COSTA MESA, Calif. — A few things actually will matter when the New Orleans Saints step onto the field Sunday. If you think one of those is ending their preseason losing streak, you can stop reading this, because you’re in the wrong place.
Just ask coach Sean Payton how much time he has spent plotting to improve his exhibition record.
“I hadn’t really paid too much attention,” he said. “Obviously, there are some things we prioritize in the preseason, and I think we want to win every time we compete. With that being said, a lot of it is making sure we get the right guys to work and receive a chance to evaluate and make the right decisions.”
How reserve quarterbacks Ryan Nassib and Garrett Grayson perform against the Los Angeles Chargers’ third- and fourth-string defenses Sunday will have no bearing on what happens in September, when the results matter. How cornerback Marshon Lattimore and tackle Ryan Ramczyk perform will matter, and that’s why you should have your eyes on those players, not the scoreboard.
A few months ago, it looked like the rookie first-round picks were in an enviable situation. With Delvin Breaux and P.J. Williams set to start at cornerback, it looked like Lattimore could take some time to adjust to life in the NFL, learn how to play zone defense and come along at his own pace. The same was true for Ramczyk, because the Saints had Terron Armstead and Zach Strief at tackle.
All those luxuries are gone.
Breaux had surgery to repair a broken fibula this past week, and Armstead will miss at least the first four months of the season with a shoulder injury. Coaches won't throw Lattimore or Ramczyk into the fire unless they think the players are ready, but ending the early-season woes that have plagued the Saints over the past few years will be a lot easier if both are up to speed in time for the season opener at Minnesota.
There is little to evaluate with Lattimore. He suffered a sprained knee early in training camp and is just now working his way back into the mix. He has shown in camp that his man-coverage skills are legitimate, which shouldn’t be a surprise (he only allowed 18 receptions on 41 targets last season at Ohio State).
What we need to see is whether those skills translate to the NFL, where players run more routes and do a better job of disguising them, and whether he can play zone coverage, something Lattimore wasn’t asked to do in college. It won't be a surprise if he has some struggles accomplishing the latter task.
“Everything is a learning process at that position,” defensive backs coach Aaron Glenn said. “If you find one corner that has it all down, you let me know who it is, because I want to sit down and talk to him. That’s why you might see a guy that’s at the top one year, and the next year he’s down here. It’s always changing, and guys are always getting better. Guys are learning new techniques.”
There is a little more evidence with Ramczyk, although he also missed time in camp with an undisclosed injury, including the first preseason game at Cleveland.
His first exposure to outside competition came this week in joint practices, and the results were mixed. During Thursday’s session, he allowed a few sacks to pass rushers Melvin Ingram and Joey Bosa, but he acquitted himself well Friday (when practice was in shorts and shells). Sunday's game will be an important measuring stick.
The need for Ramczyk to be up to speed early in the season might be the more pressing situation. The Saints have other options at tackle, but all of them struggled against the Browns. If the rookie falters during the next three preseason games, it could force the Saints to move Andrus Peat back to left tackle, something they'd like to avoid.
The Saints have more options if Lattimore struggles. Ken Crawley or Sterling Moore could play on the outside, and they only need a temporary fix because Breaux should be back in late September or early October.
But the present and future will appear much brighter if Lattimore and Ramczyk are both up to speed. And that’s why you shouldn’t care about the score in a game Drew Brees, Cam Jordan, Mark Ingram, Adrian Peterson and other regulars might only play a handful of snaps, if at all.
How the reserves perform in the fourth quarter Sunday won’t matter against the Vikings in Week 1. Lattimore and Ramczyk will — a lot.