A long offseason following the torturous NFC Championship robbery against the Los Angeles Rams is finally over, and the New Orleans Saints finally get to take the field against a different opponent. The Saints open their preseason with a home game against the Minnesota Vikings later tonight, and they do so as one of the NFL's prohibitive Super Bowl favorites. Most of the top players on each side aren't expected to get much playing time in this exhibition opener, with many likely to sit out altogether. The Saints, like all teams, still have a number of roster spots and depth chart positions up for grabs over the next four weeks of preseason action. Here are some players to keep a close eye on as New Orleans takes the field tonight.
Tre'Quan Smith, wide receiver
Smith, a third round draft choice from Central Florida last season, had a good preseason and did have some standout moments during his rookie year. He caught 3 passes for 111 yards and two long touchdowns during a Monday night win over the Washington Redskins, including a 62-yd. grab that moved quarterback Drew Brees into first place on the NFL's all-time passing yardage list. Smith also torched the Philadelphia Eagles with 10 receptions for 157 yards and a touchdown during a week 11 victory. Smith had just 15 catches for 159 yards and two scores combined in his other 13 games of action though, often failing to get separation or make the big catch in traffic. He has good size at 6'2 210-lbs., to go along with excellent down field speed, but must show he can be consistently productive. Coach Sean Payton felt confident enough in Smith, fellow second year wideout Keith Kirkwood, and the rest of his current receiving corps behind All-Pro Michael Thomas to not address the position highly in either the draft or free agency. Veteran deep threat Ted Ginn Jr. returns to the lineup after missing most of last season with a knee injury. The Saints also signed veteran wideout Rishard Matthews, and undrafted rookie Emmanuel Butler has turned heads with his outstanding performance early in camp. Smith has performed well himself in early practices, but must now transfer that potential onto the field if he hopes to grab a spot high on the depth chart. He should have opportunities, with Thomas unlikely to see much action and going up against a Vikings secondary that is one of the deepest in the league.
Teddy Bridgewater, quarterback
Bridgewater, the 32nd overall draft pick by the Vikings in 2014 who was with them until 2017, re-signed with the Saints on a 1-yr. deal this offseason. Brees is expected to get very little, if any, playing time in this game, with Bridgewater expected to get the majority of the snaps. This preseason will be the first lengthy period that Saints coaches and fans will get to see the 26-yr. old quarterback at the helm of Payton's offense. Bridgewater did start the meaningless season finale a year ago, completing 14 of 22 passes for 118 yards with one touchdown and an interception without a full compliment of weapons around him. Questions continue to surround Brees, as to how much longer he will play, and who takes his place once he does retire. Bridgewater is fully recovered from a devastating knee injury that cost him nearly two years of action, and is now looking to reclaim a starting job in the NFL. If he is to do that with the New Orleans Saints as Brees' successor, he must prove this preseason that he can capably run a high octane offense proficiently.
Dwayne Washington vs. Devine Ozigbo, running back
Washington was singled out last week by Payton for his hard running thus far in camp practices. He is entering his second season with New Orleans, after being picked up on waivers early last year. Washington hits the hole decisively and has a good burst in the open field. He rushed for a career high 108 yards in last year's finale against the Carolina Panthers, and is in a battle for the number three running back spot behind Alvin Kamara and Latavius Murray. Kamara and Murray's spots are already set, and they are unlikely to see alot of action Friday evening. Washington seems to have the early edge for the third spot, but also expected to receive reps are free agent rookie Devine Ozigbo, along with recent signees Jacquizz Rodgers and Kerwynn Williams. Ozigbo in particular, has a skillset that may bode well in the New Orleans offense, but Washington has shown that he is not ready to give up the position without a fierce fight.
Erik McCoy, center
McCoy, who was the Saints top draft choice this spring when the team traded up in the 2nd round to the 48th pick, is the top candidate to replace the retired Max Unger at center. McCoy possesses a powerful punch and is extremely agile at 6'4 303-lbs., and has earned many of the the 1st team reps in practice. He will face competition from free agent signee Nick Easton, along with returning vets Will Clapp and Cameron Tom. McCoy also has an excellent football IQ though, something that should help him pick up the offense quickly to go along with his skillset. He faces a stiff challenge against a Minnesota defensive line that is among the league's most highly regarded.
Marcus Sherels, punt returner
Sherels was signed this offseason after spending nine seasons with the Vikings. He is vying for a backup job at cornerback, but the Saints primarily signed him in hopes of boosting their anemic kick return unit. Sherels has averaged 10.4 yards per punt return in his career, and has taken five back for touchdowns, both Vikings franchise records. His primary competition will likely come from rookie free agent receiver Deonte Harris, who holds the NCAA record with 14 career kickoff and punt return touchdowns. Returner, particularly with punts, have been a major weakness for an otherwise strong New Orleans team for a number of seasons. Kickoff returns were capably handled by Taysom Hill a year ago, but the team would love to add an explosive element to their special teams. Hopefully doing so without using an important starter such as running back Alvin Kamara.
The entire secondary
The Saints finished 29th in the league against the pass last season, much of that due to a secondary that struggled mightily early in the year. Starting cornerbacks Marshon Lattimore and Eli Apple return, as do the top safeties Marcus Williams and Vonn Bell. While we may not see much of those four tonight, a major question remains about their ability to contain top passing attacks or create turnovers. The Saints also struggled against multiple receiver sets and deep receiving units last season, indicative of their questionable depth on the back end. New Orleans added safeties Chauncey Gardner-Johnson and Saquan Hampton in the draft, and both rookies have exhibited themselves very well so far in practice. The Saints also get slot corner Patrick Robinson back from injury, along with returning veterans P.J. Williams, Ken Crawley, Justin Hardee, and Chris Banjo, while signing veteran Kayvon Webster. The secondary faces a stiff test against a talented Minnesota receiving corps that has produced well against them in their last three meetings. While Viking wideouts Adam Thielen, Stefon Diggs, and tight end Kyle Rudolph may not see a great deal of playing time tonight, the brief showdown will provide a good barometer for where the secondary needs to be. Plus, Minnesota will want an extensive look at their second round pick, tight end Irv Smith Jr., son of former Saints 1st round tight end Irv Smith. New Orleans is primed for a championship run, but their secondary must be up to the task of containing big plays, while creating some of their own.
Who are you paying closest attention to this evening during the Saints/Vikings game?
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Dwayne Washington vs. Devine Ozigbo