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All eyes on Saints veterans

Saints veterans to keep an eye on in preseason

Mark Menard
August 08, 2018 - 7:25 pm
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Saints preseason is upon us, and with 90 players on the roster, it can be a lot to take in, especially late in games that don’t count towards the regular season record, when the field is filled with players who are at best fighting for a roster spot.

And seeing as how we as human beings gravitate towards the newest, shiniest toys, it can be easy to simply key on the rookies and the free-agents making their Black and Gold debuts. But make no mistake. This season, with a roster that has been heavily upgraded in the last three years (as evidenced by last year’s surge back to the playoffs), the players most deserving of a discerning eye are, for the most part, veterans of NOLA football.

Here are the veterans I’m most eager to get a look at.

 

Alex Okafor

It looked as though the Saints had finally found a gem after years of wandering in the free-agency desert when they brought Okafor over from the Arizona Cardinals last season. As a pass rusher, he finally gave longtime-stalwart Cam Jordan a running mate as a terrorizer of quarterbacks, notching 4½ sacks and forcing two fumbles. But Okafor’s season was cut short after 10 games due to a torn Achilles.

This season, Okafor’s recovery is ahead of schedule, and he’s looked good in training camp. The next step will be to translate that to live game action. A return to his previous form would be a boon for a defensive line that made great strides last season, then banked a first-round pass rusher in the 2018 draft. A rotation of Jordan, a fully-healed Okafor, and potential-laden rookie Marcus Davenport could be a chilling sight for opposing quarterbacks this season.

 

Marcus Williams

In his rookie season, the Saints’ second-round safety out of Utah was overshadowed by the team’s other first-year defensive star. Picked one round ahead of him, Marshon Lattimore took home the NFL’s Defensive Rookie of the Year honors, while the lasting snapshot of Williams was not nearly as flattering. It’s been well-documented how one simple miscalculation in the heat of battle made Williams the scapegoat for the Saints’ playoff ouster. That’s not exactly fair to a 21-year-old rookie who made his share of contributions to the team’s defensive resurgence.

Williams gifted the Fleur De Lis D with four interceptions last season, proving his college reputation as a ballhawk could translate to the pros. He’s vowed to heed the hallowed words of his quarterback and come back stronger from his Minnesota mishap. While the offseason has been long for the Who Dat Nation, I have to believe it’s been even longer for Williams, and I think he’ll attack the 2018 season with great vengeance and furious anger as he rebounds from that harsh January life-lesson. He’s been earning rave reviews in training camp, with multiple takeaways against future Hall-of-Famer Drew Brees this summer. If all goes well, he’ll put the rest of the league on notice in short order.

 

Mark Ingram

The Saints’ top running back picked a most unfortunate time to serve a suspension. Ingram is entering the final year of his current contract. At 28 years old, he’s not quite 30, the dreaded age where teams become loathe to give men at his position long-term deals, but he’s also not far from it. And while Ingram is squarely positioned to perhaps become the Saints’ all-time leading rusher this season, trailing Deuce McAllister by just 734 yards, he now has just 12 games to do it rather than 16.

And while he formed a near-unstoppable tandem last season with Offensive Rookie of the Year winner Alvin Kamara, the emergence of another backfield stud in New Orleans could also eventually make Ingram expendable. Now with Ingram out for the first four games of 2018, the Saints will get a test-run at life without him. If they don’t miss a beat, Ingram will have that much more work to do in the season’s final three quarters to prove his worth.

That means Ingram needs to leave a lasting impression in the team’s four preseason games before being banished until October.

 

The linebacking corps

One of the fiercest position battles involves the Saints linebackers, a collection of do-everything players fighting for diminished amounts of playing time. Every time defensive coordinator Dennis Allen plays three safeties at once, a linebacker sits the bench. And the two that are in the game will be expected to be as adept at pass coverage as they are at shelling out soul-shaking hits and sure-handed tackles.

Free agent addition Demario Davis, formerly of the New York Jets, has become an instant frontrunner for playing time, showing he can do it all and play every down for this defense. That means Alex Anzalone, A.J. Klein, Craig Robertson, and Manti Te’o – all players who started at one point or another for the Saints last season – are all fighting for potentially the same spot on the field as the team’s other every-down linebacker. Auditions start Thursday night in Jacksonville.

 

The Saints face the Jacksonville Jaguars in preseason game #1 Thursday night at 6pm on WWL. Ten hours of wall-to-wall coverage start at 2pm.

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