The Saints are headed out for the summer.
With organized team activities and minicamp in the books, New Orleans got its first look at what the team it assembled might look like once the season starts. It’s too soon to make any bold proclamations — these practices are primarily a passing camp without contact — but the sessions did give a first look at some of the team's newcomers.
Here's some of the lessons learned during summer practices:
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DEPTH STANDS OUT: The Saints finished 11-5 last season and didn’t face an injury they couldn’t overcome. So saying this team is deep isn’t exactly breaking new ground, but the depth seemed to stand out even more this summer.
Are there any legitimate battles for significant playing time? Vonn Bell and Kurt Coleman could compete at strong safety, and Cam Meredith, Ted Ginn Jr. and Tre’quan Smith might fight for playing time at wide receiver. In most instances, it looks like the starters are locked in.
That’s a lot different than a couple of years ago, when undrafted players were not only competing for roster spots but also starting positions. Bobby Richardson started 11 games at defensive end for New Orleans in 2015 and has not appeared in a game since. It would be an understatement to say much has changed, because most of the battles will be further down the roster.
HOW WILL THE SECONDARY LOOK? After Wednesday’s practice, Coleman said he likes that New Orleans’ defense contains packages that play three, and sometimes four, safeties at one time. This was true last season, and indeed will be again, but will it operate the same way?
With slot cornerback Patrick Robinson in the fold, it is doubtful the Saints will often look to one of the safeties to cover the slot, as it did in previous years with Kenny Vaccaro. And with Alex Anzalone, Demario Davis and A.J. Klein on the roster, the team probably won’t need a safety to fill in at linebacker as often as it once did. So whoever loses the safety battle might not have as many opportunities to grab snaps as he would have a year ago.
These are questions that remain unanswered. New Orleans kept its personnel packages and formations pretty basic during organized team activities and minicamp. We’ll have to wait until training camp to get answers to some of these deeper questions, but it's a good bet three safeties won't be on the field as often as a year ago.
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DEMARIO DAVIS CAN PLAY: The Saints made a substantial investment in Davis this offseason, and it’s been easy to see why the team valued him.
The former New York Jet has shown off good range and flashed some explosiveness the Saints haven’t had at the position the past few years. Davis had a few plays — whether it was in run defense or blitzing — during which his first step and instincts were very impressive. He also had a play in coverage where he ran down the field with Alvin Kamara.
It is still unclear how all the linebackers will fit together. New Orleans used a variety of different combinations at the position throughout the summer. What's for sure is the Saints are now deeper at this position than they have been in several years.
If Davis performs as expected and Anzalone remains healthy, linebacker could be a strength for this defense. The range those two players could bring to the nickel package would also be a significant upgrade versus a year ago.
ARMSTEAD LOOKS HEALTHY: The Saints made a lot of moves this offseason that should improve the quality of the roster, including the signings of Davis, Robinson and Meredith. But the most significant addition could be Terron Armstead returning to health.
The left tackle has fought many injuries the past few years, though it looks like he’s finally on the right track. Armstead wasn’t limping after plays and appeared to move well during organized team activities and minicamp.
The value he adds to the running and screen games is extreme. Armstead was a vital component of those attacks last season when he was playing at something well less than 100 percent. If he can return to form, the offensive line, which has been a strength of the roster, will only improve.
DAVENPORT HAS TOOLS: It was hard to gauge how players performed in the trenches because no one was wearing pads. So we won’t make anything of Jayrone Elliott and George Johnson racking up a lot of sacks and pressures. It’s impossible to know whether those are legitimate because of something they did or whether the offensive lineman gave up to avoid contact.
But you can look at some other clues, like how a player moves and gets off at the snap. In those areas, there were times when rookie pass rusher Marcus Davenport flashed skills throughout the summer.
Considered to be a raw prospect, Davenport still has a long way to go. However, there were times when he pieced together a solid rushing plan and executed it. That's what you want to see at this early juncture.
BACKUP QB BATTLE FAR FROM OVER: Taysom Hill has been a curiosity for many since the Saints claimed him off waivers from the Green Bay Packers last season. That only grew after he was deemed the “heir apparent” to Drew Brees during a Fox broadcast.
Organized team activities were the first opportunity to see what Hill looks like running the New Orleans offense. There were some really good moments, which included him throwing the ball the down the field, completing passes on the run and scrambling away from pressure. There were also some bad moments, which included him missing his receivers and overthrowing his targets.
Hill might very well have all the tools and be able to piece them together to beat out Tom Savage and J.T. Barrett for the backup quarterback job. He might even be ahead. But after five practices, it’s too soon to make any bold proclamations. There is a long way to go before this battle is settled.
BATTLES AT WR AND CB SHOULD BE GOOD: New Orleans has good depth at wide receiver and cornerback. Whether it was Keith Kirkwood, Eldridge Massington, Travin Dural or Tommylee Lewis, Saints wide receivers made plays all over the field the past few weeks. The top four players at that position — Michael Thomas, Meredith, Ginn and Smith — are set, which means the fight for the last spot or two will be highly contested.
Brandon Coleman probably has the inside track on the job. But that could change. It might come down to who can contribute the most on special teams.
It’s the same deal at cornerback. Marshon Lattimore, Ken Crawley and Patrick Robinson should be locks to make the team. But a lot of other players, such as P.J. Williams, Natrell Jamerson, Arthur Maulet and Justin Hardee are competing for the last couple of spots.
All of these battles are too close to call. But again, the Saints' depth is apparent this year, and there will be players who are picked up by other teams. These are two spots where that will likely happen, because New Orleans simply cannot keep all of these players.