Great expectations

by Walter Pierce

Saints again bring playoff aspirations into 2014 campaign.

Photos by Michael C. Hebert/Saints

Tight end Jimmy Graham, recently signed to a record four-year/$40 million contract, dunks the ball over the goal post following a touchdown; the brash TD celebration was banned by the NFL Rules Committee following last season.

NEW ORLEANS (AP) - Sean Payton constantly searches for an edge, even if it means fiddling with a training camp formula that has worked rather well for him over the past half-decade.

Payton has coached his club to the playoffs during his past four seasons on the sideline (excluding 2012, when he served his one-season bounty ban).

All of those began with training camp at Saints headquarters in suburban New Orleans.

This week, camp opens more than 800 miles northeast of the Big Easy, at the posh Greenbrier Resort in mountainous White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia.

It marks the first time since 2008, Payton's third season as an NFL head coach, that the Saints have held camp away from home.

Quarterback Drew Brees celebrates a touchdown.

From 2006 to 2008, it was at Millsaps College in Jackson, Mississippi. While Payton viewed the campus setting as good for team bonding, it was still scorching hot. And unlike Saints headquarters, Millsaps had no air-conditioned, indoor field.

This year marks the first time the Saints have not only taken camp on the road, but done so at a latitude and altitude which, Payton says, "offers a tremendous opportunity to our team in a more moderate summer climate."

There could be another reason for getting players far from the comforts of their in-season homes. All six of their losses last season - five in the regular season and one in the playoffs - came on the road. So the club's performance outside the Superdome is among the areas Payton has targeted for improvement.

"We put up our road statistics for our players and we talked about the front of the schedule," Payton said, alluding to his club's first two regular season games at Atlanta and Cleveland. "Certainly, we want to play better than on the road a season ago."

The Saints will report to the Greenbrier on Thursday for conditioning tests and hold their first practice on Friday. They'll return to New Orleans for good on Aug. 14, the day before their first home preseason game against Tennessee.

Here are some of the top issues surrounding the Saints as training camp arrives:

CORNERBACK QUESTIONS: At 36, Champ Bailey is at a stage of his illustrious career when his age raises questions about his status heading into the season. The Saints are betting the 12-time Pro Bowl cornerback will find elite form again. If not, his competition for the starting job will include former first-round pick Patrick Robinson, who missed most of last season with torn knee ligaments, and third-year pro Corey White, a 2012 fifth-rounder who has shown promise in spurts.

RYAN'S ENCORE: Last season, Rob Ryan joined the Saints as defensive coordinator and orchestrated a dramatic turnaround of a unit that ranked last in the NFL in 2012. The Saints finished 2013 ranked fourth in total defense. Nearly all of the Saints most productive defensive players from last season are back. Meanwhile, the return of injured outside linebacker Victor Butler and the addition in free agent safety Jairus Byrd have only elevated expectations.

"We have some really good football players, and that's everywhere on our defense," Ryan said. "We've just got to find spots for them and work them in and play them."

OFFENSIVE LINE: The Saints had a tough time run-blocking last season and gave up more sacks (37) than usual. One difference in this year's unit involves the return of center Jonathan Goodwin, who spent the past three seasons with San Francisco. Pro Bowl guards Jahri Evans and Ben Grubbs also return, along with veteran right tackle Zach Strief. Second-year pro Terron Armstead is expected to start at left tackle after taking over at that spot late in his rookie season.

RECEIVING GROUP: While Marques Colston is expected to remain New Orleans' No. 1 receiver, Lance Moore's departure in free agency and Robert Meachem's diminished production in recent seasons mean several players have a chance to take over the second and third receiver spots. Top candidates include rookie first-round draft pick Brandin Cooks, second-year pro Kenny Stills, third-year pro Nick Toon and fourth-year pro Joseph Morgan. The Saints also hope 6-foot-6 Brandon Coleman, an undrafted rookie from Rutgers, develops into a strong player.

"It's extremely competitive with the receiver position right now with a lot of guys fighting for spots," quarterback Drew Brees said.

GRAHAM'S RETURN: A contract holdout by tight end Jimmy Graham wasn't resolved until he agreed to a four-year, $40 million deal this month. During the past three regular seasons combined, he has 270 catches for 3,507 yards and 36 touchdowns. The new contract means more pressure to produce, even as defenses refine their plans to stop him.