The New Orleans Saints began practicing with pads for the first time Sunday, and their first preseason game is less than two weeks away. There is a lot of work to be done; head coach Sean Payton is fresh off his one-year suspension, defensive coordinator Rob Ryan is implementing a new 3-4 defensive scheme, and quarterback Drew Brees will be looking for a return to the playoffs.
Heading into the 2013 season, I sketched out three areas of interest for New Orleans. Earlier this week, I noted that how Ryan’s defense plays and whether or not it can muster at least average numbers is perhaps most important to the Saints and whether or not they return to the postseason. The second area of interest to pay attention to during training camp and preseason is the battle for the starting position at left tackle. Jermon Bushrod’s departure to the Chicago Bears in the offseason left a big hole to be filled, and Payton is very concerned with who will get the nod to protect Brees’ blind side.
The third and final area of interest for the Saints during training camp and the preseason concerns the wide receiver corps and who will anchor the roster’s No. 3 and 4 spots.
Previously, the Saints’ wide receiver roster was fairly settled. Marques Colston and Lance Moore are still present and producing, but with the departure of Robert Meachem in 2012 and Devery Henderson in 2013, New Orleans will be looking to fill those gaps.
Third-year receiver Joe Morgan was the best bet to lock up the No. 3 spot earlier in the offseason, but a Memorial Day arrest for DWI might affect his chances. Last year, Morgan caught 10 passes for a total of 379 yards and may be best remembered for a Week 7 catch against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, when he caught a long bomb from Brees, avoided one defender’s tackle attempt and flipped another over his shoulders to score a touchdown.
Entering his sophomore year, Nick Toon, son of former Pro-Bowl receiver Al Toon, should be neck and neck with Morgan in competing for a spot. Toon was placed on the IR list before the start of last season, so he’s likely hungry to return and contribute. At 6-foot-3, 218 pounds, Toon has a body similar to Colston. It’s possible that he and Morgan may split time in different situations. Short yardage and/or running situations may prompt the Saints to go with Toon and his size, while long-distance passing situations may call for a speedier Morgan to fill that spot.
Rookie Kenny Stills may find a home on the roster, mainly due to his speed and agility. Placing him across the way from another speedster like Morgan could present the Saints with unique ways to move the football and score touchdowns. Likewise, the speediness of Saalim Hakim could help him secure a spot on the roster, despite his lack of football background and experience. I’ll be watching to see whether these two in particular make the roster cut. Speedy players are always fun to watch when used in innovative ways or in unique or advantageous matchups.
Finally, eight-year veteran Courtney Roby might be able to secure a spot this season. Roby has been a special teams guru for the Saints for years, including their Super Bowl season in 2009. While he is lacking great hands and overall wide receiver skills compared to other candidates, New Orleans has shown a willingness to keep him around and even use him in a blocking role in the run game.
All in all, I am confident that Payton and his offensive staff will find the talent they need and use them in unique ways to score. My guess for the final roster positions are:
1. Colston, 2. Moore, 3. Morgan, and 4. Toon.
There is still a lot of time left in training camp, and preseason has yet to begin, but be sure to keep these players on your radar.