It would be easy to write about five players you've heard of before, five players you know will make a difference for the New Orleans Saints in 2013. But those who follow the Saints don't need anyone to tell them why quarterback Drew Brees or running back Mark Ingram, safety Malcolm Jenkins or even linebacker Curtis Lofton are important to the team. It's the new faces that can make a difference between an NFL team that goes 7-9 or 13-3. So here are a few new players you may — or may not — have heard about.
There's a good chance Kenny Vaccaro is a name you know by now. His physical style of play during the opening two weeks of practice caught the attention of just about everyone at the Metairie training facility.
Vaccaro — New Orleans' first-round pick out of the University of Texas last April — realized early on he would be able to play an important role in the defense if he could bring the same intensity to the NFL that earned him All-American honors in college.
"That's just the way I am," Vaccaro said at training camp. "I have a physical nature. If anything, you have to slow me down before you speed me up. I approach every practice like that and it's not going to stop until somebody says, 'Hey, relax, take care of yourself.'"
While Vaccaro likely won't supplant incumbents Roman Harper and Malcolm Jenkins, he'll get plenty of time on the field. In the preseason opener Aug. 10 against the Kansas City Chiefs, Vaccaro led the team with six tackles and played extensively in sub packages and the nickel early in the game. He spent time in college playing over the slot receiver, so the transition to New Orleans' nickel cornerback shouldn't be too tough.
Jim Leonhard is that savvy veteran who doesn't look imposing but plays in such an educated way that any coach would have a hard time not liking him.
And Rob Ryan, New Orleans' new defensive coordinator, likes Leonhard.
The nine-year veteran has bounced around the NFL, but five of his nine seasons were spent playing for Ryan's brother Rex. Rex Ryan thought highly enough of Leonhard to all but steal him from the Baltimore Ravens when Rex Ryan became head coach of the New York Jets.
Leonhard has 382 career tackles, eight interceptions, two forced fumbles and two fumble recoveries in seasons with the Buffalo Bills, the Ravens, the Jets and the Denver Broncos.
"He's smart, he's consistent, he's a gym rat (and) he's a coach's kid," Rob Ryan said. "He is who he is and he has his own little swagger to him. He's a smart, tough guy. Not the tallest guy in the world, but he doesn't know that. He has been a joy to coach."
Ryan has spent much of the preseason rotating in all six safeties on the roster, including Leonhard. He has worked with the second and third teams and plays on special teams. Leonhard could play a valuable under-the-radar role with the Saints this season.
There was a time this preseason when it was questionable whether rookie receiver Kenny Stills would make the roster instead of being redshirted on the injured reserve list with a mysterious injury (as NFL teams are wont to do to hide young players).
But when Joseph Morgan was lost for the season after tearing the meniscus and anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee, Stills' roster spot became much less tenuous. And we saw in the preseason opener that the team is going to give him the chance to take on Morgan's deep threat role.
Stills unofficially ran a 4.38 40-yard dash at the NFL combine — speed that helped earn him All-Big 12 second-team honors his senior year at the University of Oklahoma. It also gave the Saints a reason to take him in the fifth round of April's draft.
"Everybody's fast," Stills said. "It's a fast game at this level. That's kind of the first thing that I learned and saw. But I'm always going to be confident in my speed and my ability to run by people and hopefully I get that chance to do it in this offense."
Stills caught 204 passes for 2,594 yards and 24 touchdowns in three seasons with the Sooners. That yardage total is third-best in Oklahoma history, while his touchdown total is fifth-best.
Of all the players the Saints signed in free agency this offseason, Keenan Lewis is the one about whom Ryan might be most excited. The coach has called Lewis the best defensive free agent pickup in the NFL. The O. Perry Walker High School graduate earned that reputation in four short years in Pittsburgh, where he helped the Steelers end 2011 and 2012 as the No. 1 total defense in the NFL in 2010 as the No. 2.
Lewis is an immediate upgrade at cornerback, where he'll join Jabari Greer in giving the Saints two legitimate shutdown corners. Lewis' 28 pass breakups led the NFL in 2012, his first full year as a starter in the league. He was fourth on the team with 78 tackles in 2012 and had 31 stops in 2011 as a rotational backup.
But New Orleans' ace in the hole with Lewis may be that he's now playing directly in front of friends and family, a powerful motivator.
"I am playing for my city," Lewis said. "Other places, you go out, you are playing because you like the game, and it is what you do. Playing for your city, I think just means much more for me. I know I have to go out there and show up."
The Saints have always had a veteran tight end on the roster, one who can come in and guide the younger players on the roster — Billy Miller, Jeremy Shockey and David Thomas in the past. Benjamin Watson fits that mold and may be the best of the veteran tight ends that head coach Sean Payton has brought in, a tight end who can help fourth-year player Jimmy Graham reach the next level.
"Ben Watson is a beast," Graham said. "He looks like he is 19 years old and he's definitely helped me as far as telling me to stay low. One of my bigger issues is I'm so tall, but I'm going to do anything that this team asks me to do."
Watson was Tom Brady's go-to player at the position long before Rob Gronkowski earned that title with the New England Patriots. Now in his 10th season, Watson joins another prolific offense after playing three years for the Cleveland Browns. The 6-foot-3, 255-pounder will immediately add a physical presence in the blocking game. But he also can catch and, together with Graham, could give the Saints the best tight end duo in the NFL.
— Bradley Handwerger is a sports reporter and web producer at Gambit's television partner, WWL-TV. Follow his reporting on Twitter at @wwltvsports.