With one preseason game left to play, some New Orleans Saints preseason position battles appear to be coming to a close. Strong efforts by several roster hopefuls in the last two games have vaulted them into front runner status in their respective competitions. We can now begin to look at not only which players will sneak onto the roster, but how they might fit into the depth chart.
Here’s a final look at where the Saints preseason position battles stand.
New Orleans Saints Preseason Position Battle Update: Week Four
Hill threw for 343 yards and three touchdowns in the first three preseason games, completing 64.3 percent of his passes and generating a 103.6 passer rating. He has one interception to his name, but that came on a well-thrown pass to tight end Dan Arnold that was bobbled and practically handed to the defender. If you remove that play from Hill’s preseason stats, he would lead all qualifying quarterbacks with a 116.2 passer rating. Hill has also gained 113 rushing yards on 13 scrambles.
A caveat to Hill’s impressive preseason is the fact that he’s played almost entirely against 3rd and 4th team defenses. Hill is clearly more comfortable and confident going through his reads than he was last preseason, but it’s unclear if Hill will look as good against better competition. While Saints head coach Sean Payton is unlikely to unseat Bridgewater as the top backup quarterback, Hill has earned a shot to start in the final preseason game.
Washington continues to get most of the early-game reps, signaling that coaches still favor him over Ozigbo. However, Ozigbo has put forth a great effort this preseason, routinely making defenders miss and excelling in the passing game. Washington has had a couple of drops in the last two weeks, giving Ozigbo an advantage there. Nonetheless, Washington is the better pure runner and that’s likely the stronger advantage.
Washington did leave Saturday’s game against the New York Jets with a concussion, meaning he could miss the Saints preseason finale on Thursday. This opens up a big opportunity for Ozigbo, who will likely get the majority of reps in that game.
With that said, even if Ozigbo does excel in the finale, the Saints will likely keep Washington over him and attempt to retain the undrafted rookie on the practice squad. However the Saints have kept four running backs on the roster in the past, and Ozigbo could make the cut if coaches really do value his talent.
This competitive battle still isn’t over, but Saturday’s game made one thing clear: Deonte Harris is making the team as a returner. Harris has shown great vision and confidence in the return game to compliment his fluid cuts and downhill running style. While he did fumble on a return against the Jets, he more than compensated for the blunder by returning a punt 78 yards for a touchdown.
Due to the competitiveness at this position, New Orleans will likely keep six players. Four spots will be taken by Michael Thomas, Ted Ginn, Tre’Quan Smith, and Harris. Keith Kirkwood, Austin Carr, and training camp standout Emmanuel Butler are battling for the final two spots. Simmie Cobbs, Lil’Jordan Humphrey, and Cyril Grayson shouldn’t be counted out either, but it’d be surprising if any of them made the cut over Kirkwood, Carr, or Butler.
Logically, the more experienced Kirkwood and Carr should be considered favorites, but both have had relatively quiet preseasons.
Kirkwood’s chances would be much better if not for the fact that he’s missed almost all of camp and preseason with an unspecified injury. He finally returned to action against the Jets, only to leave the game with an injury after catching one pass for 11 yards. Carr had an impressive touchdown catch last week on a wheel route but has otherwise had just two other catches for eight yards.
Meanwhile, Butler’s impressive play in training camp finally translated into preseason action on Saturday. Butler caught four passes for 27 yards, most of which were hard-earned contested catches. However, Butler has dropped a relatively easy pass in each of the last two games. As great of a story as the undrafted rookie is, the practice squad is meant to develop players like Butler who have NFL talent but need to polish their game.
Unless Kirkwood’s injury is serious, expect Butler to be cut and for New Orleans to attempt to retain him on the practice squad. While Butler is already a well-known commodity among Saints fans, his relatively quiet preseason should prevent another team from claiming him before New Orleans.
Arnold had five catches for 83 yards on six targets against the Jets, his best preseason showing to date. While this performance likely solidified his lead for the third tight end role, A.J. Derby shouldn’t be counted out.
While Derby has only been on the team for a few weeks, he’s seen a lot of action with the second-team offense, contributing four catches for 35 yards. Experience gives Derby some favorability, with 25 games of NFL experience, including four starts. Arnold is still the stronger receiving threat, but Derby is a more well-rounded tight end so this decision will likely come down to which skills coaches value most in the third tight end role.
Garrett Griffin has also been in the mix. On Saturday, Griffin saw time with the first team but he was carted off the field with a leg injury. As a pure blocking tight end, Griffin was unlikely to surpass Arnold or Derby and unfortunately, this injury will likely end his candidacy.
Rookie seventh-round pick Alize Mack finally returned to action on Saturday after an injury sidelined him early in the month. He was targeted just once, on a slightly off-target Hill throw to the end zone which Mack didn’t seem ready for. Mack entered camp with high expectations, but unfortunately, it’s probably too late for him to make a case for the final roster.
Currently, five players are competing for three reserve roles. Marshall Newhouse, Michael Ola, and Patrick Omameh are competing at tackle while Will Clapp and Cameron Tom continue to battle for an interior backup spot alongside Nick Easton.
Newhouse has been groomed for the backup left tackle role since OTAs, but he’s been out of action since last week’s game against the Los Angeles Chargers. Ola took his place on Saturday night, and missed a key block early on, allowing a big hit on Bridgewater.
Omameh had two bad moments against the Jets. First, he appeared to confuse Derby with a Jets defender and made contact with the tight end as he came down with a catch. Later on, he was penalized for holding on a touchdown scramble by Hill. Neither performance was strong, New Orleans may need to keep both players if Newhouse’s injury is serious.
Right now it’s still too close to call between Clapp and Tom. Both have played at each interior line position with neither one seeing significantly more reps than the other. At this rate, New Orleans may decide to keep both Clapp and Tom over one of their struggling reserve tackles.
The competitions at defensive tackle and defensive end are just about over. Taylor Stallworth continues to play well with the second-team defense at defensive tackle and veterans Sylvester Williams and Ziggy Hood have done little to challenge him.
On the edge, undrafted rookie Porter Gustin has been a pleasant surprise and quickly moved up the depth chart in training camp. However, veteran Wes Horton has generally been playing ahead of Gustin with the second team. Horton should make the roster as the fourth defensive lineman while Gustin is a strong practice squad candidate.
There’s some mystery regarding veteran Patrick Robinson, who seemed likely to return as the starting nickel back. Instead, P.J. Williams has seen a large share of first-team nickel reps. Lately, Robinson has been playing mostly with the second and third team on the outside, where he has struggled historically.
Robinson isn’t necessarily in danger of missing the roster. New Orleans may just be testing his ability on the outside as they try to figure out their depth chart. So far no one has emerged as a strong backup outside corner; a fairly strong concern as the regular season quickly approaches.
Justin Hardee strengthened his case for the final roster with perhaps the best coverage play of preseason against the Chargers. He fell a step behind the receiver on a deep post, but moved underneath the route and broke up a near-perfect pass.
Special teams standout Chris Banjo and draft picks Chauncey Gardner-Johnson and Saquan Hampton are still strong bets to make the roster at safety. However, Hampton has been out of action since the first preseason game. If Hampton’s injury is serious, that could open up a spot for J.T. Gray. Gray is a strong special teams player and snuck onto the roster last season. He led the team in tackles against both the Vikings and Jets.
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