We are just a few weeks from the start of the regular season, and with that comes the beginning of the preseason. The Saints are just one day out from their first preseason game against the Cleveland Browns. Today, we’ll look at the three position battles to watch during the preseason.
Last season, it appeared as if cornerback was the deepest position on the team. However, injuries to the top three corners within the first two weeks of the season left the team with less than desirable options. After a few weeks of practices, it once again looks like the Saints have good depth at cornerback. Delvin Breaux and rookie Marshon Lattimore, the two expected to man the outside spots, have seen limited action thus far. A leg contusion has kept Breaux off the field, whereas a tweaked knee has hindered Lattimore. The two should be back soon.
Despite the injuries to the top two players, the cornerback position has still looked good in practices. Third-year player P.J. Williams has stood out, and most importantly, he’s been healthy after dealing with injuries his first two seasons. Ken Crawley, an undrafted free agent who was forced into a major role last year (played 502 snaps), has been one of the stars of training camp. De’Vante Harris, Arthur Maulet, Damian Swann, and Sterling Moore have shown flashes of solid play.
Ken Crawley may be the most intriguing player at the position in preseason. Listed at 6’1″, 180 pounds, Crawley has prototypical size. Not to mention, he has the speed to keep up with some of the quicker receivers (he ran a 4.43 second 40-yard dash at the NFL Combine). When asked which player looked most improved from last year, Nick Underhill of the New Orleans Advocate responded, “For sure, right now, it’s Ken Crawley.” The Saints must feel similarly as he was listed as a starter on the first unofficial depth chart. As a rookie, he was in the right position more often than not, but he struggled with making the necessary plays. He looks poised to make a big jump in his sophomore season, and if he plays well in the preseason, his spot on the team will be cemented.
As it currently stands, there figure to be three locks to make the roster at cornerback: Delvin Breaux, Marshon Lattimore, and P.J. Williams. That means there should be two or three spots available. Those who play the best in the preseason games will likely round out the roster at cornerback.
Last season, the Saints’ linebackers struggled. So, to fix that problem, the Saints added a number of players at the position over the offseason. They signed A.J. Klein, Manti Te’o, and drafted Alex Anzalone. A.J. Klein has been the only staple on the first team defense thus far. Mike Triplett of ESPN anticipates Klein will play strongside linebacker in the base defense and move to middle linebacker in the nickel defense.
It's not either-or with Te'o and Klein. Te'o can win the Mike job and play in base packages. Klein can play Sam in base, Mike in nickel. https://t.co/HeVOvMR5gA
— Mike Triplett (@MikeTriplett) August 8, 2017
Manti Te’o, Stephone Anthony, and Craig Robertson have seen action at middle linebacker. Weakside linebacker has been manned by Anzalone and Anthony. At the moment, the players are being continuously shuffled around. The Stephone Anthony reclamation project is in full-effect after the team moved him to a third position in three years (weakside linebacker); so far, it looks like recently added linebackers coach Mike Nolan has helped improve Anthony’s play-recognition ability.
The preseason games will be essential to determining who the starters will be. Both Anzalone and Anthony have flashed at weakside linebacker, and Te’o’s ability to diagnose and recognize plays could help him earn the starting job at middle linebacker. Michael Mauti and Nathan Stupar should be in the mix, although it’s highly unlikely that either player sees the field as a starter in the regular season. If three clear starters don’t emerge, it’s possible that the team will go with a linebacker-by-committee approach that consists of substitutions determined by the down and distance. A player’s ability to play special teams could be the difference between him making the team and not.
It seems as if the Saints have never struggled to find wide receivers in the Payton-Brees era, and that appears to be the case yet again.
Michael Thomas, Ted Ginn Jr., and Willie Snead are locks to make the roster. Thomas is the bona fide number one receiver, Ginn is the deep threat who also possesses the ability to take short passes the distance, and Snead is the reliable slot receiver who can also move outside. As is the case with cornerback, there will be two or three roster spots available.
Third-year receiver Brandon Coleman has been the star of training camp. Throughout camp, he has routinely made plays over the middle of the field, an area where the Saints struggled last year. Over the offseason, he added some weight, and he’s now playing at about 6’6″, 230 pounds. A solid preseason performance or two should solidify his spot on the team.
The two players to watch during the preseason are Corey Fuller and Tommylee Lewis. Both players have flashed potential in practices. Both players are familiar with the offense, and this understanding should help them distance themselves from the other receivers fighting for the fifth/sixth spot.