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Players to watch in New Orleans Saints preseason opener vs. Jacksonville Jaguars

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It’s not as if the New Orleans Saints don’t care about their execution against Jacksonville on Thursday night. Of course, they want to be clean in terms of carrying out responsibilities in their preseason opener; the offense intends to score, the defense intends to get stops, the special teams intend to not allow a big return or successful field goal while breaking off a return and flawlessly making its kicks.

But the player evaluation process really ramps up now. Here are a handful of players to watch against the Jaguars:

  1. Tom Savage/Taysom Hill essentially can be listed as one, since they’re engaged in a battle for the backup quarterback spot behind Drew Brees. Honestly, Savage, the five-year veteran who has started nine NFL games – including seven last season – appears to have the edge on Hill, the second-year player who only has played on special teams in the five games for which he has been active. But Hill’s athleticism is such that he can create gains from losses, and possible sacks may turn into 8-yard scrambles or 25-yard, broken-play completions. Obviously, Saints Coach Sean Payton and offensive coordinator Pete Carmichael want to see who can command the huddle, spit out the play and run the designed offense. Savage probably best does that at this point. But Hill has intriguing, eye-catching tools and if he has to make something out of nothing, he’s capable of doing that.
  2. The only reason to not have been impressed by rookie receiver Tre’Quan Smith is that you haven’t yet seen him in training camp. Otherwise, you’d like what you’ve seen. Now, we just want to see it under game-like conditions. I don’t believe that’ll be a problem for Smith but, still, we want to see it transferred from the practice field to the game.
  3. It can be easy to forget that Al-Quadin Muhammad, the Saints’ sixth-round pick last year, led the league in 2017 in preseason sacks (four). He has a chance to remind everyone of his presence at right defensive end, given the fact that there’s no reason for Alex Okafor (returning from ruptured Achilles) or first-round pick Marcus Davenport (injured) to play against the Jaguars. The Saints are deep and talented along the defensive line, the rotations look more than solid and Muhammad is among the players who has to show significant development from Year 1 to 2 if he wants to crash through.
  4. There’s a job to be had as a punt/kick returner for the Saints. Who’ll take it? The top candidates could be receiver Brandon Tate and running back Boston Scott. New Orleans has been looking for some punch in the return game and, truthfully, running back Alvin Kamara very well could be the best man for the job. But, one, Kamara is much too valuable to the offense to put him to the hazard as a returner in preseason and, two, that same theory may apply to the regular season. There won’t be a need even to entertain the thought if Tate, Scott or someone else takes command and fills the vacancy.
  5. Count converted tight end Dan Arnold among the early training camp standouts. He’s another prospect who has to carry that momentum into the preseason games and show that he’s a player who, perhaps, is valuable enough to keep on the 53-man roster. He’s a big target (6 feet 6) who needs to play that way.

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