The New Orleans Saints find themselves in a rather unique situation as the upcoming 2017 NFL season rapidly approaches, which is that although they'd like to allow some of their younger players to develop at a natural pace and give themselves the time necessary to become acclimated to the rigors that are required to play football at the professional level --- they also still need them to contribute to the team's overall success as quickly as possible.
The Saints have been very fortunate in that regard recently, with a handful of players from last year's 2016 NFL Draft having become starters; and with several more from this year's recently completed 2017 NFL Draft already poised to potentially crack the 1st team units on both sides of the ball as well.
With the team facing what equates to a "make or break" situation this year following three consecutive 7-9 losing seasons and having missed making the NFL Playoffs in every one of those times, the much-needed immediate contributions of those young players has taken on an added importance moving forward.
It's with that very premise in mind that this morning, that we're taking a look at a handful of 2nd year players in particular whom the Saints News Network feels has the most to prove going into the remainder of the year ahead --- as the team seeks to finally get back on a winning path in the 2017 NFL season.
#5. LANDON TURNER, OFFENSIVE GUARD
Given the current situation of the Saints offensive line which has seen them lose two starters to injuries recently (Max Unger and Terron Armstead), the issue of both depth and position versatility along the offensive line has suddenly taken on an increased significance for New Orleans as they head into the 2017 season.
Which is exactly why a player such as 2nd year UDFA offensive guard Landon Turner -- who was considered the #1 overall undrafted free agent signing by the team last year -- can become a vital contributor if he shows some notable improvement this year from last.
Turner signed as an undrafted free agent last year out of the University of North Carolina, where he was an All-ACC performer and an All-American in 2015 at the left guard position. Saints fans were openly rooting for him to take that same spot last year, before it was ultimately filled by Andrus Peat.
Turner did end up making the Final 53-man roster, but only appeared in a total of 7 games (mostly in what's known as the O-Line's "jumbo package") with 1 single start to his credit.
But with the off-season departure of veteran back-up Tim Lelito (who signed a free-agent deal with the Tennessee Titans), Turner now has a golden opportunity to rise up the depth chart; and if he can prove himself ready to enter into the mix at the guard position by showing off his noted versatility from college as a "swing guard" (capable of playing on either the left or right side), Turner could make a significant leap forward in Year #2 of his NFL career.
#4. (TIE) KEN CRAWLEY AND DeVANTE HARRIS, CORNERBACKS
It's almost unfair to even mention these two youngsters, when you consider that not only did both undrafted players shine bright enough in last year's Training Camp and the Pre-Season to both earn a spot on the final 53-man roster; but also essentially got "thrown to the wolves".
Both Crawley and Harris suddenly and unexpectedly became starters in 2016 long before they were ready to, after they were forced into action following a slew of injuries at the CB position; specifically to both starting CB's Delvin Breaux and P.J. Williams in back-to-back weeks in Week #1 and Week #2.
And now both young men will have a lot to prove in the upcoming Training Camp and Pre-Season ahead, now that all of those injured CB's ahead of them on the depth chart are returning to full health.
Additionally, there's also the addition of top 2017 draft pick (#11 overall) Marshon Lattimore --- who appears to be ready to assume control of the #2 / outside boundary position on the side opposite of #1 CB Breaux (where both players filled in admirably, if nothing else).
Nevertheless, both Crawley and Harris will need to have another Camp and Pre-Season similar to the one that they had last year; or else the likelihood that they'll have the opportunity to make the Final 53-man roster this time around, could be a long shot for both young men at best.
#3. WIL LUTZ, KICKER
Unlike his teammates Ken Crawley and DeVante Harris, 2nd year Saints kicker Wil Lutz has nothing to worry about with regards to making the Final 53-man roster this season, because the job is already his --- and there's no one remotely close to threatening to take it away from him.
So why even mention him or include him on a list such as this one?
Simply because despite coming on towards the end of the year and finishing with what ended up being a pretty solid rookie season, there are some lingering doubts out there in the minds of a few fans who worry that Lutz still hasn't fully shown he can complement the high-powered Saints offense.
Most notably, Lutz had issues with accuracy and getting high enough trajectory on his kicks, which led him to missing 3 kicks in his first 2 games. Among his noted "low-lights", there was the blocked extra-point attempt that Denver brought back for the winning two-point conversion in Week #9; which was followed immediately by another field-goal attempt which he had blocked in another loss at Carolina.
But hopefully those fears should be put to rest with what hopefully be a solid Training Camp and Pre-Season, where Lutz will have the chance to prove himself by showing off the well-documented progress that he's made in the off-season, under the tutelage and guidance of new Special Teams coordinator Kevin O'Dea -- who's helped Lutz with getting more lift and height on his kicks.
Obviously it's working as evidenced by Lutz's PERFECT OTA's and Mini-Camp, where he didn't miss a single field goal attempt. If he can remain consistent, then Lutz can finally become the complementary kicker to the Saints offense that they've lacked in the Sean Payton Era.
#2. VONN BELL, STRONG SAFETY
We already know what you're thinking, which is: just how does a guy who played every game last season as a rookie, that made 87 tackles (61 solo) along with a sack, 2 forced fumbles and 4 PBU's (pass break-ups), manage to end up on a list of players with "the most to prove" ??? And the answer is a simple one: because the Saints NEED him to do it again.
The Saints snagged Bell in last year's 2016 NFL Draft when they traded up and back into the 2nd round (with the aid of their old trading partners the New England Patriots), and then immediately inserted him into the starting lineup on a defense desperately seeking all of the help that it could possibly get after it essentially begin to resemble a M*A*S*H* unit.
But despite his impressive contributions as a rookie, Bell still struggled at times as all 1st year players normally do; specifically when he was put into pass coverage situations. The Saints played a lot of what's known as "single-high" safety looks later in the regular season in 2016, which left Bell somewhat exposed and limited the effectiveness which he had shown previously when the Saints were in their 3-safety / combo looks.
This year, with the team drafting "ball hawk" Utah free safety Marcus Williams and the departure of veteran Jairus Byrd, Bell will likely now find himself moving into the starting strong safety role as the Saints return to utilizing more of the 3-safety looks with himself, veteran Kenny Vaccaro, and the rookie Williams.
Bell will have to show that he can build upon the good start that he had to his young career in 2016, by making an even bigger impact in 2017 during a "make or break" season for New Orleans --- a season in which the Saints and particularly the defensive secondary, can use his help more than ever.
#1. DAVID ONYEMATA, DEFENSIVE TACKLE
Last season in limited action as a rookie, the 6-foot-4, 300 pound Onyemata finished the season with 18 combined tackles but showed a lot of potential, enough so that the Saints began using him immediately -- placing him into the lineup due to a leg injury suffered by last year's top draft pick Sheldon Rankins, who missed the team's first 7 games.
But he was used somewhat sparingly after Rankins' return; although he ended up playing in 36% of the team's defensive snaps in 2016. However, this year is shaping up to be quite different for the 2nd year former Canadian college football defensive MVP.
That's because as of this very moment, the Saints still don't know yet if they will have the services or not of veteran DT Nick Fairley, as he awaits a 3rd opinion from a doctor on whether he can continue playing or be forced to retire at age 29, due to a heart condition.
The potential loss of Fairley on the Saints defensive line rotation would likely put fellow 2nd-year player Rankins at the top of the depth chart, where he would play next to nose tackle Tyeler Davison in the base 4-3 defense.
But it also means that Onyemata will likely be the one player as of right now, who would likely take on a bigger role in the substitution packages for the Saints pass rush, in Fairley's place.
If there's any "upside" with Onyemata being the one who will bear the responsibility of filling Fairley's role on the Saints D-Line, it's that he should have much a stronger understanding of the Saints defensive system heading into his 2nd year.
Onyemata will likely have to prove to the coaching staff, the team's fans, and perhaps most importantly to himself that he is up to the challenge of replacing a key starter on the D-Line; a line that desperately needs to have a consistent pass rush to be successful --- making Onyemata the one 2nd year Saints player with the most to prove in 2017......