Five positions worth watching during 2017 New Orleans Saints training camp presented by Verizon, several of which may be decided by training camp performances:
1: Running Back
The competition will keep each sharp and hungry
The sexiest position battle for the Saints is at running back, but the fact is that it may not matter who starts between Mark Ingram II and Adrian Peterson. They’ll likely share the load this season, and their rushing attempts probably will be split more evenly than the 205-133 advantage that Ingram had over Tim Hightower last season. Ingram took full advantage of his opportunities, by the way, becoming the Saints’ first 1,000-yard rusher since 2006. Peterson is in excellent shape, and the Saints expect the 32-year-old to fulfill both years of his two-year contract. Sharing the position with Ingram only will help keep him fresh, and vice versa. Of course, each wants to be the bell cow for New Orleans’ running game, but unless there’s an injury, figure on a time share. The competition will keep each sharp and hungry.
Saints have versatility at linebacker
The linebacker position probably is the most interesting one on the roster. If healthy, a safe assumption seemed to be that Dannell Ellerbe would be a lock at the “Will” position. He wasn’t, again, and now the Saints are set to part ways with him despite his play-making prowess (the most important ability is availability). So there are no assurances, but a safe wager would be that Craig Robertson will be among the starters. After being signed to fortify the Saints’ special team units, he had his best NFL season last year at the “Mike” position. Likely, he can fit at “Sam” or “Will” also, and his versatility (and Ellerbe’s exit) paves the way for free agent signee A.J. Kleinto start at Mike. Then, there’s Stephone Anthony, a rookie standout in 2015 who lost his way (and starting position) in ’16. He likely will give it another run at Sam. Toss in Nate Stupar, Manti Te’o and perhaps Michael Mauti – who all have NFL starts on their resumes – and rookie Alex Anzalone, and the competition figures to be fierce.
It could be a difficult cut process
If the cornerback position can stay healthy – a huge, gargantuan “IF” – then the Saints can have depth at the positon that they are unaccustomed to having. The projected starters from last season, Delvin Breaux and P.J. Williams, are back and healthy. Sterling Moore and Ken Crawley, who started much of last season, are back as well. Marshon Lattimore, the consensus top cornerback in the 2017 draft, was New Orleans’ first-round pick. Damian Swann, a fifth-round pick in ’15, is hoping to show that his injury problems are behind and Arthur Maulet, an undrafted rookie, has looked like a keeper so far. The scrap for the starting and nickel back spots will be interesting, to say the least. It could be a difficult cut process.
4: WIDE RECEIVER
the separating factor usually is who best can help the team on special teams
The Saints are set at their top three receivers. Michael Thomas is looking to improve on a record-setting rookie season (franchise record for receptions, receiving yards and receiving touchdowns by a rookie), Ted Ginn Jr. Jr. arrives to provide the deep threat and Drew Brees is a perfect complement for the two in the slot. From there, though, it could get interesting. Brandon Coleman and Tommylee Lewis aren’t locks even though they return from last season. Corey Fuller could slice his way in, Jake Lampman is healthy and highly regarded (and good on special teams), and rookie Travin Dural from LSU could be an interesting prospect. Beyond the top three, the separating factor usually is who best can help the team on special teams, too.
5: DEFENSIVE END
Consistent pass rush needed from the Right
In a perfect world, Alex Okafor will solidify the Saints’ right defensive end position and provide the consistent pass rush from that side that New Orleans has been missing for several seasons. But if he isn’t what the Saints hope he is, then the door opens, perhaps for rookie draft pick Trey Hendrickson, or for Hau’oli Kikaha (if he can successfully return from his torn ACL), or maybe even Darryl Tapp (he can play almost every position along the line). Since nothing has been a given for the Saints at that spot, they’ll hope to find the solution in training camp, with Okafor being the top option.