The New Orleans Saints come into the final game of the 2018 regular season with nothing to play for in the standings. They won the NFC South weeks ago, and clinched the NFC's number one seed and home field through the playoffs with their victory over Pittsburgh last week. A number of the Saints starters are not expected to play, or receive little playing time, when New Orleans hosts NFC South rival Carolina to end their regular season.
While a few of the team's stars are on the brink of some significant records, this game will be mostly about avoiding injuries and allowing key players to go into the postseason with fresh legs. There are a few New Orleans players that will receive a significant opportunity in this game to make an impression on coaches for the future, or perhaps earn additional playing time this postseason. Here are five Saints players that fans should be watching closely as the team hopes to notch a franchise season record 14th victory against the Panthers.
The rookie 3rd round pick Smith has shown gamebreaking potential, exhibiting both the ability to make a play down the field as well as the skills to make a tough catch in traffic. He has 397 receiving yards, third on the team, on 25 receptions while catching 4 touchdowns. He's had two spectacular games, catching 3 passes for 111 yards against Washington with two long scores and 10 receptions for 157 yards and a touchdown against Philadelphia. Unfortunately for New Orleans, Smith has only 12 catches for 129 yards and one score in the team's other 13 games outside of those two, including six games without a single reception. The 6'2, 210-lb. third round pick from Central Florida has the hands and athleticism to be an NFL star, but has struggled with consistency, something that has plagued the entire receiving corps outside of Thomas. Veteran Ted Ginn Jr. returned to the New Orleans lineup last week after a ten game injury absence. With Ginn's playoff experience and knowledge of the Saints offense, Smith may need a standout performance against Carolina to keep earning a significant number of reps in base packages during the postseason.
The team is high on Kirkwood, an undrafted rookie from Temple. He started the year on the practice squad, but has been active for the last seven games, and has carved out a bigger role in the team's passing attack. Kirkwood has caught 13 passes for 209 yards and two touchdowns in his 7 games of action, and seems to have earned the trust of his Hall of Fame quarterback quickly. He has good size (6'3, 210) with underrated athleticism and sharp route running skills. With Michael Thomas unlikely to play much against the Panthers, Kirkwood may take on some of Thomas' route responsibilities. The Saints passing game is predicated on success through intermediate routes, and Kirkwood's skillset could be essential for what Drew Brees and the passing game are able to accomplish in the playoffs.
Clapp has gotten much more playing time in recent weeks, due to some injuries along the team's offensive line. More suited to an interior role than at tackle, he stepped into a guard spot when Andrus Peat was moved out to left tackle. Clapp has given the team some solid play, but was a bit uneven at times. With different injuries suffered to every starter along the Saints line over the last month, Clapp must show that he can hold up against a physical front seven like Carolina's to give the coaching staff confidence in their depth here going into the playoffs.
Hill has been a novelty for Saints coach Sean Payton; a Swiss Army knife for both the New Orleans special teams and offense. He has 34 rush attempts for 185 yards and a touchdown, six special teams tackles, averaged 24.9 yards on 14 kickoff returns, a momentum changing punt block against Tampa Bay, and has completed 3 of 7 pass attempts for 64 yards. Hill probably won't receive many snaps at quarterback in this game, as Teddy Bridgewater is expected to get the bulk of reps behind center. We should, however, expect Payton to use Hill in a variety of different offensive packages that we haven't seen to date. (Bold Prediction: Taysom Hill throws a touchdown pass to Bridgewater in this game)
Bridgewater was acquired for a 3rd round draft choice in the upcoming draft to secure the number two quarterback spot. He has seen snaps in mop-up duty only this year, but is expected to get the majority of the snaps this Sunday. Bridgewater is scheduled to become an unrestricted free agent at year's end, so this will essentially be a job audition for him. His performance in this game, even with a limited squad around him, may dictate whether the Saints attempt to sign him to a longterm deal as a possible successor to Drew Brees.
The New Orleans defense may rest certain players as well, but this unit has shown solid depth most of the season, particularly along the defensive line. The Saints come into the finale with the league's number one ranked run defense, and having forced 19 turnovers over the last nine games. They've allowed five of their last six opponents to less than 20 points, and have been one of the more disruptive defenses in the league over the last half of the year. They now face a Panthers team who is down to their 3rd string quarterback, and one who has lost seven consecutive games. Carolina still does have one of the NFL's most versatile weapons in Christian McCaffrey, who has 1,080 yards rushing with 7 touchdowns, and 106 receptions for 845 yards and another six scores. The Saints defense already held McCaffrey to just 53 yards rushing, and 120 scrimmage yards, two weeks ago, and will design their game plan around containing him again. The New Orleans defense has bottled up the likes of McCaffrey, Saquon Barkley, Todd Gurley, and Ezekiel Elliott this season, while shoring up early season struggles against the pass. This Panthers offense isn't nearly as talented as some of the others that New Orleans could face in the playoffs, but even if some stars like Cam Jordan are limited, this game could preview what we could expect from the Saints defense during their championship chase.
Other than Bridgewater, which of these Saints players do you expect to have a big performance on Sunday?
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