Position battles are the lifeblood of any NFL team’s training camp.
By virtue of a dramatic offseason overhaul designed to upgrade the talent on defense, the New Orleans Saints will have more tightly contested races than most when training camp opens in West Virginia in 10 days.
With that in mind, in The Advocate’s second installment in a series of stories breaking down what to watch when the Saints hit the practice fields, here’s a look at five of the most intriguing position races:
The top two spots do not appear to be in question. Brandin Cooks looks like a potential breakout star in his second season and, despite a down year by his standards, veteran Marques Colston is still productive after posting back-to-back 900-yard seasons.
But the Saints’ passing game has always been built around more than two capable receivers, and behind Cooks and Colston there appears to be a wide-open race for playing time.
Nick Toon, entering a contract year, is still chasing his NFL breakout. Promising youngsters Brandon Coleman and Seantavius Jones have drawn praise as big, explosive targets, free agent pickup Josh Morgan brings a unique toughness over the middle and Joe Morgan has been given another chance. Inside, Jalen Saunders has proven he can be a capable kick returner, and undrafted free agent R.J. Harris turned heads with a couple of spectacular catches during summer workouts.
And the opportunities are likely limited. Under Sean Payton, the Saints usually keep five or six receivers, meaning a deep group will have to fight tooth-and-nail to make the final 53.
Bringing first-round pick Stephone Anthony and veteran linebacker Dannell Ellerbe into the field sets up a three-way race for the two starting spots. Veteran starter David Hawthorne has slid over to middle linebacker to replace released stalwart Curtis Lofton, setting up a race against the rookie for the right to wear the green dot on Sundays.
Anthony, who picked up the defense quickly and made several highlight plays in summer workouts, appears to be ready to compete. If Anthony wins the job, the Saints could decide to shift Hawthorne back to compete against Ellerbe, a talented player in coverage who has struggled with injuries.
New Orleans might be known as a 3-4 defense, but the truth is the Saints spent more than 70 percent of their snaps in nickel or dime packages last season to combat the three- and four-receiver sets that dominate the NFL these days. A year ago, New Orleans struggled to find a consistent player in the role, using Corey White, Patrick Robinson and safety Kenny Vaccaro in the slot.
White and Robinson are both gone, replaced by veteran free agent Kyle Wilson, a pair of draft picks in P.J. Williams and Damian Swann and an impressive wild card in CFL import Delvin Breaux. Breaux, initially seen as an outside corner only, might have been the Saints’ most impressive corner during the summer, and he earned a brief look in the slot during the Saints’ mandatory minicamp, adding another possibility to a deep race.
New Orleans cut veteran Shayne Graham shortly after the team’s rookie minicamp, setting up a head-to-head competition between Dustin Hopkins and Zach Hocker for the kicker’s role.
The Saints are taking a chance. Neither Hopkins nor Hocker has ever attempted a kick in a regular-season game, but both offer more leg strength than the departed Graham, and kickers like Philadelphia’s Cody Parkey have proved in recent years that an inexperienced kicker can still be deadly. In a league where games always seem to come down to the fourth quarter, a good kicker is a prized commodity, and Hopkins and Hocker now have their chance to prove they belong in the league.
Other position battles loom large, particularly at edge rusher, but all eyes will be on the Saints’ first pick in the draft. Unlike a lot of first-round picks, Andrus Peat was selected to a position of strength for the Saints; both Terron Armstead and Zach Strief turned in impressive seasons last year.
New Orleans believes Peat fits best at right tackle, placing him in direct competition with Strief. If the rookie wants to play right away, he’ll have to beat out an established, nine-year veteran; if not, Peat instantly upgrades a tackle position that struggled when Armstead was injured last season.