Training camp officially wrapped up for Saints after practice with Texans

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METAIRIE — The New Orleans Saints officially concluded training camp when they practiced against the Houston Texans on Thursday morning.

They’ll have a walk-through with the Texans on Friday in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome, where the teams will meet in a preseason game Saturday night. Then New Orleans will practice Monday and Tuesday prior to the preseason finale against the Baltimore Ravens on Aug. 31 in the Superdome.

So there’s more preseason work to be done, but the training camp regimen and access to practice for the public ended Thursday.

Here are some observations from the work that has taken place since July 27 in preparation for the season opener Sept. 11 at Minnesota:

Breaux a loss, but perhaps the only one

This certainly could change during the final two preseason games, but New Orleans thus far has been relatively fortunate in regards to injuries. The one significant injury was the broken fibula suffered by starting cornerback Delvin Breaux, which required surgery and will sideline him for about the first month of the season.

At least that was the case before Thursday when both of the Saints’ first-round draft choices — cornerback Marshon Lattimore and tackle Ryan Ramczyk — had to leave the field because of health issues. Neither player seemed to be seriously hurt and Coach Sean Payton said he hoped the two will be able to play Saturday.

But stay tuned to this.

The silver lining to Breaux’s injury is the opportunity it has presented to Lattimore, assuming the rookie, who missed a few practices because of a minor knee injury before returning, isn’t seriously hurt. Breaux’s absence has given Lattimore more first-team reps and he started the second preseason game. He’ll no doubt experience some growing pains, but if he can stay mentally strong until Breaux returns the Saints could be stronger at the cornerback position.

Ramczyk’s job to lose

And speaking of No. 1 draft choices and growing pains, Ramczyk is being given every opportunity to start at left tackle while Terron Armstead mends from offseason shoulder surgery, which will force him to miss at least half of the season.

Again, assuming he’s not seriously hurt.

Ramczyk had ups and downs but overall did fine when he started against the Chargers last Sunday.

He figures to be the starter unless he spits the bit, but based on the way backups Khalif Barnes and Bryce Harris, who replaced Ramczyk on Thursday, played against the Chargers, the rookie should have a fairly long leash.

Center Max Unger, just activated from the PUP list after undergoing offseason foot surgery, is expected to play in the preseason, perhaps as soon as Saturday against the Texans and be ready for the opener.

The rest of the line is set with Andrus Peat at left guard, Larry Warford at right guard and Zach Strief at right tackle.

Running backs featured attraction

We still haven’t seen the trio of running backs — Mark Ingram II, Adrian Peterson and rookie Alvin Kamara — in a game together. Kamara has been one of the stars of camp, proving he’s capable of being more than a third-down receiving option when given the opportunity.

Ingram and Peterson didn’t play in either of the first two preseason games, but Payton indicated Wednesday and Thursday that both would play an unspecified amount against the Texans.

One thing that hasn’t changed since the start of training camp is that the performance of the running backs will be one of the featured attractions when the game against the Vikings arrives.

The running game could ease a bit of the burden on 38-year-old quarterback Drew Brees, but make not mistake about it — Brees is still an elite quarterback and the key to this team’s fortunes.

Wide receivers still battling

The battle for the fourth and probably a fifth wide receiver spot on the regular-season roster figures to continue until the cut-down date of Sept. 2. Michael Thomas, Willie Snead IV and Ted Ginn Jr. are the top three. Brandon Coleman, Corey Fuller and Tommylee Lewis have taken turns standing out and vanishing thus far, but Lewis’ special-teams value is greater than Coleman or Fuller has.

New Orleans hopes tight end Coby Fleener has a bigger impact than he had last season after signing as a free agent.

Defense looks much improved

On defense, the Saints entered training camp hoping to be improved on defense and there’s every indication that they will be better. Whether they improve enough to be a playoff team remains to be seen.

Cam Jordan looks ready to have a Pro Bowl-caliber season at left end and the addition of Alex Okafor at right end should upgrade the pass rush and make life easier for Jordan. Hau’oli Kikaha looks recovered from his third knee operation and capable of contributing to the pass rush as well. Sixth-round draft choice Al-Quadin Muhammad has impressed and is pushing for a roster spot.

The offseason loss of defensive tackle Nick Fairley for the season because of a career-threatening heart ailment added a major challenge to the training-camp itinerary. David Onyemata, a fourth-round draft choice last season, and Tyeler Davison have been battling to take over Fairley’s spot and it’ll be the regular season be we get an idea of how well they can mitigate the loss of Fairley.

At the other tackle position, Sheldon Rankins, the No. 1 draft choice a year ago, looks ready to be an impact player after an injury-plagued rookie season.

New linebackers making a difference

The Saints brought in three new linebackers — free agents A.J. Klein and Manti Te’o and third-round draft choice Alex Anzalone — as an integral part of their rebuilding of the defense. It looks like they made wise choices.

Klein has been a standout while playing strongside in the base and middle in the nickel. Te’o is starting in the middle and had an exceptional game against the Chargers, his former team. Anzalone has shown the athleticism necessary to be in the mix behind incumbent Craig Robertson on the weakside.

Vaccaro a leader in the secondary

Getting back to the cornerbacks, P.J. Williams seems healthy and two injury-plagued seasons and has been holding down the top corner spot in Breaux’s absence and Ken Crawley looks improved over a year ago.

At safety, Kenny Vaccaro seems ready to elevate his game and second-round draft choice Marcus Williams brings a ball-hawking ability to challenge Vonn Bell and Rafael Bush.

Lutz and Morstead unchallenged

Kicker Wil Lutz and punter Thomas Morstead have been virtually unchallenged. Morstead is competing with backup quarterback Chase Daniel to keep his spot as the holder. New Orleans brought back veteran long snapper Justin Drescher after releasing him in the offseason and finding the candidates to replace him inadequate during the early stages of training camp.

Ginn is the front-runner to handle punt returns and he’ll probably share kickoff returns with Kamara.

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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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