The Saints sided with youth, no one at all and everybody in some of their key roster battles.
In trimming the roster down to 53 names by Saturday’s 3 p.m. deadline, New Orleans made 22 cuts, the headliners being cornerback Champ Bailey and receiver Robert Meachem.
Those decisions mean Patrick Robinson will start opposite Keenan Lewis this season, and Nick Toon and Joe Morgan hold down the last two roster spots at wide receiver.
The other key battle heading into camp was at kicker, with Derek Dimke and Shayne Graham seemingly fighting for the job. Coach Sean Payton said last week that one of the two would win the job and the team would not look at external options, yet both were let go Saturday.
And at backup quarterback, both Luke McCown and Ryan Griffin made the first iteration of the 53-man roster.
Bailey was signed this offseason along with Jairus Byrd to solidify the secondary. The initial projection was that Bailey, signed to an incentive-laden, two-year deal with a $500,000 signing bonus, would take the job that appears to have been claimed by Robinson. But he failed to lock down that job, and Robinson impressed in a first-string role while Bailey was out with a foot injury during the first few weeks of camp.
The 12-time Pro Bowler returned for the final two preseason games, logging a combined 37 snaps, and was targeted only once in those contests.
When addressing the media earlier this week, Bailey, one of the league’s more decorated cornerbacks, acknowledged that he was fighting for a job.
“I don’t think 15 years (of the) past has anything do with how we go forward,” Bailey said. “I’ve still got to go out here and show that I can get it done just like anybody else on this team.”
By releasing Bailey, the team opened up a roster spot for undrafted rookie cornerback Brian Dixon, who had an interception during the preseason and tied for the team lead with two passes defensed. The Northwest Missouri State product is expected to make the bulk of his contributions on special teams, though he only made one tackle on special teams during the preseason.
In the case of Meachem, it appears the Saints decided to side with youth over experience.
Morgan, who is still working his way to full health after suffering a torn ACL last year, appeared to solidify his spot on the roster in the preseason finale by catching three of McCown’s four completions on the opening drive. He also impressed with a pair of deep passes from Griffin against the Titans.
But Toon did not stand out in the same manner as Morgan. The third-year receiver ran 72 routes in the final three preseason games and was targeted a total of six times, making six catches for 19 yards. His longest catch was for 8 yards.
Meachem’s release was not considered a surprise, but by releasing him the team is parting ways with one of its longest-tenured players.
A first-round pick in 2007, Meachem stayed with the team through the 2011 season, spent 2012 in San Diego and returned last season. He caught 16 passes for 324 yards last year. His best season came in 2009, when he made 45 catches for 722 yards and helped the Saints win Super Bowl XLIV. He also made one of the most memorable plays in franchise history, scoring a 44-yard touchdown after stripping the ball from Washington safety Kareem Moore, who moments earlier had intercepted the ball.
The Saints will have to add a kicker before their Sept. 7 opener at Atlanta, whether it’s bringing back Graham or Dimke or looking at an external option. To create a roster spot, the team could place fullback Erik Lorig (leg) or rookie linebacker Khairi Fortt (leg) on injured reserve.
By carrying three quarterbacks, the team was forced to lose a player from another position, which could be why undrafted rookie safety Pierre Warren and linebacker Keyunta Dawson were among those released Saturday.
Outside of Dixon, linebacker Kasim Edebali was the only other undrafted rookie to make the team despite 17 signing onto the roster immediately after the draft in May. The German, who moved to the United States for prep school to pursue a football career, tied for first on the Saints with two sacks and led the team with three QB hits.
Five of the six 2014 draft picks made the team: receiver Brandin Cooks (first round), cornerback Stanley Jean-Baptiste (second), Fortt (fourth), as well as linebacker Ronald Powell and safety Vinnie Sunseri (both fifth).
No surprises were Cooks — who finished third on the Saints with nine catches for 101 yards and a touchdown in three exhibition games played — or Jean-Baptiste, who spent time with the first unit after Bailey and Robinson missed a portion of the preseason with injuries. Nonetheless, arguably the most productive of the rookie bunch was Sunseri, who led the Saints with 22 tackles (14 solo), had two pass defensed and intercepted one throw.
One player who is not a first-year pro but made the roster despite long odds was safety Marcus Ball, who was in the Canadian Football League last year. Another is fullback Austin Johnson, who was on the practice squad in 2013 but made the team after Lorig (the projected starter at his position) got hurt.
Ramon Antonio Vargas contributed to this report.