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Top New Orleans Saints training camp battles to watch

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Training camp is sure to generate a lot of interest for the Saints, as they try to piece together their best 53 players for 2017. Of course, competition isn’t a bad thing.

NFL: New Orleans Saints-Minicamp Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports

After a long offseason wait, the New Orleans Saints are on the doorsteps for training camp. The team is one of five that are scheduled to have rookies report to work on Tuesday, with the rest of the squad joining them a week later. While some players would appear to have roster spots locked down, other members of the 90-man squad will have their work cut out for them. Here’s some of the position battles to watch intently.

Linebacker

Many get caught up in a base alignment for Dennis Allen’s defense, pointing out whether or not the team will run a 4-3 or 3-4 scheme, or play more 3-safety sets. While there were predominantly a lot of 3-safety sets in the team’s walkthroughs during minicamp, the Saints did have some 4-3 looks. A.J. Klein and Craig Robertson likely hold the top considerations for the team’s starting linebackers, with Klein being the favorite for middle linebacker.

Returning linebackers Stephone Anthony, Dannell Ellerbe, and Nathan Stupar look to use their experience with Dennis Allen’s scheme to help their case for the squad. However, Ellerbe’s injury history and age makes him an easy and early roster bubble candidate. Mike Nolan, who replaces Joe Vitt and James Willis as linebackers coach, certainly brings some excitement to the Saints. He’ll look to resurrect Anthony from the lost and forgotten, and he also has a familiar face in Manti Te’o to help out. There’s plenty of buzz on rookie Alex Anzalone, who was the team’s third-round pick. He and BYU’s Sae Tautu are the ‘young guns’ looking to make their mark.

Lastly, but surely not forgotten, is CFL pickup Adam Bighill. The 28-year-old was a six-year standout linebacker for the B.C. Lions. From what I’ve seen at minicamp and what I know about him, he’s one you surely can’t count out of the conversation. The path for him, along with many of these aforementioned linebackers, will be their special teams contributions.

Cornerback

Delvin Breaux and Marshon Lattimore are the assumed starting cornerbacks going into this season, but the battle for No. 3-5 (there could be as many as 6) is where it’ll get fun. Veteran Sterling Moore re-signed with the Saints during the offseason, and should arguably be in the mix after coming off a strong season. The biggest question is where he fits, as the team will need a strong slot cornerback in addition to stellar backups.

During minicamp, P.J. Williams and Ken Crawley saw the majority of the action with the first team. Williams, the former third-rounder from 2015, is expected to have a large role for the Saints after being cleared from a nasty concussion suffered last season. The same could be said about Damian Swann, the team’s fifth-round pick from 2015 who didn’t even see the field last year. Crawley, along with De’Vante Harris, enter their second year with the team, combining for 25 games played during their rookie season after having to fill in for injuries.

Taveze Calhoun spent time on the team’s practice squad last year, and looks to use his learnings to contribute. The biggest buzz in the secondary might be around Memphis’ Arthur Maulet, who went undrafted but landed with the Saints and even received the most guaranteed money ($27,000) of all UDFAs brought in. Maulet certainly flashed in one-on-one drills during minicamp, and he’s certainly someone to watch.

Defensive End

Some expected the Saints to go big in free agency to land a premiere pass rusher, but that simply wasn’t the case. They did land Alex Okafor after some advocacy from Kenny Vaccaro. While he has primarily been the edge rushing presence opposite of Cameron Jordan in walkthroughs at OTAs and minicamp, he’ll still have some others to fend off.

Two of the many defensive injured players last season, Hau’oli Kikaha and Obum Gwacham, return to compete for at least a reserve spot. Veteran Darryl Tapp re-signed with the Saints on a one-year deal in March, and interestingly enough has been used at both the end and interior spots. That versatility could translate well for the team given the loss of Nick Fairley, and somewhat reminds me of the tweener role Bobby Richardson had.

The new blood in the way of the rookie class starts with fourth-round pick Trey Hendrickson, who was impressive in his time at Florida Atlantic. The selection of sixth-rounder Al-Quadin Muhammad came as a shock to many, but there’s a lot of intrigue to him and whether or not he can put it together under new defensive line coach Ryan Nielsen. The Saints were permitted to nab an 11th practice squad player in Alex Jenkins, as the NFL allowed the NFC South to carry a roster exemption for some players brought over from Europe. However, he won’t be able to be activated this season, regardless of how he performs.

Wide Receiver

After Michael Thomas, Willie Snead, and Ted Ginn Jr., the Saints have some appealing options for presumably the final two spots. Brandon Coleman should enter camp as the next best option for Sean Payton’s offense, especially for his underrated skills as a run blocker. Perhaps Curtis Johnson returning to the team as the wide receivers coach can help Coleman’s outlook in the passing game. Aside those four, the last spot is anyone’s guess.

Corey Fuller likely has the biggest leg up in the competition, being the speedy veteran that he is. Practice squad players from last season Jake Lampman and Jordan Williams-Lambert are also options that can’t be overlooked, as well as the diminutive Tommylee Lewis who played in 12 games last year. Converted wide receiver Justin Thomas and reserve/future addition Rashad Lawrence are virtual long shots at this point, and the same could be said about undrafted rookie free agent Travin Dural. Dural, being a hometown product of sorts, certainly has a lot of fans in his corner. However, he’ll realistically have to impress on a consistent level to warrant consideration for a final roster spot.

Long Snapper

Yes, that’s a real battle. Remember, the Saints did not elect to re-sign Justin Drescher. As unfortunate as it is for him after being on the squad since 2010, the team’s different direction to replace their long snapper since 2011 is a bit interesting. There’s essentially two players set to compete here: 23-year-old undrafted rookie Chase Dominguez out of Utah facing off against 34-year-old veteran Thomas Gafford.

Special teams, as you’re probably fully aware of, has been a big hindrance for the Saints for quite some time. The last thing they need is to regress from some of the progress made after Kevin O’Dea was brought in last season. Special teams coach Brad Banta hopefully has an idea in mind with this particular position, and it’s a very overlooked battle brewing for training camp.

Of course, the elephants in the room here are left tackle and center. I wouldn’t anticipate Khalif Barnes and Bryce Harris being starters for the offense, as rookie Ryan Ramczyk should be able to win that battle pretty quickly. Still, it will be worth watching to see if Harris has learned more since his initial stint with the team from 2012-2014. The center spot, assuming Max Unger is ready by Week 1 like he’s said he should be, may be a moot point. Still, you’ll have Josh LeRibeus, Senio Kelemete, and Jack Allen battling it out, which could be very important if Unger has any sort of setback. One other thing to keep an eye out for is if free agent Nick Mangold sees his ankle situation improve to be able to come back. It wouldn’t be shocking to see the Saints go that route if they feel none of the in-house options are viable.