Four undrafted defensive linemen headed into the New Orleans Saints’ preseason finale convinced they were fighting for their professional lives.
A glance at the numbers suggested one likely would make the final roster, maybe two if the chips fell just right.
By the time Saturday’s whirlwind of cuts ended, though, Bobby Richardson, Tavaris Barnes, Ashaad Mabry and Kaleb Eulls were all still standing as the preseason comes to a close and the season opener next Sunday at Arizona starts to come into focus.
A youth movement is underway in New Orleans.
Eight of the Saints’ nine draft picks made the final 53. Third-round cornerback P.J. Williams was the lone exception, stashed on injured reserve with a torn hamstring. Two more, breakout camp stars, Brandon Coleman and Willie Snead, were undrafted free agents a year ago and didn’t see action in a single game. Another key player, cornerback Delvin Breaux, is technically a rookie; he’s a CFL import with plenty of professional experience but none on Sundays.
Add in the four defensive linemen, and the Saints’ 53-man roster has 15 players who have never taken an NFL regular-season snap.
By virtue of how it turned out, 2015 training camp proved to be something of a referendum on the change that swept through the front office last offseason. New Orleans fired former college scouting director Rick Reiprish and hired new assistant general manager Jeff Ireland to revamp the team’s college scouting, a move that sent shockwaves through the Saints’ scouting department.
Training camp reinforced the reason for those changes. New Orleans cut cornerback Stanley Jean-Baptiste, linebacker Ronald Powell and safety Vinnie Sunseri — the last two with an injury designation that landed them on injured reserve — leaving Brandin Cooks as the only member of the 2014 draft class on this 53-man roster.
By comparison, New Orleans’ 2015 class — bearing the weight of comparisons to the Saints’ franchise-forming 2006 haul — is not only on the roster but in line to play key roles.
Stephone Anthony and Hau’oli Kikaha seem like front-runners to start at linebacker. Breaux and Damian Swann will open as key figures at cornerback after an injury to Keenan Lewis. Fifth-round pick Tyeler Davison seems poised to see snaps as a rotational member of the defensive line, and both Marcus Murphy and Davis Tull could play key roles on special teams. Based on the numbers, at least one of the four undrafted defensive linemen will get some work against Arizona, too.
A few changes to the 53-man roster released Saturday likely are still coming. New Orleans cut to four receivers and just two tight ends, leaving a pair of skill positions on the offense that likely will be bolstered before the Saints begin practice in earnest this week. For example, if the Saints place Lewis, who is expected to miss up to six weeks after reported hip surgery, on short-term IR, New Orleans could bring back deep threat Joe Morgan at receiver.
If the Saints sign a tight end in the next couple of days, one of the defensive linemen could find himself on the practice squad, protected somewhat by the fact that most teams will likely have their 53-man roster set by the time he hits the waiver wire. New Orleans is also potentially on the prowl for another pass rusher, somebody to help a rush that produced just two sacks in four preseason games. If a veteran becomes available, the Saints could slide another of the four undrafted defensive lineman to the practice squad again.
New Orleans still has a definitive veteran presence at quarterback, where the Saints kept Luke McCown over Tulane youngster Ryan Griffin; at running back, where reclamation project Tim Hightower earned his spot; on the offensive line, where Mike McGlynn’s addition gives New Orleans three linemen over the age of 30; at linebacker, with three seasoned vets flanking a rookie Anthony; and at safety, where veterans Kenny Phillips and Jamarca Sanford buttress a position left somewhat in flux after the training camp absence of Jairus Byrd.
When building this 53-man roster, the Saints seem to have stuck to what they saw in training camp, valuing production over the promise of potential or the poise of a declining veteran.
Four undrafted defensive linemen and a gaggle of other newcomers are glad they did.