1. Offensive MVP: As New Orleans Saints Training Camp 2023 comes to a close Friday, Aug. 25 with a practice in the Caesars Superdome (with one preseason game and final afternoon practice on Tuesday, Aug. 29 remaining), it's time to give our preseason awards as we do each training camp here on Key Observations. Let's start with the offensive side of the ball: I must say, through the first three weeks of camp, there really wasn't much of a competition. As the last couple of weeks have progressed and we have gotten into games and joint practices, the race has become much closer. So this award will be split. 1a. Wide receiver Chris Olave. As I mentioned previously, he would have been the clear-cut winner early on, and if you ask other media members who cover practice every day, they might be of the same opinion. Olave has been the best player on the field from Day 1, especially when you look at how he has practiced, specifically in 1-on-1, 7-on-7, and 11-on-11 drills. Olave has basically been uncover-able. He has dominated those periods of practice, and it hasn't mattered who has been covering him on the defensive side. He has made catches at every level, including contested catches, and has shown the ability to gain yards after the catch. The second-year product out of Ohio State is poised to have a huge year. which would be something considering he became the third rookie in Saints history to gain 1,000 yards receiving a year ago, without playing a full 17-game schedule. 1b. Tight end Juwan Johnson. Johnson has been rock solid throughout training camp, but as we near the end of camp and the beginning of the regular season, it's become crystal clear that Johnson will be a massive part of the offense. Time after time during practices and games the fourth-year player out of Oregon has come up with a big play, almost always moving the chains for first downs. He had two first down catches in the preseason game vs the Chiefs and a huge touchdown reception in a team drill vs the Chargers in the joint practices in Costa Mesa. Don't take my word for it though, Coach Dennis Allen and quarterback Derek Carr have been liberal in their praise for Johnson and what he has done in the offseason and how he has looked in camp. The former wide receiver can do it all on the field, and most certainly will do so when the regular season starts on Sep 10 vs Tennessee.
2. Defensive MVP: On this side of the ball, there is no competition. Cornerback Marshon Lattimore. Again, since Day 1, he has been the best player on that side of the ball. After an extremely frustrating 2022 in which he missed two months with a lacerated kidney (with a game-clinching pick six in Philadelphia on New Year's Day in his return), he has approached practice from the get-go with laser-sharp focus and even better, has practiced that way. As I've mentioned on several radio shows throughout camp, Lattimore is practicing like he's going against Tampa Bay receiver Mike Evans every day. Despite a slight knee tweak against the Chargers in the second day of joint practices, Lattimore should be 100 percent for the opener in two weeks. He has frustrated all receivers time and time again during team drills, locking down whoever was in front of him and easily would be credited with double digit PBUs. The corner competition between Paulson Adebo and Alontae Taylor opposite Lattimore has been a storyline from the beginning of camp, but there is no doubt who rules the defensive backfield. Having a healthy and motivated Lattimore for an entire season is only going to make this already solid Saints defense that much better, when you can almost take one side of the field away from opposing offenses.
3. Special Teams: This has been a pretty tight race but as the kicker competition winds to a close, ultimately incumbent Wil Lutz will take the award. That being said, rookie Blake Grupe has been a very worthy competitor. It's hard to argue the numbers though. Lutz has been VERY consistent, only missing five total kicks during this training camp and preseason games. Now as I am writing this on Friday after the final Dome practice, Lutz did miss two attempts, both wide left. Until Friday, Lutz had not missed a kick since Aug. 4, which was practice No. 8. He was 5 for 7 in the Dome with misses from 46 (right hash) and 54 (right hash). Grupe made all seven of his kicks Friday, including a 59-yarder that hit the crossbar and bounced over. Another note, all five of Lutz's misses in camp have come when the backup punter Lou Hedley has been holding, and not his regular holder, Blake Gillikin. Gillikin by the way held for all seven of Grupe's kicks on Friday. Sunday night will be very interesting as the kicker competition nears its conclusion as it is expected both kickers will get opportunities. It also should be mentioned that special teams ace J.T. Gray has had an outstanding camp in kick coverages as well as Lonnie Johnson Jr., who has gotten adept at downing punts inside the 5-yard line and has made some special teams tackles during the preseason games. We'll see you on Sunday night for the final preseason game vs the Texans in the Dome and my final Key Observation column of the preseason.
Full coverage of the New Orleans Saints workouts during 2023 Training Camp presented by Rouses Markets on Friday, August 25.