Saints training camp countdown Part 1: The Backfield
METAIRIE – The New Orleans Saints starting backfield is set.
James Winston will be the starting quarterback and Alvin Kamara will be the primary ball carrier. Adam Prentice is the only fullback on the roster so when the Saints use one he’ll be the guy.
So training camp and the preseason won’t provide much drama regarding the top of the depth chart in the backfield, but it will still be worth keeping an eye on the guys who handle the football the most.
Last summer the most significant competition was the battle between Winston and Taysom Hill to succeed Drew Brees. Winston won that competition and he is the incumbent starter, but he is returning from reconstructive surgery to fix a season-ending knee injury he suffered in Game 7 last season.
He has made significant progress in the seven months since surgery and participated in OTAs and mini-camp, though he was prohibited from running.
“I’ll definitely be ready for the preseason,” Winston said this week.
Winston’s injury and the fact that the Saints started four different quarterbacks last season are reminders that having a clear-cut starter at any position is no guarantee that someone who starts training camp as a backup won’t become a starter in the fall.
The Saints brought in veteran Andy Dalton to be Winston’s primary backup so Hill, who might still have a quarterback role as an occasional change of pace to Winston, can take more snaps at other skill positions, perhaps tight end most of all.
Head coach Dennis Allen said the biggest asset that Dalton has is “the veteran presence.”
“Nothing’s too big for him,” Allen said. “He’s been there, done that. He’s performed at a high level in our league. I think adding that experience into that room has been good.”
Dalton has started 148 NFL games in nine seasons with Cincinnati and one each with Dallas and Chicago.
“This offense has had a lot of success throughout the years,” Dalton said of the Saints. “Seeing it from afar, I’m proud to be a part of it.
“I’m here to help out in any way. I feel like the experience that I can bring to the quarterback room, to just our offense and just being around our guys, can definitely help out. If something were to happen where I’m going to be playing, I’ll be ready to go.”
Ian Book, a fourth-round draft choice who made one start as a rookie last season, remains a long-term prospect.
Kamara is one of the most dynamic running backs in the NFL. Mark Ingram II showed he still has an adequate amount of gas left in the tank to spell Kamara after the former Saints No. 1 draft choice (in 2010) returned to New Orleans in an early-season trade with Houston last year.
But there’s still uncertainty at the position and the Saints will be looking to see if Ingram or perhaps a younger veteran or an undrafted free agent is capable assuming Kamara’s role for several games if that becomes necessary.
Kamara has an August 1 court date in Las Vegas as a result of his involvement in an altercation in a hotel there in February.
Dwayne Washington is a strong candidate to make the roster because of his track record as a special-teams standout over the last four seasons. Tony Jones Jr. is back for a second season and Devine Ozigbo is back for a second stint in New Orleans.
But the running back who might warrant the most attention this summer is Abram Smith, an undrafted free agent from Baylor. Smith, 5-foot-11, 211 pounds, moved from running back to linebacker because the Bears had a shortage of linebackers going into his senior season.
He returned to the backfield for his final season and ran for a school single-season record 1,621 yards with 12 touchdowns.
Smith said he returned to the backfield as “a more punishing runner.”
“You can make guys miss,” Smith said, “but my mom always told be to be the hammer and not the nail so I’m more comfortable running somebody over.”
Playing defense, Smith said, enabled him to shed his “tunnel vision” and better see the big picture.
“I can make pre-snap reads before I ever get the ball,” he said.
“I take pride in special teams,” said Smith, who likely will need to stand out in that area if he’s going to make the team.
It wouldn’t be surprising if the Saints sign a veteran running back as a hedge against possible disciplinary action against Kamara.
But if they don’t, Smith might become their insurance policy – if he shows in training camp and the preseason that he’s up to the challenge.
Projected starter: Jameis Winston
Arrival: Andy Dalton
Other returning players: Taysom Hill, Ian Book
Notable departures: Trevor Siemian
Roster spots: 3-4
Projected starters: Alvin Kamara, Adam Prentice (FB)
Arrivals: Devine Azigbo (FA), Abram Smith (UDFA)
Other returning players: Mark Ingram II, Dwayne Washington, Tony Jones Jr.
Notable departure: Ty Montgomery
Roster spots: 5-6
To read all of the pre-training camp analysis on the countdown, click here.
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Les East is a nationally renowned freelance journalist. The New Orleans area native’s blog on SportsNOLA.com was named “Best Sports Blog” in 2016 by the Press Club of New Orleans. For 2013 he was named top sports columnist in the United States by the Society of Professional Journalists. He has since become a valued contributor for CCS. The Jesuit High…