Young faces in important places. For the New Orleans Saints in 2017, it appears that a lot of their eventual success (or possible failure) will largely depend upon the performance of several players who are their mid 20's, and even much younger than that in some instances.
However, at many of those key roster positions, lies a wily old veteran capable of "filling in" at those spots in a moment's notice; and more often than not they can do it very well and at just as a high level of intensity as their younger teammates are able to.
The news yesterday of the loss of 27-year old veteran Saints starting defensive tackle Nick Fairley for the entire 2017 season and possibly for the remainder of his career due to a heart condition, was already the 3rd such bit of "bad news" about a starting player that New Orleans has gotten during this off-season; with the start of the regular season still another 2 and a ½ months away at Minnesota on Monday Night Football (September 11th).
Saints have had the worst injury luck of any team this offseason
— Gregg Rosenthal (@greggrosenthal) June 26, 2017
The Fairley news just further illustrates the importance of how a NFL team having a veteran player who can come in at that position and not suffer any significant "drop-off" in performance, is vital and in some instances --- downright critical.
It's with that in mind that this morning, we're taking a quick look at the 5 players whom we feel are the most important "back-up" players currently on the Saints roster, and how their roles will impact the Saints upcoming season of 2017.
Beginning first with this gentleman.......
#5. TONY McDANIEL, 3-TECHNIQUE DEFENSIVE TACKLE (Starter: Sheldon Rankins)
With the noted loss of Fairley, it's likely that the Saints will lean on second-year players Sheldon Rankins and David Onyemata to do the heavy lifting at the 3-Technique defensive tackle spot as well as in the substitution-rush packages, as reported last night by New Orleans Advocate beat writer Nick Underhill.
But in the 'base' 4-3 Saints defensive alignment, Rankins now assumes the starting role at the 3-Technique --- which is usually your best interior pass rusher at the defensive tackle position (which Fairley was).
Immediately behind Rankins now at the 3-Technique will be 32-year old Tony McDaniel, whom the Saints recently signed as a veteran free-agent during Mini-Camp as a "preemptive strike" in case Fairley was declared out for the season, which obviously came to pass yesterday.
McDaniel, 32, spent last season with the Seahawks -- his 2nd time around with Seattle -- after previous stops with the Buccaneers, Dolphins and Jacksonville. Most NFL fans will remember the 6-foot-7, 305 pound McDaniels as a core piece of the dominant 2013 Seahawks team that completely "shut down" Peyton Manning and the #1 high-powered Broncos offense in Super Bowl XLVIII.
Canal Street Chronicles managing editor / Saints beat writer John Hendrix noted on Twitter yesterday that McDaniel is expected to serve primarily on 1st and 2nd downs, but that his veteran presence and vast experience is clearly what the team was attracted to more than anything.
Sean Payton said at minicamp that Tony McDaniel would be more of a 1st/2nd down type presence. But smart vet, missed 2 games in past 4 yrs
— John Hendrix (@JohnJHendrix) June 26, 2017
While younger players at the 3-Technique spot such as David Onyemata, Ashaad Mabry, and Justin Zimmer will no doubt get their opportunities to show what they can do in Training Camp and the Pre-Season, you can fully expect that Saints head coach Sean Payton and new defensive line coach Ryan Nielsen will now lean heavily upon McDaniel when need be.
#4. SENIO KELEMETE, TACKLE, GUARD AND CENTER (Starters: Ryan Ramczyk, Andrus Peat, Max Unger, Larry Warford, Zach Strief)
As we noted, the news about Fairley was already the 3rd time in the past few weeks that the Saints have received bad news about a potential season-ending injury to one of their starters, and ironically all of them "down in the trenches".
Before the Fairley news broke yesterday, the Saints were already dealing with the losses of starting center Max Unger (foot) and offensive left tackle Terron Armstead (torn labrum), the two of the best offensive linemen that the Saints have.
Fortunately, Unger appears likely to be ready in time for the start of the regular season; and while Armstead may or may not make it back before the season ends, the Saints are moving forward with rookie Ryan Ramczyk at the left tackle spot.
As it is, the Saints have been very blessed in the fact that they have a handful of linemen that can play multiple positions, such as Andrus Peat for example; who is the starting left guard but was an All-American left tackle at Stanford.
But if the Saints have a "most valuable" offensive lineman, then there isn't any doubt who that is: 27-year old guard Senio Kelemete, who might also be the most under-appreciated Saints player by the team's fans.
The 6-foot-4, 307 pound Kelemete can play ANY position on the Saints offensive line, literally. He was an All-PAC 12 left tackle in college at the University of Washington, and has also started games for the Saints at left guard, right guard, and even at center.
God forbid should the Saints suffer any more injuries to their offensive line between now and the Monday Night of opening kickoff against the Vikings at Minnesota in early September. But if for some reason they do, you can bet your ass that the FIRST player that they will turn to, is going to be Senio Kelemete.
#3. STERLING MOORE, OUTSIDE BOUNDARY CORNERBACK (Starters: Delvin Breaux and Marshon Lattimore)
If you're reading this as a Saints fan, then it's been well-documented that because of a ridiculous amount of injuries last year specifically to the cornerback position, the Saints were forced to use a 'hodge podge' mix of undrafted rookies and veteran players whom they figuratively signed "right off the street" --- to start at the #1 and #2 CB positions, which are your primary outside boundary CB's that go against an opponent's top wide receivers.
However, as the old saying goes: Out of something bad, comes something good. And for the Saints in that instance, came 27-year old and now 7th year NFL veteran cornerback Sterling Moore.
Originally signed by the Raiders in 2011 as an undrafted free agent out of SMU, Moore has played for a handful of teams; most notably with the New England Patriots and appeared with them as a member of their Super Bowl XLVI team that eventually lost to Eli Manning and the Giants.
He has since played for the Cowboys, Buccaneers, and the Bills, and was picked up by the Saints in Week #2 of the regular season after starting CB Delvin Breaux broke his leg against Oakland.
He played in a total of 13 games with 12 starts, and recorded his personal career-highs with 56 tackles, 13 PBU's (passes defensed) and 2 interceptions. More importantly, he provided poise and a calming influence in an otherwise worrisome and difficult situation to be in, especially since he basically was doing it "on the fly".
It's more than fair to say that Moore would start for any number of teams at the outside boundary CB position; and you had better believe that any time that Breaux or Lattimore need a 'breather' in games this season; or if worst-case scenario there's another injury to one of them -- it will be Sterling Moore that the Saints will turn to first.
#2. CHASE DANIEL, QUARTERBACK (Starter: Drew Brees)
There will be many Saints fans reading this who will think to themselves: "This should be ranked #1" --- and we'd be hard-pressed to argue that point.
However, we are assuming of course that the unbelievably impressive career of now 16-year veteran and future 1st-ballot Hall of Famer Drew Brees will go as the last 10 seasons have gone for New Orleans: with Brees being one of -- if not THE -- best quarterbacks in the entire sport of Pro Football, and doing it INJURY-FREE.
Brees has certainly had some close calls in his 10 years as the Saints starting QB, but has been more than blessed than most QB's who play the sport have been, despite the fact that Brees himself once suffered a career-threatening injury (a torn labrum to his throwing shoulder at the end of the 2005 season with San Diego) that ironically led him to eventually become a Saint.
Brees is still playing at a remarkably high-level, but he will turn 39 in January and there has been an underlying conversation throughout sports media about the Saints finding an eventual successor to Brees; in all likelihood in next year's 2018 NFL Draft --- which most college and NFL Draft analysts agree could be the deepest QB class in over 30 years (the 1983 Draft that featured Hall of Famers John Elway, Dan Marino, and Jim Kelly).
But for now here in the present day and immediate future, the Saints and their fans are only concerned with the rapidly approaching 2017 season; and God forbid should anything happen to Brees, but this year New Orleans appears to be in better hands than they were for the past couple of seasons.
That's because the Saints this off-season brought back 30-year old, 9th year veteran QB (and the team's back-up QB to Brees on the 2009 Super Bowl champion team) Chase Daniel. After spending 4 years with the Saints (2009-2012), Daniel left in 2013 Free Agency to pursue a starting opportunity for the Kansas City Chiefs.
But the Chiefs instead went with Alex Smith, and Daniel sat behind him until last year when he signed with the Philadelphia Eagles in 2016 Free Agency. But that didn't work out either as Philly went with rookie Carson Wentz, so Daniel decided to return to New Orleans for this season on a 1-year deal.
Now don't be mistaken: Daniel isn't anywhere near having the capability of taking over the reins from Brees on a permanent basis. But that's not what the Saints would expect him to do.
They just need a QB who can effectively execute the Saints offense and at least be somewhat of an accurate passer while simultaneously 'managing' the game with a minimum amount of mistakes, if Brees is unable to play for whatever the reason might be.
Daniel gives the Saints that type of player, and although it's preferred that he NEVER see any action, the Saints are comfortable with having to turn to him an an emergency situation.
#1. CRAIG ROBERTSON, ANY ("MIKE", "WILL", OR "SAM") LINEBACKER POSITION (Starters: A.J. Klein and Dannell Ellerbe)
There isn't any doubt from our perspective as to who we rank #1 as the most important Saints "back-up" for thr=e upcoming 2017 season, and ironically he was actually a starter at the position that he played last year.
In fact, this player can play all 3 --- count'em, THREE --- linebacker positions ( Middle / “Mike”, Weakside / “Will”, and Strongside / “Sam”) within the Saints defense's 4-3 scheme: 29-year old 6th year veteran Craig Robertson.
The Saints signed Robertson in last year's 2016 Free Agency from the Cleveland Browns, and he made an immediate impact. Robertson was inserted into the starting lineup in Week #4 at "Mike" / middle linebacker, once it became evident that veteran James Laurinaitis was "washed up". Laurinaitis was eventually released and has since retired.
Robertson became the team's leader on-the-field and had a phenomenal season by recent Saints defensive standards, as he tallied 115 total tackles, a sack and an interception; while leading all Saints defenders by playing in nearly 1,000 (972 of them, to be exact) snaps.
This season, with A.J. Klein expected to take over the "Mike" / Middle linebacker role, Robertson is expected to be the 'back-up' at "Will" / weakside linebacker behind starter Dannell Ellerbe and play special teams.
But we all know that Ellerbe is injury-prone, and to be perfectly honest without sugar-coating it: there's NO WAY IN HELL that Ellerbe will make it through an entire 16-game season --- meaning that Robertson should be ready to step in and start at the "Will" LB spot, at a moment's notice.
And with the Saints linebacker corps expected to be as good as it's ever been in nearly a decade under the guidance of new LB coach and well-respected defensive "guru" Mike Nolan; along with the new additions of Klein and rookie Alex Anzalone to further enhance the group, it's actually Robertson who will provide the "backbone" of the Saints defense in 2017.
In our eyes, that makes Robertson the most important "back-up" player for this upcoming season's team --- a team that will need him and all of the other "back-ups" serving in key roles, to be successful in 2017.......