On the eve of the preseason finale, I wanted to take a close look at some position battles we should be keeping an eye on when the Saints take the field against the Miami Dolphins tomorrow night. As far as preseason games go, the fourth and final game tends to be the toughest to watch. Despite there being plenty of battles to be settled, which we will talk about today, Week 1 of the regular season is so close that we can essentially taste it. Fans just want to get this game over with so we can move on to previewing our team’s first step towards a potential Super Bowl run. Just about all of the starters will either be on the sidelines with no pads under their jerseys or fully dressed out with no intentions of ever stepping on the field after warm ups. But, if you look a little bit closer, the game actually has plenty of importance. At this point, approximately 40 players have their spot on the roster locked down. That leaves just 13 roster spots available, with about 50 players fighting for a job. That, my friends, makes for an important football game.
#5 Teddy Bridgewater/#7 Taysom Hill
Out of every position we will talk about today, this one isn’t really a battle, per se. The performances of Bridgewater and Hill could be their last opportunity to make their cases to line up at QB for the Saints when Drew Brees retires. When that will happen is still an unknown, but it seems likely to either be after this 2019 season or the 2020 season. Bridgewater was brought back to New Orleans to with the apparent plan for him to step right in once Brees hangs them up. Through three games, though, he has failed to deliver fans much of a reason to be confident in his ability to take over in the post-Brees era. The sixth year pro had a solid preseason debut, but has gone downhill since. I still believe it is way too early to give up hope that he can be the replacement that Sean Payton envisioned him to be, but Bridgewater still has a lot to prove.
As for Taysom Hill, he came in to this season having a clear role. Do it all. The athletic utility man lined up in 11 different positions in 2018, becoming one of the most difficult players for opposing defenses to deal with. Ironically, the position he had experienced the least amount of success at during his first two seasons in the NFL was the position he is listed at. Quarterback. That has changed so far in 2019. Hill has been impressive from the QB position, grabbing everyone’s attention who had just about given up on his potential to lead an offense. No one doubted his athleticism, but his ability to be accurate and make good decisions when throwing the ball had left a lot to be desired. Hill has taken a giant step forward so far, inserting his name back in to the conversation for future Saints quarterback. I still see Bridgewater as the primary backup to Brees, for now, but Hill can add to his resume with another impressive performance under center in the preseason finale.
#27 Dwayne Washington/#32 Devine Ozigbo
This has been one of my favorite battles to watch throughout the preseason. It has been especially fun to watch, because both guys are making their case by producing and making plays. Position battles are not as fun when one guy gets a step ahead due to another guy making mistakes. The fun is when both players go back and forth, taking advantage of their opportunities and making it tough on the coaching staff.
Dwayne Washington came in to 2019 with the edge due to his position on the 53-man roster last season. He already has a carved out role on special teams, which is the key to making a roster as a third-stringer at a position. His 108 yard rushing performance in Week 17 of 2018 when Alvin Kamara and Mark Ingram were resting was icing on the cake. Washington has looked solid so far this preseason, averaging 4.5 yards per carry. He did leave the game early against the New York Jets last week after sustaining a concussion, so it is unclear whether he will be able to play against the Dolphins.
Undrafted rookie Devine Ozigbo has tried to do what he can to slip in to Washington’s spot. After looking impressive on only 8 snaps in Week 1 of the preseason, Ozigbo earned a few more looks and has not disappointed. His one blunder was a fumble in the red-zone against the Chargers in Week 2, but even that wasn’t totally awful. Not only did the defender blow through the line untouched and smash him with a full head of steam, but Ozigbo was already mid slip due to the poor field conditions in Los Angeles’ home stadium. He later made up for it with a touchdown reception that helped fuel the Saints’ 4th quarter comeback. For a player who came in to training camp as an unknown name, the Nebraska product has performed pretty well in his first NFL experience. Ozigbo has a big opportunity to make his final case to be on the roster, especially if Washington is out with his concussion.
#18 Keith Kirkwood/#17 Emmanuel Butler/#15 Simmie Cobbs/#83 Cyril Grayson Jr/#84 Lil’Jordan Humphrey
This has been my favorite position to watch throughout preseason. With so many talented young receivers and just a few available spots on the roster, it has been a blast to see each of these guys jockeying for position. If you are wondering why Austin Carr is not among the players I have listed, it’s because I consider him a lock at this point. He proved his worth with his given opportunities in 2018, but what sealed it for me was Drew Brees publicly praising Carr as a guy he has a lot of trust in. If the future Hall of Famer is telling the media how much faith he has in you, your spot on the roster is pretty safe. The other name you may be wondering about is Deonte Harris. Harris is another guy that I believe has sealed his spot on the roster as a kick and punt returner. Playing wide receiver is just lagniappe, as the return game is where his opportunity was. I believe the Saints will keep six wide receivers, so, assuming he does indeed make the final 53, he will be the seventh.
Keith Kirkwood has the best chance to fill what I believe to be two available spots at the receiver position. After having a good enough training camp in 2018 to have the Saints hold on to him for their practice squad, then getting promoted to the active roster following the Dez Bryant injury, Payton and Loomis clearly like what they have in him. The only worry for Kirkwood would be injuries. He was banged up at times in 2018 and also missed the first two weeks of the preseason with an undisclosed injury. He returned for last week’s game in New York, but was quiet with only once catch. Like Carr, he has the benefit of having proved he can be on the field for meaningful snaps, but with a multitude of talented receivers breathing down his neck, his spot is not quite a lock.
Emmanuel Butler was the big name from the beginning of training camp, but was the victim of an untimely injury that led to him missing the preseason opener against the Vikings. He returned for Week 2 against the Chargers, but had a blatant drop on his only target. Thankfully, he was able to get it going last week against the Jets. His statline of 4 catches for 27 yards doesn’t wow you on paper, but his physicality of using his big frame and his ability to use his hands to snatch the ball out of the air looked impressive. I believe that he has flashed enough promise to warrant Payton keeping him around, so he would be my guess for the final receiver spot, at this point. A solid performance against Miami could solidify that, though. I do believe that he finds himself on a 53-man roster, regardless, as he is a prime candidate to be snatched up by another team if the Saints choose one of their other guys. I would be shocked if he made it to the practice squad upon being cut, so I am rooting to see him on the final roster.
Simmie Cobbs is my top dark horse to sneak in to the final receiver spot. While he has not lit up the stat sheet so far during preseason action, he is a guy that has been around the team since the tail-end of 2018. He was signed from the Washington Redskins after Erik Swoope failed his physical and New Orleans had to go in a different direction. Cobbs never did see game action, but he is familiar with the team and coaching staff due to the extra time. He has proven to be a beautiful route runner this preseason and guys who run beautiful routes tend to get open. Guys who get open will be found by Brees, so he could have value in the Saints offense.
Cyril Grayson Jr has had one of the most impressive preseasons of any of the wide receivers. The former LSU track star had to get his name out there by making plays in game and that’s exactly what he has done. His speed speaks for itself, but his hands have looked pretty good in his opportunities. His big highlight came on a 32 yard back shoulder pitch and catch from Teddy Bridgewater in Week 1 against Minnesota. The throw was perfect, but Grayson’s ability to adjust his body and make the catch on the sideline was very impressive. Should he find a way to force his way on to the roster, his speed could give him the chance to be the electric player we all once hoped Joe Morgan would turn out to be.
Wrapping up the list of guys with a chance to make the final roster at the receiver position is Lil’Jordan Humphrey. Humphrey got off to a hot start with an impressive catch and run for a 33 yard touchdown in Week 1, but has been pretty quiet since. He was a guy that many had high hopes for as soon as he was signed after going undrafted back in April. He is in one of those situations where his opportunity, or lack thereof, has not been entirely his fault. The wide receiver position is one of the most talented groups for this Saints 90-man roster, so Humphrey has been behind the 8-ball since the beginning. Nonetheless, if he found a way to deliver a stellar performance in the finale, he could make his way to the practice squad and set himself up for the same route as Keith Kirkwood with a few unfortunate injuries.
#85 Dan Arnold/#86 Alize Mack/#81 AJ Derby
With Jared Cook and Josh Hill absolute locks for the first two tight end spots, these three are likely fighting for one final spot. There is a chance that the Saints keep two of the three, but my guess would be only one of them.
Dan Arnold has been a frustrating case dating back to 2018. The converted wide receiver has flashed the ability to be very good in this offense, but seemingly shoots himself in the foot not long after. The question of whether he will make the roster simply comes down to Payton’s patience, at this point. It appears clear that Arnold has the skills to be productive, but is the coaching staff willing to stick with him until he figures out his consistency issues?
Alize Mack’s chance at making the roster took a big hit early in training camp when he got banged up before the preseason opener. After missing a few weeks, Mack finally returned to practice following the Week 2 game in Los Angeles. Training camp is so crucial for a guys like the 7th round pick out of Notre Dame, so missing three weeks is tough to overcome. This game against Miami is as crucial for Mack as almost anyone on the roster, as it is his last chance to show any sort of promise in black and gold. The good news for Mack is that should he not find himself on the final roster, he is a prime candidate and a good bet for the practice squad.
AJ Derby was brought in following Mack’s injury as a former Denver Bronco. I believe I speak for most when I say that his signing was widely viewed as nothing more than a camp body to fill in at the tight end position. Derby has actually been more than just that, though. In his limited opportunities, Derby as looked like he could fit as a rotational player in the Saints offense. Should Payton decide he wants a little more experience on the roster, I would not count Derby out, especially if he can make a play or two in the finale.
#63 Cameron Tom/#64 Will Clapp/#70 Michael Ola/#77 Marshall Newhouse
This is one of the most dicey areas, especially considering the offensive line has been less than stellar this preseason. Beginning from the left side, the starters are Terron Armstead, Andrus Peat, Erik McCoy, Larry Warford, and Ryan Ramczyk. You can almost surely pencil in Nick Easton as the sixth lock on the o-line.
Cameron Tom appeared in 11 games with the Saints last year, so his familiarity with the offense is big. The fact that he can also play both guard and center gives him extra value. Depth at the guard position is important, given the fact that both Peat and Warford have dealt with injuries during their Saints tenure. The same can be said for left tackle Terron Armstead, which affects the guard position due to the fact that Peat often kicks out to that spot when needed.
Will Clapp is also a versatile lineman who can play every position on the offensive line. Tackle is where he has the least amount of experience, but he did spend some time there at LSU. Appearing in 3 games in 2018, Clapp is also familiar with the offense.
Michael Ola will have a lot to prove tonight against Miami. He had a rough game against the Jets last week, so if he wants to avoid being replaced by an outside signing, he’ll have to improve his play. What he does have going for him is that he plays tackle, which is where the Saints are lacking at depth the most of the offensive line.
Like Ola, Marshall Newhouse has the benefit of playing at a position of need for New Orleans. He’s a 10 year veteran, so experience is a big part of what he brings to the table. He, too, has yet to stand out during the preseason and could use a solid performance to find his way on to the final 53.
#50 Wes Horton/#95 Taylor Stallworth/#74 Shy Tuttle/#96 Sylvester Williams/#76 Ziggy Hood/#69 Corbin Kaufusi
Another crowded area is the defensive line. Cam Jordan, Sheldon Rankins, David Onyemata, Trey Hendrickson, Malcom Brown, Marcus Davenport, and Mario Edwards Jr are likely all set for the final roster. Rankins was just activated from the PUP list, coming off of his Achilles tear in the Divisional playoff game against the Eagles last season. There’s no word on exactly where he’s at in terms of getting back on the field, but the move says it’s sooner than later. If he does indeed miss the first few weeks, one of these guys will fill in for the time being. Onyemata will be serving a one game suspension to start the season, so that’s something else to keep in mind.
After spending his first six seasons with the Carolina Panthers, Wes Horton was brought in as a veteran to compete for a rotational spot on the defensive line. While he’s been quiet with only one tackle to his name this preseason, I have noticed #50 around the ball quite a bit. He is one of the many guys here that could use a few plays tonight to make his final case.
Taylor Stallworth appeared in nearly every game for the Saints in 2018. He could have the inside track to one of the final spots due to his coaches’ trust due to his familiarity with Dennis Allen’s defense. He was pretty active in Week 1 against Minnesota with 4 tackles, but has been quiet since.
Shy Tuttle is the opposite of most of the guys listed here. The rookie out of Tennessee brings the youth aspect, should that be the direction Payton and Allen want to go. He has had a solid preseason thus far, making tackles in each of the three games. Even if he does not make the final roster, he is certainly a candidate for the practice squad.
Sylvester Williams is a former 1st round pick of the Denver Broncos back in 2013. He never did turn in to the prospect they had hoped he would be, then he dealt with injuries and played in only a combined 14 games over the past two seasons. He was likely brought in as a “kick the tires” signing, with Payton hoping he could boost the depth on the line. He has yet to stand out, but like the other guys, has one more chance to make his case.
Another veteran looking to earn his way on to the Saints roster is Ziggy Hood. Playing for his sixth NFL team, Hood was mostly considered a long shot since being brought in. He was mostly just another one of those camp bodies with veteran presence that could also provide insurance if injuries mounted up. Regardless, a player who has had success in the NFL like Hood has earned his respect and who knows, a dominant performance could turn some heads.
The biggest long shot of the group is undrafted rookie Corbin Kaufusi. The 6’9 product out of BYU is an athletic freak, but is fairly raw. He has made a few plays this preseason, but the practice squad seems like his best chance to stick around for now. He should get a good bit of playing time with the big dogs sitting out and I am very intrigued to see what he can do with his last chance.
#52 Craig Robertson/#51 Colton Jumper/#58 Porter Gustin
The linebacker group is likely one of the most set positions heading in to the final preseason game. Demario Davis, Alex Anzalone, AJ Klein, Vince Beigel, and Kaden Elliss all seem to be locks at this point. Robertson would normally be just as much of a sure thing, but he sustained an undisclosed injury in the Chargers game that has seemed to be cause for concern. If he is going to be out, a spot could be open.
In his second season out of Tennessee, Colton Jumper put his name on the map with a game sealing interception against the Chargers in Week 2 of the preseason. He actually returned it back for a touchdown, but that part was called back due to penalty. He has been active throughout camp, putting himself in position to find his spot if Robertson’s injury is serious.
Much like Jumper, Porter Gustin’s chances of making the roster rely on Robertson’s situation. Either could be headed for the practice squad, as well, but Gustin would greatly benefit from a few plays in tonight’s game against Miami.
#26 PJ Williams/#21 Patrick Robinson/#20 Ken Crawley
This is one of the most interesting battles, considering all three players have played meaningful snaps for the Saints at different times. The three locks for the roster are Marshon Lattimore, Eli Apple, and Justin Hardee. Hardee is a lock due to his special teams contributions, but has actually performed pretty well when playing cornerback this preseason.
PJ Williams was the main beneficiary of Robinson’s season ending injury in Week 3 of 2018. Robinson was brought in on a multi-year deal to be the Saints nickel cornerback, but went down early in the year. Williams took over the role and while it took him a few games to find his groove, he actually had a pretty good second half of the year.
Coming back to the team that drafted him in 2010, Patrick Robinson signed a 4 year, $20 million deal to play the nickel in Dennis Allen’s defense. With Williams doing a pretty good job in his spot, the two are in a dog fight for who gets the spot in 2019. I think they both make the roster, but it’s still up in the air for who has the edge to see the field first.
After playing pretty well in his first full season on the team, Crawley fell off hard. He was torched repeatedly through the first few games in 2018 and was the reason the Saints made the move to trade for Eli Apple. Crawley has been decent this preseason, but his path to the team could end up being his ability to play outside, unlike Williams and Robinson.
#48 JT Gray
It’s a short list with the safety position being pretty set. Marcus Williams, Vonn Bell, CJ Gardner-Johnson, and Chris Banjo are all set for the final roster. Saquan Hampton could be included on that list, but he has been dealing with an injury and his status or the severity of said injury is unknown.
JT Gray has found his living as a special teams contributor, but with so many of those on this roster, he could make his case for a spot on the 53 by continuing his solid play from the safety position. He could also benefit from any more time that Hampton misses. Usually, players who are on the bubble for their positions can put themselves over the top by making themselves known on special teams. In Gray’s case, I feel like it is the exact opposite. We know he can help on special teams, but if he can clock in with a solid outing from the safety position with the opportunity he will have tonight, he could seal his spot.
All in all, there is still a lot to be settled when the Saints take the field against the Dolphins tonight. Sure, the starts won’t be out there and the fireworks will have to wait for one more week, but keep an eye on these battles and you could enjoy the game more than you expect. We’ll check in after the game to see who helped or hurt their cause with my weekly Saints and Sinners blog. I’ll see you guys then!