New Orleans Saints Position Battle Update: Early Training Camp Edition

Much of the New Orleans Saints core of players from the 2017 and 2018 playoff seasons will return in 2019. For this reason, there aren’t many competitions in training camp for starting jobs. Even some of the team’s reserve roles already appear to be established. With that said, there are just enough many a position battle to keep things interesting.

Here’s where the Saints position battles stand following the first week of padded practices.

New Orleans Saints Position Battle Update: Early Training Camp Edition

Third-String Running Back

While Alvin Kamara and Latavius Murray will see the most action in the backfield this year, New Orleans needs to find its best reserve running back and they aren’t taking this task lightly.

The Saints met with veteran free agents Theo Riddick and Alfred Morris last week in an attempt to bolster competition for this role. While both players ended up signing with other teams, it was a clear sign that coaches won’t be content to hand Dwayne Washington this role again.

So far Washington is seeing the most action behind Kamara and Murray after serving as the third-string back for most of last season. Murray missed a few practices earlier this week, giving Washington an increased workload. Right now, undrafted rookie Devine Ozigbo is the only other back to see consistent action.

Free-agent addition Buck Allen had a good shot at challenging Washington, but he was placed on injured reserve with an unspecified injury on Tuesday. Former Tulane running back Rob Kelley then entered the picture but was released on Saturday after exiting practice with an injury on Friday.

In a corresponding move, New Orleans signed Jacquizz Rodgers, a dual-threat back who faced the Saints several times while with the Atlanta Falcons (2011-14) and Tampa Bay Buccaneers (2016-18). Rodgers could be great fit if he can adjust to the system and impress in the coming weeks.

Washington is the front-runner almost by default right now, but it’s clear that the Saints are testing every possible alternative right now.

Wide Receiver Depth

This busy competition became a bit clearer last week when New Orleans released 2018 free-agent signee Cameron Meredith. He showed promise in the Saints offense, but couldn’t escape health setbacks related to a severe knee injury in 2017. This no doubt played a role in Meredith’s release, however, head coach Sean Payton made sure to point out that the solid overall effort of the Saints other receivers played a part in the decision too.

The brief Michael Thomas holdout gave a group of mostly low profile roster hopefuls the chance to stand out. Undrafted rookie Emmanuel Butler made the biggest impression in the first four days before suffering an injury on the fifth day. He hasn’t returned to practice, but could make the roster if he doesn’t miss too much time.

The pecking order further down the depth chart is difficult to determine at this point. Veterans Thomas, Ted Ginn, and 2018 third-round pick Tre’Quan Smith are all locks to make the roster. Keith Kirkwood is also likely to make the cut based on the amount of time he spends with the first team. Since New Orleans typically keeps no more than six receivers and often sticks with five, that could leave just one or two roster spots up for grabs.

Along with Butler, newcomers Rishard Matthews, Cyril Grayson, Simmie Cobbs, and Lil’Jordan Humphrey have all consistently made plays in team drills. Third-year slot receiver Austin Carr is having a good camp as well.

Fortunately, coaches still have four preseason games to help them evaluate this group.

Third Tight End

Converted wide receiver Dan Arnold and rookie seventh-round pick Alize Mack are locked in a tight race to join Jared Cook and Josh Hill on the final roster. Mack showed his potential as a receiving threat but hasn’t practiced since suffering an unknown injury on Tuesday. Arnold has also made a strong impression, especially during Mack’s absence.

New Orleans could retain both Arnold and Mack, but it would take an incredibly strong effort from both players to force the team to keep four tight ends. Both players are eligible for the practice squad, so the most likely scenario is for one to make the roster and one to end up on the practice squad. Since both players are primarily receiving tight ends, blocking ability could be the determining factor in this battle.

Offensive Line

Rookie second-round pick Erik McCoy appears to be running away with the starting center job. He rotated with veterans Nick Easton and Cameron Tom during the first few days of camp, but has since had a dominant share of the first-team reps. While it’s too early to declare McCoy the winner, he’s clearly in the lead. Easton and Tom spent significant time at guard, signaling that coaches are testing their versatility as potential backups.

Will Clapp, a 2018 seventh-round pick is another candidate for an interior backup role and has rotated in with the first team in both guard spots. New Orleans may not have enough room on the roster to keep both Tom and Clapp, adding another layer of competition on the interior line.

At tackle, Marshall Newhouse seems to be the favorite over Michael Ola right now. Newhouse spent mini camp and OTAs with the first team at left tackle while starter Terron Armstead recovered from surgery and he has continued rotating in at the position. Considering Armstead’s injury history, New Orleans could keep Newhouse and Ola, though they have often kept just one backup.

Defensive Line

It’s difficult for any defensive linemen to make a strong impression this early in camp. As far as reps go, newcomers Malcolm Brown and Mario Edwards are clearly being groomed to fill in for starters Sheldon Rankins and David Onyemata early in the season. Rankins will start the season on the PUP list while Onyemata has to serve a one-game suspension in week one.

Nose tackle Taylor Stallworth should make the roster to start the season because New Orleans will need the depth, however, it may be difficult for him to stay on when both Onyemata and Rankins are back.

2017 third-round pick Trey Hendrickson seems like the most likely candidate to back up Cameron Jordan and Marcus Davenport right now. His roster spot is no guarantee though after his playing time dropped dramatically in 2018. Veteran newcomers Wes Horton and Geneo Grissom are Hendrickson’s main competition.

Defensive Back

The Saints needed to add depth in the secondary this past off-season and so far their draft selections of Chauncey Gardner-Johnson and Saquan Hampton appear to be coming along nicely. Both have broken up passes throughout camp and spend significant time with the first-team defense.

Justin Hardee and Chris Banjo have also had strong camps so far, and their special teams talents should help them make the roster again this year.

When factoring in the projected starting quintet of Marshon Lattimore, Eli Apple, Patrick Robinson, Marcus Williams, and Vonn Bell, it’s difficult to see stalwarts P.J. Williams and Ken Crawley making this year’s roster right now.

Last year, New Orleans cut draft picks Natrell Jamerson and Kamrin Moore after preseason to make room for veteran defensive backs. This year it seems likely the rookies will win out instead.

Return Specialist

This battle could come down to the final preseason game. Marcus Sherels is the favorite after returning five punts for touchdowns in his career with the Minnesota Vikings, but New Orleans has been giving several players a chance. Grayson, Carr, Deonte Harris, and Matthew Dayes have all been in the mix.

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