Remember the days when the biggest concern around the Saints was “Who is going to be the third running back?” Good ole 2019.
The bad news is that this is 2020. The good news is that training camp is right around the corner. Should all go as planned, the Saints expect to hit the team facilities in July to get started with their off-season programs. Up until then, relegated to computer screens from home, the Saints have not been able to address logjams and competition at certain positions.
Getting back on the practice field late July (and no earlier according to head coach Sean Payton) will allow them to work out some of those positions. Here are five on offense to watch. We welcome the days when RB3 is a big concern again, and hope they come quickly.
The Spotlight: QB2
Once an obvious choice, now one of the most entertaining positions to watch. Taysom Hill seemed like the clear QB2 all off-season up through the draft. He has been on the team since 2018 learning from Brees, Payton, and Carmichael, Payton compared him to QB great Steve Young, and even specifically called Taysom the Saints’ QB2 going into 2020.
But then, April 26th came and the Saints signed Jameis Winston. With that came the doubt that Hill would indeed be QB2. Now, despite Hill’s new contract which is set to pay him over $16M in 2021, despite Jay Glazer’s comments that there’s “no smokescreen, [Taysom’s] the guy.” Sean Payton seems convinced otherwise now, telling Kay Adams that both Taysom and Winston “know they’re going to have to beat out competition.”
Now, Saints fans will be excited to keep an eye on both players throughout camp and the preseason to see who wins the immediate spot behind Brees. What makes this even more exciting is how it could potentially shift during the season as well. Does the 26 year old Jameis not progress enough in the off-season to claim QB2 but happens to do so throughout the year? Does the backup QB change as the Saints get closer and closer to the playoffs and games grown more and more important? This one will be fun to watch.
The Classic: RB3
Ah hello, old friend. In the past, names like Boston Scott, Buck Allen, Mike Gillislee, Devine Ozigbo, Trey Edmunds and even future Hall of Famer Adrian Peterson have been a part of this conversation. But the staple at this position since 2018 has been Dwayne Washington. Washington has been a core special teamer while holding this spot against promising young talent, but Coach Payton may look to increase this position’s value on offense in 2020.
Just in case u wondered why I still wear 88 pic.twitter.com/vabZlBxXjo— Ty Montgomery (@_WiFi_Ty_) June 17, 2020
Enter Ty Montgomery. Montgomery was added through free agency in May and brings a ton of talent to the running back room as he can work from the backfield but also as a receiver in the slot. Something that Washington has not shown in his game. There is also UDFA Tony Jones, Jr. who’s building and running style are reminiscent of Mark Ingram. But Montgomery feels like the one with the veteran experience, versatility, and offensive ability to take the third running back spot from incumbent Dwayne Washington. Payton has seem success when he has three viable running backs in the stable.
Montgomery also adds a ton of value at the wide receiver position. The Saints could take a less is more approach at the wideout position with Montgomery in house. But even if they do so, there will still be lots of competition and conversation among the team’s pass-catchers.
The Other Guys: WRs behind Thomas and Sanders
The third ride receiver is a big question mark this season. Especially when there is really nothing to go off of in 2019. Thankfully for New Orleans, both Michael Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders can play from the slot. Which can maximize WR3’s path to the roster as more than just a slot weapon.
Receiving from the slot in 2019 (per PFF)
Thomas: 179 snaps, 52 catches, 601 yards and 3 touchdowns.
Sanders: 175 snaps, 29 catches, 312 yards, and 1 touchdown
This means that the Saints may look to continue to populate the slot with Thomas and Sanders if the third guy ends up being unproductive inside.
The expected WR3 for many is most likely Tre’Quan Smith, the 2018 third-round draft pick. Smith actually started off producing well from the slot, but in total, his 2019 production came up short. In the first two games Smith caught five passes for 75 yards and a touchdown lined up inside. However for the remaining nine games he appeared in he reeled in only four more catches for 44 yards from the slot. Thankfully two of those went for a touchdown. Regardless of his production though, he spent 61.3% of his time there, so he is gathering the experience he needs to be more effective in 2020. Saints wide receivers coach Curtis Johnson told media that Smith was used on the inside out of necessity for the most part. If he gets comfortable there, Johnson also predicted a breakout season for Smith.
All-Pro returner Deonte Harris has a foot in the race as an offensive weapon this year as well. Harris saw 16 slot snaps in the regular season, but only two in the first six games. His role there grew as the season progressed and I personally expect a similar trajectory this year. Would not at all be surprised to see his role start slow and then build throughout the season as he becomes more comfortable. But his return ability should outweigh the need to force him into offensive production.
Then there are several candidates behind them. Returning vets like Austin Carr, Tommylee Lewis, Krishawn Hogan, promising young players from last season like Lil’Jordan Humphrey, Emmanuel Butler and Taquan Mizzel, and some new faces in Maurice Harris, Marquez Callaways, and Jajuan Johnson.
Of those, the three most likely candidates to fill the remaining one or two spots behind Thomas, Sanders, Smith, and Harris feel like Maurice Harris, Emmanuel Butler, and Marquez Callaway.
The 2nd annual #Saints UDFA thread kicks off with Marquez Callaway, WR, Tennessee.— PFF NO Saints (@PFF_Saints) April 25, 2020
Callaway's 365 deep receiving yards (targets 20+ yards downfield) ranked 4th among all SEC WRs in 2019.#WhoDat pic.twitter.com/UwYCqQ5WqB
Callaway comes in an an undrafted free agent and promising deep threat from the Tennessee Volunteers. The young wideout averaged a whopping 21.2 yards per catch in 2019, topping a 16 yard average the two years before. For comparison, Tre’Quan Smith was an exciting addition to the team out of college because he averaged 19.8 yards per catch in his final year with the UCF Knights.
Maurice Harris feels like the veteran and more experienced version of both Lil’Jordan Humphrey and Krishawn Hogan. He stands out because of his blocking skills and is a very reliable pass-catcher as well. His numbers in his final season with Washington are skewed with the terrible quarterback play following Alex Smith’s injury. In 2018, Harris went from catching 27 passes from Smith in their eight games together with a 71.8% catch rate to catching a single pass over the final four he played with Colt McCoy, Mark Sanchez, and Josh Johnson. That included an abysmal 11.1% catch rate with several uncatchable passes and interceptions going in his direction and only one direction in the final game he played.
Coming in on a reserve/future contract this year, Emmanuel Butler was the training camp darling last season and took New Orleans media and fans by storm. Highlight catch after highlight catch, day after day, Butler felt like he was going to be the next big undrafted player to make a name for himself in New Orleans. Unfortunately, he was injured partway through camp and it took time before the team finally got to march him out on the field in the preseason. In his three preseason games, he caught six of his 12 targets for 47 total yards and a touchdown. If Butler can impress again once camp opens up and maintain both his health and production, he could claim the spot he almost solidified if not for an injury in his rookie season.
Butler wouldn’t hurt himself taking a page each from Callaway and Harris’ books. Showing some production in special teams coverage, as the coaches expect to see from Callaway will benefit Butler for sure. Meanwhile, improving as a blocker in the mold of Harris can push him further into consideration as well. if he can add those tools to his skillset, it will be hard to keep the six-foot-four 220-pound wideout off the initial 53-man roster.
A lot of interesting battles to watch once camp rolls around, and this is just the first part of the offense. There are even more along the offensive line and another important battle in the backfield. Look out for part two of the offense and the upcoming set on defense as well.
Who wins these battles? Let us know in the comments below. Make sure you follow Canal Street Chronicles on Twitter at @SaintsCSC, “Like” us on Facebook at Canal Street Chronicles, and make sure you’re subscribed to our new YouTube channel. As always, you can follow me on Twitter @RossJacksonNOLA.