makes those strides, Pressley could settle into a third-down pass rushing role in the regular season. His speed and ability could help make Grant and Smith more potent.
Matthew Postins is the publisher of saintsinsider.com.