Unabashed optimist that he is, Drew Brees might be the last person to downgrade expectations for a New Orleans Saints squad coming off a winless preseason.
"I've been part of plenty of preseasons where, man, we looked like rock stars ... and then we had a slow start" to the regular season, Brees said. "I've also been on teams where we looked awful in the preseason and we jumped out to a fast start. So does preseason perfectly indicate what's going to happen at the start of the season? No."
The Saints are coming off two straight 7-9 campaigns — their first consecutive losing seasons since Sean Payton became coach in 2006.
Other than Brees, right tackle Zach Strief, punter Thomas Morstead and safety Roman Harper (reacquired in free agency), the current Saints bear little resemblance to the 2009 team Payton coached to a Super Bowl title. There is now lots of youth in key positions, which can be a liability, but also can mean there's considerable potential for improvement.
"We've been able to win a lot of games here with a certain formula. I felt like we lost that formula a little bit for the last two years and hopefully we're back on track," Brees said. "I like our team. I like the work ethic. I like the approach of these guys. ... You want toughness, character, guys that love football and that love to compete and I feel like we have those elements, and now it's got to all come together."
At 37, Brees' skills do not appear diminished; he led the NFL in yards passing last season. He also is highly motivated because he is entering the final season of his contract. If his offensive line holds up — which is no guarantee given its preseason form — Brees should have the talent he needs at receiver, tight end and running back to move the ball — particularly with the addition of tight end Coby Fleener.
But that won't necessarily produce victories if the defense, which has ranked second-to-last two years running, doesn't improve under coordinator Dennis Allen, who took over last November when Rob Ryan was fired.
Allen has put a premium on organizational details in an effort to eliminate confusion with substitutions and pre-snap alignment which dogged the unit a year ago. New Orleans also has a number of new players on that side of the ball, but first-round draft choice Sheldon Rankins, a projected starter at defensive tackle, might not be available for a couple months because of a broken fibula suffered during training camp.
Allen said he saw his unit "trending in the right direction" during the preseason, but also stressed, "I do not think you ever really 100 percent for sure know until you start playing real games."
Here are some things to watch as Saints try to become relevant in the NFC playoff race again:
Highly regarded left tackle Terron Armstead has sat out numerous recent practices and preseason games with nagging injuries, so he enters the season with his durability in question. Payton planned to start 2015 first-round choice Andrus Peat at right guard, but moved him to left guard later this preseason. Peat was drafted as a tackle, but the Saints hope he has the versatility to thrive at guard while veterans Armstead and Zach Strief occupy the tackle spots. Veteran Max Unger remains at center and young linemen Senio Kelemete and Tim Lelito are competing at right guard.
After pass rusher Paul Kruger was released by Cleveland, he became the latest addition to a revamped defense whose new faces also include linebackers James Laurinaitis, Craig Robertson and Nathan Stupar; defensive tackles Sheldon Rankins, Nick Fairley and David Onyemata; and defensive backs Vonn Bell, Erik Harris, De'Vante Harris and Ken Crawley.
Meanwhile, projected starting cornerback P.J. Williams is a 2015 draft pick who is new to the active roster because he spent his rookie season on injured reserve.
Michael Thomas, a rookie receiver drafted in the second round out of Ohio State, has made a slew of spectacular plays in practice and preseason games. Payton wasn't inclined to downplay the hype surrounding his newest threat in the passing game. "I don't follow fantasy football, but, shoot, I'd try to have him," Payton said.
A number of players with no regular-season experience are expected to start or contribute regularly this season. They include Thomas, Rankins, Williams, Bell, Tull, De'Vonte Harris, Erik Harris and Crawley. Onyemata also could emerge. Starters or regulars with only one full season of experience include Peat, cornerback Delvin Breaux, linebacker Stephone Anthony, and receivers Willie Snead and Brandon Coleman.