There’s lots to keep an eye on during Saints preseason opener

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Erik McCoy and the Saints
(Photo: Stephen Lew)

METAIRIE – The New Orleans Saints have conducted 11 training-camp practices so far.

So there’s enough visual evidence to start forming opinions of who is exceeding expectations, who’s falling short of them and who has been about what was expected from them.

But impressions formed from practices can be altered dramatically by how players perform in preseason games. After all, the coaches are searching for the 53 players best suited to compete in regular-season games and the preseason games simulate that far better than practices.

So when the Saints play their preseason opener against the Minnesota Vikings on Friday night in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome, impressions can be strongly reinforced or altered significantly.

A few players likely will be held out because of injuries, though we don’t who just yet because coach Sean Payton doesn’t reveal injuries during training camp.

Several starters likely will he held out or play minimal snaps so the coaches can get longer looks at players who are competing for roster and depth-chart positions.

Here’s a list of players to keep an eye on:

The centers – This is really the only starting position that’s up for grabs. Baton Rouge native Cameron Tom got the first reps with the first team, but in recent days second-round draft choice Erik McCoy, who the Saints would like to see earn the starting position, has been consistently with the starters. Former Viking Nick Easton is insurance in case neither Tom nor McCoy stands out, but he’s likely to provide veteran depth at center and guard.

The backup tackles – Left tackle Terron Armstead was asked a few days ago if he thought he and All-Pro right tackle Ryan Ramczyk were the best starting tackle tandem in the NFL. “Yes, sir,” Armstead replied without hesitation. It’s hard to disagree with him, but it’s worth watching the rest of the tackles because the backup positions are up for grabs.

Six-year veteran Michael Ola played in seven games with the Saints last season and could make the team as a tackle/guard. Ulrick John also is a six-year veteran who has spent time on injured reserve with three different teams. Ethan Greenidge and Derrick Kelly are undrafted free agents. Regardless of how competitive the game is, every offensive play will be significant for the tackles.

The tight ends – It sees as though head coach Sean Payton has been asked about a dozen different times about the on-field chemistry between Drew Brees and new TE Jared Cook because they look as though they have been teammates for a lot longer than just a few weeks. They might not get a chance to play pitch and catch Friday, but the other tight ends have a lot at stake. Veteran Josh Hill is the front-runner to be Cook’s primary backup, but former WR Dan Arnold, Garrett Griffin, Jake Powell and A.J. Derby (signed Wednesday) need all the opportunities they can get, though Griffin didn’t practice Wednesday. Rookie Alize’ Mack is an intriguing prospect for a seventh-round draft choice, but he has been sidelined this week and might not be available.

The logjam at wide receiverMichael Thomas is No. 1 and really, really rich. Ted Ginn Jr. is No. 2 and really, really fast. After that, who knows? The Saints are hoping Tre’Quan Smith and Keith Kirkwood make significant improvement after promising but uneven rookie seasons a year ago. Kirkwood has missed time this week and might not be available. Undrafted rookie Emmanuel Butler opened eyes in the early days of camp before getting hurt. Payton said Wednesday that he’s “hopeful” that Butler will be available. Does veteran Rishard Matthews have enough savvy to surpass the youngsters? What about young veterans such as Austin Carr, former LSU Tiger Travin Dural or Simmie Cobbs? Can former Rummel product and former LSU track star Cyril Grayson Jr. emerge as Ginn-like deep threat? What about undrafted rookies Lil’Jordan Humphrey, who has had a mundane camp so far, and Deonte Harris a diminutive return specialist. There’s lots to see here.

Mark Ingram III?Latavius Murray was signed to replace Mark Ingram II. Murray missed a couple of days of practice, but he’s back. If he plays, does he look like he can fill Ingram’s shoes? Tune in and find out. Also watch the rest of the running backs because the Saints are scrambling to find the third runner behind Murray and starter Alvin Kamara. Dwayne Washington looks like the early leader.

Teddy Bridgewater – Of course he won’t play significant snaps in the regular season unless something unexpected happens to Brees. But someday in the not-too-distant future he might succeed Brees as the starter, possibly even next season. Does he look the part? He didn’t last season when he got a start in the regular-season finale after the Saints had wrapped up a No. 1 seed, but he didn’t arrive until the end of the preseason last year. Bridgewater will play a lot and might start.

The defensive line – Grab a roster for this one. Sheldon Rankins probably won’t return from Achilles surgery until after camp and Cameron Jordan will play little if at all. But there’s a lot to keep an eye on. Does Marcus Davenport look like he’s ready to have an impact? David Onyemata, Taylor Stallworth, Malcolm Brown, Mario Edwards Jr. Wes Horton, Ziggy Hood, Sylvester Williams and Trey Hendrickson all have NFL experience. Who’s going to make and who won’t. Remember last summer when the Saints managed to extract a seventh-round draft choice from Cleveland for Devaroe Lawrence? If all these guys show well in the preseason they might be able to pull off a similar deal for one of these guys late in the preseason.

Linebacking depth – The starters are DeMario Davis, A.J. Klein and Alex Anzalone and Craig Robertson is the top backup. After that it’s wide open. See who looks most capable among the others.

Marshon Lattimore and Marcus Williams – In 2017 Lattimore was the NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year and Williams was a rookie starter. Neither was as good in 2018. If they play, will they look more like their freshman or sophomore versions?

The drafted safeties – Fourth-rounder C.J. Williams-Gardner and sixth-rounder Saquan Hampton have both impressed and look like they’ll make the team. How will they hold up in their first game action?

The nickelbacks – Speaking of Gardner-Johnson, he’s in the mix with P.J. Williams and Patrick Robinson at nickelback. Robinson appears fully recovered from the broken ankle he suffered last season, but Williams is getting the first-team reps.

The returners – Former Viking Marcus Sherels was signed to be the punt returner, but several people will get shots on punt and kickoff returns.

Special teams – Watch all of the units closely because a bunch of roster decisions will come down to who can help the most on special teams.

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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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