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Second-year Saints who can make a big splash

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Who has the most to gain from a year of experience?

NEW ORLEANS, LA - New Orleans Saints defensive end Al-Quadin Muhammad (97) rushes against  New York Jets offensive tackle Kelvin Beachum (68) during the second  half at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.
NEW ORLEANS, LA - New Orleans Saints defensive end Al-Quadin Muhammad (97) rushes against New York Jets offensive tackle Kelvin Beachum (68) during the second half at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.
Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports

There isn’t enough to be said for the benefits of pro-level strength and conditioning, especially for college players entering the NFL. For many of them this is the first time they will go on a specific nutritional system - not just taking two fish oil tablets in the morning, but seriously overhauling their diet - while picking up new workout routines.

Besides the value of in-game experience, it’s often the single-greatest agent of change for many young players. Shaving five- to ten-percent of body fat off while maintaining playing weight gets guys leaner, stronger, and faster. They’re able to recover better and prepare for gametime more efficiently. While football is as popular as it’s ever been, many college programs around the country simply don’t have the means to train their athletes the way NFL franchises can afford.

That in mind, I’ve come up with five candidates to heighten their game and step forward in 2018. Let’s get started:

EDGE Al-Quaddin Muhammad

NEW ORLEANS, LA - Al-Quadin Muhammad (97) of the New Orleans  Saints celebrates with teammates Mitchell Loewen (70) and Arthur Maulet  (37) after sacking the quarterback during a preseason game against the  Baltimore Ravens at Mercedes-Benz Superdome
NEW ORLEANS, LA - Al-Quadin Muhammad (97) of the New Orleans Saints celebrates with teammates Mitchell Loewen (70) and Arthur Maulet (37) after sacking the quarterback during a preseason game against the Baltimore Ravens at Mercedes-Benz Superdome
Photo by Wesley Hitt/Getty Images

Al-Quaddin Muhammad was the talk of the 2017 preseason, and for good reason. He tied Cincinnati’s Jordan Willis to lead all rookies in sacks during the summer exhibition games (4) and looked the part of New Orleans’ long-sought edge rusher. But when the games started to matter in the regular season Muhammad was put on ice, and played just 24 defensive snaps. The Saints tried to get him some action on special teams, but that just wasn’t an area he was strong in.

Since starting the offseason it appears all Muhammad has done is hit the gym and support youth programs in his hometown of Irvington, New Jersey. He reported to voluntary team workouts in great shape and should take a big leap forward in his second year on a pro strength-and-conditioning regimen. It’s worth noting that he hadn’t appeared in a real football game or undergone organized training prior to last year’s preseason since December 2015 due to getting scapegoated in Miami’s latest booster violations.

OL Cameron Tom

CARSON, CA - New Orleans Saints center Cameron Tom (63) prepares to snap the ball during a preseason exhibition game against the Los Angeles Chargers at the StubHub Center.
CARSON, CA - New Orleans Saints center Cameron Tom (63) prepares to snap the ball during a preseason exhibition game against the Los Angeles Chargers at the StubHub Center.
Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

A common theme emerging in sophomore standouts is the impact pro-level nutrition and training can have on their growth. Like Al-Quaddin Muhammad, Cameron Tom joined the Saints last year underweight and possessing plenty of room to grow. He reported to the team standing tall for a center but relatively thin (nearly 6-foot-4, and just 291-pounds per NFL Draft Scout) and it shows in his college tape. The Saints currently list Tom as weighing in at 300-pounds on the team site, and it’s very likely he’s added “good weight” in lean muscle mass just like Terron Armstead and Andrus Peat did in the past.

Tom never took a snap for New Orleans last year, but he was still a coveted player. Before being promoted to the active roster he was the nation’s highest-paid practice squad member with suitors like Washington looking to secure his services. Now he has a chance to prove he can be a long-term solution once Max Unger retires. I’m slightly biased by sharing Tom’s alma mater (#SMTTT) but for me personally, that just makes his storyline more fun to watch.

CB Arthur Maulet

NEW ORLEANS, LA - New Orleans Saints defensive backs Justin Hardee (34), Arthur Maulet (37), and Marshon Lattimore (right) celebrate with fans after beating the Carolina Panthers at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.
NEW ORLEANS, LA - New Orleans Saints defensive backs Justin Hardee (34), Arthur Maulet (37), and Marshon Lattimore (right) celebrate with fans after beating the Carolina Panthers at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.
Photo by Jonathan Bachman/Getty Images

There was a lot of hope that Arthur Maulet would crack the active roster as a slot defender but that never materialized despite a season-ending injury to slot specialist Kenny Vaccaro and inadequate play in a small sample size from P.J. Williams. Instead, Maulet emerged as an important special teams player down the stretch, appearing in 91 reps over the final five games. Given the number of secondary coaches on staff (defensive coordinator Dennis Allen, rising star Aaron Glenn, and senior assistant Peter Giunta) you’d think Maulet would have played more if he were ready.

Maulet has had a prominent social media presence this offseason, checking in from beachfront workouts in Miami. That combination of resistance-and-cardio training on a sandy surface is favored by some of the league’s best slot specialists like Jason Verrett (Los Angeles Chargers) and Chris Harris Jr (Denver Broncos), as well as former Saints receiver Brandin Cooks, now playing for the Los Angeles Rams by way of the New England Patriots. There’s no doubt that Maulet is in shape - the question is whether he can move up the cornerback depth chart, much less threaten Patrick Robinson as the starting slot defender.

WR Austin Carr

MINNEAPOLIS, MN - An in-game shot of New Orleans Saints wide receiver Austin Carr (80) lining up against the Minnesota Vikings (not pictured) taken from his official Instagram profile.

Austin Carr only got on the field for three plays after getting poached from the New England Patriots during final roster cuts, but that hasn’t stopped fans from speculating early and often that he can break out in year two. It’s an easy match to make: Carr wins best on dig- and out-routes, stressing defenses close to the sideline, similarly to Willie Snead in his past life.

Carr’s Instagram posts suggest he has been working hard this offseason to refine his route-running and get more comfortable reeling in passes towards his back-shoulder. He is going to need those skills and a keen sense of timing to succeed as an option in the slot for Drew Brees. It remains to be seen whether Carr will meet that billing, but at worst he should be considered a serious candidate for the Saints’ fourth receiver spot.

FS Marcus Williams

MINNEAPOLIS, MN - JANUARY 14:  Marcus Williams (43) of the New Orleans  Saints runs with the ball after intercepting Minnesota  Vikings quarterback Case Keenum (not pictured) during the second half of the NFC Divisional Playoff game at  U.S. Bank Stadium.
MINNEAPOLIS, MN - JANUARY 14: Marcus Williams (43) of the New Orleans Saints runs with the ball after intercepting Minnesota Vikings quarterback Case Keenum (not pictured) during the second half of the NFC Divisional Playoff game at U.S. Bank Stadium.
Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images

This one is kind of cheating considering how high of a level Marcus Williams played in 2017. The rookie consistently handled his assignments with discipline, covering sideline-to-sideline and managing his deep zones. Only Cameron Jordan played more defensive snaps (987) than Williams (958), with the next-best defender trailing both by a mile (Ken Crawley, at 820). His final six games - stretching from December to New Orleans’ two playoffs appearances - saw him log 38 tackles (30 solo) and four interceptions, three of those turnovers coming in his last three games. Don’t get caught up on the disaster in Minnesota.

Judging from his social media presence Williams has only left the gym this offseason to eat, sleep, and make guest appearances at New Orleans-area middle school pep rallies (also held in gyms). He’s turned his mistake into serious motivation and looks ready to mount a Pro Bowl campaign in his second season. Saints fans worldwide should be excited to see what Williams’ next move is. We should also be praying for the first opponent in his crosshairs, because Williams is going to do unholy things to erase that ugly Minneapolis memory.

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Which second-year Saints player are you hoping makes the biggest jump?