1. How is the offense adjusting to life without Kenny Stills/Jimmy Graham? Is Brandin Cooks as advertised?
Under Sean Payton the Saints offense has always been multiple. Over the years, Brees has been among the best NFL quarterbacks at spreading the ball around to his wide receivers and tight ends. When Jimmy Graham emerged in 2011, Brees somewhat became a bit more Graham-centric. To illustrate that point, from 2011 to 2014, Graham led the Saints with 551 targets from Brees. The second targeted players during that span saw a combined 451 passes from the Saints quarterback. Without Graham and Stills, the Saints are likely to return to the "spread-it-around" philosophy, which has made Payton's offenses so successful in his nine years in New Orleans.
As for Brandin Cooks, I believe that this year he'll burst on the NFL scene the way he could have last year. In 2014, Cooks played in only 10 games because of a season-ending wrist injury, yet he still recorded 53 catches on 69 targets for 550 yards and three touchdowns. With Jimmy Graham gone, Cooks is likely to become Brees' primary target ahead of veteran wideout Marques Colston and I expect him to announce himself as the next one in the recent surge of small-yet-explosive receivers a la Antonio Brown of the Steelers and John Brown of the Cardinals.
2. The Patriots were THIS close to signing C.J. Spiller. Had he shown much prior to his recent knee injury?
There were a few plays early in training camp when C.J. Spiller reminded Saints fans why the team gave him a four-year contract with even more guaranteed money (9M vs. 7.6M) than Mark Ingram who had been with the team for four years. Another thing that got New Orleans fans excited is that Spiller has the exact skill set as former Saints Darren Sproles who is now with the Eagles, and Sproles was an integral part of the offensive juggernaut that the Saints were in 2011 and even in their tumultuous 2012 season.
The jury is still out however on whether this was a smart signing by the Saints, since throughout his career, Spiller's biggest issue has been his inability to stay healthy and this latest knee procedure is already making everyone nervous in the Big Easy. If Spiller is available from week one as is expected, Payton as shown that he can turn a running back like him into a fearsome offensive joker on the field.
3. The Saints defense seems to be going through a lot of turnover. Other than Cam Jordan, are there any players to watch for?
There is no doubt that the Saints defense is a complete work in progress after ranking at the bottom of pretty much every defensive category in 2014. The team has brought in veterans like cornerback Brandon Browner with whom y'all are very familiar, who will be paired with Keenan Lewis to form New Orleans' starting cornerback pair. Also joining the team through free agency is linebacker Dannell Ellerbe, who'll likely play alongside New Orleans' middle linebacker of the future, first round pick Stephone Anthony. News coming out of training camp is that Anthony has been turning heads with how quickly he is getting acclimated to the pro game and he is expected to be the quarterback of the Saints defense in 2015.
Lastly, two players who were injured most of last year and that the Saints are expecting to contribute heavily this year are safeties Kenny Vaccaro and Jairus Byrd. Vaccaro had a dynamite rookie year in 2013, but fell off in an injury-plagued 2014 season. Byrd was lost for the year to a knee injury after only five games last season. If healthy, New Orleans could have an unexpectedly scary starting secondary with Lewis, Browner, Vaccaro and Byrd.
4. What would you consider the strength of the Saints offense?
Since Sean Payton and Drew Brees teamed up in 2006, the Saints have consistently been a top offense in the NFL and it starts with the amazing synergy they have with each other. Both are aggressive and that's where it starts. You know how Bill Belichick will go for it on fourth down where most other coaches pee their pants and punt? Well Payton and Brees and very much built from that "go-for-it" mold. They're never afraid to take risks, often calculated, but they're almost always bolder than most.
The second main aspect of the greatness of the Saints' offense is the fact that, much like Tom Brady, Drew Brees will make a lot of average-to-good receivers look good-to-great. The Saints won the Super Bowl in 2009 with wide receivers like Lance Moore, Devery Henderson, and Robert Meachem playing crucial roles. None of these guys will end up in Canton, yet they had more than respectable NFL careers and are Super Bowl champions, in large part thanks to Drew Brees.
Finally, Payton's offense is extremely diverse. The Saints will change personnel groupings early and often, with seemingly predictable personnel and/or alignments from which they'll run unexpected plays, with the ultimate goal of being constantly unpredictable to the defense. Although this is clearly the objective of every offensive coordinator and play-caller in the NFL, the combination of Brees and Payton has more often than not led to near flawless execution of this very complex offense, which has made New Orleans one of the most successful NFL offenses in the past nine seasons.
5. How's old friend Brandon Browner? I hope he was thriving before his injury.
As a Saints fan living in Seattle, I'm very familiar with good ol' Brandon Browner. So far in camp, like the savvy veteran that he is, he has been doing the bare minimum, all while still doing what he does: grabbing, pushing, holding, frustrating. I expect him to be available for the regular season, make a lot of crucial plays, rack up a bunch of "what-the-hell-are-you-doing?" penalties then make some more crucial plays.
Here's a little anecdote: I'm eternally grateful to Browner for his awesome jam of Jermaine Kearse in the ultimate seconds of Super Bowl XLIX, which allowed Malcolm Butler to intercept the ball destined for Ricardo Lockette. I got up and cheered, as all my Seahawks friends fell to their knees in agony. Was I a hater? Maybe, but hey living in Seattle and not rooting for the Seahawks can be hard on a man. So in my book, Brandon can (kinda) do no wrong.