The first preseason game did little to help sort out the pecking order in any New Orleans Saints pre-season position battle. In fact, some players who were quiet in the early part of training camp suddenly emerged in the Saints 34-25 loss to the Minnesota Vikings. With training camp winding down and pre-season nearly halfway over, time is running out for roster longshots to make a strong impression.
Here’s where the Saints preseason position battles stand heading into the second preseason game.
New Orleans Saints Preseason Position Battle Update: Week Two
The running back competition has become a bit clearer since the previous edition of this series. Dwayne Washington, who is hoping to reprise his reserve role from last season, made a strong impression in the first preseason game. Behind a second-team offensive line Washington managed to gain 36 yards on 8 rushes, averaging a healthy 4.5 yards per carry.
Jacquizz Rodgers saw five carries and three receptions versus Minnesota after being signed only a few days earlier. While Rodgers averaged just 3.5 yards per touch, he showed potential as receiving back in the Saints offense. Unfortunately, he did drop a pass on a two-point conversion, his best opportunity of the night.
Undrafted rookie Devine Ozigbo had just four touches late in the fourth quarter, but he made the most of them. Ozigbo fought for extra yardage on a nine-yard catch and picked up 11 yards on a sweep a few plays later. He’ll have to really turn it up in the remaining exhibition games to threaten Washington’s spot. He’s certainly a strong practice squad candidate.
Washington is firmly in the lead for the third running back spot and that’s unlikely to change. If New Orleans decides to keep a fourth running back, Rodgers could be their choice. Though he can’t miss out on any more big-play opportunities.
Rishard Matthews retired earlier in the week, making him the second veteran wide receiver to exit a competition made up of mostly undrafted players under the age of 25. Cameron Meredith‘s release in the first week of camp helped simplify this competition and so does Matthews’ sudden exit. Most of the remaining contenders have clearly worked hard for a place on the Saints, making it difficult for coaches and observers to identify front-runners.
Simple math is the best way to find clarity here. New Orleans traditionally keeps five receivers but has kept a sixth in the past; usually a special teams contributor. Michael Thomas, Ted Ginn, and Tre’Quan Smith aren’t going anywhere. Keith Kirkwood and Austin Carr possess huge advantages having both spent at least a year in the Saints offense. That’s already five spots potentially filled.
Kirkwood appears to be safer than Carr considering he filled in for Thomas during his brief camp holdout. Early camp standout Emmanuel Butler also played a significant amount first-team reps this week after missing several practices due to injury. He might be Carr’s biggest competition right now, though they would play very different roles in the passing game.
Behind Butler, there’s still Cyril Grayson, Simmie Cobbs, Lil’Jordan Humphrey, Deonte Harris and Travin Dural to consider. Grayson and Harris are also auditioning for the return specialist role, meaning they may actually be stronger candidates than Butler.
Fortunately, all of these players on the bubble are still practice squad eligible. With that in mind, expect New Orleans to keep their somewhat proven commodities in Kirkwood and Carr. Bank on the rest clearing waivers, which most likely will.
Converted wide receiver Dan Arnold had a rather mixed performance against Minnesota. In a two-minute drill situation late in the second quarter, Arnold caught two passes for 27 yards. That included an 18-yarder in which he fought through defenders for a touchdown. But he dropped a short, on-target pass on the Saints next possession. It was intercepted by a Vikings defender and returned it for a touchdown.
The mistake may not prove too costly for Arnold though. He’s currently on pace to run away with the third tight end job. Rookie seventh-round pick Alize Mack had a great start to training camp, but he left practice with an injury on July 30th and has yet to return.
Mack is not only fighting for a roster spot, he’s also trying to integrate into a new offense. Even if he does return soon, it may be too late for him to make a strong enough impression to convince coaches he’s worth a roster spot. The Saints practice squad is the most likely scenario for Mack. Considering his great potential as a receiving threat he could still see occasional regular-season action.
Four-year veteran A.J. Derby, signed to add tight end depth following Mack’s injury, is coming along quickly. He had two receptions against Minnesota and a good showing in this week’s joint practices with the Los Angeles Chargers. New Orleans had their eye on Derby in the 2015 draft. The 6’5″ 240-pounder is someone to keep an eye on in this Saints pre-season position battle if Mack can’t return to action soon.
Right now the Saints appear to be grooming Marshall Newhouse as the top backup tackle and Nick Easton as the top interior line backup. Behind these players and the five projected starters, one or two spots are up for grabs.
Cameron Tom and Will Clapp are likely the strongest candidates after both made the roster last season. However, both are interior linemen. Considering Terron Armstead‘s injury history (he’s already missed several practices this month), New Orleans will probably want an extra tackle in case Armstead and Ryan Ramczyk are both out of action.
Patrick Omameh, a late-July addition is the strongest candidate to sneak on the roster at tackle. He’s started 56 career games at guard. Although New Orleans has put him at right tackle with the second team and occasionally with the first team. Michael Ola filled in at right tackle for New Orleans last season, but he seems to be spending most of his time at left guard now. No other strong alternative at tackle has emerged at this point.
2017 third-round pick Trey Hendrickson figures to be the top rotational option for both defensive end positions. Undrafted rookie Porter Gustin and veterans Wes Horton and Geneo Grissom are competing for additional depth roles on the edge and it appears to be pretty even right now.
Gustin played a surprising 52 percent of defensive snaps against Minnesota while Grissom played 47 percent. Horton missed the game due to an unspecified injury but returned to practice earlier this week. All three possess remarkably similar size and stature (6’4″-6’5″ and 260-265 pounds) and could make the roster as an occasional pass rush specialists.
This role will be quietly important since Alex Okafor departed in the off-season and it’s not yet clear if Hendrickson, a solid run-stopper will develop into an effective pass rusher.
The interior line pecking order seems clear at this point. Sheldon Rankins, David Onyemata, Malcom Brown and Mario Edwards are locks to make the roster, but Rankins is expected to remain on the PUP list for the start of the season while Onyemata will serve a one-game suspension.
Taylor Stallworth snuck onto the roster and earned significant playing time last year. So far he’s having another solid preseason with four tackles against Minnesota. Longtime veterans Ziggy Hood and Sylvester Williams are also contending for interior depth. Both have been quiet to this point but should not be counted out.
At cornerback, the only real question is whether or not the Saints will keep former starter Ken Crawley on the roster. P.J. Williams and Patrick Robinson are competing for the starting nickel back job with Marshon Lattimore and Eli Apple firmly entrenched as starters on the outside. Crawley intercepted a pass in practice on Thursday and had a solid game last week. He’s also had some bad moments in camp.
Crawley will really have to thrive in the coming weeks to earn a roster spot. 2019 draft picks Chauncey Gardner-Johnson and Saquan Hampton have started strong along with special teamers Justin Hardee and Chris Banjo who have both snuck onto the roster the last two years.
Marcus Sherels entered camp as the most accomplished returner and the favorite to win this Saints pre-season position battle. However, he hasn’t been on the field for over a week. In Sherels’ absence, Harris and Grayson both had good showings against Minnesota. Harris went for 34 yards on one kick return and gained 23 yards on a punt return that was nullified by a holding penalty. Meanwhile, Grayson had a 40-yard kick return, and along with Harris averaged 30 yards per kick return.
Carr and Kerwynn Williams have both taken return reps in camp. Neither had a return against Minnesota. They will each likely get a fair share of chances in the remaining exhibition games.
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