1) Cesar Ruiz - OL
Ruiz was selected with the 24th overall pick as a center out of Michigan in last year’s draft. Unlike previous rookies, Ruiz did not have the luxury of a normal offseason. Without minicamps, OTAs or preseason games, he was propelled into the Saints’ starting lineup at right guard in Week 4 after guard Andrus Peat suffered an ankle injury the previous week.
“I put a lot on my plate that I didn’t have to,” Ruiz said. “I would know something and sometimes second guess myself, things like that. But now I just know, I know what’s expected, what’s supposed to be done on a play, those types of things.”
Now with a full offseason under his belt, Ruiz looks to get off to a much better start this season than in 2020.
2) Tony Jones Jr. - RB
New Orleans signed former Atlanta Falcons and New York Giants running back Devonta Freeman earlier this month. Many expected him to be the third option in the backfield behind Alvin Kamara and Latavius Murray, but Jones Jr. might give Freeman a run for his money.
An undrafted free agent from Notre Dame, Jones Jr. spent most of last season on the Saints’ practice squad. He got his chance to shine in New Orleans’ preseason opener, getting it done both on the ground and through the air.
Jones Jr. rushed for 82 yards and a touchdown on seven carries and caught five passes for 38 yards. He would almost certainly make the final roster if he continues to produce in the preseason.
3) Juwan Johnson - TE
Johnson is another undrafted player who showcased his talent against Baltimore along with Jones Jr. and receiver Marquez Callaway, who caught three passes for 61 yards on the Saints’ opening drive.
While Callaway was the talk of New Orleans’ passing game, it was Johnson who led the team in receiving yards. The wide receiver-turned-tight end caught both of his targets for 71 yards and looked graceful doing so.
With the free agency departure of Jared Cook, Johnson looks to be carving out his role as the second-string tight end behind fellow second-year player Adam Trautman.
4) Malcolm Roach - DT
Roach is yet another undrafted player that the Saints have a knack for finding talent in. He was signed following last year’s draft out of Texas. Roach played nine games in 2020, recording 16 tackles in those contests.
Roach started on the defensive line for New Orleans against Baltimore in Week 1. He recorded two total tackles including one solo tackle in 26 snaps.
Starting defensive tackle Sheldon Rankins left to sign a two-year, $17 million deal with the New York Jets in the offseason, opening the door for Roach to potentially see a larger role in 2021.
5) Blake Gillikin - P
Punters deserve some love too and this one delivered some booming kicks. The fourth and final undrafted player on this list, Gillikin was signed last offseason out of Penn State where he ranks second on the program’s career punting average list with 43.03 yards per punt.
Gillikin averaged 47.3 yards per punt against Baltimore on three punts that included a 59-yard field-flipper from the Saints’ 18-yard line to the Ravens’ 23-yard line.
With the release of longtime punter Thomas Morstead after 12 seasons with the team, New Orleans seems to have found a solid replacement for the future.