With cutdowns complete and the New Orleans Saints sitting at 80 on the roster, despite two players starting on the PUP list, it is the perfect time to start to look at the roster. The intent of this 53-man roster is to begin a process through which we can continue to evaluate the talent throughout the team.
Right now, things may be skewed to returning Saints and veteran players, but can some UDFAs or younger newcomers breakthrough and find their way to the day one roster? So to start, we’ll look with the lens of familiarity and continuity as we have yet to see any of the black and gold take the field and will not for another week.
While the Saints focus on strength and conditioning as well as simply staying healthy for now, these are the players that sit at the top of the roster for me right now. So think of this not as a final projection, but the landscape as I see it for now that is sure to be shaken up as players get on the practice field.
Drew Brees, Jameis Winston, and Taysom Hill
The biggest “surprise” here is the omission of Tommy Stevens. The Saints clearly have a vision for him as they traded back into the draft to select him, but let’s be real: he’s still a seventh-round draft pick. That means, until he hit the field and proves himself, he is on the outside looking in at a future Hall of Famer, a 5,000 yard, first overall selection passer, and the offensive weapon Taysom Hill who could also be the future at quarterback. If the intent with Stevens is to indeed be a Taysom-clone, we just need to see it before making room for him on the roster.
Running Backs (4):
Alvin Kamara, Latavius Murray, Ty Montgomery, and Michael Burton (FB)
Adversely to the conversation about Stevens, Montgomery is in position to overtake incumbent RB3 Dwayne Washington. The difference for Montgomery is that he already has five years of NFL experience and is a proven commodity in both the backfield and slot.
With Ricky Ortiz cut to trim down to 80, Michael Burton’s fullback spot is his to lose. The Saints still use a fullback in their system marching one out for 21% of their offensive snaps not including the times a tight end or Taysom Hill assumed the role. This is also a key special teams piece for the team as well. Zach Line blocked a punt last year and Burton has a propensity for special teams both in coverage and the return game as a solid blocker with an understanding for the special teams game.
Wide Receivers (6):
Michael Thomas, Emmanuel Sanders, Tre’Quan Smith, Deonte Harris, Lil’Jordan Humphrey, and Bennie Fowler
Did I mention familiarity at the top of this piece? That is what reigns supreme in the wide receiver projections. Your top four guys are pretty solidified, though there are concerns of inconsistency with Tre’Quan Smith. But the coaching staff is high on him. Wide receivers coach Curtis Johnson predicted this would be a breakout season for the third-year receiver.
Lil’Jordan Humphrey outlasted both Krishawn Hogan and Maurice Harris as a split end option for the Saints. The big-bodied blocking receiver will face some push from Juwan Johnson, though I can see Johnson getting some work at tight end after Cole Wick and Jason Vander-Laan opted out of the 2020 season. That, and his injury history, may skew the perception of his chances at a roster spot.
I originally had the final slot reserved for Emmanuel Butler. But then fellow Emmanuel, Emmanuel Sanders, shared during his Zoom conference last week that Fowler had been signed after Sanders brought him to a workout he was participating in with Drew Brees. It seems Brees liked him enough to potentially have played a role in getting Fowler signed in New Orleans. If that’s truly the case, I have to buy in on Fowler. Brees’s word was enough to keep Austin Carr around previous seasons, why not for Fowler?
If Butler can show the improvements where the Saints coaching staff mentioned they’d like to see them - blocking and special teams - then perhaps Butler could push for a spot still in place of Lil’Jordan Humphrey. Keeping six receivers may feel like a lot, but the Saints have done so on the opening day roster each of the last two season and tend to do so when their return specialist is also a wideout.
Tight Ends (3):
Jared Cook, Josh Hill, and Adam Trautman
Offensive Line (9):
Terron Armstead, Andrus Peat, Cesar Ruiz, Erik McCoy, Ryan Ramczyk, Calvin Throckmorton, Will Clapp, Nick Easton, Ethan Greenidge, and James Hurst*
Greenidge stuck around all season in 2019 albeit on the inactive list on game days. But clearly the Saints like him to have had him taking a spot on the roster despite not getting any live reps. The rest come down to familiarity and smarts. Throckmorton was one of the more intelligent offensive linemen in this year’s draft that also displays a ton of versatility. Those are two traits the Saints will throw the bag at.
James Hurst is suspended for the first four games, so just keep him on the roster to start the year and make a decision when he’s reinstated. Helps with injury insurance as well as allowing the team to respond to any concerns with depth. Nice to have a focused back up tackle on the roster finally.
Defensive Line (9):
Cam Jordan, David Onyemata, Malcom Brown, Marcus Davenport, Sheldon Rankins, Margus Hunt, Carl Granderson, Trey Hendrickson, and Shy Tuttle
Run it back for the most part. Onyemata got a nice pay day this offseason and the Saints clearly believe in his development - I certainly do. Rankins looks like he will be back and ready to go for the transition from Covid not-camp to Covid-camp next week. The only big change here was inserting Margus Hunt in place of Mario Edwards, Jr. Hunt’s veteran experience, size, and versatility feel like the type of resume that could usurp an incumbent player.
Notable omission to watch: UDFA lineman Malcolm Roach out of Texas. Everyone loves the guy and he is certainly one I’ll be tracking to take a spot if he pans out immediately. Otherwise, a great practice squad option considering the importance of that squad this season.
Dermario Davis, Alex Anzalone, Kiko Alonso, Nigel Bradham, Zack Baun, and Kaden Elliss
This is assuming that Alonso is ready to go at the top of the season. If for any reason he is not, veteran Craig Robertson would likely be added to this list. Though not in Alonso’s starting position now that Bradham is in the facility. Joe Bachie, the UDFA linebacker out of Michigan State is also worth your attention. Craig Robertson complimented both he and third-round selection Zack Baun’s intelligence in a recent visit with the media.
A bonus to Bradham, who is expected to sign with New Orleans, is that you have a potential starter if needed or an excellent depth piece at worst. This also allows the team to not rush Zack Baun on the field while learning a new position during a truncated camp. He may be better served with a situational and third-down pass rush role while slowly rolling him into the off-ball backer role.
I give Kaden Elliss, who was recently added to the Reserve/Covid-19 list, the special teams role previously held down by Robertson if he happens to not make the squad. Though, the Saints would then look for a new Special Teams Captain. Roberson could easily hold this role, but Elliss may have more value as an athletic depth option on defense.
Defensive Backs (10):
Marshon Lattimore, Janoris Jenkins, C.J. Gardner-Johnson, P.J. Williams, Justin Hardee, and Keith Washington, Marcus Williams, Malcolm Jenkins, J.T. Gray, and Saquan Hampton
Familiarity is a big factor here as well. The Saints have a really solid starting five (including C.J. Gardner-Johnson in the slot) along the secondary. Now the question is: who steps out of the shadows as the top boundary depth option? Every Saints fan seems concerned about this and while it isn’t unwarranted at all - not a lot of teams around the NFL have a known commodity at that spot.
For now, P.J. Williams can serve as depth at the slot, safety, and [gulp] on the outside. But I include Keith Washington and his 4.38 speed here specifically to fill that boundary depth while also holding down some special teams capability alongside Justin Hardee, J.T. Gray (Second-Team All-Pro), and Saquan Hampton.
Special Teams (3):
Thomas Morstead (Punter), Wil Lutz (Kicker), and Zach Wood (Long Snapper)
More duh. Blake Gilliken, the UDFA punter out of Penn State is outstanding, but should not, or at least I can’t imagine he will, push Morstead for his job. But they have kept him around potentially to give Morstead some rest and serve as insurance should something happen.
These positions will be among some of the most interesting to watch for teams during this pandemic season as most only carry one of each specialist on the roster. If one is out unavailable due to a positive test or exposure, who on the roster steps into their roles if someone can’t be signed? Spoiler: all three answers are Taysom Hill. But seriously, practice squad specialists may not be the worst idea.
Don’t forget that the practice squad will look a lot different for the 2020 season. The squad limit has increased from 10 to 16. While the original 10 spots will have the same eligibility requirements as before, the six new spots can be populated by veterans with no limit on NFL experience. Four slots can also be protected weekly, protecting them from being able to be poached to another team’s active roster.
Check back for another updated projection after full-contact practice has been in session long enough to yield some information. That phase of camp begins August 17th while the deadline to cutdown to 53 is set for September 4th.
Agree? Disagree? Have a player you expect to crack the roster for now? 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 and subscribe to my daily Saints podcast, Locked On Saints.