Preview: Saints roster competition on display in first exhibition game at Jacksonville

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Tre'Quan Smith, Arthur Maulet
Wide receiver Tre’Quan Smith (#10) and cornerback Arthur Maulet (#37) have impressed observers during the early stages of New Orleans Saints training camp (Photo: Stephen Lew)

METAIRIE – The New Orleans Saints’ training camp is two weeks old.

Players have stood out, in both good ways and bad ways, providing a glimpse of how the roster and depth chart might be beginning to shape up.

But preseason games provide insights that can’t be gleaned from practices and the first opportunity for players to show how they can perform in game conditions comes Thursday night when New Orleans visits Jacksonville.

The No. 1 priority for any team in any preseason game is to avoid any injuries that can be long term.

Beyond that it’s all about sorting out the positions that are the most competitive.

It doesn’t matter what Drew Brees, Alvin Kamara, Michael Thomas, Max Unger, Terron Armstead, Cam Jordan, Marshon Lattimore and other clear-cut starters do. In fact those players will see little if any action so the coaches can get a longer look at players who may or may not be good enough to make the regular-season roster.

So the significance of this game lies in the performance of players seeking to solidify a spot on the roster and a role.

With that in mind, and preferably a roster in hand, here are some players worth keeping an eye on Thursday night:

Quarterbacks

Tom Savage is the more likely backup to Brees and Taysom Hill is a strong candidate to make the roster because of his ability on special teams. But if Hill can perform better as a quarterback in preseason games than he has in practice, the equation could change.

Running backs

Someone has to fill in for Mark Ingram during his four-game suspension and other have to back up Alvin Kamara on special teams. So youngsters Trey Edmunds, Jonathan Williams and Boston Scott, as well as incoming veterans Terrence West and Shane Vereen are all worth watching.

Wide receivers

Third-round draft choice Tre’Quan Smith probably already has played his way on to the team, but let’s see how well his outstanding practice performance translates to the field. Recently signed veterans Michael Floyd and Brandon Tate are battling Tommylee Lewis for the last roster spot or two and Tate and Lewis are also involved in the return specialist free for all.

Tight end

Dan Arnold was moved from wide receiver to give him a better chance to make the roster. Let’s see is he can beat out one of the veterans – Benjamin Watson, Michael Hoomanawanui and Josh Hill – and hold off undrafted free agent Deon Yelder.

Offensive line

Two draft choices – tackle Rick Leonard (fourth round) and center/guard Will Clapp of LSU (seventh round) are battling for backup spots. Clapp and second-year player and Baton Rouge native Cameron Tom are competing with veteran Josh LeRibeus for a spot on the interior, but Tom has been sidelined for more than a week by an arm injury. Leonard is battling Michael Ota behind veteran Jermon Bushrod, who is the primary backup on the line.

Defensive line

No. 1 draft choice Marcus Davenport doesn’t figure to play because he has missed practice for the last week because of an undisclosed injury. With him out, watch the rotation and performance of the ends that come in after starters Cam Jordan and Alex Okafor – even they even play. Keep on eye on the battle between David Onyemata and Sheldon Rankins to start next to Tyeler Davison.

Linebackers

Who plays where isn’t all that important because the Saints can mix and match. They key is the number of reps and quality of play of people such as Nate Stupar and Hau’oli Kikaha get as they try to stick on the roster. Watch Stupar on special teams, where he has been a standout.

Secondary

It’ll fun to see Marshon Lattimore and Marcus Williams make plays in their limited time, but the real news will be whether guys such as New Orleans native Arthur Maulet and De’Vante Harris looked like they belong. Former LSU DB Rickey Jerrerson was re-signed Sunday and is worth watching if he gets out there.

Special teams

Watch all of the punt returners and kickoff returners in all of the preseason games, but that competition won’t be settled until all four games have been played.

Finally, hang on that roster and keep watching to the bitter end because everyone is worthy of evaluation in these games.

Quarterbacks

Tom Savage is the more likely backup to Brees and Taysom Hill is a strong candidate to make the roster because of his ability on special teams. But if Hill can perform better as a quarterback in preseason games than he has in practice, the equation could change.

Running backs

Someone has to fill in for Mark Ingram during his four-game suspension and other have to back up Alvin Kamara on special teams. So youngsters Trey Edmunds, Jonathan Williams and Boston Scott, as well as incoming veterans Terrence West and Shane Vereen are all worth watching.

Wide receivers

Third-round draft choice Tre’Quan Smith probably already ahs played his way on to the team, but let’s see how well his outstanding practice performance translates to the field. Recently signed veterans Michael Floyd and Brandon Tate are battling Tommylee Lewis for the last roster spot or two and Tate and Lewis are also involved in the return specialist free for all.

Tight end

Dan Arnold was moved from wide receiver to give him a better chance to make the roster. Let’s see is he can beat out one of the veterans – Benjamin Watson, Michael Hoomanawanui and Josh Hill – and hold off undrafted free agent Deon Yelder.

Offensive line

Two draft choices – tackle Rick Leonard (fourth round) and center/guard Will Clapp of LSU (seventh round) are battling for backup spots. Clapp and second-year player and Baton Rouge native Cameron Tom are competing with veteran Josh LeRibeus for a spot on the interior, but Tom has been sidelined for more than a week by an arm injury. Leonard is battling Michael Ota behind veteran Jermon Bushrod, who is the primary backup on the line.

Defensive line

No. 1 draft choice Marcus Davenport doesn’t figure to play because he has missed practice for the last week because of an undisclosed injury. With him out, watch the rotation and performance of the ends that come in after starters Cam Jordan and Alex Okafor – even they even play. Keep on eye on the battle between David Onyemata and Sheldon Rankins to start next to Tyeler Davison.

Linebackers

Who plays where isn’t all that important because the Saints can mix and match. They key is the number of reps and quality of play of people such as Nate Stupar and Hau’oli Kikaha get as they try to stick on the roster. Watch Stupar on special teams, where he has been a standout.

Secondary

It’ll fun to see Marshon Lattimore and Marcus Williams make plays in their limited time, but the real news will be whether guys such as New Orleans native Arthur Maulet and De’Vante Harris looked like they belong. Former LSU DB Rickey Jefferson was re-signed Sunday and is worth watching if he gets out there.

Special teams

Watch all of the punt returners and kickoff returners in all of the preseason games, but that competition won’t be settled until all four games have been played.

Finally, hang on that roster and keep watching to the bitter end because everyone is worthy of evaluation in these games.

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Les East

Les East

CCS/Times-Picayune

Les East is a nationally renowned freelance journalist. His 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 and Louisiana Sportswriter of the Year by the National Sportscasters and Sportswriters Association. You can follow…

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