Long journey begins

Drew Brees hands the ball off to Alvin Kamara during OTAs at the Saints practice facility Thursday.

METAIRIE — The New Orleans Saints completed their first week of Organized Team Activities on Thursday.

The three voluntary, pads-free workouts were the first in a series of nine that will take place over three consecutive weeks. Then comes a mandatory three-day mini-camp (June 11-13) before the team breaks, then returns for the start of training camp July 24.

These are the first baby steps in preparation for the coming season, which is more than 100 days away.

“It’s a long journey, a process, a marathon,” linebacker Demario Davis said.

Numerous lockers in the locker room are being shared by two players as an allotment designed for 60-some players during the regular season has to accommodate the 90 that fill out the off-season roster.

But it’s the familiar names that are no longer engraved on lockers that stood out the most Thursday – Mark Ingram, Max Unger, Benjamin Watson, Alex Okafor, Tyeler Davison and Manti Te’o.

Every year is a new year, featuring a new team and OTAs provide the first on-field work during which newcomers get acclimated to their new teammates and the roles of departed players are assumed by others.

The players have been lifting and running as part of the off-season conditioning program and the OTAs are an opportunity to implement the football schemes in practice for the first time.

“As you install each day it’s hard to evaluate a player when he doesn’t know what to do,” coach Sean Payton said. “And so knowing what to do is the starting point, It’s almost a prerequisite. They’re not going to learn it right away, but it’s the process of learning what we’re doing and then how we’re coaching it.”

The most noticeable departure was that of Ingram, half of the record-setting running-back tandem that also featured Alvin Kamara. Ingram signed with Baltimore as a free agent after rushing for more than 6,000 yards in eight seasons inNew Orleans.

“I'm thankful I had a chance to play with a guy like that for eight years,” quarterback Drew Brees said. “He was all heart and soul. He was the guy that we love being around. He’s a guy who I looked forward to seeing the most coming into the facility every day.”

The Saints signed former Viking and Raider Latavius Murray to replace Ingram as the complement to Kamara.

“It’s hard when you lose a brother like that,” Davis said of Ingram. “I don’t know if you really can replace a person like him.”

Another significant departure from the offensive line came in the form of center Max Unger’s retirement.

The Saints signed veteran Nick Easton from the Vikings and traded up in the second round of the draft to select Erik McCoy of Texas A&M. Those two join two young veterans – Baton Rouge native Cameron Tom and New Orleans native and former LSU center Will Clapp – in the competition to succeed Unger.

Another retirement, that of Watson, left a hole at tight end, which the Saints addressed by signing former Raider Jared Cook before drafting Notre Dame’s Alize’ Mack in the seventh round.

“This has always been a tight-end friendly offense,” Cook said. “So I thought this way a great place to come to, extend my career and shine a little bit.”

The losses of defensive end Okafor and defensive tackle Davison as well as the likely absence of defensive tackle Sheldon Rankins for the beginning of the season because of Achilles surgery and the potential disciplinary absence of defensive tackle David Onyemata because of an off-season drug arrest have jumbled the defensive line.

The Saints addressed the permanent and temporary absences by signing three veteran defensive linemen – former Patriot Malcolm Brown, former Giant Mario Edwards Jr. and former Panther Wes Horton.

New Orleans’ most significant addition at linebacker was seventh-round draft choice Kaden Elliss.

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