As we near the upcoming season of NFL football, the Saints are looking good this year. With veterans such as Drew Brees and Zach Strief, the return of Roman Harper, and a more diverse cast of younger players like wide receiver Michael Thomas and running back Marcus Murphy, head Coach Sean Payton seems pleased.
While fans, of course, will be eager to see how the 2009 Super Bowl-winning team will fare, one component to consider is how Brees and the younger players will perform on the field. Still trying to emulate much of the 2009 season, which can arguably be considered one of their better years, the question remains—can a new formulaic momentum be created for an even greater year?
For Special Teams:
Kicker Kai Forbath and punter Thomas Morstead showed consistency in their performances during minicamp, which was held back in June. Forbath has had a successful run with the Saints since he took over for Zach Hocker.
Morstead re-signed with the team in March. He was solid then, so the expectation is for that to continue. He was picked as a special teams captain back in 2014, a position he still holds today.
Morstead holds a record for the most touchbacks in a single season. During minicamp, he showed fans why that record is worth remembering, if and when our backs seem up against a tight wall.
Outside linebacker Hau’oil Kikaha’s ACL tear isn’t “career-ending”, according to head coach Sean Payton. He did state that he has taken into consideration replacements for the projected starter such as Kasin Edebali and Obum Gwachum. Payton gave praise to Kikaha’s will power, saying, “To his credit, man, he's been unbelievable in regards to his mindset. You think you might get someone who was extremely disappointed. And I'm sure that was the case. And yet the night he got his first diagnosis, he sent me a three-page-long text about how this has just motivated him more.”
Edebali has been questionable due to injuries, but Payton believes that by training camp (July 28-August 16), he’ll be healthy enough to be considered an alternate in the games.
The Saints need a good defensive lineup, and though Gwachum doesn’t have the “strongest” of stats, Payton is still confident that his backups can make the grade.
We need to obtain small pass rushers who can perform full time. Edebali may be the one to watch if he’s given the chance to start during the opening game.
Sheldon Rankins joined the free agency before signing with the team. This rookie defensive tackle, dubbed “Mr. Boring”, will be good at making plays in three different positions (three technique plays) with the ability to affect the pass and the run.
Payton praised the 6'1" Rankins, who weighs around 300 pounds, in regards to his shape, during an Organized Team Activities (OTAs) interview. Rankins’ frame is what Payton believes will be useful for defense. During his last two seasons at Louisville, Rankins had an impressive 26.5 tackles and 14 sacks. Add that to strong NFL numbers and it’s no wonder he was one of the top players during the draft. Rankins is only 22 years old, which adds to the list of young players this season. The dichotomy proved effective during OTAs, but again, fans are going to want to see that magic consistently active for game time.
Projected starters on defense haven’t been named yet, and even though Payton has his picks, will he use the “right” ones needed to fill the gaps for what’s lacking?
In addition to Rankins, safety Vonn Bell was projected as a possible roster add-on for the Panthers. However, he was traded during the second round of the draft to the Saints. Bell will have to concern himself with Jairus Byrd and Kenny Vaccaro. Though Byrd shined tremendously while playing for the Buffalo Bills, that all changed when he joined the Saints roster. Byrd started in 12 of 13 games despite questions about his knee last season.
Could Bell be a good starter? Can he exercise what’s needed as a safety outside Harper’s contribution? Depending on what’s said behind closed doors and the decisions that work best for the team, Bell should definitely get some PT to prove why he was traded during the second round of the NFL draft.
Since franchise quarterback Brees will always be a heavy reliant, a question to ponder—can Garrett Grayson carry the torch? The second string QB is in his second year with the Saints and had some great practices during OTAs.
Payton did voice the challenge concerning Grayson when he stated, “He’s been real attentive. He’s in good shape. And I think the biggest thing is just the mental element of the process happening quicker and him knowing where to go and not spending so much time worrying on how to call it.”
Do fans want to see Brees take the lead, as he’s expected to do, or are they willing to see Grayson step up for more playing time? Will it matter, and, if so, when? Even the greats have to ultimately relinquish their spot to someone else.
Speaking of Brees, when asked about how he felt towards this year’s roster of younger players and how that may affect the upcoming season, he stated, “I think we have a good balance between veteran players like myself and the younger ones. Their hunger makes up for any inexperience because they’re learning." Brees doesn't consider the current roster age gap as problematic. During OTAs, Brees was still in good standing and health with throws, while rookie wide receiver Michael Thomas and running back Marcus Murphy showed nothing less than 100 percent of completed catches during the fan-inspired practice.
As far as Harper goes, some fans may not agree that he needed to come back after his stint with Carolina. An arguable weakness that needs improving is his pass coverage despite his established skills. Sure, he can add some much-needed depth to Vaccaro and go big on blitzing, but will that be enough?
Overall, there’s a good mixture of what can be done to revive some glory years and what’s needed to create new ones. It’s the defense that specifically needs shaping to help get through the season and hopefully the playoffs. Offensively, the Saints will have that relationship between vets and rookies, which should make for some potential wins.
Training camp goes through August 16, and the first regular season home game will be against the Raiders on September 11 at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome. The Saints face the Steelers during the preseason on August 26.
Photos by Zach Brien and Austin Sylvest