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New Orleans Saints outside linebacker Hau'oli Kikaha (44) bats down a would be touchdown pass to Atlanta Falcons wide receiver Mohamed Sanu (12) in the second half of an NFL football game in New Orleans, La. Sunday, Dec. 24, 2017.

The Saints haven’t been much of a feeder system for the rest of the league.

For a while, after the Saints became trapped in a buffering loop of 7-9 finishes, the roster was top heavy and without the kind of quality depth needed to succeed and endure injuries. Defensive coordinator Dennis Allen often calls the NFL a “backup league.” Well, when New Orleans needed one, it often turned to the street or waiver wire to see what was out there, or it churned the bottom of the roster.

There are better measures of success, like an 11-5 record and a playoff win, but it is interesting to evaluate the roster moves of the past few seasons and see which Saints eventually got picked up and had success with other teams. From 2014-2016, a high percentage of those cut by the Saints never again played a meaningful role in the NFL.

Of the 36 players cut from the end of 2014 training camp to the end of the season, 18 never hooked on with another team, six others never played in an NFL game, and six more appeared in three games or fewer the rest of their careers. Only linebacker Todd Davis, who has become a good player for the Broncos, and offensive lineman Ty Nsekhe have proved to have staying power.

Of the 39 players cut in 2015, 24 never played again. Kicker Dustin Hopkins and tight end Chris Manhertz are the most notable names from that class.

The numbers improved a bit in 2016, when only 18 of 39 were immediately ejected from the NFL. Defensive lineman John Jenkins and cornerback Trae Elston have made an impact with various clubs since leaving New Orleans.

And last year, running back Travaris Cadet, defensive lineman Darryl Tapp and linebacker Ben Heeney found roles with other teams.

These numbers might not be that out of line with the rest of the league. But the Patriots saw seven of their former players earn roles with other teams last year, and that isn’t counting guys like linebacker Jonathan Freeny, who appeared in two games with the Saints, or wide receiver Austin Carr, who appeared in one.

The Saints have built enough quality depth that a handful of players likely will be picked up by other clubs once training camp ends. And at no point over the last four seasons will the roster decisions be as difficult as they promise to be this summer.

Just look at the depth the team has built at cornerback. If the Saints keep five players, Marshon Lattimore, Ken Crawley and Patrick Robinson are locks to make the roster, with P.J. Williams, Justin Hardee, Arthur Maulet, Kamrin Moore and Natrell Jamerson fighting for the final positions. That means that players who had key roles last season (Williams and Hardee), ones with upside (Maulet) or drafted rookies (Moore and Jamerson) might not make the team. And that’s before considering the possibility that an undrafted rookie might come in and challenge for a spot.

At wide receiver, Brandon Coleman, Tommylee Lewis and Austin Carr will be fighting for what might be one spot. Tre Edmunds and Daniel Lasco will be battling at running back. No one at tight end is promised anything — talent evaluators have said the Saints might have unearthed some gems at the position in undrafted free agency.

Even defensive end will have some competition, with first-round pick Marcus Davenport competing with Alex Okafor, Hau’oli Kikaha and Al-Quadin Muhammad for snaps. Imagine that.

The Saints haven't had this kind of depth in a while. They've worked hard to rebuild it in recent years, signing players who help at not only the top of the roster but those who can step in if someone gets hurt. A good example of that process working came last year when linebacker A.J. Klein suffered an injury and was seamlessly replaced by Manti Te’o and Craig Robertson. In previous seasons, when there were multiple injuries at a position, it meant bringing in guys like B.W. Webb to serve as starters.

Building this depth was at the forefront of some of the decisions made during the draft. It wasn’t a coincidence that nearly every player outside of Davenport has demonstrated the ability to contribute on special teams. New Orleans wants to make sure that the guys filling out the roster can help in more than one way and create additional competition.

“We’ll just talk about the player. Here’s the vision. What do we see?” coach Sean Payton said. “Is it four (phases) in the special teams, or is it just two-phased or one-phased? Of course, the player has to come in and earn all of that. But we do want to kind of hear it again just like we did a month ago in our readings, and two months ago in our February readings.”

Before the final day of the draft, general manager Mickey Loomis mentioned they would be looking for players with versatility because it is a way for those players to make the roster.

That hasn’t been a consideration in most seasons. The rookies usually make the team. The last healthy rookie not to make the initial 53-man roster was offensive lineman Tavon Rooks, selected in the sixth round of the 2014 draft. If that trend continues this season, it will be because the players earned it.

And if they don’t, maybe there is a chance they’ll end up performing for someone else’s team.


Battles to watch

The Saints have spent the past few years packing the roster with depth, which should lead an exciting offseason with numerous interesting battles.

That means some players that have some name or recognition and filled roles in previous seasons will have to fight to keep their jobs this summer. This isn’t a new concept, but it has been a while since the competition has been this high.

Here’s a look at five spots that will garner plenty of attention this offseason:

Backup quarterback

It won’t make a difference once the season starts as long as Drew Brees is healthy, but there might not be a more anticipated battle than the one that is going to play out at backup quarterback.

New Orleans is high on Taysom Hill, who has become one of the greater curiosities on the roster, and also brought in former Ohio State quarterback J.T. Barrett as an undrafted free agent. The competition should be strong, and the Saints might end up only carrying two quarterbacks if Hill emerges as the winner.

Wide receiver

With the defense now in order, the Saints spent a considerable amount of resources restocking the shelves for Brees by inking Cam Meredith to a contract and selecting Tre’Quan Smith in the third round of the draft.

With those two joining Michael Thomas, at least three of the spots are already written in ink, with Ted Ginn Jr. very likely the fourth member of the group. That means Brandon Coleman, Austin Carr and Tommylee Lewis will be fighting for the fifth spot (if one exists), and that’s before considering the possibility of an undrafted player challenging for a spot. Special teams could end up being the key for the last member of the group.

Tight end

The Saints tried to sign Jimmy Graham, and would have liked to add another in the draft, but struck out on both attempts. Instead, they added Ben Watson, who spent the past two seasons with the Ravens and should provide an upgrade over the options from a season ago.

Behind him, the team has Josh Hill, Michael Hoomanawanui, Garrett Griffin and Coby Fleener, as well as a few undrafted rookies. It is hard to imagine all of those players making the team. If the Saints keep three, someone who played meaningful snaps last season could be on their way out.

While it’s not a high-end battle, the competition should be good here. New Orleans has to be hoping an undrafted player rises and adds some fire to the battle.

Defensive end

Believe it or not, there will be some competition at defensive end involving players with familiar names. That hasn’t been the case in recent seasons, when players often made the team almost by default.

Cam Jordan, Alex Okafor and Marcus Davenport are all locks to make the team. George Johnson, Trey Hendrickson, Hau’oli Kikaha and Al-Quadin Muhammad will be among those fighting it out for the final spots.

The battle on the weak side should be a little better than the one on the strong side. Kikaha and Muhammad could end up pitted against each other to serve as the third player behind Okafor and Davenport. However, Okafor’s recovery from an Achilles injury could determine whether one of those guys is squeezed out entering the season or if they get an extended audition.

Cornerback

New Orleans took an interesting approach by selecting cornerbacks Natrell Johnson and Kamrin Moore in the fifth and sixth rounds of the draft. The additions mean there is going to be some good competition at the position in camp.

Marshon Lattimore, Patrick Robinson and Ken Crawley should all be locks, leaving P.J. Williams, Justin Hardee, Arthur Maulet and the rookies battling for what might end up being two more spots on the roster. The Saints added players with special-teams ability this offseason, so that could also play a part.

Follow Nick Underhill on Twitter, @nick_underhill.​