After what feels like an eternity, the New Orleans Saints will play a football game again, when they take the field against the Jacksonville Jaguars this Thursday in the preseason opener for both teams. Although the game doesn't count in the standings, there will be plenty at stake for both squads, each of whom have Super Bowl aspirations for the 2018 season. Neither team is expected to play their starters very much, if at all, but both teams will use this as an opportunity to begin to answer some key roster questions. The Saints, who have one of the most balanced rosters in the NFL on each side of the ball, will have a number of important depth issues to answer during the entire preseason. The Saints have some key position battles in spots that look deep on paper, but have some inexperience. Many are talking about the competition for the backup quarterback job behind Drew Brees between Taysom Hill, Tom Savage, and J.T. Barrett. While that does bear watching, here are five positions to keep a close eye on in Thursday's game that will have a larger influence on the success of the 2018 Saints.
There is a ton of excitement over Saints rookie receiver Tre'quan Smith, and rightly so. The 3rd round pick from Central Florida has looked dominant at times against a very good New Orleans secondary. Smith may not see a ton of action on Thursday, because he has already worked his way near the top of the depth chart, but expect him to have alot of balls thrown his direction early. The Saints recent release of Brandon Coleman with an injury designation further opened the door for what may be the final receiver spot available on the roster. Returning vet Tommylee Lewis looks to be the early favorite to grab the fifth spot, behind superstar Michael Thomas, speedster Ted Ginn Jr., offseason free agent signing Cameron Meredith, and the rookie 3rd round pick Smith. Lewis has had a solid camp thus far, and dazzled during the 2017 preseason. He will likely face stiff competition to retain his spot from Austin Carr, undrafted rookie Keith Kirkwood, and recently signed veterans Michael Floyd and Brandon Tate. Floyd has a history of producing at the NFL level, averaging 910 yards per season with 17 touchdowns with Arizona between 2013-15, but legal troubles have hampered his career, and he has been with 3 teams in the last 3 years. Tate has been more productive as a kick returner during his nine year career, but has had some nice moments as a wideout during his brief time in Saints camp. The coaching staff is high on Carr, leading back to last season. He is a crisp route runner with sure hands that could prosper from the slot. Kirkwood is a big bodied target, similar to Coleman, but is a physical receiver that can make plays in the open field and be a threat near the end zone. The 26-yr. old Coleman may still return to the team once fully healthy, but the onus is now on an unproven group to show that they could add quality depth in the meantime.
One of the storylines for the Saints this offseason is how they would replace the production of Mark Ingram during his four game league suspension to start the year. Alvin Kamara, one of the most versatile weapons in the league, will be one of the focal points of the New Orleans offense. The group behind him, however, has alot of questions to answer before the season opener. Boston Scott, a rookie 6th round pick, has shown nice open field elusiveness and the ability to explode through the line. Trey Edmunds returns for his second season, after showing the tendencies of a power runner a year ago. Edmunds and fullback Zach Line are the only backs on the roster who had a carry in 2017 other than Ingram and Kamara. Jonathan Williams was signed to the Saints practice squad last season after showing flashes of being a solid back with Buffalo the previous year. Williams was a productive weapon in college at Arkansas, able to run with both power and speed, but various injuries have slowed his progress in the NFL. New Orleans signed veteran backs Shane Vereen and Terrance West prior to training camp to provide experienced depth. Both West and Vereen have had productive seasons in the past, and will now have the opportunity to step up if the inexperienced running backs struggle.
New Orleans first round draft choice Marcus Davenport has been ruled out of this game, as the team brings him back cautiously from injury. Alex Okafor, returning from last year's mid-season Achilles injury, is ahead of pace and looks to be fully recovered, but coaches may use him sparingly early in preseason. Cam Jordan is one of the league's best defensive players, but is unlikely to see much action in this game, giving a few other players a chance to showcase their abilities on one of New Orleans' deepest positions. Second year Al-quadin Muhammad has shown good ability off the edge, and was among the NFL leaders in sacks last preseason. Muhammad was a raw player, often inactive last season because of his struggles with poor positioning at times. He has looked improved in that area at times in camp, and hopes to combine better awareness with his physical talent for a higher spot on the depth chart. Last year's 3rd round pick Trey Hendrickson also showed flashes of being a solid defender, but injuries last season slowed his development. He still had 2 sacks, a forced fumble, played the run well, and looks to be a more productive part of the defensive line rotation this season. Alex Jenkins was on the practice squad last after an impressive preseason outing, a performance that he is repeating so far this camp. Jenkins is part of the NFL's International program, and would not count as a roster spot if he is on the practice squad, but could very well earn a spot on the active roster with another good showing this preseason. George Johnson was signed as a free agent in mid-season last year, and had 2.5 sacks in just five games of action (including postseason), and played the run well, convincing the team to re-sign him to a contract extension this offseason. Johnson is a well-rounded end who may not be a flashy name, but gave the defense solid play when the position was thinned by injury a year ago.
New Orleans looks set in it's top three spots here. Marshon Lattimore looks like one of the league's next defensive superstars, and Ken Crawley and Patrick Robinson make up what could be a formidable cornerback trio. P.J. Williams is the returning nickleback, and could be hard to displace with the solid play he's displayed so far in camp. Second year Arthur Maulet, an undrafted rookie a year ago, has been turning heads with his outstanding play in camp, and is a favorite to take a big step forward this year. Justin Hardee is one of the team's special teams standouts, and will try to solidify another roster spot with coverage opportunities. Natrell Jamerson, Kamrin Moore, and Linden Stephens are all rookies who have each had some good moments in camp, and are hoping to swipe a roster position away in one of the team's deepest areas. While all of these players will have a chance to catch the coaching staff's attention with defensive reps, their best chance to make the coach's decisions tougher will come through special teams performances.
While the Saints coverage squads are more athletic, there has been nothing special about the team's return units in quite some time. Kamara was an explosive kickoff return man when used in that capacity late last season, but the Saints would prefer to keep him for his important offensive role. Tommylee Lewis has been unspectacular, at best, as the primary kick and punt returner over the previous two seasons. Ted Ginn, one of the NFL's most dangerous returners throughout his career, struggled with those duties with the Saints. Natrell Jamerson, Boston Scott, and Brandon Tate are all locked in position battles, but each can clinch their spot if they can add an explosive element to the return game, a major liability over the past few years.
Preseason games can sometimes become monotonous into the later stages of the third and fourth quarters, but that is often when many players can make a play or two that moves them onto an NFL roster. Some fans may be frustrated to see little of their favorite players in the early preseason, while others are going to be closely watching the backup quarterback battle. The New Orleans Saints are one of the deepest teams in the league, a championship caliber roster with talent and depth at nearly every position. Talented players will be competing ferociously to keep their NFL dreams alive, but may not see the field until late in this game because of the talent in front of them on the depth chart. With such a limited chance to make a strong impression in a game environment, we can expect some standout performances from a few of these players, as they begin to answer some of the roster questions that have been asked about the New Orleans Saints for months.
What position are you going to be watching closest when the Saints play the Jaguars?
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