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Saints vs. Ravens: What To Look For

It's finally here! The Saints have cut their roster down to 75 men, and after their match-up at 8:00 PM with the Baltimore Ravens tonight, they'll finally have to make their most difficult decision: What 53 players to keep heading into the 2014 regular season. There are some hotly contested position battles going on right now. Here are the main ones to watch for tonight.

Pat Lovell-USA TODAY Sports

Through 3 weeks, the Saints have now shed 15 players from their training camp roster due to the August 27 deadline to get from 90 to 75 players.  However, after August 31st, their roster situation will get even dicier.  They must cut down another 22 players in order to get down to their official 53 man roster.  It's an unfortunately short tryout for a lot of players, but it is also a necessary evil in today's league, where there is so much competition and so much talent.

The Saints have a few intriguing match-ups to look for in their preseason game against the Baltimore Ravens.  Some of them are for starting positions, whereas others are simply to survive the final cut.  Here is a quick look at these battles and how they have stacked up against each other so far in this preseason.

Center

This was a position that a lot of people were worried about coming into training camp.  Jonathan Goodwin was a late signing whereas Tim Lelito is a guard being converted to the position.  Lelito's former Grand Valley State teammate, center Matt Armstrong was also signed, but the consensus battle is between these two.  It's hard to determine the edge between the two, since they've performed largely as expected to this point.  Goodwin is clearly more polished fundamentally, whereas Lelito has a bit more in the tank, particularly in terms of lateral movement.

At this moment, the apparent edge is towards Lelito.  If a veteran can't beat out a converted second year player outright, it makes a bit more sense to go with the young player.  In the zone scheme that the Saints have run on the ground, Lelito's reach blocks have been quicker than Goodwin's, but not quite as clean.  Lelito has been very good thus far in the season getting downfield and taking out second level players (linebackers, occasionally safeties), however, something very important to a center in the zone.

Goodwin, on the other hand, is patient, a trait that Lelito has lacked thus far.  In the passing game, he engages and passes off pass rushers very well.  This is the type of skill that a great deal of experience brings, and the Saints are simply going to have to accept that they will be sacrificing one trait for the other.  Either way, both have proven to at least be serviceable, and who comes out on top and starts Week 1 will be an interesting storyline to look for against Atlanta.

Cornerback

This battle is so broad that it's very difficult to know where to begin.  There are currently nine corners on the New Orleans roster.  The only true lock would appear to be Keenan Lewis at this point.  No clear front-runner has emerged for the number two position.  Corey White, Patrick Robinson and Champ Bailey, the supposed competitors for the slot, have been average to (in White's case) pretty terrible.  Trevin Wade has played decent in the nickel role, but nothing to write home about, and players such as Terrence Frederick, Brian Dixon and Derrius Brooks have done nothing to help their role as camp bodies.  Stanley Jean-Baptiste looks like a rookie, but the Saints knew what they were getting with a raw second round pick.

Bailey may end up being the lesser of three evils at the #2 position.  It's a different situation from Goodwin and Lelito, in that it isn't picking who has the most potential, but who has the most minimal downside.  Robinson and White have both been burned plenty thus far in the preseason.  For a team that boasts its secondary as top tier, the sheer lack of depth at corner is a bit worrisome.  It's Lewis and guys that can be targeted, a dangerous game to play in today's NFL.

As of right now, the likely players to make it out are Lewis (lock), Bailey (almost a lock), Robinson, White and Wade.  Wade is a bubble guy, but Robinson and White have the potential to take the #2 corner slot with a strong showing in Week 4.  It's almost neck & neck between the three, and not for the best of reasons.

Wide Receiver

On the other side of the ball, the wide receiver battle is a strange who's who of players.  Each of them brings something very different to the table, and each of them has the potential to be a contributor in their own right in the Saints Offense Machine.

Similarly to the CB position, the Saints have nine players at receiver.  That number is more likely to be around five to six when the regular season starts.  Here is a list of the Saints wide receivers, and what their prescribed "roles" are:

* Brandon Coleman: Big-body player, ideal to high-point a deep ball or a fade

* Marques Colston [Lock]: Precise route-runner, Brees's favorite target outside of Jimmy Graham

* Charles Hawkins: Small burner.  A bit unclean as far as routes go, but a good underneath slot threat.

* Seantavius Jones: 6'3", another big body.  Good hands, clean(ish) rookie routes.  Not a speedster or a burner by any means, but an undrafted with a similar body type to Colston learning from Colston never hurts.

* Robert Meachem: Interestingly upon research, one of the most revered receivers from the young talent (namely Jones and Hawkins).  Used to stretch a defense vertically, may end up being usurped by the younger & faster (though oft-injured) . . .

* Joseph Morgan: Runs straight and runs fast.  Has an incredible catch-radius, but has trouble staying on the field.

* Kenny Stills [Lock]: League leader in YPC last season, but with the departure of Lance Moore may become the true #2 receiver.  Speedster with good hands, worked on cleaning up his routes.

* Nick Toon: Struggled mightily in his one prominent regular season appearance last season against the Jets.  A big player with a lot of potential that he simply hasn't lived up to.

* Brandin Cooks [Lock]: Saints first round draft pick.  Thrives in the vertical and screen game, utilizes his speed and quickness in open space to create big plays.

The Saints run an offense that can make most receivers look good, but each player fills a niche.  The five that I see making it out of camp are Colston, Stills, Cooks, Morgan and Coleman.  Toon may come on as a sixth, but he could be the odd-man out, what with Coleman being larger than he is and hauling in a few nice catches this preseason.  Morgan has had a great preseason, with 21.1 yards per catch on seven receptions (the latter number trailing only Graham's nine), including a particularly memorable catch against the Tennessee Titans that carried shades of his 2012 touchdown against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

Players such as Jones and Hawkins simply haven't really shown up, and though it's a shame to cut young talent (particularly Hawkins, a Hollygrove native), the NFL is a business and the Saints are an employer.

Kicker

This is a battle in only the loosest sense of the word, veteran Shayne Graham and rookie Derek Dimke are vying to become the Saints starting kicker.  However, opportunities are few and far between thus far.  Graham missed an extra point under the new rules, but other than that Graham is 4-4 in field goals and Dimke is 2-2 with the benefit of knocking through a 45 yarder.  Accuracy has never been Graham's issue, at this point in his career it comes down to distance.  However, the Saints find themselves being pitted against the hated Falcons in the first game of their season, a matchup that nearly always goes down to the wire.  If that game follows the trend, can a rookie such as Dimke be trusted to have the ice in his veins required to make a game-winning kick?

It's difficult to answer, and the evaluations of these two will likely have to come from bodies of work rather than their performances in the preseason.

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In the NFL, of course, every battle is intriguing.  These are only the key ones to be looking at as the Saints finally wrap up their preseason and get ready to take the best into the regular season.  Competition is so vital to win in the game, that internal competition can and should be viewed as a positive thing, despite the fact that it's always disappointing to see players get cut.  The silver lining of seeing the last 22 get cut, however, is that football is almost upon us.  That in itself is a beautiful thing.  The internal competition will be fierce in Week 4, and that will be enjoyable in and of itself, but after those cuts are made and 53 players are left, the competition turns towards the rest of the league.  That's when football season really ramps up.