Saints stalwarts hanging on in 2015

by Brett Martel, AP sports

NEW ORLEANS (AP) — The New Orleans Saints will start four players on offense in 2015 who were part of the club's storybook 2006 season.

Yep, the year when the franchise bucked its long-held reputation for bumbling ineptitude and summoned a morale-boosting playoff run for a region needing a lift.

Quarterback Drew Brees, right guard Jahri Evans, receiver Marques Colston and right tackle Zach Strief were part of the team's only Super Bowl title (2009-10) and a 2011 Saints offense that owns the NFL record for most yards in a season (7,474). But now they are elder statesmen on a largely overhauled club that has missed the playoffs two of the past three seasons, including 2014, when they went 7-9.

"I don't want to leave and look back and say, 'Well, we were good for a little bit and then it kind of went back," said Zach Strief, a rookie in 2006, the first season after Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans. "I really had a sense of responsibility of leaving it in a better place than I found it here, and I think a lot of guys do, in wanting to carry on kind of the traditions that have kind of been built, and the level of respect that has been built here. We don't want to let that go."

Yet the current edition of the Saints has the look of a club precariously close to losing its grip. Coach Sean Payton and general manager Mickey Loomis traded away two of the club's most productive receivers — star tight end Jimmy Graham and receiver Kenny Stills — in the offseason while also sacking New Orleans' 2014 sack leader, Junior Galette. The Saints sent a number of other veterans packing, too.

Some of the moves represented a reallocation of resources to address weaknesses; others were meant to improve team chemistry and leadership. Payton has also espoused a new mantra meant to remind his players that resting on a reputation of past success won't be tolerated.

"You have to feel comfortable feeling uncomfortable," Brees said, echoing the club's new catch phrase. "It is that idea that there is always something to prove. You have never arrived and you are always fighting for your job and you are always fighting to get better."

Even with many questions surrounding the Saints, they could return to the playoffs if only because they're in the NFC South, a division in which no team had a winning record last season.

Here are some key story lines heading into the Saints' 2015 season:

HEALTHY BREES: Last season, Brees tied for the NFL lead in yards passing despite a nagging oblique injury that forced him to adjust his mechanics. The 36-year-old Brees says he's happier with his throwing motion now and has looked sharp on passes short and deep this preseason. The key is how he adapts to the departure of Graham, his most reliable red-zone target the past four seasons.

DEFENSIVE UNCERTAINTY: In addition to cutting Galette, the Saints also released starting middle linebacker Curtis Lofton. Rookie linebacker Stephone Anthony, selected with a first-round draft pick acquired in the Graham deal, will be a regular, if not a starter. Same for rookie outside linebacker Hau'oli Kikaha, a second-rounder. Other newcomers include cornerback Brandon Browner and defensive tackle Kevin Williams.

MAX PERFORMANCE: Center Max Unger also was part of the Graham trade. The Saints expect him to be a strong presence who'll keep offensive linemen in synch while providing better lanes for running backs and better protection for Brees. "He's been super consistent for us all camp. He plays with a lot of confidence," Strief said. "He's a natural leader."

BREAUXMANCE: The Saints appear to have found help they needed in the secondary in New Orleans-native Delvin Breaux — a feel-good story because of how he's made it to the NFL from the CFL after his college career (he'd committed to LSU) was wiped out by a broken neck in high school. "Great coverage skills," said assistant head coach Joe Vitt, who is part of the defensive staff. "He is a real pleasant surprise."

UNPROVEN KICKER: Zach Hocker, a former Arkansas kicker with no NFL regular-season experience, won the place-kicking job after going 4 for 5 on preseason field goal attempts, including 2 of 3 from beyond 50 yards.