The New Orleans Saints wrap up the 2018 preseason with a home battle against the Los Angeles Rams this evening. While we got to see the majority of the Saints starters and top units for much of the first half during last week's impressive 36-7 victory over the L.A. Chargers, expect a much different show during this preseason finale. New Orleans begins their regular season in just ten days from tonight, with a home showdown against division rival Tampa Bay, while the Rams play their opener on Monday night against the Oakland Raiders.
Expect both squads to have a very simplistic approach to their game plan, and if any of the starters play at all, it won't likely be for more than a series or two. With that being said, each team still has some important roster decisions to make before the league's cut-down period over the following Labor Day weekend. Thankfully, the Saints backup quarterback question seems to have been answered, for this year anyway, when the team traded with the New York Jets for Teddy Bridgewater on Wednesday afternoon. But there are still plenty of things to be watching closely when these two NFC contenders face off tonight.
Here are a few things to be watching for from the New Orleans perspective during the game.
There were some fans who were concerned, or perhaps confused, that wideouts Tre'quan Smith and Cameron Meredith were still in the lineup so late in the game against the Chargers. Don't be. Sean Payton and the coaching staff clearly wanted to give backup quarterback Taysom Hill some of the top offensive unit to work with through the second half. They also clearly wanted to see something specific from second year wide receiver Austin Carr, who started the game with Drew Brees and the number one unit. Carr caught 3 passes for 38 yards, and has had a solid training camp. He is a shifty prototypical slot receiver with good hands, and looks to be making a late push for a roster spot. The Saints normally keep five wideouts on the active roster, and return man Brandon Tate looks to have the edge for the fifth spot behind superstar Michael Thomas, impressive rookie Smith, and veterans Meredith and Ted Ginn Jr. Carr looks to have moved ahead of undrafted rookie Keith Kirkwood and returning vet Tommylee Lewis on the preseason depth chart. An impressive performance in this final game could convince coaches to keep a sixth receiver, or perhaps even make a surprising decision to move on from a veteran like Ginn, who has struggled throughout preseason.
The running game wasn't as impressive against the Chargers as it had been in the first two preseason games, with the running backs averaging less than 3 yards per carry. Jonathan Williams had a particularly rough time, finishing with a negative three yards on his 3 carries. He does still look to have the edge for the third running back spot behind Mark Ingram and Alvin Kamara, but a battle still remains to round out the position. Rookie sixth round pick Boston Scott continues to show good burst around the edge, and adds an extra dimension with his kick return abilities. Second year back Trey Edmunds has seen snaps at both fullback and running back, but has yet to have a stand out performance. Veteran Shane Vereen is a solid receiving threat out of the backfield, but struggles to pick up yardage between the tackles. These 4 backs will likely split the bulk of the snaps against Los Angeles, and their roster spots may be contingent on a productive performance.
With the exception of rookie 7th round pick Will Clapp, who has improved each week, the Saints reserve line has been inconsistent. Veteran guard/tackle Jermon Bushrod looks in jeopardy of being a roster cut, and Josh LeRibeus has not shown the improvement expected after playing some solid snaps last season. Michael Ola has gotten quite a bit of playing time at tackle this preseason, but may have been passed on the depth chart by rookie 4th round pick Rick Leonard. The coaches are still high on Cameron Tom, who along with Clapp is capable of playing any of the interior line positions. New Orleans is likely going to keep three of these linemen to begin the season, and expect all to receive extensive playing time against the Rams, hopefully showing that the team can have confidence in it's line depth.
The 14th overall pick in the draft finally saw the field last week against the Chargers, and flashed the ability that caused the team to trade up to get him. Davenport would play 15 defensive snaps, and showed good disruption from the edge, finishing with a few quarterback pressures, a half sack, and an impressive tackle for loss on a Charger end around that showcased his athleticism. After missing much of training camp and the first two games of the preseason, we may see Davenport get a good bit of snaps during this contest to get him up to game speed. Alex Okafor and Trey Hendrickson are expected to get the majority of the snaps at defensive end opposite Cam Jordan in the Saints base defense at the start of the regular season, but Davenport could be a disruptive rotational player who should earn more snaps as the season progresses.
UNDRAFTED FREE AGENTS
Taylor Stallworth has played impressive football throughout the preseason, and could be very much in the mix for a job at defensive tackle. New Orleans already has possible break-out stars inside with Sheldon Rankins and David Onyemata, along with reliable run defender Tyeler Davison and Devaroe Lawrence, who looks like he's played his way onto the team with an outstanding preseason. Will Stallworth be able to overtake Davison or Lawrence for a roster spot? Wide receiver Keith Kirkwood started out the preseason strong, but has leveled off in recent weeks, looking like he has been passed up by Carr, as mentioned previously. Rookie cornerback Linden Stephens faces a similar challenge at an equally crowded position. Stephens has played solid on special teams, and has seen some defensive reps late in all three exhibition games. The cornerback position already has a star like Marshon Lattimore, along with Ken Crawley and Patrick Robinson locked into spots. Arthur Maulet and Natrell Jamerson likely have played their way onto the team, leaving one, perhaps two spots up for grabs among some talented players. Stephens will probably need a monumental performance to warrant consideration for the active roster, and must still overtake fellow rookie Kamrin Moore, the "other" Marcus Williams, who returned an interception for a touchdown last week, or a veteran like PJ. Williams, who has been on almost everyone's roster bubble seemingly all summer.
VETERANS FIGHTING FOR A JOB
Cornerback P.J. Williams is one of a handful of Saints veterans who are in a fierce battle to keep their roster spots. Edge rusher Hau'oli Kikaha, defensive end George Johnson, and linebacker Nate Stupar may be on the outside looking in on perhaps the deepest defense we've seen in the Sean Payton era. Could players like Ginn, P.J., linebackers Craig Robertson and A.J. Klein, or Davison along the defensive line be potential trade candidates because of higher salary cap numbers or the performance of some of the young newcomers? The deadline for all NFL teams to reduce their rosters from 90 to 53 players is at 4 p.m. eastern time on Saturday. New Orleans coaches face some tough decisions throughout one of the most talented rosters in the league, and there will be some talented players who may not make this squad. Who can make one final push for a spot when the Saints take on the Rams this evening?
What will you be watching the closest when the Saints wrap up their preseason against the Rams?
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Wide receiver battle
Backup running back competition
Offensive line depth
Marcus Davenport progression
Veterans fighting to keep their spots