Folks, we’ve made it through most of the wilderness. Free agency, Malcolm Butler trade rumors, the draft, it’s all come and gone. Now we’ve got rookie minicamps and organized team activities to look forward to before training camp kicks off this summer.
So this is as good a time as any to re-evaluate the roster and take a look at the offseason moves made by the New Orleans Saints. I’ve made a mock-up depth chart which you can see below. Then we’ll get into a more in-depth look at the roster as it continues to shape up.
Veteran free agents are still available, and two names I’d like to see the Saints pursue are former Cleveland Browns tight end Gary Barnidge (134 catches, 1,655 yards, and 11 scores in the last two years for Cleveland. Cleveland!) and Tracy Porter, who traveled with Saints defensive coordinator Dennis Allen from the 2009 Super Bowl XLIV-winning squad to the Denver Broncos and Oakland Raiders. Porter knows Allen’s defense well and showed he still has something left to offer with the Chicago Bears last year. Either could be a sneaky good depth move.
Everyone’s attention has been focused on the defense, so that’s where we’ll start off.
Defensive ends (9): Cameron Jordan (starter), Alex Okafor (starter), Darryl Tapp, Trey Hendrickson, Al-Quadin Muhammad, Hau’oli Kikaha, Obum Gwacham, Royce LaFrance, and Mitchell Loewen.
This isn’t the group of defensive ends Saints fans wanted, but it’s what they have right now. The team chose not to address edge rusher early in the draft, instead bolstering the back seven defenders. New Orleans did draft two pass rushers in Hendrickson and Muhammad who should get some playing time in 2017. It hurts, but Kikaha is more likely to not play again after his third ACL tear than come close to leading the team in sacks. We’re all pulling for him, and he will get every opportunity to succeed, but the odds are stacked heavily against him. Tapp is a good run defending backup for Jordan, but he should see some intense competition for the fourth roster spot at this position.
Defensive tackles (7): Nick Fairley (starter), Sheldon Rankins (starter), Tyeler Davison, David Onyemata, Ashad Mabry, Justin Zimmer, and Devaroe Lawrence.
There’s a bit of confusion on who’s starting. Depending on which depth chart you check, either Fairley or Rankins is listed as the starter at 3-technique defensive tackle while Tyeler Davison is the starter at 1-technique nose tackle. That’s misleading: when all three were healthy last year, Fairley played 70-percent of snaps while Rankins played about 64-percent. Davison was on the field 40-percent of the time. The Saints want Fairley and Rankins on the field at the same time with Davison rotating in as a run-stopper. I like Onyemata and Zimmer as athletic backups who can line up all over the defensive front, especially with the coaching they’ll receive from former NC State assistant Ryan Nielsen.
Linebackers (10): A.J. Klein (starter), Alex Anzalone (starter), Craig Robertson, Dannell Ellerbe, Nate Stupar, Manti Te’o, Stephone Anthony, Travis Feeney, Adam Bighill, and Sae Tautu.
This looks a little weird, and probably won’t be accurate in a few months. But bear with me: this linebacker corps is an inch thin and a mile wide. I’m not sure there’s much of a talent gap between guys at the top and those at the bottom. It’ll fall to new position coach Mike Nolan to sort it out. Anyway, Klein seems like the guy they want wearing the headset and getting others lined up after giving him a middling contract in free agency. Anzalone has good game tape but back-to-back random, unconnected injuries (broken left forearm in 2016, injured labrum in his right shoulder in 2015) slowed him down once he broke into the starting lineup. Klein and Anzalone are two good blitzing linebackers who are comfortable in coverage, so having Robertson and Ellerbe as reserves is a bonus.
Safeties (7): Kenny Vaccaro (starter), Vonn Bell (starter), Marcus Williams (starter), Rafael Bush, Erik Harris, Shiloh Keo, and Chris Banjo.
Expect the three-safety big nickel defense to again be New Orleans’ base look in 2017, especially with the additions of running back Christian McCaffrey and receiver Curtis Samuel to the Carolina Panthers, as well as tight end O.J. Howard and running back Jeremy McNichols to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. An NFC South crowded with versatile, athletic pass-catchers means the Saints will need to lean hard on this position group (especially considering a subpar linebacker unit). Williams will compete with former starter Rafael Bush for the centerfield safety job, which I expect him to win - the talented rookie is smart, fast, and instinctive, having produced four forced fumbles and ten interceptions the last two years.
Cornerbacks (12): Marshon Lattimore (starter), Delvin Breaux (starter), P.J. Williams, Sterling Moore, Ken Crawley, De’Vante Harris, Damian Swann, Robenson Therezie, Taveze Calhoun, Forrest Hightower, Anthony Gaitor, and Arthur Maulet.
How’s that for a crowd? Lattimore doesn’t have to start right away but I expect him to earn reps quickly. New defensive backs coach Aaron Glenn and senior assistant Peter Giunta did good work with undrafted rookies last year, leading to the Saints competing despite not having their top guys on the field. Lattimore should progress quickly under their tutelage. Expect Breaux to return to his starting job after rushing back too soon last year, though I’m not sure what to expect from P.J. Williams. Having Sterling Moore as your dime corner is a sign of great depth, hopefully it lasts.
So to recap, the most-common look I expect from the Saints defense this fall is:
- Defensive end: Cameron Jordan
- Defensive tackle: Sheldon Rankins
- Defensive tackle: Nick Fairley
- Defensive end: Alex Okafor
- Linebacker: A.J. Klein
- Linebacker: Alex Anzalone
- Slot safety: Kenny Vaccaro
- Box safety: Vonn Bell
- Free safety: Marcus Williams
- Cornerback: Marshon Lattimore
- Cornerback: Delvin Breaux
Alright, let’s switch gears and survey the offense. The Saints only added a few players to this unit during the offseason, but they should each make an impact.
Quarterbacks (3): Drew Brees (starter), Chase Daniel, Garrett Grayson.
There isn’t much to say here. Brees is obviously going to continue his starting streak going through 2017, and it’s likely Daniel is the only quarterback to accompany him onto the final regular season roster. Grayson will probably spend another year on the practice squad while the Saints look to evaluate the future of the position through next spring’s options. The Saints have taken four quarterbacks into training camp before to maximize reps, so keep an eye out for someone like Virginia Tech undrafted free agent Jerod Evans, who they sent scouts to watch live three times last year.
Tight ends (6): Coby Fleener (starter), Michael Hoomanawanui, Josh Hill, John Phillips, Garrett Griffin, and Jake Stoneburner.
This is the group I feel least-confident in. Fleener is a run-of-the-mill pass-catching tight end who doesn’t live up to the sky-high expectations set by Jimmy Graham, but that would be fine if the other guys here were reliable. Hoomanawanui and Hill are the next guys up but are each returning from bad lower-leg injuries that ended their 2016 seasons, which may limit their availability. Phillips is a good depth option as your inline blocking specialist. Saints head coach Sean Payton spoke highly of Air Force Academy graduate Garrett Griffin last summer but we haven’t yet seen what he’s capable of.
Running backs (8): Mark Ingram (starter), John Kuhn (fullback), John Robinson (fullback), Adrian Peterson, Alvin Kamara, Daniel Lasco, Marcus Murphy, and Travaris Cadet.
Because there’s some confusion among sportswriters who don’t actively study the Saints: Ingram is the starter. He can run well, pick up blitzes, and has underrated receiving ability. Peterson is a big-name signing but he’s limited to running out of the I-formation behind Kuhn at fullback, and doesn’t bring any value on third down. Kamara is an electric receiving back who can take over two-minute drills and just as easily split out wide to run a route as stay in the backfield and take off on a draw or sweep. Lasco is a good reserve and special teams weapon. I don’t know how Murphy or Cadet make the final roster.
Wide receivers (10): Michael Thomas (starter), Willie Snead IV (starter), Ted Ginn Jr (starter), Brandon Coleman, Tommylee Lewis, Jake Lampman, Corey Fuller, Rashad Lawrence, Travin Dural, and Ahmad Fulwood.
There’s a bit of a caveat to naming Ginn a starter here. The Saints offense will be more diverse in its formations in 2017 than it has been in years, likely focusing on a stronger running game. So while the Saints ran with three receivers more often than anything else last year that probably won’t hold true. Ginn first has to compete with Coleman for reps, who is a better player than many fans give him credit for. I wouldn’t think the Saints carry more than five receivers this year, so fan-favorite undrafted rookie Travin Dural has his work cut out for him in beating Lewis, Lampman, Fuller, and the others for practice time.
Offensive line (15): Terron Armstead (starter), Andrus Peat (starter), Max Unger (starter), Larry Warford (starter), Zach Strief (starter), Ryan Ramczyk, Senio Kelemete, Jack Allen, John Fullington, Landon Turner, Cameron Tom, Collin Buchanan, Cameron Lee, Clint Van Horn, and Andrew Lauderdale.
This position group is pretty much locked in, which is a far cry from where we last year (Jahri Evans wasn’t even on the roster yet, but played the most snaps). Peat can finally settle in at one spot rather than play musical chairs, Warford is a great young guard, and Ramczyk should seriously push Strief for the starting gig at right tackle. Ramczyk will at least play a couple hundred snaps with New Orleans being second only to Oakland in plays with six linemen last year. Having him and Kelemete coming off the bench is rare depth in this league. The Saints usually carry eight linemen into the season, so there’s only one spot left up for grabs among seven hopefuls. Training camp will be intense.
Here’s a roundup of the starting eleven I expect the Saints to show most-often:
- Quarterback: Drew Brees
- Running back: Mark Ingram
- Tight end: Coby Fleener
- Wide receiver: Michael Thomas
- Wide receiver: Willie Snead IV
- Wide receiver: Ted Ginn Jr
- Left tackle: Terron Armstead
- Left guard: Andrus Peat
- Center: Max Unger
- Right guard: Larry Warford
- Right tackle: Zach Strief
One more before we go: longsnapper camp competition!
Kicking Specialists (4): Thomas Morstead (punter), Wil Lutz (placekicker), Jesse Schmitt (longsnapper), and Chase Dominguez (longsnapper).
For the first time in years it feels like the Saints have settled on a kicker. Lutz was spotty until the Saints brought in assistant special teams coordinator Kevin O’Dea, who worked with Lutz on his launch angles and other tricks of the trade. Lutz then went on to not miss a kick for the rest of the 2016 season. Morstead is still one of the league’s best punters. The real controversy this year will be between young longsnappers Jesse Schmitt and Chase Dominguez. It just might be the most-riveting training camp battle yet.