The New Orleans Saints host the Baltimore Ravens on Thursday night in the final preseason contest for both clubs. The Saints have won their last two games, and come into this finale with a record of 2-1. More important than the wins is the play of the Saints defense that has fans excited. A unit that has ranked near the bottom of the league in 4 of the last 5 seasons has not surrendered a point in the last eight quarters of play. Preseason or not, that is reason for excitement.
Typically in the final preseason game, the stars of the teams will see very little action, if any at all. Unlike recent years, there is only one major cutdown period for teams to trim their rosters from a maximum of 90 players entering camp, to the 53-man maximum for opening day. September 3rd is the final day for NFL teams to reach the mandated 53, so for many suiting up this Thursday night, it may be the last chance to showcase their abilities to prove they belong on an NFL roster.
The Saints coaching staff will have some tough decisions to make following this contest, certainly not wanting to accidently cut ties with a "diamond in the rough" that will go on to stardom with another franchise. (Rob Ninkovich, anyone?)
Today, we have spotlighted a few position battles, and players to watch during this Ravens matchup that could round out the final roster spots as the Saints head into the regular season.
Running Back: Daniel Lasco, Darius Victor, and Trey Edmunds
Mark Ingram, explosive rookie Alvin Kamara, John Kuhn, and Adrian Peterson are obvious locks, and what could make the New Orleans backfield one of the most exciting in the league. Darius Victor has actually led the team in carries (27) and rushing yards (101) this preseason, along with the Saints only rushing touchdown. True, preseason rushing yardage is one of the more meaningless statistics, but it is worth noting that Victor has gotten a number of snaps with the 1st team unit. He has run with power, authority, and even showed some breakaway ability despite playing behind a Saints line that hasn't been fully intact.
Lasco won a roster spot in 2016 primarily because of his special teams ability. He has yet to answer the question of whether he can bring any playmaking ability to an offense (2.5 yards per carry this preseason).
Another dark horse candidate could be Trey Edmunds. The undrafted free agent has shown some good receiving ability out of the backfield, and has seen some special teams snaps as well. Out of the mix it seems is Travaris Cadet, who has been a reliable pass catcher, but offers little upside in the running attack.
The Saints coaches have some interesting decisions to make here. And it is not unusual for Sean Payton to pull a surprise or two at the position, as such past roster spots for undrafted players Pierre Thomas, Chris Ivory, Khiry Robinson, and Cadet can attest.
Offensive Tackle: Bryce Harris and Khalif Barnes
Harris has played slightly better of the two, but neither tackle has exactly distinguished himself over any of the 3 preseason games, although each has been slightly more consistent. Ramczyk and Strief are going to be the opening day starters, and news seems to be increasingly encouraging that Terron Armstead will return much sooner than expected after shoulder surgery. Starting guard Andrus Peat has shown the ability to move outside to tackle, so the Saints may elect to just keep 3 tackles heading into opening day and choose to keep an extra interior lineman instead. It also wouldn't be a surprise if New Orleans brought in another tackle or two for a look after the Sept. 3rd cuts.
Defensive End: Darryl Tapp and Obum Gwacham
Rookie draft picks Al-Quadin Muhammad and Trey Hendrickson have each played extremely well at times; Muhammad has been one of the defensive stars of the preseason. Both players seem to have safely secured roster spots, to go along with Cam Jordan, Alex Okafor, and Hau'oli Kikaha. New Orleans will likely carry six defensive ends, so one of these veterans could be the odd man out. Both players have a sack this preseason, and each have been able to pressure the offensive backfield. Tapp has shown to be the more versatile player of the two, playing well when the team brought him in last season, but Gwacham has shown an explosive first step around the edge.
Linebacker: Stephone Anthony, Adam Bighill, Michael Mauti
One of the stories of the preseason has been the improved play of the New Orleans linebacking corps. Craig Robertson, who was one of the better Saints defenders a year ago, will team with newcomers A.J. Klein, Manti Te'o, and rookie Alex Anzalone to give the Saints their most versatile and athletic units they've had in years. The Saints will typically keep 6-7 linebackers, so that will mean a few spots will still be up for grabs. Nate Stupar's spot seemed to be safe, but an injury suffered against Houston puts his status in question.
Anthony's time with the Saints seems to rapidly be approaching an end. The 2015 1st round pick has missed the last two games after playing 33 snaps and recording 3 tackles and a sack against the Browns. The Saints have reportedly been trying to trade Anthony, but it seems more likely that the team will outright release him. Adam Bighill is improving his chances it seems almost daily. The former CFL star has gotten increased snaps each preseason game, and is always around the ball. Bighill is a versatile player who pursues well sideline to sideline, has underrated coverage abilities, and comes to the play aggressively.
Michael Mauti looks to have put the health problems that short circuited his 2016 behind him. He is a heady veteran player that can play either inside or out, and brings solid special teams play to the mix as well. Bryan Braman was signed just last week primarily for his special teams prowess, and could get some looks at linebacker against the Ravens.
Bighill has shown some playmaker ability in recent practices and over the last two games, and the snap counts at linebacker against Baltimore should be a telling sign for this position.
Cornerback: De'Vante Harris, Arthur Maulet, Damian Swann
Marshon Lattimore and P.J. Williams are going to be the starters, Ken Crawley and Sterling Moore should have spots locked up as well. The Saints usually keep five cornerbacks, although it would not be surprising to see them keep a sixth heading into the season. Delvin Breaux's leg surgery will have him sidelined probably about 6 games, so there will be some additional shuffling here when he returns.
Harris has had some solid moments throughout camp, and mostly backed that up in the games. He probably has the inside track for what could be the final roster spot here. Maulet shined as an undrafted free agent early in offseason workouts, but hasn't seen alot of game action. His aggressiveness and athletic ability are a great fit for Dennis Allen's defense, and we could see the Saints try to stash him on the practice squad.
Malik Foreman is another athletic project who has had some nice moments, but seems destined for the practice squad. Damian Swann showed some nice potential as a rookie in 2015, but multiple concussions and a sharp decline in his play had him on the roster bubble last year, before being placed on injured reserve in preseason. He was arguably the worst performing defensive back on the team through the first two games this preseason, although he did have an interception on an overthrown ball against the Texans and was a bit more sound in coverage.
The 5th spot seems to be De'Vante Harris' to lose. The only two questions seem to be if the Saints want to keep a 6th corner. And, if so, will they want to give Swann another chance, or have they seen enough potential in either Maulet or Foreman to believe that they may not clear waivers for practice squad eligibility.
The last preseason game may lack crisp play in some instances, but will probably not lack in intensity. Many players on the field Thursday night realize that they could be fighting for their professional lives, and these final roster battles may even ultimately reveal the next NFL star.