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Saints: The Last Preseason Brief

Nath tells you what you need to know in the days before the season begins.

 

The NFL’s 53-man roster cutdown deadline, and the waiver claims made of players who were cut, passed by this weekend, so the Saints should have their opening 53-man roster firmly in place. (We’ll get to a couple of exceptions later in this article.) For our last preseason article, let’s look at the full active roster and what it might dictate about how the Saints plan to approach this season.

 

QUARTERBACK (3): Drew Brees, Chase Daniel, Taysom Hill

 

Not much noteworthy to report here. Brees, of course, saddles up for his twelfth season as the Saints’ signal-caller.  Although the time will come when his age and contract might demand the Saints finally move on, that time isn’t today. (Brees’ contract does expire after the year, though, and the Saints may have to make some difficult decisions regarding the future at that time.) Chase Daniel was brought back to serve as Brees’ backup after spending four years making good money as a backup for the Chiefs and Eagles. Taysom Hill was a waiver claim after Green Bay cut him; it’s exceedingly unlikely the Saints will keep the 27-year-old rookie from BYU active on game day, but it seems they saw enough in him to make him a worthwhile developmental prospect. (The team seems to have moved on from 2015 third-rounder Garrett Grayson, not even signing him to the practice squad.)

 

RUNNING BACK (5): Mark Ingram, Adrian Peterson, Alvin Kamara, Daniel Lasco, Trey Edmunds

 

No surprises among the top four. Ingram has functioned reasonably well in the last two seasons as New Orleans’ featured back, but the team is still intent on finding the proper complements to him rather than featuring him as the centerpiece. For an idea of what to expect from the top three running backs, it helps to look at some of the previous running back committees during Sean Payton’s tenure. I think the best comparison for each is as follows: Ingram as Pierre Thomas, Peterson as Chris Ivory, and Kamara as Darren Sproles (or Reggie Bush, who is closer to Kamara in size). Ingram will be the all-purpose back who can be featured in the running or passing game; Peterson will be a change of pace used to spell Ingram and hit short yardage runs (and hopefully break them into something more); Kamara will be the speedy outside back used primarily as a receiver and on the occasional third-down run or in hurry-up mode. The biggest question to my mind is if Peterson has anything left at age 32, an age by which many star running backs have already broken down; Peterson was always a boom-bust runner in the first place, someone better at breaking long runs than consistently moving the chains. Here’s hoping he still has some boom in him.

 

Daniel Lasco is an athletic player who can fill in in the backfield in a pinch but primarily will play special teams. The real surprise here is Trey Edmunds, son of former NFL tight end Ferrell Edmunds, who had completely escaped my attention; apparently his special teams play was so good that the Saints decided to retain him, which affected a few roster decisions elsewhere (we’ll get to those on the defensive side of the ball).

 

FULLBACK (1): John Kuhn

 

Kuhn, one of the league’s better lead blockers, was surprisingly cut after making the initial 53-man roster. Speculation at the time was that it may have been a procedural move to allow them to sign someone else temporarily; this looks to be correct, as the team re-signed Kuhn on Wednesday morning and waived offensive tackle Bryce Harris.

 

WIDE RECEIVER (5): Michael Thomas, Ted Ginn, Brandon Coleman, Tommylee Lewis, Austin Carr

Suspended: Willie Snead

 

After posting one of the best rookie wide receiver seasons in history, Michael Thomas steps into the clear #1 role after Brandin Cooks was traded. The team signed Ted Ginn Jr. to fill Cooks’ role as a speedster who can stretch the field and offer a big-play option (when he can hang on to the ball, anyway). Ginn isn’t as good a receiver as Cooks, but Cooks also wasn’t as good as his statistics suggested, having his own limitations. The hope is that Ginn can replicate enough of Cooks’ downfield production and speed to allow the offense to function optimally.

 

Ginn has been getting more snaps than Snead preseason, which seemed a bit unusual, but perhaps it was part of a design to let Ginn get some needed familiarity with Brees and the offense, since he’ll have to take on a significant role right away with Snead suspended for three games. They’re not the same type of players, though; Snead is a possession receiver who doesn’t have Ginn’s breakaway speed but is tremendously reliable on a variety of routes when the offense needs a sure catch.

 

Brandon Coleman is the big-body #4 receiver who’s often used in the red zone. Tommylee Lewis is a special-teams ace who may get a little more action while Snead is suspended. One intriguing addition is rookie Austin Carr, an undrafted player from Northwestern who was claimed on waivers by the Saints after the Patriots released him at the 53-man deadline. Carr compares favorably to Snead athletically, especially in the all-important 3-cone drill, a key measure of short-area quickness; he’s also got sure hands, as you can see from this touchdown catch in the preseason.

 

Carr also excelled in one other college metric: market share. The basic concept of “market share” as a statistical evaluation of receiver prospects is that a player who has a bigger share of his team’s offense will, in general, tend to be the better player and prospect. It’s a good way to translate production across different offensive systems. (For example, having 800 yards receiving for a run-heavy team that only passes for 2,000 yards total is much more impressive than having 1,000 yards for a Texas Tech-style Air Raid team that passes for 5,000. The former player has a market share of 40% of his team’s passing game; the latter, 20%.) Carr finished his senior year with 90 receptions for 1,247 yards and 12 touchdowns, for a team that only threw for 3,186 yards on the year, with 282 completions and 22 touchdowns– outstanding market share numbers all around. (The massive touchdown share in particular is a sign that the team went to Carr when they absolutely had to score.) Northwestern plays in the Big Ten, so he wasn’t putting up his numbers against cream puffs: He had 12 catches for 132 yards and a score against Wisconsin and 11 for 130 and 2 against Michigan State, both schools with very stout defenses; and he posted 8 catches for 158 yards against Ohio State, which had three members of their secondary taken in the first round of this draft (including, of course, the Saints’ own Marshon Lattimore).

 

I don’t want to get ahead of myself–Carr is also an older prospect who didn’t break out until his senior year, so it’s possible his production was inflated by being a 22-23 year old playing against 18-22 year olds (breakout age, which I first saw identified by Edward Gorelik, correlates well with NFL success–younger is better). That said, I do think Carr has enough talent to become a reliable contributor in the mold of Snead or Lance Moore.

 

TIGHT ENDS (3): Coby Fleener, Josh Hill, Michael Hoomanawanui

 

The same as last year. Fleener will start, Hill will back him up, and Hoomanawanui will play when the offense needs a blocking tight end. (He may take some snaps as a lead blocker if the team cuts Kuhn again or keeps him inactive on game day.)

 

OFFENSIVE LINE (8): Terron Armstead, Andrus Peat, Zach Strief, Larry Warford, Max Unger, Ryan Ramczyk, Senio Kelemete, Josh LeRibeus, Bryce Harris

 

Armstead is still recovering from shoulder surgery, but he avoided the Physically Unable to Perform list, which requires a player to miss the first six games of the season. The team expects Armstead back sooner than that, a note of optimism among the handful of key injuries the Saints have faced this offseason. Rookie Ramczyk will start at left tackle in the meantime. Peat returns at left guard, Unger at center, and Strief at right tackle. Free agent signee Warford takes over at right guard. Warford had a very good rookie year in Detroit, but his play seemed to level off after that; the Saints have had a strong track record identifying guard talent, so here’s hoping they can rejuvenate him as he enters his prime.

 

If Ramczyk can’t hack it at left tackle or gets injured, Peat will likely slide over, with Senio Kelemete taking over his guard spot. Max Unger has been dealing with injuries; Josh LeRibeus has been starting at center in his place. Not making the roster but potentially hanging around as an emergency tackle is veteran Bryce Harris. He was briefly cut, so Delvin Breaux could be designated to return from injury (more on that later), re-signed once Breaux was placed on IR, and then cut again Wednesday morning to make room for fullback John Kuhn. Harris will likely be re-signed if Armstead takes longer than expected to recover, or if any of Ramczyk, Strief, or Peat miss time.

 

DEFENSIVE LINE (9): Cameron Jordan, Sheldon Rankins, Tyeler Davison, Alex Okafor, David Onyemata, Hau’oli Kikaha, Mitchell Loewen, Trey Hendrickson, Al-Quadin Muhammad

 

Losing Nick Fairley to a previously undiagnosed heart condition was, of course, a huge blow; the Saints had one of the stronger (and most underrated) pairs of interior pass-rushers in the league between Fairley and Sheldon Rankins. (Cameron Jordan is one of the best, period, when used in that fashion.) The Saints only kept three true defensive tackles: Rankins, Davison, and Onyemata. Presumably some of the larger defensive ends, like Jordan or Loewen, will move inside on passing downs. The team has been putting a greater emphasis on pass-rushing, and it shows in their collection of ends, who by and large were kept based on that ability. Okafor is probably the best overall of the candidates to start alongside Jordan.

 

Kikaha, always intended as a pass rusher on the edge, has moved back to defensive end from linebacker (though he’s still listed as a linebacker most places, including the Saints’ website). Of the two rookies, sixth-rounder Muhammad has been more productive in the preseason, but Hendrickson’s athleticism gives him a higher ceiling.

 

Over the last couple of years, thanks largely to the terrific work done by Justis Mosqueada (now at Setting the Edge) I’ve become convinced of the importance of athleticism to pass rushing prospects. Meeting certain criteria for ratios of burst and short-area quickness to size has, over a significant sample, proven to be a strong correlator for pass-rushing success. These prospects, what Mosqueada calls “Force Players,” test out well in certain athletic measurements. The most important of these is 3-cone time: This measure of quickness correlates with a prospect’s ability to “bend the edge;” that is, to turn the corner after beating the tackle on a pass rush without losing momentum. Also important are the broad jump and vertical jump, measurements of a prospect’s ability to burst off the line at the snap. Trey Hendrickson’s athletic testing grades him out as one of this year’s Force Players. It is likely, however, that Hendrickson will need some time to adjust to the NFL coming from the lower level of competition at Florida Atlantic.

 

Mitchell Loewen wasn’t really on my radar this season, and that was a mistake on my part, as he clearly shined enough on a regular basis to earn a role on the 53-man roster. While trying to research the 275-pound defensive end who went undrafted out of Arkansas last year, though, I couldn’t find much information beyond the biographical details I just told you, so I don’t know what to expect. From what I’ve read, he’ll play inside a fair amount of the time, though he is light for a defensive tackle, and he is listed as a defensive end on every roster resource I could find.

 

LINEBACKERS (6): A.J. Klein, Alex Anzalone, Mant’i Teo, Craig Robertson, Stephone Anthony, Nathan Stupar

 

It looks like the starting linebacker crew is exactly what I predicted it would be in my last column. Robertson is likely still first off the bench; the team isn’t ready to give up on Anthony yet, but it’s hard to say what, if any, role he’ll have this season.

 

I had predicted Michael Mauti to stick around in a special-teams role; instead, it seems Stupar is the preferred special teams linebacker. Special teams standouts like Trey Edmunds and Chris Banjo made it easier for the Saints to carry one fewer linebacker dedicated to the unit. (Freeing up Mauti’s roster spot may have also made it possible for the team to keep Anthony.)

 

CORNERBACK (5): Marshon Lattimore, P.J. Williams, Sterling Moore, Ken Crawley, De’Vante Harris

Injured Reserve – Designated to return: Delvin Breaux

 

The NFL allows teams to designate two players assigned to injured reserve to return later in the year; normally, injured reserve ends a player’s season. Since Breaux was going to take one of these spots, he had to be on the official 53-man roster at first cuts, which is why Bryce Harris was cut and then re-signed once Breaux’s move to IR took him off the active roster. (Harris was then utlimately cut to make room for John Kuhn to return.)

 

This lineup is pretty much what I predicted last time. Lattimore and Williams will presumably be the starters while Breaux is out. I’d guess Moore has the upper hand for the third cornerback job based on his performance last year, but as Crawley and Harris were both rookies, it’s possible they took large enough strides in the offseason to overtake him.

 

Another name I heard floated as a candidate for the roster was Arthur Maulet. The rookie from Memphis made a name for himself both on defense and special teams, but ultimately it wasn’t quite enough in a group this deep. Maulet was signed to the practice squad, and remains a candidate to be called up if injuries hit this group any further than they already have (entirely possible, with Lattimore’s and Williams’ histories of injuries).

 

SAFETIES (5): Kenny Vaccaro, Vonn Bell, Marcus Williams, Rafael Bush, Chris Banjo

 

Again, this is almost exactly what I predicted in the last column, so I won’t repeat myself. I wasn’t sure whether or not Banjo did well enough to hold onto a roster spot, but his name was one of the most frequently mentioned among the beat writers this preseason.

 

SPECIAL TEAMS (3): Wil Lutz, Thomas Morstead, Jon Dorenbos

 

Lutz returns as the kicker after a largely successful rookie season, only missing two field goals under 50 yards, and with a strong enough leg to have made a 57-yarder last year. He may finally stabilize the kicker position.

 

Thomas Morstead is now one of the longest-tenured Saints; I believe only Drew Brees and Zach Strief have been in New Orleans longer. Executing the greatest onside kick in NFL history means Morstead will likely have a job here until his leg falls off.

 

The team had quite the adventure trying to secure a long snapper this offseason. At first, they decided to replace Justin Drescher; when several attempts to do so failed, they brought Drescher back on August 6. Several weeks later, he was injured; the team released him with an injury settlement and traded a 2019 seventh-round draft pick to the Eagles for the 37-year-old Dorenbos, a practicing magician who has appeared on America’s Got Talent (I am not making this up).

 

CONCLUSION

 

While, by and large, the team seems to have shored up its weaknesses, I don’t want to make too many advance predictions of success. After three straight years (and four of the last five) of 7-9, I’ve told myself to temper my expectations. Still, the talent the Saints have added to the roster is promising, and a few breaks going the right way (which undeniably happened in the lead-up to Super Bowl 44, from Washington’s blown lead allowing New Orleans to maintain home-field advantage, to Brett Favre’s inexplicable interception in the NFC championship game causing Minnesota to lose a game-winning field goal opportunity) could mean the team will return to the playoffs and perhaps even make a run. As long as the offense is clicking, anything can happen.

 

One thing in the Saints’ favor this year is that the schedule of defenses that they face is much easier than last year. If the offense can successfully pile on the points, the defense may only need to get a few stops here and there for the Saints to win games. Here’s hoping the new talent works out as expected, the team stays healthy, and they reach their full potential.

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