What to watch for on the eve of the preseason
Training camp is finally upon us, as the New Orleans Saints will gather in Metairie once again to determine the final roster for the 2021 season. This year comes with a lot of question marks, as the Saints now have a quarterback controversy on their hands for the first time since Drew Brees came to town. The salary cap issues the team had also led to a lot of turnover on the defense and recent suspensions and injuries will also lead to former backups now having to start on both sides of the ball. So let’s take a look at what we should all be paying attention to over the next two weeks.
Who will emerge at Wide Receiver?
With the news that Michael Thomas may be out for a significant amount of time, the Saints now field one of the least experienced groups of wide receivers in the NFL. Tre’Quan Smith and his three seasons in New Orleans are the most among returning receivers that will be suiting up at camp this year. Chris Hogan, who was an integral part of two Super Bowl winning teams in New England was recently signed to provide depth to the group, but he has started just five games in the last two years and was recently pursuing a career in Premier Lacrosse League.
Outside of Smith and Hogan, special teamers Deonte Harris and Marquez Callaway look to become a bigger part of the offensive attack in relief of Thomas. The only preview of the current Saints receiver core we have to go on is a Week 7 game last year against the Panthers. Both Michael Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders were out that week and Smith, Harris and Callaway were the top three receivers healthy. In this game, the three receivers combined for 16 catches for 175 yards and a touchdown, nothing eye opening but not a bad effort either. Harris’s incoming suspension could obviously throw a wrench in everything. But this of course, is a very small sample size, so Saints fans will need to keep an eye on these three players to see if any of them will be able to make the jump to a consistent #1 wide receiver in Thomas’s absence.
Evaluating the rookie class
Training camp offers us a chance to look at the rookie class more thoroughly, as they will be competing in practices and preseason games for the last time before the roster is narrowed down to 53. The top three picks should all be locks to make the roster, as Payton Turner, Pete Werner, and Paulson Adebo could all see significant playing time this season. The intriguing parts of the rookie class start with quarterback Ian Book.
Book was a big name in college, as he set many career passing records at Notre Dame, but he was not a highly touted prospect and many were surprised the Saints picked him. Book will compete with veteran Trevor Siemian for the #3 position on the depth chart. It will certainly be interesting to see how Book performs in training camp and in the preseason. If he can follow in the footsteps of late round QBs like Dak Prescott and Russell Wilson, the Saints may have their QB of the future. If not, it will be just another wasted draft pick.
Tackle Landon Young and receiver Kawaan Baker will also be looking to find their place on the roster for 2021. The sixth and seventh round picks respectively will need to show they can provide stability, if they are called upon to fill in for injuries this year. It will be especially interesting to see how well Baker performs during camp as the Saints will need every WR they can find with the absence of Michael Thomas. No Saints fan should count him out however, as the leading receiver in team history was also a seventh round pick.
New look defense
The Saints defense heading into training camp this year will look much different than how it did at the end of 2020. Multiple starters on defense including star players like Trey Hendrickson and Janoris Jenkins signed with other teams this offseason as the Saints cut back on spending in order to get under the cap. In addition to this, defensive tackle David Onyemata will be suspended for the first six games of the year due to a failed drug test. This means former backups/ rotational players such as Marcus Davenport and Shy Tuttle will now be full time starters on the defensive line. Training camp will give us a good chance to evaluate how these new starters look in their increased role. We know they can contribute when called upon but being an every down player is a completely different animal.
Another interesting player to watch in training camp will be C.J. Gardner-Johnson. Gardner-Johnson spent his time in college and the NFL playing safety and has become a versatile part of the Saints run defense by playing in the box. He is currently listed as the #2 cornerback on the Saints depth chart however. C.J. has played nickel before, but has little experience as an outside CB. Watching where he lines up in camp and keeping an eye on the other corners on the roster should give us a good indication of how the Saints defensive backfield will look this year.
Who will win the quarterback battle
The 2021 season marks the first training camp without Drew Brees in 15 years and his retirement was the start of the biggest question of the Saints offseason, who will be his successor? Jameis Winston seems to hold the edge currently, but Taysom Hill could inch ever so closer to the starting job if Jameis is unable to move past the issues he had in Tampa Bay. The preseason games should give us more of a look at which QB will land the starting job. However, as someone who watched Blaine Gabbert in training camp for three years in Jacksonville, I can tell you practices can be deceptive for a quarterback. We won’t know for sure who the best QB for the Saints is until a few games in, but for now, training camp will give us our most definitive look at who the leader in the clubhouse is for the starting role come Week 1.
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