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Position battles to watch when the New Orleans Saints face the Los Angeles Chargers

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The starting units are expected to see much more playing time, but many roster spots are still up for grabs.

NFL: New Orleans Saints at Los Angeles Chargers Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

The New Orleans Saints and Los Angeles Chargers square off against each other this evening, this after the two shared joint practice sessions on Wednesday and Thursday. It's the third preseason game for both teams, and we should see many of the starters on both sides for much of the first half, some perhaps even into the 3rd quarter. While a battle for the number two quarterback spot continues between Tom Savage, Taysom Hill, and possibly even J.T. Barrett, there are still many roster spots being hotly contested at other positions throughout the team. Many of these players may not even see the field tonight against Los Angeles until late in the game, but must take full advantage of dwindling chances before cutdown day in less than two weeks.

Running Back

NFL: New Orleans Saints at Los Angeles Chargers Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports

It certainly seems as if the number three running back job behind Mark Ingram and Alvin Kamara is now Jonathan Williams' to lose. Williams has looked very good in both preseason contests, as well as practice, which is especially important since Ingram will be suspended for the first four games of the year. Saints coach Sean Payton felt comfortable enough with Williams' production that the team cut Terrance West this past week, a veteran that was signed to provide experienced depth. Another veteran, Shane Vereen, is still fighting with rookie 6th round pick Boston Scott and returning 2nd year back Trey Edmunds to round out the running back squad. Edmunds has also seen time at fullback, where he seems unlikely to displace Zach Line, but making himself a more versatile asset to the offensive unit. Scott also adds value because of his ability to return kicks, but looks to be behind veteran receiver Brandon Tate as the top returner. With all three backs able to provide multiple dimensions for the team, Scott, Vereen, or Edmunds will have to establish themselves as viable rushing threats to firmly grab on to a roster spot.

Poll

Who seems most likely to be the final running back to start the season?

This poll is closed

  • 13%
    Trey Edmunds
    (71 votes)
  • 81%
    Boston Scott
    (425 votes)
  • 5%
    Shane Vereen
    (28 votes)
524 votes total Vote Now

Offensive Line

NFL: Arizona Cardinals at New Orleans Saints Chuck Cook-USA TODAY Sports

The backup line showed improved play against Arizona last week, particularly in the running game, after an uneven performance against Jacksonville in week one. Will Clapp and Rick Leonard, two rookie draft picks, have each shown marked improvement with each week. Josh Leribeus and Cameron Tom return after giving the Saints some quality depth down the stretch of last season, and veteran Jermon Bushrod is a former Saint great who returned as a free agent this offseason. Michael Ola, Landon Turner, and Andrew Tiller have also received a large number of reps this preseason, as New Orleans looks to establish quality depth behind one of the best starting offensive lines in the NFL.

Wide Receiver

NFL: Arizona Cardinals at New Orleans Saints Chuck Cook-USA TODAY Sports

The return of Cameron Meredith to the lineup last week against the Cardinals firmly settles the top four wideout spots along with Michael Thomas, rookie 3rd round pick Tre'quan Smith, and veteran deep threat Ted Ginn Jr. Veteran free agent signee Brandon Tate, who has had some nice moments as a receiver in practice, and is currently the team's top kick returner, looks to be the favorite for the fifth wideout spot. Rarely will the Saints carry six receivers to enter the season, but if they do then undrafted rookie Keith Kirkwood, returning vet Tommylee Lewis, Austin Carr, or Michael Floyd could be in the mix. Kirkwood and Carr have each played well at times this summer, but neither has shown the consistency to overtake Tate. Lewis was terrific in each of the previous two preseasons, and was also the team's primary kick and punt returner. He has clearly been passed by both Tate and Boston Scott in the return game though, and has not proven to be a consistent threat in the passing game, while Floyd has done little to be worthy of a spot on this team. Barring an unbelievable performance, Kirkwood and Carr both seem destined for the practice squad, while Lewis and Floyd seem out of the mix altogether.

Poll

Who would be the pick if the Saints kept an extra wideout?

This poll is closed

  • 18%
    Austin Carr
    (86 votes)
  • 16%
    Michael Floyd
    (79 votes)
  • 40%
    Keith Kirkwood
    (192 votes)
  • 25%
    Tommylee Lewis
    (119 votes)
476 votes total Vote Now

Tight End

NFL: New Orleans Saints at Jacksonville Jaguars Reinhold Matay-USA TODAY Sports

Josh Hill has played fairly well during Benjamin Watson's absence from the lineup with injury, and will probably again start the year as the number two tight end. Converted wideout Dan Arnold has made some plays in the last couple of weeks, moving ahead of undrafted rookie Deon Yelder and putting himself in the conversation as the third tight end. To do so, he must outperform veterans John Phillips, Michael Hoomanawanui, and Garrett Griffin in tonight's contest, as well as next week's preseason finale against the Rams. Phillips and Hooman are both fine blockers, and can be effective short-range pass targets, while Griffin was having a quietly effective camp early. Overall, the position has been underwhelming, but Arnold looks like he could potentially steal a roster position away from a couple of much more established veterans.

Poll

Who is the probable choice for number three tight end?

This poll is closed

  • 58%
    Dan Arnold
    (266 votes)
  • 8%
    Garrett Griffin
    (40 votes)
  • 22%
    Michael Hoomanawanui
    (102 votes)
  • 9%
    Deon Yelder
    (43 votes)
451 votes total Vote Now

Defensive Line

Baltimore Ravens v New Orleans Saints Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images

Beyond the excitement of seeing Marcus Davenport, the 14th overall draft pick, in game action for the first time, the Saints are still facing some tough decisions along the defensive line. Cameron Jordan is one of best defensive players in the league, Sheldon Rankins and David Onyemata each could be poised for stardom inside, end Trey Hendrickson has already shown great improvement, and underrated Alex Okafor is expected back at full strength from injury. Tackle Tyeler Davison has been an effective run stuffer inside, but has been overshadowed this preseason by outstanding play at times from undrafted rookie Taylor Stallworth and Devaroe Lawrence. End Mitchell Loewen has stood out with his nonstop motor, and has the versatility to play inside on some alignments. Second year Al-Quadin Muhammad led the Saints in sacks last preseason, but hasn't been nearly as effective thus far this summer. Nor has veteran George Johnson, who played well to end last season after coming in as a free agent. It seems pretty obvious that the top-7 defensive line rotation will be formidable this season, but Stallworth, Loewen, or Lawrence could still crack this deep squad with a disruptive showing in the next two weeks. New Orleans will almost certainly have to part ways with a couple of very capable linemen from this deep unit.

Poll

Which defensive lineman is most likely to be kept for the start of the regular season?

This poll is closed

  • 13%
    Taylor Stallworth
    (60 votes)
  • 32%
    Mitchell Loewen
    (140 votes)
  • 39%
    Devaroe Lawrence
    (172 votes)
  • 11%
    Al-quadin Muhammad
    (50 votes)
  • 2%
    George Johnson
    (12 votes)
434 votes total Vote Now

Linebacker

NFL: New Orleans Saints at Jacksonville Jaguars Reinhold Matay-USA TODAY Sports

New Orleans is set at the top five spots here, although the team has been working with different combinations between Demario Davis, A.J. Klein, Manti Te'o, Alex Anzalone, and Craig Robertson. Presuming that New Orleans carries six linebackers, that leaves the final spot for either Nate Stupar, Jayrone Elliott, or Hau'oli Kikaha. Stupar adds the most versatility to the group, with his ability to play well on special teams and starting experience at both inside and outside positions. Elliott has been somewhat quiet since his 2.5 sack/2 forced fumble performance against Jacksonville, but Payton has acknowledged Elliott's raw talent as an edge rusher. He likely will need to play well on special teams in each of the next two games, along with another good defensive showing, to have a chance to edge out Stupar. The odd man out right now looks like Kikaha. A 2015 2nd round draft choice, he has shown promise with eight career sacks and five fumbles forced in 27 games, but has been limited by injuries, including missing the entire 2016 season. He also won't be a factor on special teams, and is a liability in pass coverage.

Poll

Which LB is most likely to make the Saints roster?

This poll is closed

  • 42%
    Nate Stupar
    (176 votes)
  • 39%
    Jayrone Elliott
    (163 votes)
  • 18%
    Hau'oli Kikaha
    (78 votes)
417 votes total Vote Now

Secondary

NFL: New Orleans Saints at Jacksonville Jaguars Douglas DeFelice-USA TODAY Sports

Another position that looks deep in talent is in the secondary, especially at the cornerback position. Normally, the Saints keep ten defensive backs, with an even number of safeties and corners, but many expect them to keep an extra corner or two because of both talent and versatility at the spot. The team's top 4 safeties are set, with Marcus Williams, Vonn Bell, Kurt Coleman, and Chris Banjo. Their cornerbacks are led by Marshon Lattimore, Ken Crawley, and Patrick Robinson. Arthur Maulet could have a solid grip on the number four spot, with an outstanding training camp and solid coverage in both of the two preseason games. Rookie Natrell Jamerson has been singled out by coaches recently for improving play as camp has gone along, and he has the ability to play safety and corner, along with providing very good special teams play. Fellow rookie draft choice Kamrin Moore has done little throughout preseason, but undrafted rookie Linden Stephens has gotten increased defensive snaps over the past two games, and has been a part of solid kick coverage squads. Second year Justin Hardee is among the Saints best special teams players, but has also been solid in coverage of late. P.J. Williams, a 3rd round draft pick in 2015, has been speculated to be on the roster bubble by some. He appeared in all 16 games for the first time in his career last year, starting six and intercepting two passes, but has often been inconsistent, and has missed time recently with injury. Maulet and Jamerson have all but clinched spots, and Hardee may be tough to overtake on the depth chart. If the Saints do keep 7 cornerbacks, it would take a convincing performance from either Stephens, Moore, or even Williams in both of the last two games.

Poll

Which player is most likely to convince Saints coaches to keep an extra cornerback?

This poll is closed

  • 68%
    P.J. Williams
    (267 votes)
  • 16%
    Linden Stephens
    (66 votes)
  • 14%
    Kamrin Moore
    (57 votes)
390 votes total Vote Now

Many of the toughest roster decisions facing Sean Payton and the New Orleans coaching staff appears to be on the defensive side of the football. While many of the top spots at most positions look to be already settled, remember that the Saints depth was tested in each of the last two years when the team was hit hard by injuries defensively and along the offensive line. With the top units expected to play up to half of this game against the Chargers, the opportunity to make a final impression on coaches for many players fighting for reserve spots are now extremely limited on one of the deepest New Orleans Saints teams in recent memory.