The New Orleans Saints began their first week of training camp with a handful of intense practices. The Saints officially started their 2019 preseason a little over a week ago, and already observers have noticed how sharp both the first team offense and defense has been. Not unusual for any team, the Saints have made a handful of moves already. Coming off of an evening practice at Tulane University Sunday evening, the Saints are now preparing for their preseason opener this Friday night, a home contest against the Minnesota Vikings. Here are some of the main early headlines from Saints training camp thus far.
The record breaking return of a record breaking wideout
Wide receiver Michael Thomas made headlines by skipping the first few official practices while he and the team put the finishing touches on a contract extension. The 26-yr. old receiver then made headlines in his return to camp, agreeing to a five year deal worth 100 million dollars and a reported 61 million in guarantees. It is the first 100 million deal in NFL history by a non-quarterback offensive player, and insures that one of the Saints' most important players stays with the franchise. Thomas led the NFL with 125 receptions in 2018, finishing with a team record 1,405 yards and 9 touchdowns. His first three seasons have totaled 321 catches for 3,787 yards and 23 touchdowns, setting a league standard for productivity within a player's first three years. A notoriously hard worker, Thomas looked ready for week one from the moment he stepped back onto the practice field on Friday. Thomas was the dominant force in the New Orleans passing attack a year ago, but some other names are beginning to separate themselves from a hotly contested battle at the position.
Ready to step forward.
Other New Orleans receivers had more opportunities early in camp during Thomas' absence, and a few took advantage of chance. Second year wideout Keith Kirkwood stepped into Thomas' spot with the starting unit and by all accounts looked good. Fellow second year player Tre'quan Smith has also shown signs that he is ready to capitalize on his potential, while veteran Ted Ginn Jr. is reminding people that he should still be a big factor in the Saints offense. The star of training camp so far though has been undrafted rookie receiver Emmanuel Butler. The rookie has dazzled onlookers with his performance in the first week, although he did sit out Sunday evening's practice with a minor injury. The 6'4 220-lb. Butler has drawn comparisons from many to former Saints great Marques Colston. Undrafted after a stellar career at Northern Arizona, Butler has outstanding hands, a good catch radius, and sharp route running ability that has even stood out against the Saints top cornerbacks. The performance of Butler, Smith, Kirkwood, and the healthy return of Ginn are a good early sign for a New Orleans receiving corps that struggled last season outside of Thomas. Butler must continue to impress if he is to hold off another impressive youngster in blazing fast Cyril Grayson, along with veteran addition Rishard Matthews. An improved Saints receiving corps could be a match up problem for opposing defenses, but not as much as another offseason addition that reminds some of a record setting Saints offense from just a few years ago.
Jared Cook was hands down the top tight end available on the free agent market. The eleven year veteran is coming off a career season with Raiders in 2018, catching 68 passes for 896 yards and 6 touchdowns. The 32-yr. old Cook has shown excellent chemistry quarterback Drew Brees early in camp, and will give the New Orleans offense an added dangerous dimension. The 6'5 254-lb. tight end threatens opposing defenses all over the field, something the Saints have been missing in their lineup since the presence of All-Pro Jimmy Graham from 2011-14. The addition of Cook creates match up nightmares for opposing defenses who already had to contend with the superstar skills of Thomas and the versatile Alvin Kamara. The Saints offense wasn't the only unit to draw attention as camp ended it's first week. The New Orleans defense more than held their own against one of the league's best offenses, often even besting coach Sean Payton's versatile unit. While the front seven, led by All-Pro defensive end Cameron Jordan and linebacker Demario Davis, is expected to be a force, many eyes were on the maligned Saints secondary.
Don't pass on these guys.
Third year cornerback Marshon Lattimore is having his best start to training camp so far, according to many. The 2017 Defensive Rookie of the Year has bested his wide receiver counterparts on many occasions in one on one drills, and has been singled out for his hard work and competitive battling. Lattimore got off to a slow start in 2018, and his overall performance was down from his rookie Pro Bowl campaign. He is the Saints top defensive back, and will be expected to take on some of the best wideouts in the NFL. A player that struggled even more in his sophomore season was safety Marcus Williams. A 2nd round draft pick in 2017, Williams played at a Pro Bowl much of his rookie year before slumping last season. He has had a quietly solid camp so far, as coaches and fans are hoping for a bounceback performance from their safety in 2019. Veteran cornerbacks Ken Crawley and Justin Hardee are also having solid camps out of the gate. The 26-yr. old Crawley was an afterthought on most people's roster projections this year after massive struggles and an eventual benching a year ago. Early indications are that the fourth year pro may be returning to his 2017 form though, when he proved to be a solid compliment to Lattimore. Hardee meanwhile, is showing that he is more than a special teams standout, drawing attention to himself with a number of pass breakups on different receivers. The top three corner spots seem set with Lattimore, fellow starter Eli Apple, and slot standout Patrick Robinson. Crawley and Hardee are each showing that they are very much in the mix for the last roster spots at the position though.
Two rookie defensive backs that are showing why the Saints valued them so much in last spring's draft are Chauncey Gardner-Johnson (4th round) and Saquan Hampton (6th round). Gardner-Johnson is showing the range and athleticism to put him in the mix for a slot coverage role. The versatile safety has been impressive since mini-camp, and looks like he could earn alot of playing time in the secondary. Hampton doesn't have quite the range as Gardner-Johnson, but has shown a nose for the football in nearly every practice, something that was missing from the team's secondary play last season.
Ready to go!
The top units on each side of the ball look ready for the season opener, but we should expect to see little of them in the first two preseason games. Kamara, Brees, Thomas, Jordan, Davis, etc. are already sharp and in great shape. Players like running back Dwayne Washington, quarterback Taysom Hill, tight end Dan Arnold, and numerous defensive players have been singled out by coach Payton for their practice performances in the first week of training camp. Beginning with Friday's preseason opener against the Vikings, they must now translate those practice performances into game time production to cement roster positions.