Preseason is past the halfway point, and the New Orleans Saints are just a handful of days away from breaking their 2019 training camp. The Saints came into training camp with the belief that they had one of the NFL's deepest rosters. After two preseason games, little has happened to dispel that notion. Despite being one of the top Super Bowl favorites entering the season though, New Orleans has shown a few disturbing signs thus far this preseason. Granted, it is after just two games that don't count, but it is vital that the Saints avoid a slow start to the year in a deep and competitive NFC. New Orleans takes the field again this Saturday against the New York Jets, in what will really be the first opportunity to see the full first units of both teams on each side of the ball. A good test in particular, for a couple of position groups that continue to have questions this preseason.
The Saints secondary had major struggles through the first 1/3 of the 2018 season, giving up big plays and passing yards in bunches. They played better over the second half of the year, particularly after trading for cornerback Eli Apple, but the group as a whole was often inconsistent. Pro Bowl corner Marshon Lattimore has not seen alot of time in the preseason games so far, but has generally performed well in practices. Apple though, has had an up and down camp, while most of the rest of the secondary has done the same. Rookie defensive backs Chauncey Gardner-Johnson and Saquan Hampton have turned heads with how well they've played, and each look like they will be key contributors to the defense. Veteran corners Patrick Robinson and P.J. Williams have often not played as well though, particularly in outside coverage, and may have even played themselves on the roster bubble. Offseason signee Kayvon Webster looks like he's played his way into the mix for a backup job, along with special teams ace Justin Hardee, who has played very well. Free safety Marcus Williams continues to play in the funk that plagued him a season ago, and Chris Banjo had an awful game against the Chargers last week in his bid for a roster spot. The communication issues that the unit struggled with down the field early last season continue to be visible through the preseason so far, adding to concerns. The Saints have a stout front seven, although they will need to produce consistent pressure to help their back end. On paper, New Orleans looks to have a deep and capable secondary, but that must translate into on-field performance sooner rather than later.
The receiver spot has performed better than some expected throughout training camp practices. Young additions to the unit have actually created a bit of a logjam toward the back end of the depth chart. Second year player Tre'Quan Smith has had a solid preseason so far, and hopes to be a more consistent threat in this year's offense. The same is expected from fellow 2nd year wideout Keith Kirkwood, who has been nicked up with injuries over the last week. The star of early camp practices was Emmanuel Butler, who sat out the Vikings opener and had a key drop against the Chargers. Speedster Cyril Grayson has been electrifying in the open field, as has Deonte Harris as a kick returner. Simmie Cobbs, Lil'Jordan Humphrey, and veteran Austin Carr have all had numerous moments to make the receiver competition as tight as it's been in years. Major questions still persist though, whether this group can manage do be more productive as a unit than they were in 2018. The final roster decisions at this spot will be among the most intriguing on the team right up until the NFL's August 31st roster deadline. The bigger issue though, is whether the wideouts can compliment the production of All-Pro Michael Thomas. Halfway through the preseason, the results have been somewhat encouraging but generally mixed. Part of the reason for this perhaps, was due to sometimes poor pass protection up front for quarterbacks Taysom Hill and Teddy Bridgewater. Leading us to another concerning area this preseason.
The Saints are going to have perhaps the most dominant starting offensive line in the league again this season. Beyond the talents of tackles Terron Armstead and Ryan Ramczyk, guards Larry Warford and Andrus Peat, along with the expected contributions of rookie 2nd round pick Erik McCoy is the depth of the unit. Interior linemen Nick Easton and Will Clapp have been inconsistent, although Cameron Tom has been solid. More problematic though, has been the play of the Saints backup tackles. Injuries have already hit the position hard. Ulrick John was lost against Minnesota, and subsequently released. Newly signed Chris Clark went down against the Chargers, in a game that also saw Michael Ola leave injured. The group had not been playing well before the injuries, including veteran Marshall Newhouse. The effectiveness of this offensive line powers one of the NFL's most balanced attacks, and bears watching closely against an aggressive Jets defense this weekend.
Fans will get to see the full compliment of New Orleans stars line up against the Jets on Saturday, however briefly. While some other questions remain, such as the awaited breakout of Marcus Davenport and the on-field chemistry between Drew Brees and newly signed tight end Jared Cook, New Orleans is still among the league's championship favorites. Some positions are still being heavily contested, but the team's roster is beginning to take shape. Certain units though, must start to show that they will be able to keep pace with the pending championship chase in front of them.
What has concerned you the most over the Saints first two preseason games?
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The quiet performance of Marcus Davenport