New Orleans Saints football - Where Things Stand

A position by position look 7 practices in to training camp with the Saints

Zach Strief
August 03, 2019 - 10:04 am
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It is inevitable every year, I start to get text messages about 8 hours into camp asking how the team looks.  It is, of course, an impossible question to answer at that point, but the reasoning behind the question is undoubtable… everyone is excited that football is back.  With today’s camp structure of having the first two practices take place without pads, it is even harder to tell than ever before where guys are at early on.  Now 7 practices in (5 in pads), some realities are becoming evident.  Let’s dive in and take a look at each position group and where they stand one-week in.  

The quarterback position is probably the most secured position group in the NFL.  No QB in their right mind would feel comfortable coming into that room and trying to wrangle the 3rd QB spot away from Thor Hill.  I mean Taysom.  The Saints have the #2 player in football running the show (as voted by his peers) in Drew Brees, and a guy many in the organization believe may be the future at the position in Teddy Bridgewater.  That would usually leave the #3 spot up for grabs, but in the Saints case, that is where the league’s most versatile QB sits.  In a league where QB is the most important position, the Saints have tactilely positioned themselves to have options for both today and tomorrow.  J.T. Barrett spent all of 2018 being bounced on and off the practice squad but it was always going to have an uphill battle to find his spot. He was released this week.  This group seemed to be pretty set from the get-go, but some groups are not even close to being finalized.

The biggest story coming out of Saints camp early on was the absence of Mike Thomas.  Fortunately, a common ground was found and the All-Pro reported to camp looking every bit the record breaker he was last season. Behind Mike Thomas, position battles rage on.  Ted Ginn Jr., who was only able to play in 5 games last season due to injury, has looked every bit the part of a number two receiver early in camp.  He continues to run well in his 13th season and has been steady and consistent throughout training camp.  Another steady target early on has been veteran Rishard Matthews.  Matthews had a rough 2018 season after an offseason injury, and clashes with his offensive coordinator led to him asking to leave Tennessee for the Jets.  This all coming after his most productive two years as a pro in 2016 and 2017.  Rishard Matthews has looked the part of a contributing member of the Saints receiving core thus far.  

Besides the three veterans there is a group of talented, young receivers.  Keith Kirkwood, who made the most of Mike Thomas’ absence, looked very good before leaving with an injury.  Tre’quan Smith and Austin Carr have both had solid camps, and a group of undrafted free agents, led by Emmanuel Butler, have all had their moments.  Butler in particular seems to flash at some point every practice.  I could see the Saints being very excited about the undrafted free agent out of Northern Arizona.  There is no question the Saints lacked experienced targets last year, especially with Ted Ginn out.  It showed up in the offense several times down the stretch.  They seemed to have addressed that nicely, though, not only in the wide receiver room.  

The star of the free agency class this offseason was unquestionable Jared Cook.  A big, explosive target coming off his most productive season as a pro last year in Oakland, Cook was brought in to bring that big, athletic, target that Drew Brees has craved throughout his career.  The appreciation of the hall of famer was shown immediately.  There seems to already be a ton of chemistry between the two.  Brees has been showering Cook with a barrage of jump balls and back shoulder throws, much to the demise of a much-improved secondary.  It has been very clear already in camp that the Cook signing was a home run.  Toss in his veteran presence in the locker room, and the importance of adding another tremendous human to the locker room after the losses of Ben Watson and Mark Ingram, and you have a perfect fit in Jared Cook.  

Behind Cook is the always steady Josh Hill.  Equally talented in the run and pass game, Hill also offers value on special teams.  He will continue a similar role Saints fans have become familiar with.  Alize’ Mack has shown all the natural ability you could ask for in a seventh-round selection.  He has shown better than expected tenacity in the run game and is a natural and smooth route runner.  He will push Dan Arnold hard for the third tight end spot.  The great thing about Mack is his ceiling is incredibly high for a player drafted as late as he was.  The jury is still out on him and his spot of the roster, but Alize’ Mack has already made plays and that is a good sign early on.  He is another young player, who was spotted limping off with an injury, with no word yet on his condition.  Unfortunately, that injury bug has seemed to hit other positions as well.  

The running back room will probably see the most change from 2018.  That’s not necessarily because there will be a bunch of new players, but because they lost such a big part of their room.  Mark Ingram signing with the Ravens which opened a void behind superstar Alvin Kamara.  The Saints signed Latavius Murray to replace Ingram, and he looked solid until he went down with an unspecified injury.  Saints fans should see Murray as his own type of player, not as an Ingram replacement.  They are certainly different.  Murray will have to settle into his role in the offense.  He needs a little space to get rolling, but once he does watch out.  Latavius Murray has shown excellent burst, once he turns downhill, for such a big back.  

Another bright spot early in camp has been Dwayne Washington.  After spending early last season on the practice squad, Washington contributed, mostly on special teams, until a 108 yard outburst in week 17 vs. Carolina.  He has picked up where he left off.  Washington has shined early among a group of running backs vying for the 3rd RB role.  He most importantly has not shown any of the pass catching issues he showed in the spring.  The ability to catch the ball out of the backfield is a must in the Saints offense.  After looking like it could derail his chances in OTA’s and minicamp, Dwayne Washington has been solid catching the football in camp.  He even got a shout out from Coach Payton this week, which never hurts a player’s psyche.  

There are still battles raging here.  Devine Ozigbo, who looked good in the offseason, looked overmatched early when the pads came on.  He seems to have righted that ship over the past couple practices, but still has an uphill climb to find his way onto the roster.  

None of these backs will be successful this year if the Saints can’t return to the form they showed on the offensive line early last season.  Of course… I’m a little partial to this group.  They are after all my guys.  After starting the season in 2018 in dominating fashion, the offensive line came down to earth as injuries to Terron Armstead, Andrus Peat, Max Unger and Larry Warford slowed the group considerably.  Not that Ramcyzk didn’t have an injury… but he maintained a pretty incredible level of play in spite of it, further confirming my decision to leave the Saints before they could fire me.  Ryan Ramcyzk has returned to form, looking fantastic across from the Saints most talented defender in Cam Jordan.  

For the most part the line has recovered.  Armstead has looked like his normal dominating self thus far, testing Marcus Davenport on a daily basis (which is great for a young developing player).  Andrus Peat has had his best camp to date as a Saint.  He has been running well, seemingly in good shape, and has been better using his hands effectively, something he has struggled with at times.  Expect a big season out of Peat this year.  Warford is still rounding into shape as he continues to recover from offseason surgery to fix the issues that plagued him at the end of 2018.  I don’t worry about Larry.  He is an extremely hard worker and a technician who will find his form before too long.  

That, of course, leaves the center position, the big question at this point on the offensive line.  Erik McCoy, the Saints 2nd round selection this year, has looked the part so far.  As with any young offensive lineman, there is plenty of room for growth.  McCoy himself has acknowledged consistency in technique is the biggest hurdle right now.  It is for any young player.  But more importantly he has shown tremendous anchor against power, a key for an interior player in front of Drew Brees.  The mental aspect seems to be under control, and he continues to work each day on his craft, which is all you can ask of him.  While the job has not been given to anyone, McCoy will most likely continue to get an opportunity to win it.  

Nick Easton, who was signed the day after Max Unger’s retirement, and Cameron Tom have also been given opportunities inside as well as at guard.  That battle will continue, most likely, for another couple weeks.  

The swing tackle is another position in the Saints offensive line room that needs to be straightened out.  In truth, that role may belong to a couple players rather than a single player.  Michael Ola has shown flexibility to play both tackle and guard throughout his career, and newly signed Patrick Omameh, who has played guard most of his career, has been playing at right tackle since arriving at Saints camp.  He has shown a physical mean streak that is coveted and could develop into an excellent player in the Saints system.  

Add to these guys Will Clapp, who has had a very good offseason and training camp, and you start to see the bigger issue with the Saints offensive line room.  There aren’t enough spots available to keep everyone they will want to hold on to.  It’s a great problem to have. For young players like Derrick Kelly and Ethan Greenidge, they have a battle on their hands to crack the roster.  Not that the Saints are going to want to have them around regardless.  Both have shown great promise so far. The battle for center will rage on with each guy receiving opportunities to make his case.  

Until the Saints suit up against Minnesota, those opportunities will take place against a surprisingly deep defensive line. For much of the offseason the discussion about depth at defensive tackle has been a popular talking point for any engaged Who Dat.  Sheldon Rankins isn’t expected to be ready for week 1, although Coach Payton has acknowledged he is ahead of schedule.  David Onyemata will miss week 1 versus the Texans with a suspension.  That leaves just one DT from last season available for week one.  That player is Taylor Stallworth.  He continues to look the part of a valuable rotational piece on the defensive line.  He has developed during the offseason and has impressed in pass rush drills thus far.  

Behind Stallworth were a lot of question marks.  Those are disappearing.  Mario Edwards Jr., in my opinion, has been a very pleasant surprise so far.  He has shown good explosion and has proven to be a difficult block for the offensive line. Mario has been active, has played well with his hands and has shown the power necessary to hold up in the running game.  The only drawback of Edwards is he is a limited use player.  He has a smaller build and will need to rotate more than guys like Rankins and Onyemata.  That being said, finding a great rotational piece at the price they did is a big win for the Saints front office.  

The addition of Ziggy Hood gave the Saints another solid veteran option and NT Sylvester Williams has been active and productive through this point in camp.  Once the Saints pull Rankins and Onyemata back into the fold, this will be a very tough unit.  On the outside Marcus Davenport looks healthy, which is most important, but has also shown much better use of his hands and an ability to get out of the middle of blockers in his bull rush.  He is still developing as a pass rusher, but has all the tools to be dominant.

Trey Hendrickson has added some needed weight to his frame and has been showing good power in his pass rush.  This is a big year for Trey after being derailed by injuries much of last season.  He’s another player who has been picked out for praise by Sean Payton.   

Finally, and I started this crusade two years ago, Ryan Neilson is the difference maker in this group.  It is not a coincidence that in his second year there were dramatic improvements against the run, that Sheldon Rankins turned a corner to be a force in pass rush or that David Onyemata became a legitimate, starting-grade 3 technique.  Ryan Nielsen is a difference maker for this team.  He is surrounded by talent in the defensive coaching wing.  Aaron Glenn is a rising star, Peter Giunta brings 40 years of coaching experience along with 3 Super Bowl Championships, Dennis Allen is just a couple years from getting his second shot at leading a team of his own and Mike Nolan brings 36 years and again, has been a head coach.  Nolan’s group made a massive jump last year and hasn’t seemed to drop off at all this year.

If Jared Cook turns out to be what he appears to be thus far in camp, he will be this year’s Demario Davis.  Simply put, Davis is the alpha dog in the middle that the Saints have missed since the retirement of Jon Vilma.  The former New York Jet was sensational last year for the Saints and gives New Orleans a true 3 down back to anchor the defensive unit.  He has again looked phenomenal in camp thus far.  We saw A.J. Klein’s best season as a Saint last year and he too has picked up where he left off.  Alex Anzalone is a player many have looked at to have a big year this season.  He is fully capable of doing just that, though I don’t know that we’ve seen that lightbulb moment just yet. It could very well be the case, that Anzalone just hasn’t had the opportunity to make the big splash play we’re talking about yet.  He is still outstanding in coverage and will look to continue to make strides in the run game.  

The player who stands out most to me thus far at the linebacker position is Saints 7th round pick Kaden Elliss.  If you want to describe him in one word, it’s instinctive.  He just seems to be in the right place a lot.  I had discussed before camp the possibility of Elliss being put in a situational rush situation, but he has spent most of camp playing in the middle.  There are players you see who can just play football, and Elliss is one of those players.  He has a tremendous group to learn from, he has an excellent coach in Mike Nolan and he has some of the innate abilities that are very hard to find.  It will be interesting to see Kaden Elliss’ performance on special teams in the preseason as that is probably where he will find his way onto the field first in the NFL.  What is most encouraging is Elliss appears to be another late round hit by Mickey Loomis and Jeff Ireland.  Our final room added two players in this year’s draft and I’ll let you in on a little secret… they both hit.  

If there is one room in the Saints facility on Airline drive that should be giddy with excitement to start the season, it should be the defensive backs.  The DB’s in Sean Payton’s tenure have been an issue more often than they’ve been an asset.  This group is different than all that have come before them.  

All Saints fans know about Marshon Lattimore.  He will continue to be outstanding for the Black and Gold this year.  Marshon has looked good throughout camp and the constant matchups with Mike Thomas will only help him.  I am very high on Eli Apple.  I think he has all the traits you need to be a shutdown corner and his environment is now one where he can learn and fit in.  Apple will always get thrown at in this defense because of the ability of Lattimore, but I expect big things out of him this year.  He has played up to that level thus far in camp.  

If you move in to the nickel position, you start seeing why this secondary has so much potential.  P.J. Williams was excellent last year in relief of Patrick Robinson.  Patrick Robinson was the top nickel in football two years ago and played that way until he was injured last season in week 3.  He has told me he feels great with no remnants of his broken ankle.  A testament to the top flight sports medicine staff the Saints have assembled.  Chauncey Gardner-Johnson has spent time in the slot this camp and he has also looked the part. Chauncey has shown the ability to mirror, he breaks well on balls and most importantly he is a competitor.  That’s three legit nickels in this defense.  Gardner-Johnson is also a versatile piece that can move back to safety, but that’s a position that has suddenly gotten very, very crowded.  

Marcus Williams has missed some time early with injury but returned this week and looks like his old self.  Vonn Bell, after putting together his best season as a pro, continues to do a phenomenal job covering TE’s.  His battles with Jared Cook have been great to watch.  While Bell’s given up receptions, they have almost universally been great plays on great throws.  The window to beat Bell has shrunken considerably.  He will continue to develop this season.  

The Saints also brought in a couple of long, rangy safeties who have consistently made plays in Terrell Williams Jr. and T.J. Green.  They are the tallest in what is suddenly a very tall defensive backfield. The Saints also have two elite special teams players in the room in Chris Banjo and Justin Hardee, both of whom have gotten lots of playing time defensively in camp.

I have so much positive things to say about the room in general, but the most exciting player in camp for me is Saquan Hampton.  The 6’1” safety from Rutgers is the diamond in the rough from the draft this season.  He has shown up every day this camp and has been tremendous is coverage.  Saquan is considerably bigger than his numbers say, and he seems to carry himself like a starter, not a 6th round pick.  Hampton had impressive production in college, and you can see that it may very well have been better, if he had been surrounded by more talent at Rutgers.  This is going to be a very difficult group to make with all the talent and depth, but Hampton looks the part.  To hit on 6th and 7th round picks is very difficult.  To hit on several is unheard of.  I think the Saints have done just that.  

The reality is that camp is still very early. Like Coach Payton would say “there is no light at the end of the tunnel.”  There is a lot of time left for battles to continue, for players to rise and fall.  What is obvious is this.  This team is incredibly deep right now.  There are good football players who will be cut, and they will be picked up by other teams.  So much has to go right in an NFL season to see success like the Saints had the last couple of seasons.  Injuries, schedule and just downright luck come into play throughout the year.  But few things combat those factors like depth.  Saints fans were already going to be raring to go. There is unfinished business to attend to.  The front office has done their part.  This squad is stacked.  Now it’s up to the players to make this team go.  Can’t wait to watch them do it.  

 

Programming note:  Listen to a special edition of SportsTalk w/ “the Voice of the Saints” Zach Strirf, Saints color analyst Deuce McAllister, the Cajun Cannon Bobby Hebert and team WWL Sunday...live from the Saints Black & Gold scrimmage at Tulane’s Yulman stadium...7 to 10pm on WWL, the BIG 870AM, 105.3FM, WWL.com and RADIO.COM. 

   

 

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