Saints have interesting position battles to watch heading into first preseason game at Browns
Finally, fans, players and coaches will get someone else to watch the New Orleans Saints against to begin the real, final evaluation which will lead to the opening day roster when the Saints take on the Vikings on Sept. 11 in Minnesota.
The first opportunity comes Thursday evening in Cleveland when the Saints open their preseason against the Browns at FirstEnergy Stadium.
While some positions appear to be settled or close to settled (kicker, punter, quarterback, tight end), there are others with spirited, and in some cases, wide-open competition.
Wil Lutz will be the kicker, despite Patrick Murray coming on board. Thomas Morstead is the punter. Justin Drescher has returned and is likely the long snapper. Ted Ginn, Jr. and Alvin Kamara figure to rejuvenate a passive to below average return game.
At quarterback, Drew Brees and Chase Daniel are set and Garrett Grayson has a clear edge as a third person at the spot, unless the team looks externally following final cuts.
At running back, Mark Ingram, Adrian Peterson, Kamara and John Kuhn (fullback) are set with the one spot to be determined featuring a battle between Daniel Lasco and Travaris Cadet. While Cadet is more versatile, he will be replaced in the return game and Lasco is a good special teams player and has more speed. The issue for Lasco is remaining healthy.
Up front, injuries have clouded the issue.
When healthy, Max Unger, Andrus Peat, Larry Warford, Zach Strief and Terron Armstead are a formidable unit. Of course, Armstead is out and Ryan Ramczyk will get every chance to replace him but he has to prove he is healthy and stay on the field. Khalif Barnes is a veteran who who could conceivably fill the spot but that would be the less preferred option.
Josh LeRibeus is likely to stick with Unger out at least until later in the preseason. Senio Kelemete has proven he can play in the league. John Fullington and Landon Turner are competing, Bryce Harris has been here and Jack Allen is battling and has the versatility to play center or guard. The Saints are likely to keep eight overall, though that number could fluctuate.
At tight end, Coby Fleener is the starter while Michael Hoomanawanui and Josh Hill are back from injuries. All three figure to make the roster, though John Phillips filled in decently a year ago and Clay Harbor and Garrett Griffin have some athletic ability.
Perhaps the most intriguing area to watch on offense is wide receiver.
Michael Thomas, Willie Sneed and Ginn, Jr. are set. Brandon Coleman has had a very good camp and seems to have separated himself from others for the fourth spot, though he has to prove it in games. The Saints still like his size and potential. The fifth spot is a real competition between veteran Corey Fuller, diminutive but quick Tommylee Lewis and Jake Lampman. Travin Dural of LSU has looked pretty good as well but appears to be a prime candidate for the practice squad.
Lewis is quick but he is likely to be replaced in the return game, much like Cadet, due to the presence of Ginn, Jr. and Kamara. That would reduce his value overall. Fuller is a solid receiver, dependable. Lampman has good hands and he is a good special teams player.
Defensively, the line has several players who will definitely be here, including Cam Jordan, Sheldon Rankins, Alex Okafor, Tyeler Davison and David Onyemata. Hau’oli Kikaha will make it if his knees remain healthy. Draft pick Trey Hendrickson has an edge and is likely to stick. Fellow draft pick Al-Quadin Muhammad shows some pass rush ability and has a real shot.
That leaves veteran Troy McDaniel, along with returning players in Darryl Tapp and Obum Gwacham fighting to make it.
Linebacker is a most interesting position to watch overall, including players who line up both on the inside and outside.
A.J. Klein is a lock and will call signals while Craig Robertson and draft pick Alex Anzalone will be part of the mix.
That leaves several spots up for grabs. Nate Stupar is a solid, dependable veteran and is solid on special teams. Manti Te’o has physical ability and can play in the league, when healthy. The two big question marks are Stephone Anthony and Michael Mauti.
Anthony is a good athlete who can run. He had a solid rookie season before disappearing a year ago, with several comments about his ability to grasp assignments and put them into practice coming into play. Moving him to the weakside would appear to be the panacea, a position suited for speed and pursuit. If he is going to make it, that may be it. Otherwise, he is a first-round bust and you cannot afford those.
Mauti has overcome ulcerative colitis, which threatened his career. He is a hometown hero from Mandeville High and a second generation Saint (Rich). It is easy to pull for him and his passion for special teams could land him a spot, which virtually everyone hopes will occur. Adam Bighill is on the outside looking in but not out of the competition.
Cornerback is the other intriguing spot.
There are seven, possibly eight corners on the roster who can play in the NFL, a far cry from last year when the position was decimated by injuries.
The return of Delvin Breaux, P.J. Williams and Damian Swann, along with the addition of first-round pick Marshon Lattimore has turned the biggest liability on the team into a possible strength. Notice my use of the word “possible”.
There are many injury concerns when it comes to Breaux, Williams, Swann and even Lattimore. They have to be on the field or the position could revert to where it was last year.
Fortunately, Sterling Moore, De’Vante Harris and Ken Crawley gained significant, valuable experience when forced to play a year ago. Of that group, Moore is sound and would be a good dime package player but it is Crawley who has the most upside. He is tall (6’1), long and has some cover skill and is only 24.
Another intriguing player is a local hero in Arthur Maulet of Bonnabel. Maulet plays bigger than he is and could play slot receivers in the NFL. Barring injuries, it could be tough for him to make the final roster but he is a prime candidate for the practice squad.
At safety, the Saints appear set with Kenny Vaccaro, draft pick Marcus Williams, Vonn Bell and Rafael Bush. There is a chance that the team would keep a fifth player and both Chris Banjo and Eric Harris would have a shot.
On paper, the Saints look like a better team than the 2016 squad but so much of that depends on getting players on the field. With the team always guarding its injury situation like a hawk, we will have to wait and see who is healthy and can be counted on beginning Thursday night.
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Born and raised in the New Orleans area, CCSE CEO Ken Trahan has been a sports media fixture in the community for nearly four decades. Ken started NewOrleans.com/Sports with Bill Hammack and Don Jones in 2008. In 2011, the site became SportsNOLA.com. On August 1, 2017, Ken helped launch CrescentCitySports.com. Having accumulated national awards/recognition (National Sports Media Association, National Football…