Exactly one week away from the opening of training camp, the New Orleans Saints are poised to begin laying the groundwork for what they hope will be another successful season. Coming off a much-improved 2013 season in which the team won a playoff game and reached the divisional round, New Orleans has had quite the offseason, re-stocking and re-tooling in an attempt to build off last year's success.
With a roster boasting talent across the board, it is only natural that a handful of positions promise to present some fascinating battles in camp. Here is a look at our five most intriguing position battles...
5. Backup QB
As Drew Brees prepares to enter his ninth season in black and gold, some eyes will be focused on the competition for the backup quarterback spot. Luke McCown, who handled the duties last season, was re-signed in March, while former undrafted free agent Ryan Griffin also returns. Undrafted prospect Logan Kilgore will also be in the mix, but is likely to serve as a glorified camp arm at best.
Brees has been an iron man in New Orleans,shrugging off the arm injury which preceeded his Saints career and missing just one game for rest purposes at the end of the team's Super Bowl-winning 2009 season. Nevertheless, the team will be interested to see how this particular competition shakes out in the event that one of McCown or Griffin is called upon. Who will emerge from camp as Drew Brees' caddy?
The Saints like McCown from a veteran leadership standpoint. He understands the system and has a good rapport with Brees and offensive coordinator Pete Carmichael, Jr. in the meeting room. The Louisiana tech alum has attempted just one pass since the 2011 season, and at age 33 does not possess the upside or potential of the younger Griffin, who played at Tulane for former Saints receivers coach Curtis Johnson.
McCown held off Griffin and Seneca Wallace last summer. Wallace was cut while Griffin landed on the practice squad. The Saints promoted Griffin to the active roster late in the season as other franchises began to sniff around and showed interest in signing him from the practice squad. That move helped illustrate the Saints' feelings on the 24 year-old, as they were keen to hang on to him in an attempt for Payton and Carmichael to further enhance his development.
Griffin lacks the experience of a McCown, but it is conceivable to imagine that the Saints will be rooting for him to unseat the veteran journeyman on the strength of a good camp and preseason. Not many teams keep three quarterbacks on the active roster these days, and keeping just two would free up a precious roster spot for an extra receiver, linebacker or defensive back, for example. The Saints value players who can contribute in multiple fashions, and if they enter 2014 with three quarterbacks rostered, they may have to give up on a special teamer who could eventually develop into a more significant role player in other areas.
After Joe Lombardi left to join Jim Caldwell's staff in Detroit, the Saints hired Mike Neu as their new quarterbacks coach. Neu worked with Griffin at Tulane, and has an understanding of what the 6-5 206 passer does well. Griffin stood out during June OTAs and minicamp, and Payton knows that this will be a key battle throughout the rest of the summer.
"There aren't any early indications," Payton said in regards to the competition. "We'll get into training camp. We'll have competition there for that number two position between Luke and Ryan. We'll have an opportunity to see them receive reps not only with the second group, but we'll see them receiving reps with the first group."
Not the sexiest battle, but one to watch, without question.
4. 4th RB/Sproles Role
The Saints, in an attempt to maximize cap space during their free agent frenzy, shipped Darren Sproles to the Philadelphia Eagles in exchange for a 5th round pick. Sproles was coming off his least productive season in New Orleans, but remained a home-run threat in the eyes of opposing defenses any time he took the field.
In addition to his role as a satellite scat back, Sproles was an important part of the Saints' four-headed monster at running back. Going back to the earliest days of his tenure, Sean Payton has always employed a committee-like approach at the position, and Sproles' departure does leave a noticeable void.
The team likes former undrafted free agent Travaris Cadet as a potential plug and play option. Though not as diminutive as Sproles, Cadet has impressed the coaching staff with his receiving skills out of the backfield, upside as a perimeter runner, and his special teams prowess. However, when it comes to actual game experience as a playmaker, Cadet is limited, having appeared in 26 games with a grand total of 8 offensive touches, including just one carry. Travaris Cadet could be in for a much bigger role in 2014.
Cadet's main competition this summer will come in the form of yet another potential undrafted gem in Tim Flanders. The Southland Conference's all-time leader in rushing yards (5,664), Flanders had a standout career at Sam Houston State. The 5-9 210 back has a physical style about him, and cuts the figure of more of a natural runner than a Sproles-esque weapon. That said, the battle for the 4th RB spot behind Pierre Thomas, Khiry Robinson and Mark Ingram will be one to monitor. The Saints did not exercise Ingram's 5th year option, meaning the winner of this battle could be playing for a bigger role next year, in addition to a roster spot this season.
Flanders could be a practice squad stash, but a strong showing in preseason could also make him an appealing option to other running back-needy teams.
Derrick Strozier, another Tulane alum and local boy, garnered some nice reviews throughout OTAs. Strozier played defensive back at Tulane, but has been working as a running back this offseason. The 5-8 181 athlete could be a player to watch this summer, but will have his work cut out in order to make a noticeable dent in this competition.
Sproles and his big-play potential are gone, and the Saints will need someone to emerge as an option. Payton has enjoyed conjuring up plays for the likes of Sproles and Reggie Bush over the years, finding ways to exploit matchups on linebackers and particular schemes by getting them the ball in space. Brandin Cooks, who the Saints traded up to select in May's NFL Draft, could be another option to replace Sproles. Cooks wowed teammates with his flashy skills at OTAs last month, and Payton has suggested him as a player capable of handling more than just receiver duties.
However, in terms of the battle for the 4th running back spot, Cadet and Flanders should have quite the healthy competition in front of them this summer.
3. WRs 4-5
The Saints have traditionally carried five receivers on their gameday roster throughout Payton's tenure. With Marques Colston, Kenny Stills and Brandin Cooks all locks, the competition for the next two spots will be quite immense.
Robert Meachem has the experience advantage on his side. Re-signed earlier this offseason, the Tennessee alum came back to New Orleans last September after his release from San Diego, and stepped right back into his familiar role as a deep threat who doubles as a reliable perimeter blocker. Having spent the first five seasons of his pro career as a Saint, the familiarity level and knowledge of the system is firmly on Meachem's side, as is his reliability as one of the team's best, if not the best, blocker on the edge. He will, however, have plenty of young talent nipping at his heels.
One of those young talents is Nick Toon. Toon has had a difficult time as a pro thus far, but the staff remains high on him as a player to watch as he enters his third season. Should he stay healthy, Toon will almost certainly have a roster spot, but his role remains up in the air. He has been pegged as a player who could see a significant rise in reps, having caught just 4 balls for 68 yards across 8 games last season.
"Whether you're a first-year guy or a 15-year guy, you have to come out and prove yourself every day," Toon said during minicamp in June.
He knows that this could be his make-or-break time. The Saints would like a player like Toon to emerge in an attempt to ease the burden on Colston. Stills showed plenty of promise last season as a rookie, while Cooks also figures to play a prominent role in his inaugural season as a pro. The time is now, if the 25 year-old Toon wants to stick in New Orleans in 2014 and beyond. Can Joe Morgan re-establish himself as a dangerous deep threat?
Joe Morgan was also brought back to compete for a role after a lost season in which he suffered a severe knee injury. Morgan is known best for his speed and ability to pop the top off of secondaries, but it remains to be seen how much his latest knee troubles have zapped that quickness. When healthy in 2012, Morgan posted an insane 37.9 yards-per-catch average, hauling in 10 catches for 379 yards and 3 scores. Obviously a small sample size, but a clear deep threat who, if healthy, could keep himself in the team's plans with a strong summer.
The likes of Andy Tanner, Steve Hull, Seantavius Jones and priority undrafted free agent Brandon Coleman will round out the competition. The 6-6 225 Coleman will be one to watch, as the Saints could look to him as a red-zone threat with his frame and ball skills. However, all of these players will likely need to show out on special teams in addition to displaying their knowledge and abilities within the offense.
Courtney Roby, who doubled as a receiver and special teams dynamo, is now with the Atlanta Falcons, so any player who can grasp both the offense and the importance of contributing on teams could seperate himself from the rest of the pack.
2. Corner Depth
The Saints made one of last season's most unheralded signings in the form of Keenan Lewis, who went on to have a successful season in his first year with his hometown team. Corey White, Rod Sweeting and Trevin Wade also return, while Patrick Robinson will look to put his injury troubles behind him.
The Saints used their 2014 second-round pick on Nebraska's Stanley Jean-Baptiste, while also bringing in future Hall of Famer and 12-time Pro Bowler Champ Bailey this spring. Stanley Jean-Baptiste gives the Saints a tall,athletic prospect to mold into a future starting option at CB.
Terrence Frederick, Brian Dixon and Derrius Brooks will all look to compete in camp, with multiple players likely competing for one or two spots. Lewis, Bailey and White are locks for the final roster. Robinson, if healthy, should also be firmly in the mix, along with rookie Jean-Baptiste.
That is 5 spots right there. Referencing the backup quarterback competition again, this is where an extra spot could be quite the asset, as the Saints could look to carry an extra DB or receiver. Robinson had been mentioned as a possible cap casualty during the Saints' early offseason cull, but remained with the team and even saw some reps with the first string defense in OTAs. Coming off a torn patella tendon, he was full-go in the offseason program, and will absolutely need to have health on his side this summer if he is to cement his place.
Sweeting could be an option as the final CB to make the roster, if the Saints do elect to keep more than 5 at the position. Defensive Coordinator Rob Ryan's preference of employing multiple coverages within his scheme makes every defensive back valuable, as seen last year when the 4-2-5 alignment was often deployed on passing downs.
Jabari Greer was lost towards the end of the regular season, and the likes of White and Sweeting were forced to step forward and expand their roles in his stead. Jean-Baptiste figures to have a role, but will likely be developed at a steady pace behind the established Lews, Bailey and White, though he could challenge the latter for time in sub-packages.
This promises to be one of the more noteworthy camp battles to watch, with talent aplenty and roster spots so precious.
Sexy, ain't it? While the corner or receiver spots could easily top this list, the battle to win the job in the middle of the offensive line is a crucial one. The Saints let Brian de la Puente walk in free agency, as he linked up with the Chicago Bears, leaving a hole at center.
Tim Lelito is the in-house favorite to emerge. The Saints love him, though his experience, particularly at the center position, is almost null. A former undrafted free agent, Lelito played guard in college, and has yet to see much meaningful snaps at center in the NFL.
The Saints brought back Jonathan Goodwin, who played with them from 2006-2010, winning a Super Bowl along the way before inking a multi-year deal with San Francisco. Goodwin remains a viable option at center, grading out in the league's top half of all starters at the position according to Pro Football Focus. However, at 35 years old, the team would certainly like to see the much younger Lelito grab the bull by the horns and win the job. Tim Lelito will battle Jonathan Goodwin for the starting center position.
Speaking at OTAs, Goodwin said he came back to his former team with an open mind, to serve not only as a potential mentor to Lelito, but also with the intent to give his all to the competition.
“In this league, when the younger guy can play, that’s what teams tend to go with,” Goodwin said. “Guys mentored me so I have no problem doing it with Tim. We’ve already had conversations, I think we’re already starting to build a relationship. Naturally, I wouldn’t be out here if I didn’t want to play. So I still want to play. We’re going to fight each other tooth and nail so either way, I think this team will be straight at the center position.”
In an interesting twist, Lelito's former college teammate at Grand Valley State, Matt Armstrong, was added to the roster as an undrafted free agent in May. He will add another body to the mix, although the focus will be squarely upon Lelito and Goodwin as the battle to be Drew Brees' o-line signal caller and personal hand-warmer sets up as the competition to watch well into August.
Lelito would appear to have the advantage given his youth, upside and trust within the organization. However, Goodwin's experience, past working rapport with Brees and the offense in addition to his lengthy playoff and Super Bowl experience can not be discounted.
Given the nature of the position and the every-down importance it carries, we rank this as our top camp battle.