As the New Orleans Saints "officially" begin making preparations for the upcoming 2017 NFL season with the start this morning of OTA's (organized team activities), those Saints fans who don't follow the team as closely that they normally do during the regular season, often ask: Just what ARE "OTA's", anyway?
Under the rules of the off-season workout program, on-field workouts that the Saints have been conducting up to this point have been conducted on a “separates” basis, meaning no live contact or team offense vs. team defense drills are permitted.
Essentially, they've been more focused on doing individual work-outs which include conditioning exercises and weight lifting.
However, now that the Saints have officially reached the OTA period beginning this morning, live contact still is not permitted, but teams are allowed to conduct 7-on-7, 9-on-7, and 11-on-11 drills.
In other words, it's almost the Pro Football equivalent of playing "two hand touch" with the kids from your old neighborhood in that grass lot next to your parent's house, when you were growing up.
In much simpler terms: this is the first time the 2017 New Orleans Saints will PRACTICE fully together -- offense and defense, rookies and veterans.
But they only are doing so in helmets with jerseys and shorts, and they don't have full pads on.
The pads won't come on until the final weekend of July, when Training Camp gets under way and then of course the Pre-Season games that follow, in August.
So now that you're "up to speed" on what OTA's actually are, here are the 5 Saints players that I personally will be keeping a close eye on for the next few months --- as well as Saints fans who have personally invested themselves emotionally in how a few of these players fare --- all while the team gets closer to the beginning of the 2017 regular season in September.
Starting with this young gentleman......
HAU'OLI KIKAHA, EDGE RUSHER / DEFENSIVE END
In case you missed my featured article on him yesterday (click HERE to read), in a nutshell I said that all eyes of the Media will be on Kikaha as OTA's get underway, since he will be attempting a "come back" from a torn ACL to his left knee for what is the 3RD TIME already in his young career.
Kikaha previously blew out the same knee twice in college (2011 and again in 2012), before recovering and becoming a defensive All-American pass rusher (leading the nation in sacks in 2014) at the University of Washington.
There's only been one well-documented successful return of a player injuring the same knee 3 DIFFERENT TIMES and still being able to recover well enough to go on to have an outstanding NFL career, which is Carolina Panthers All-Pro linebacker Thomas Davis; who incredibly managed to fully recover from blowing out his knee in 3 consecutive seasons (2009, 2010, and 2011), to becoming a 2-time All-Pro (2015 and 2016) and leading his team to the Super Bowl two years ago.
Kikaha will be facing some long odds, since he will have to overcome the mental and physical aspects of the injury; as well as the fact that the team signed veteran pass rusher Alex Okafor in Free Agency, and drafted TWO edge rushers last month (3rd Round pick Trey Hendrickson of Florida Atlantic and 6th Round pick Al-Quadin Muhammad of the University of Miami).
The honest truth is that it won’t be until when the Saints begin practicing in full pads during Training Camp and then play the first of their 4 Pre-Season games beginning in August, that we will really and truly know where Kikaha stands.
And even if Kikaha shows the team coaching staff that he can still play? He's still likely find himself in an uphill battle for a spot on the final roster, meaning that he has a lot to prove over the course of the next few months, beginning this morning with the start of OTA's.
TRAVIN DURAL, WIDE RECEIVER
Even though he's an undrafted free agent, you'd think that the Saints just signed Hall of Fame wide receiver Jerry Rice in his prime, based on the reaction of the Saints fans indigenous to southeastern Louisiana that are HARD-CORE fans of the state's college football powerhouse, LSU --- when it comes to rookie wide receiver Travin Dural.
However, those fans should probably temper their expectations somewhat; given that Dural will have to fight his way through a handful of other players at the WR position, all of whom will be vying for a shot to become the #5 WR on the roster behind presumed starters #1 WR Michael Thomas, #2 WR Willie Snead, #3 WR Ted Ginn, Jr., and #4 WR Brandon Coleman.
Dural, a native of Breaux Bridge, La. and a graduate of Breaux Bridge High School (another reason he's popular among Saints fans from Louisiana) "only" had 100 career receptions at LSU, totaling 1,716 yards receiving and 13 receiving touchdowns during his time in Baton Rouge.
But it would be accurate to say that he struggled with injuries, inconsistent play from the quarterbacks, and cleanly catching the ball (he unfortunately had some critical dropped passes in key moments in a few of LSU's losses) at times.
My good friend and Saints / NFL Draft Analyst John Sigler of Canal Street Chronicles said right after the team signed him that Dural needs to show that he can be a four-down player by chipping into a couple of special teams units (field goal blocking, punt protection, kickoff fielding, etc) while helping the offense, if he has any hope of catching on with the team.
Once he does that, then he also has to “leapfrog” Corey Fuller, Jake Lampman, and Tommylee Lewis (last year's #5 WR) before he worries about becoming the 5th and final wide receiver on the Saints roster.
But hey, to hear LSU fans tell it: Dural has been underestimated and deserves to be considered every bit as good as fellow LSU graduates and former Tigers Odell Beckham, Jr. and Jarvis Landry, both who have become "superstar" WR's in the NFL.
I'm not sure that Dural is on THAT level to be honest, but at least the Saints are willing to give Dural a chance to show what he can do --- which for LSU fans that still believe the Saints organization intentionally "avoids" having former LSU players on their team, means that they now they can have something to be excited about.
MARCUS WILLIAMS, FREE SAFETY
The term "ball hawk" is often used to describe one of the many attributes that rookie 2nd Round draft pick Marcus Williams from the University of Utah brings to the table, but I prefer the use of another term that probably just as accurately describes Williams' style of play in the defensive secondary: "head hunter".
To be sure, Williams proved during his career in Salt Lake City that he is capable of making big plays in the secondary, with 5 interceptions both as a junior (2015) and a senior (2016) in each of the past two seasons; serving as proof that he can bring to the Saints what former veteran Jairus Byrd could not any longer: the "ball skills" which most top-caliber DB's possess, that are essential to creating much-needed turnovers in the NFL.
"The thing about this kid is, look, he's a ballhawk," Saints general manager Mickey Loomis told reporters in a press conference with local media after the pick was made following Day 2 of the Draft. "I think someday that he could be the quarterback of the defense in the back end."
But from my own perspective, I believe that Williams will give the Saints secondary something that it has lacked for some time: which is an ATTITUDE and a certain "swagger" that Williams definitely brings to the table on any given play. To use an 'old school' term (because old guys like me use them), Williams isn't afraid to "lay the wood" on a receiver or a tight end that comes into his area of responsibility.
There are times when he might have 'whiffed' at making a tackle here or there, but there isn't any doubt whatsoever that he’s a hard hitter, so much so that whenever he gets a clean shot at the ball-carrier, it's going to end up on the highlight reel of the ESPN 10 p.m. Eastern Sports Center broadcast.
With Kenny Vaccaro and Vonn Bell already in the secondary at safety, and Delvin Breaux and #1 pick Marshon Lattimore at the CB spots, adding a player of Williams' caliber to the 3-safety looks that the Saints often employ in their defensive scheme potentially makes them one of the most improved defensive secondaries in the NFC South.
Williams will likely work with the 2nd team unit defense to begin with, but make no mistake: he'll be a starter and will be "hunting heads" by November.
A.J. KLEIN, MIDDLE LINEBACKER
"Boom or Bust". We've heard that term used so often in recent years when it comes to the Saints signing players in Free Agency recently, and this year is no exception for the Saints on both sides of the ball. The last two players on this list this morning, are evidence of that fact.
The Saints signed former Carolina Panthers linebacker A.J. Klein to a 4-year, $24 million deal with $9.4 million in guaranteed money a couple of months ago, with the intention of giving the 4th year veteran a new opportunity to be a starter in the NFL — after the former 3-time All-Big 12 Conference linebacker out of Iowa State had served as a back-up on one of the league’s best linebacking corps with the Panthers.
But just WHERE Klein -- who is versatile enough to play any of the 3 linebacker positions -- will eventually end up in the line-up, has been yet to be determined. It's assumed as of right now that he will play the "Mike" / middle linebacker spot, although he could end up playing the "Sam" / strongside spot as well.
Wherever the Saints eventually place Klein in the line-up, it would seem that their ultimate goal is to allow the underrated former 5th Round pick by Carolina in the 2013 NFL Draft, show what he can do on his own; after learning the ins and outs of the linebacker position at the pro level from two of the game’s best linebackers in Panthers All-Pro LB’s Luke Kuechly and Thomas Davis.
The problem for some analysts and observers as well as a handful of Saints fans (and the reason why I put Klein on this list) is the lingering concern that he ISN'T a starting caliber player at the linebacker position --- despite the fact that Klein took over the starting role for the Panthers after Kuechly was lost for the season, and in his 7 total starts, made 16 solo tackles, assisted on 13 more and registered a sack as well.
To be sure, Klein has his doubters; as there are a large portion of Saints fans still upset over the team signing another free agent middle linebacker last year that turned out to be a compete “bust”, in former L.A. Rams star James Laurinaitis. But does that mean Klein is going to be a "bust", too???
The folks over at Pro Football Focus were especially critical of the signing, with analyst Sam Monson blasting the move by Saints brass and giving it a letter grade of ‘D’ in his review of every major move by all 32 NFL teams in Free Agency. That might be a bit too harsh, but on the flip side it might not be all that far off.
The actual truth probably lays somewhere in the middle --- and if the "middle" is where Klein eventually lines up, Saints fans are hoping that the player who did an admirable job filling in for an All-Pro last year, can keep up that level of performance in the Black and Gold, just like he did previously in the Black and Teal. Because if he doesn't, Saints fans aren't going to be happy about another free agent "bust".
ADRIAN PETERSON, RUNNING BACK
If you even have to ask why Peterson is on this list as a Saints fan, then I'm not sure if you even have a pulse and are still alive and breathing. No one single Saints player has re-energized and re-ignited the passion and excitement for the Saints team among fans of the Who Dat Nation as Peterson has done recently, and rightfully so.
After all, we're talking about a player that has been selected to 7 Pro Bowls, has 4 first-team All-Pro honors and 3 NFL rushing titles. He was also the NFL MVP in 2012, when he ran for 2,097 yards — the second-most yards by a running back ever in NFL history.
But Peterson also turned 32 two months ago — and following his injury-plagued 2016 season and a contract that called for him to make a whopping $18 million, the Vikings released him. Which takes us back to the recent "boom or bust" theme for the Saints recently in Free Agency.
Now I'm not suggesting at all that Peterson is "washed up", as some NFL fans across the country that support other teams, have suggested when giving Saints fans a hard time about the team signing Peterson. On the contrary, some analysts and observers such as the NFL Network's Peter Schrager, believe the Saints signing of Peterson was THE BEST signing in all of Free Agency in 2017 (click HERE for the video).
But first we need to remember that despite Peterson’s past accomplishments, he is NOT — repeat: NOT going to be the starter. There are some Saints fans who will feel that Peterson should be the starter, but that’s just not going to happen unless Ingram is hurt.
But what will happen is that the Saints are banking on the fact that Peterson still has "some gas left in the tank", and could serve a defined role in the Saints offense where he not only just comes in to allow Ingram to stay fresh, but more so becomes the Saints "go-to" guy in 3rd and short and goal-line situations. And with the recent pick of University of Tennessee "scatback" Alvin Kamara, the Saints likely have the deepest RB group of any team in the entire League.
Like all of the players on this list, it's hard to envision what impact any of them will have when they're only practicing in jerseys and shorts, and not in full pads.
But the thought of having two future Hall of Famers (Peterson and QB Drew Brees) in the same backfield at the same time is something that has every Saints fan across the Who Dat Nation fired up about the prospects for the upcoming season --- and for something such as the "glorified practices" of OTA's, starting today........