Saints season a referendum on their young-player evaluation, development
METAIRIE – The New Orleans Saints are counting on a group of newcomers to replace players who have left the team since the end of last season.
They have brought in veteran free agents, rookie draft choices, rookie undrafted free agents and players claimed off waivers who are positioned to fill some of the holes.
But the Saints’ hopes of winning a fifth consecutive NFC South title don’t rest solely with players who have been acquired since the 30-20 loss to Tampa Bay in an NFC Division Playoff last January.
This team’s fate rests largely with the development of young players who were part of one or more of those division champions and have an opportunity to break out this season in larger roles.
“I do believe we have a pretty strong core group of returning players that have performed and performed at a high level and obviously we expect and assume that they’re going to continue to do that,” vice president/general manager Mickey Loomis said on the eve of training camp. “But we’ve also got what I think is a really strong group of younger players that are ascending and obviously, there’s some guys, second-year players and third-year players, that you would expect to improve.”
So this team’s performance will be a referendum on the football operations’ performance in evaluating and drafting players, evaluating and signing free agents as well as the coaching staff’s ability to develop players.
“The NFL is a young players’ league,” head coach Sean Payton said. “Our job is to draft players, train them, develop them and get them ready to play.”
The Saints’ top receiver – Michael Thomas – is sidelined indefinitely as he recovers from ankle surgery in June, and their No. 2 receiver from last season – Emmanuel Sanders – signed with Buffalo as a free agent.
That leaves Tre’Quan Smith (a third-round draft choice in 2018) and former undrafted free agents Marquez Callaway (2020), Deonte Harris (2019) and Lil’Jordan Humphrey (2019) in position to become primary pass catchers.
The departure of veteran tight ends Jared Cook and Josh Hill creates an opportunity for Adam Trautman (a No. 3 in 2020) and Juwan Johnson, a 2020 undrafted free agent who moved from wide receiver in the off-season, to play significant roles.
Nick Easton and Cesar Ruiz split the starting spot at right guard last season, but the Saints released Easton in the off-season, paving the way for Ruiz, the team’s No. 1 draft choice in 2020, to be the full-time starter this season.
Ruiz’s development, as well as the continued development of center Eric McCoy, the Saints’ No. 2 in 2019, will be key to the offensive line maintaining its high level of play.
The defensive line lost three key contributors from last season – Trey Hendrickson, Malcolm Brown and Sheldon Rankins – and starting tackle David Onyemata is suspended for the first six games.
So ends Marcus Davenport (No. 1 in 2018), Carl Granderson (undrafted free agent 2019) and Payton Turner (No. 1 in 2021) as well as tackles Shy Tuttle (undrafted free agent, 2019) and Malcolm Roach (undrafted free agent, 2020) all have significant opportunities.
“I’m pleased overall with the development of the defensive-line room,” Payton said.
Alex Anzalone and Craig Robertson are no longer part of the linebacking corps, but Zach Baun (No. 3 in 2020), Kaden Elliss (No. 7 in 2019), Chase Hansen (undrafted free agent, 2019), Pete Werner (No. 2, 2021) and Marcus Dowell (undrafted free agent 2019) all showed promise during training camp and the preseason.
“Coming in there were a lot of potential question marks at the linebacker position,” said veteran linebacker Demario Davis, “which young guys were going to step up, which ones were going to be ready. It shouldn’t be understated the amount of growth those young guys have had.”
Starting cornerback Janoris Jenkins was released in an off-season salary-cap move, and veteran backup Patrick Robinson unexpectedly retired during training camp.
But the Saints have invested in several young defensive backs – cornerback Marshon Lattimore (No. 1, 2017), safety Marcus Williams (No. 2 in 2017), C.J. Gardner-Johnson (No. 4 in 2019), Ken Crawley (undrafted free agent, 2016), P.J. Williams (No. 3, 2015) and rookie third-round draft choice Paulson Adebo.
Punter Blake Gillikin, an undrafted free agent in 2020, stuck around for a year as the presumed successor to Thomas Morstead, which he became after the Saints released Morstead – their standout specialist since 2009 – during the off-season.
The ascension of this group of young players will be the most important factor in whether the Saints descend or don’t this season.
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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…