COMMENTARY | The New Orleans Saints will take the field to face the Atlanta Falcons in the 2013 season opener on Sunday, September 8. The game will mark the return of Saints head coach Sean Payton, who was suspended for the entire 2012 season, and will be an early showcase for one of the league's top rivalries. As the Saints attempt to win at home and take an early division lead over the Falcons in the NFC South, there will be several New Orleans players to keep an eye on throughout the contest. Aside from the core offensive threats of Drew Brees, Jimmy Graham, Marques Colston, Lance Moore, and Darren Sproles, below are five key Saints players who could provide a big boost to kick off the new season.
1. Mark Ingram
All reports from this year's training camp pointed toward Ingram having a breakout season. His preseason performance supported these predictions, as Ingram posted 115 yards on 25 carries, scoring twice. The running back was also targeted in the passing game a few times, and he added 39 receiving yards to his numbers. If the team is comfortable leaving Ingram on the field in passing situations, it could limit substitutions and create mismatches for opposing defenses. Ingram has averaged 538 yards and five scores in his first two seasons, and he should be able to top those averages in 2013.
2. Pierre Thomas
On the other hand, Thomas had another quiet camp. Often left out of discussions highlighting the team's top offensive players, Thomas always manages to produce when called upon. His snaps were very limited in the preseason, but he did grab a 51-yard touchdown pass and looked great running with the ball. With Ingram's camp and Sproles' past production placing them in the spotlight, don't be surprised to see Thomas step up to have another productive season and help this team win often.
3. Kenny Stills
Stills, a rookie receiver out of Oklahoma, could be the team's next star. His ability to stretch the field will be a great addition to such an explosive offense. After catching 82 passes and scoring 11 touchdowns in his final college season, Stills looks like he will make a smooth transition to the professional level. In his first preseason, he led all Saints receivers with nine receptions, 170 yards, and two touchdowns. Although he may not see many passes thrown his way early, watch for Brees to target him when needed. Stills can also contribute by drawing defenders away from Graham and others.
4. Kenny Vaccaro
The Saints filled a big need by adding Vaccaro in the 2013 draft, and his presence will be felt early. The safety practiced hard all offseason, scuffling with Graham and inadvertently injuring receiver Joe Morgan in the process. However, he has shown that he is ready for this level and that his fast-paced play will be a welcome addition in New Orleans. Although many are counting this defense out, Vaccaro and other newcomers like Glenn Foster can help rebuild a unit that really needs to show improvement in 2013.
Meachem played for New Orleans from 2008-11, totaling 129 catches, 1,980 receiving yards, and 20 touchdowns during his final three seasons. While he struggled to produce as a member of the San Diego Chargers in 2012 (14 receptions, 207 yards, two scores), Meachem is now back in a Saints uniform. It will be interesting to see if he can recapture some of the magic he shared with Brees, particularly during the team's 2009 Super Bowl season, when Meachem found the end zone a career-high nine times.
Mike Patton grew up in New Orleans cheering for the New Orleans Saints, Chicago Cubs, and LSU Tigers. As a kid in 1987, he made his first trip to Wrigley Field and also slept outside of the Louisiana Superdome to purchase playoff tickets for the Saints' first postseason appearance.
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