The New Orleans Saints' defense took another untimely hit Tuesday as cornerback Keenan Lewis underwent hip surgery which will force him to miss the next 4-6 weeks.
The team has been without safety Jairus Byrd for the balance of training camp and preseason, and now Lewis' impending absence will leave an already thin unit mostly devoid of experienced options. Lewis played briefly during the Saints' preseason loss to Houston last Sunday, with fellow starters Kenny Vaccaro and Brandon Browner held out for precautionary measures, though they are expected back for week 1 at Arizona. The team is set to face off against receivers such as Larry Fitzgerald, John Brown, Mike Evans, Vincent Jackson, and Dez Bryant through the first four weeks of the new season.
While Lewis heals, the Saints are likely to turn to Delvin Breaux, a New Orleans native who was signed out of the CFL during the spring. Breaux has impressed throughout the offseason program, and will be supported on the depth chart by fellow youngster Stanley Jean-Baptiste, the team's 2014 second-round pick. Rookie Damian Swann will also see himself move up the depth chart while Lewis is shelved.
Unfortunately, New Orleans will not be able to call upon 2015 third-rounder P.J. Williams, after the young corner suffered a season-ending hamstring injury. He was expected to be brought along slowly, similarly to Jean-Baptiste a season ago, but Keenan Lewis' injury would have presented an early opportunity for Williams to see meaningful playing time.
Byrd, who signed a six-year free agent deal with New Orleans in 2014, remains out indefinitely. He has spent the last month on the camp PUP list, still recovering from the knee injury which limited the former Buffalo Bill to just four games last year. He missed most of last summer's training camp after undergoing a minor procedure on his back. Byrd was expected to return to practice and perhaps play in a game before the end of preseason, but that now seems very unlikely, with his absence set to spill into the regular season.
Browner, who the Saints signed during the 2015 free agency period, increased his workload at practice Tuesday after picking up an injury earlier this month during the club's first preseason game against Baltimore. He and Vaccaro are expected to start alongside Breaux, while veterans Kenny Phillips and Rafael Bush will help fill in for Byrd. Pierre Warren and Jamarca Sanford are two other young players whose chances of making the team may improve after the recent spate of secondary injuries, which has left coach Sean Payton cutting a frustrated figure.
"Some of that you can't control and it's not just unique to our team. It's pretty common in the league," Payton said about his team's injury woes after Tuesday's practice. "You'd like to have your starting units intact and yet that's not always the case."
New Orleans is looking to rebound defensively, ranking near the bottom of every major category on that side of the ball in 2014 after showing marked improvement under Rob Ryan a season before. These injuries will present an early-season hurdle for Payton and his team, with the Saints looking to make it back to the playoffs after disappointing a season ago amidst giant expectations. Keenan Lewis was one of their most consistent defensive performers in what was a down year, and his on-field leadership will be missed as much as his playing attributes.
The team chose to release Junior Galette last month after a stretch of off-field issues, creating another hole in their returning pass-rushing and overall defensive production. New Orleans must now look towards youngsters such as Stephone Anthony, Kasim Edebali, and Hau'oli Kikaha to help fill the void left by Galette's departure.
The Saints, who are preparing for their preseason finale with Green Bay on Thursday, made several roster-trimming moves on Tuesday as news of Lewis' injury began to make the rounds. They waived/injured LB Ronald Powell, S Vinnie Sunseri, and WR Nick Toon, while Williams and veteran Anthony Spencer --hoping to make the squad as a pass-rush specialist-- were placed on injured reserve. Powell, Sunseri, and Toon could revert to the team's injured reserve list if they clear waivers, or they could be released down the road with an injury settlement upon their recoveries.
The team also released fullback Erik Lorig and waived the following players: linebacker Chris Young; defensive linemen David Hunter and Anthony Pierce-Brewster; cornerbacks Terrence Frederick and Travis Manning; receivers R.J. Harris and Lance Lewis; and offensive linemen Cole Manhart and Antonio Johnson. Meanwhile, WR/KR Jalen Saunders was traded to the New England Patriots for a future draft pick. He impressed Patriots coaches when the teams spent the week practicing together ahead of their second preseason game. Cornerback Sammy Seamster was claimed off waivers from the Miami Dolphins.
All NFL teams must cut their active rosters down to 53 players by Saturday afternoon.