The New Orleans Saints were hit with some unpleasant news earlier yesterday as they near the beginning of their off-season training program, when it was announced that starting center Max Unger could potentially miss the first part of the upcoming 2017 regular season with an undisclosed foot injury that required surgery, according to multiple sources covering the team.
Initially, it had been reported that Unger will likely start the season on the PUP (Physically Unable to Perform) list, which possibly could force him to miss up to the first 6 weeks of the season.
Source confirms #Saints C Max Unger (foot) expected to miss start of 2017 season. It's same foot injury Unger dealt with in 2016, I'm told.
— Herbie Teope (@HerbieTeope) May 8, 2017
However, Pro Football Talk / NBC reporter Mike Florio reported earlier this morning that the Saints are currently expecting that Unger will return during the Pre-Season. This contradicts multiple reports that he won’t be available when the Saints head to Minnesota for a Week #1 game at Minnesota against the Vikings.
The Saints as of this moment have veteran back-up guard Senio Kelemete and 2nd year player and former Michigan State college All-American Jack Allen as the most likely "in-house" options for Unger, though it's assumed the Saints might also consider looking outside of the organization as well.
Among the rumors swirling around on social media were veteran free agent and former New York Jets center Nick Mangold said to be a possible target for New Orleans; as well as the Philadelphia Eagles allegedly looking to deal one of their young veterans from among the current wealth of talent that they have on their offensive line, specifically veteran center Jason Kelce -- who became expendable when the Eagles signed Stefen Wisniewski to a three-year extension this offseason and drafted Isaac Seumalo in the third-round of the 2016 NFL Draft.
However, one thing that perhaps shouldn't be completely overlooked by the Saints: the possibility of someone like recent undrafted free agent signee Cameron Tom out of the University of Southern Mississippi, emerging as the player that could do a more than capable job of filling in for Unger --- and perhaps even becoming a candidate to replace him someday.
Tom -- a Baton Rouge native who played high school ball at the city's prep powerhouse Catholic High School -- was originally slated to be a 5th Round pick, but went undrafted not long before the Saints snapped him up immediately after the Draft's conclusion.
The Saints were among a handful of NFL teams with scouts on hand for Southern Mississippi's Pro Day back on March , and Senior NFL Draft analyst for CBS Sports and NFLdraftscout.com Dane Brugler told the Hattiesburg American's Southern Miss football beat writer Jason Munz at the time that Tom had been the most likely of a trio of Golden Eagles players (QB Nick Mullens and defensive lineman Dylan Bradley were the others) to have his name called during the draft, where Tom had been projected as high as a 5th Round pick.
"He has a lean lower body and needs to continue and fill out his frame, but sinks his weight to anchor and looks to win the leverage battle," Brugler said.
"Tom understands his strengths and utilizes body angles correctly to wall off run lanes. A possible late draft choice or priority free agent, Tom is a prime practice squad candidate while he develops."
The 6-foot-4, 291 pound Tom is a player who Walter Football.com referred to prior to the Draft as 'an athletic interior blocker who possesses quickness and agility on the inside, but could stand to get stronger for the NFL'.
It's that lack of size more than anything that caused him to go undrafted, but "bulking up" and having to gain weight in most instances is a lot easier than having to lose it.
Tom was First Team All-CUSA at center in 2016 and was considered the 5th best center in the 2017 Draft class. He was also on the Rimington Trophy Watch List for the nation's best interior lineman.
He began his career in Hattiesburg playing almost immediately on the offensive line; and ended up playing 11 of the Golden Eagles' 12 games in 2013, starting the final nine games of the season and garnering Conference USA All-Freshman honors as a result.
Tom picked up right where he left off as a sophomore, but was moved to the center position and never skipped a beat. While Southern Miss struggled with a 3-9 record, Tom was part of an offense that produced just over 4,300 yards of total offense. He was named All-Conference USA (Honorable Mention) in 2014.
He topped that in his junior season after he was named to the preseason Second Team All-CUSA team; and helped the Golden Eagles win the C-USA West Division title, along with a trip to a bowl game while helping USM set or tie 22 school records on offense. Tom was named as a First Team All-CUSA that year as well.
Not to be overlooked is Tom's high IQ both on and off the field of play. Tom was considered one of the better student-athletes in all of Conference USA. He was named to the Conference USA Commissioner's Honor Roll all 4 years (2013, 2014, 2015, and 2016) as well as the Capitol One Academic All-District 6 (2014-First Team). Tom was part of the All-CUSA Academic Team in 2015 and again last year in 2016.
The Saints were obviously familiar with Tom throughout the Draft process, and of course his ties to the surrounding southeastern Louisiana region as a top high school player.
At Baton Rouge Catholic, Tom played both guard and tackle, earning Honorable Mention All-State and First Team All-Metro as a senior. He helped the Bears win district titles back-to-back in 2011 and 2012.
His excellent play earned him a two star rating by 247Sports.com, Rivals.com and Scout.com. He was also named the #78 overall prospect in Louisiana following the 2012 season, by 247Sports.com.
Despite playing in metro Baton Rouge and not all that far from the LSU campus, Tom was essentially ignored by LSU recruiters and then-head coach Les Miles; and was only offered scholarships in-state by Louisiana Tech and Tulane.
North Texas, Memphis, Arkansas State, and Southern Miss also offered scholarships, but in the end, it came down to USM and La. Tech --- and Tom opted to go to Hattiesburg after being wooed by then-new head coach Todd Monken as part of his first recruiting class.
Now Tom will report to the Saints Practice Facility on Airline Drive this Friday morning with a chance to impress the Saints coaching staff for the first time in what he hopes will be the beginning of a career-long stay in the NFL.
Tom will in essence be getting the opportunity of a lifetime --- since he plays a position that as of this moment is in a state of flux for the team, with the news of Unger's surgery yesterday.
To be sure, Tom will be 3rd on the depth chart as the team begins their training process for the upcoming 2017 season, behind likely new starter Senio Kelemete and 2nd year player Jack Allen.
But this is a young man whom shouldn't be overlooked, either by fans or media covering the team who assume that the undrafted rookie is a "long shot" to make the Final 53-man roster.
If anything, the open competition should bring out the best in everyone, and the former Southern Miss star won't be any exception just because of his having been passed over by NFL teams in the Draft's final rounds.
And make no mistake about it: thanks in part to the untimely injury issues that the team is experiencing with the loss of Max Unger, it suddenly means now that Baton Rouge's own Cameron Tom is going to become the "center of attention" --- when Saints Rookie Camp gets under way this Friday morning......