BALTIMORE — Since Donald Trump is otherwise occupied these days, we thought we’d offer up the Saints version of The Apprentice.
The participants: good friends and training-camp roommates Zach Hocker and Dustin Hopkins.
At stake: The Saints place-kicking job.
Only one can win. That means sometime soon, Sean Payton will be saying to the other the football equivalent of, “You’re fired.”
Hopkins acknowledged it’s not an easy position to be in.
“You’re in a competition for a job, but you’re also encouraging to each other,” he said. “It’s not like we’re trying to sabotage each other or anything.”
Although they’ve been going at it in training camp for two weeks, Hocker and Hopkins face their first test under the lights here Thursday in the exhibition opener against the Baltimore Ravens. Payton has said the two will evenly split the kicking duties.
Perhaps for the first time, the reality of the competition will kick in.
“We both want to be in the league, Hocker said. “That’s the only goal we have in mind.
“You’re doing the best you can to make it hard for them to cut you and try not to worry about what the other guy does.”
The good news is for whoever doesn’t make the Black & Gold, other opportunities may appear.
Pittsburgh’s Shaun Suisham suffered a torn ACL in Sunday’s Hall of Fame game. He was replaced Tuesday by ex-Saints kicker Garrett Hartley, who was released in May by Cleveland.
But Hartley’s job security is shaky. This is one in which often a team’s loyalty extends only to your last kick.
Saints kickers have always been especially fungible during the Payton era.
Anybody remember Taylor Mehlhaff? He was one of nine kickers appearing in games for the Saints in the past nine seasons.
This spring, the team waived veteran Shayne Graham, who last season made 19 of 22 field-goal attempts, elevating his career percentage to .855, seventh-best in league history.
Lot of good that did him.
The Saints believed that Hopkins, who had already been signed to the practice squad in December, or Hocker, signed in May, could do the job better.
But it also left the Saints in an unusual position: Neither Hopkins nor Hocker has ever appeared in a regular-season game.
Only the Browns are in the same situation.
“Usually you have an older player and a young guy, or maybe you just go to camp with one guy if you’re confident in him,” Saints special teams coordinator Greg McMahon said. “So this is definitely different.
“But I’m excited about it.”
McMahon can say that because despite their inexperience, Hopkins and Hocker were judged good enough to be drafted, Hopkins by Buffalo out of Arkansas in 2013, and Hocker by Washington out of Florida State last year.
But they never made it past preseason.
Hopkins won the Bills job in ’13 but suffered a groin injury and was placed on injured reserve without ever playing in a game. The Bills cut him last year.
Hocker was cut by the Redskins in August, spent the season out of football, and was signed by Miami to a reserve/future contract in January.
He was released in May, and the Saints scooped him up and cut Graham. Graham. a 15-year veteran, remains unsigned.
“Shane’s a great kicker,” Hocker said. “I can only hope to have a career as good as he has.
“It’s a shame that he was cut. But at the end of the day, it’s a business.”
That fact, Hopkins said, hit home to him in the team’s off-the field interests.
“You’re playing with grown men here,” he said. “In college, you’re all living together. But a lot of these guys have families, and that’s who they spend their time with away from the building.
“You might say, ‘Hey, do you want to go get a burger?’ And they’re going home to their wife and kids. That’s awesome, but it’s different, too.”
In training camp, Hocker and Hopkins spend most of their time with each other, either concentrating on the fine points of technique (Hopkins compares it to a golfer working for hours on his chip shot), jogging and stretching to stay loose and, occasionally, filling in as dummy wide receivers when there aren’t enough real ones to fill out the last group.
And, oh yes, they kick: field goals, extra points from the NFL’s new distance 15 yards further out than before, and kickoffs, although punter Thomas Morstead likely will retain that job.
Thus far, Hopkins has the edge. He hasn’t missed yet, while Hocker has a couple of doinks on field goals.
The Ravens game will provide a more definitive measure, but it’s unlikely a decision will be made until the end.
Last year, the Saints cut both Graham and challenger Derek Dimke before resigning Graham two days later.
Who knows what will happen this time?
“We know it’s coming, but we don’t talk about it much,” Hopkins said. “You never know what they’re looking for, and you can’t control what the other guy does.
“The cool thing is having your buddy to work with. No matter how it comes out, we’ll have a lasting friendship.”
But still, one’s going to have to hear, “Coach wants to see you. And bring your playbook.”
Come to think of it, that is a little better than President Trump saying, “You’re fired.”