By now, you should be familiar with the ‘usual suspects’ to keep an eye on when the New Orleans Saints take the field for training camp starting on Thursday. Reporting day is officially listed on Wednesday for the veterans, with the vast majority hoping to crack the 2017 squad. While everyone will certainly go under a microscope over the next several weeks, here’s a few ‘under the radar’ players that fans should keep a close watch on.
After a strong start to his rookie season, Hau’oli Kikaha had a bothersome injury (ankle) to thank for a big drop off in 2015. The story was much of the same in 2016, as the former second-round pick started last year on the PUP after tearing his ACL (his third time) in June. It’s not uncommon to bet against a player trying to beat the odds to try to contend for a spot, and with the Saints adding Alex Okafor in free agency, bringing back veteran Darryl Tapp, and adding two rookies through the draft (Trey Hendrickson and Al-Quadin Muhammad).
Arguably, the deck is stacked against Kikaha. At minicamp in June, Kikaha said that he’s feeling great, and the plan is waiting for the Saints to give him the green light for full contact. He also stated that he studied plenty of film of Dennis Allen’s defense last season. If the Saints can regain a stable version of Kikaha, then that could instantly help their pass rush.
Some had high hopes of Landon Turner going as a Day 2 draft choice, but he ended up falling to an undrafted free agent that latched on with the Saints. After making the 53-man squad, Turner’s time as a rookie was mostly spent as an inactive on game day. However, he did play in seven games for the Saints, starting in one against the Chargers. In his appearances, Turner filled in as a sixth lineman in jumbo sets and on special teams.
The assumption has been by many that Ryan Ramczyk will pencil himself in as the starting left tackle for the Saints. However, if the team does some experimenting (which doesn’t sound like Sean Payton at all, right?), then you could potentially see Turner getting some looks as the starting left guard (along with Senio Kelemete) while Andrus Peat goes to left tackle. It may not be the most desirable option, but could be one that’s more realistic than you think. Even if that doesn’t happen, Turner is in line to be a big reserve on the depth chart.
After signing with the Saints after his seasons with the CFL, Erik Harris was looking to become the next Delvin Breaux for the team. Harris made the squad last season, and was primarily a strong special teams player in his four appearances. However, Harris tore his ACL in mid-October and was lost for the year.
Harris is expected to be a full participant for the Saints at training camp, and he’ll look to use his special teams play to make the case for the final roster. Dennis Allen’s defense looks to have their 3-safety tandem set in stone with Kenny Vaccaro, Vonn Bell, and rookie Marcus Williams. With the team bringing a back a familiar face in Rafael Bush, the question could be around whether the Saints just keep four safeties for Harris’ sake.
Wide receiver is another position that figures to have the first several spots spoken for, with Michael Thomas, Willie Snead, and Ted Ginn Jr. the top three favorites. The fourth receiver presumably has Brandon Coleman as the frontrunner, but realistically there could be two open spots for the Saints. As of now, that battle looks to involve veteran Corey Fuller, and second-year players Jake Lampman and Jordan Williams-Lambert.
Williams-Lambert turned some heads during last year’s training camp and put together a mixed bag in preseason, and wasn’t able to crack the final squad. However, the Saints did bring him back to the practice squad for 2016, and was a part of the reserve/future deals handed out in January. Like Lampman, having that time on the practice squad will be interesting to watch. If it can translate during training camp and preseason, there’s a chance he could sneak onto the team.
As one of the latest CFL additions to the black and gold, Adam Bighill find himself in a pretty good spot on the Saints. As mentioned the other day in the top training camp battles to watch, the competition is fairly wide open at linebacker, with the main focuses on veterans Craig Robertson and A.J. Klein.
Nate Stupar may be the best and most stable option as a reserve for 2017. Rookie Alex Anzalone certainly brings intrigue to the table, but health concerns are something that can’t be overlooked. Dannell Ellerbe is on the wrong side of 30, and any setbacks in training camp could lead to him being a cut candidate. There’s no telling what the Saints will get out of free agent addition Manti Te’o, and the same could be said on third-year Clemson product Stephone Anthony and undrafted rookie Sae Tautu.
That means good things for Bighill, who was a six-year standout for the B.C. Lions. What stands out when watching and talking with Bighill is his intensity and passion. He’s not afraid to hit anyone, and his 5-foot-10 stature is extremely misleading. Some stellar special teams play coupled with a strong camp and preseason could help Bighill find a home with the Saints linebacking corps.