Notebook: Day off ahead for Saints as camp experiments develop

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Alex Anzalone #47
Saints rookie Alex Anzalone (#47) is among the linebackers competing for a starting role during training camp (Photo: Parker Waters)

METAIRIE — The New Orleans Saints will enjoy their first off day of training camp Tuesday after practicing five consecutive days.

The players are getting their legs underneath them amid the mid-summer heat and humidity of Southeast Louisiana and the coaches are evaluating a variety of player combinations.

The area that appears to have the most fluidity is linebacker, which was a position the organization targeted as needing improvement during the offseason. New Orleans signed veterans A.J. Klein and Manti Te’o as free agents and drafted Alex Anzalone in the third round.

The Saints placed former starting weakside linebacker Dannell Ellerbe on injured reserve with the expectation that they will release him once he recovers from a foot injury. For the most part the first unit has featured Te’o in the middle, Klein on the strongside and Stephone Anthony on the weakside.

But it’s too early to draw any conclusions about what the lineup might be when the team begins the season Sept. 11 at Minnesota.

“You will see rotations,” coach Sean Payton said. “There are some guys that we might kick and move, but you will see a rotation. I would not read too much into who is with the ones, twos, and threes, because that will rotate somewhat. More importantly, we are trying to get a few guys comfortable at a certain position.”

Additionally, most of the linebackers are being prepared to handle multiple positions and responsibilities may change when the team uses two linebackers in its nickel scheme. For instance, Klein has been the middle linebacker in nickel with Te’o being replaced by a defensive back.

Other primary players are Craig Robertson, Nate Stupar, Michael Mauti and Hau’oli Kikaha.

“There’s versatility with some of those guys,” Payton said. “Craig’s played them all. Mauti’s played them all. Stupar’s played a handful of those. Anzalone, we think, can go inside at Mike. For the most part, as you look at that group, there is a primary and a secondary spot they can play.”

Coleman, Fuller start fast at WR
One of the more competitive positions on the other side of the ball is wide receiver, which figures to have five spots on the 53-man roster, perhaps six depending on special-teams considerations.

Three spots belong to Michael Thomas, Willie Snead IV and Ted Ginn Jr., who doubles as a return specialist. That leaves seven players vying for two or three spots.

The early returns have Brandon Coleman and Corey Fuller in the lead, but there’s a long way to go.

“There’s really not a guy I have more trust in than Brandon Coleman, honestly,” quarterback Drew Brees said. “I have played with him for a long time and I feel like he is a guy that can play every position. His versatility in this offense is really good, he’s a very smart player and he’s been a guy who has done whatever we needed him to do over the last few years.”

Coleman spent the 2014 season on the practice squad and in the last two seasons he has had a combined 56 receptions for 735 yards and five touchdowns. With Brandin Cooks having been traded to New England during the off-season, Coleman has a chance to take on a bigger role this season.

“It’s time,” Coleman said after practice Monday.

Fuller played three seasons in Detroit before signing with New Orleans as a free agent late last season.

“Just in the short amount of time with Corey, you can tell he’s a veteran guy,” Brees said. “Corey has played in a good system with a really good quarterback in Matthew Stafford. Coming here, I feel like he has some knowledge and some savvy to him from having played the game and having some experience under his belt.”

The other receivers are Tommylee Lewis, former LSU player Travin Dural, Jake Lampman, Rashad Lawrence and Jordan Williams-Lambert.

“Return units have to be better”
The Saints are looking to improve their return games. They ranked ninth in punt returns (9.6 yards per return) but 31st in kickoff returns (16.5) last season and did not have a return for a touchdown.

“Overall, our return units have to be better,” Payton said. “There are certain elements (to work on). The punt return: obviously, you can spend more time on that. The kick return: you control a little bit of the philosophical approach when you are playing an opponent. Are they going to kick it into the end zone deep, or are they going to (kick it short)? We have to improve in some of those areas, and that gets back to the field position issue and the complementary game we are trying to play, defensively and offensively.”

Fairley’s career appears over
DT Nick Fairley’s career appears to be over.

The Saints placed him on the reserve/non-football illness list because of a heart condition and he won’t play this season.

Payton said he wouldn’t use the word “never” in regards to whether Fairley can ever play again.

General manager Mickey Loomis echoed Payton’s sentiment before adding, “Yet, that’s not what our medical people are telling us.”

Saints OK with one cutdown
Loomis said the Saints like the NFL’s decision to go with just one cutdown date this preseason. Teams can wait until they play their final preseason game to reduce their rosters from 90 players to the regular-season limit of 53. Last season teams had to cut to 75 before the final preseason game.

“We’ve been in favor of the single cutdown for a pretty good period of time here because frankly it’s another game that more guys get into and you can get an evaluation on,” Loomis said. “I think it helps your team in terms of practicing, it helps us with that last preseason game with more guys that we can get a final look at. So I would say it’s not a challenge, it’s an assistance for us.”

Looking ahead
The Saints are off Tuesday before resuming practice Wednesday. They’ll practice daily through Monday, Aug. 7, then take the next two days off and travel to Cleveland on Aug. 9 and play the Browns in their preseason opener Aug. 10.

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Les East

Les East

CCS/106.1 FM/Daily Iberian

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…

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