METAIRIE, La. (AP) - An autograph-covered football commemorating the New England Patriots’ Super Bowl triumph last season now sits in cornerback Brandon Browner’s locker at the headquarters of his new NFL team, the New Orleans Saints.
In a sense, Browner is the face of a defensive overhaul New Orleans initiated after ranking second to last in yards allowed last season.
He isn’t trying to fit in. He’s trying to lead.
“I just try to come over here and be myself,” Browner said Thursday, as the Saints wrapped up their first set of offseason practices. “There’s a reason they signed me, for being who I am, and I just try to hopefully bring the young guys along and be a great teammate.”
New Orleans’ defense took a lot of the blame for the Saints going 7-9 and missing the playoffs last season. So a number of personnel changes were made. There were even some adjustments to the coaching staff, with former Oakland Raiders head coach Dennis Allen coming in as a senior defensive assistant to assist third-year coordinator Rob Ryan.
“It’s been documented pretty well; We were slapped in the face pretty good on defense - and it ain’t happening again,” Ryan said. “When you finish 31st in the league in defense, I’ve got a lot to clean up and I’m happy to have a great coach like Dennis with me.”
This week offered the Saints their first chance to see how a handful of newly acquired veterans and six defensive draft picks mesh with the holdovers who’ve remained, such as defensive end Cameron Jordan.
“No one place is settled. You’ve seen different personnel, different guys, being played at different spots,” Jordan said. “You’ve got a new wave of young kids. It’s far too soon to tell what’s going to happen, but I like the progress. I like how much we’ve changed so far.”
Dannell Ellerbe, acquired in a trade that sent receiver Kenny Stills to Miami, was working at inside linebacker with the first team defense alongside David Hawthorne, who has taken over as the defensive play-caller following the release of Curtis Lofton.
Anthony Spencer, acquired as a free agent, worked with the first unit as an outside linebacker, while another free-agent acquisition, Kyle Wilson, saw a lot of work as nickel back.
The unit also expects a boost from the return of starting safety Jairus Byrd, a former Pro Bowl player who missed most of last season with a knee injury.
“It’s always big to have a ball-hawk at safety,” Browner said. “It helps us as cornerbacks, when we’re man-to-man the majority of the time, (to have) someone that you know you can trust to be over the top.”
Rookie linebacker Stephone Anthony, the second of the Saints’ two first-round picks, is working as a backup early on, but quickly distinguished himself with a leaping interception of Luke McCown’s pass toward the left flat on Thursday. New Orleans also has high hopes for second-round pick Hau’oli Kikaha, an outside linebacker with a knack for rushing the passer.
The Saints’ defensive ranking has vacillated wildly the past three seasons, from last under former coordinator Steve Spagnuolo in 2012 up to fourth under Ryan in 2013 before sinking back to 31st last season.
Browner said climbing back up the rankings may not be so much about talent, which many teams have, but chemistry and a schematic approach that maximizes the strengths of the players on the field.
“Last year is last year. I wasn’t here last year, but I think we’re going to change a few things,” Browner said. “It’s going to simplify things for us.”
Notes: Saints head coach Sean Payton said the Patriots have accepted his invitation to practice with the Saints in West Virginia during training camp in the days leading up to New England’s preseason game in New Orleans on Aug. 22. Payton said the Saints had talked with the Houston Texans about joint practices but have decided against that. The Texans are being featured in the “Hard Knocks” series about NFL training camp on HBO. … C Max Unger was excused from practice for the birth of his child. … Payton said RB Mark Ingram was given a day off for foot soreness.
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