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Barry Hirstius

Saints Players Who Have the Most to Prove in Training Camp

The New Orleans Saints will hold their first practice of their 2017 Training Camp in exactly one month from today, when the team begins to kick their preparations for the upcoming NFL season into "full gear".

The atmosphere surrounding Training Camp this year will have quite a different atmosphere both figuratively and literally; as the team returns home to train at the franchise's Practice Facility in Metairie, La. (suburban New Orleans) after having spent the past 3 seasons at the Greenbrier Resort in West Virginia.

As some Saints fans are quick to point out: the team's current 3-consecutive year streak of losing seasons and missing the NFL Playoffs in all 3 of those years, just happen to have occurred in the same year as the ones in which the Saints trained at the Greenbrier, a place well-known as a luxury vacation resort for its visiting guests and patrons.

The implication being: the team didn't train hard enough in West Virginia, and will potentially do better now that they're returning home to train in New Orleans, where the unbearable south Louisiana heat and humidity will "toughen them up" for the rigors of the NFL season ahead.

Now whether you as a fan choose to believe in that particular type of a 'conspiracy theory' (for a lack of a better term) is entirely up to you; though it is actually true that the last time that the Saints trained in New Orleans, the team had a winning season and made the Playoffs (2013) and prior to that --- won a Super Bowl and made the Playoffs 3 times in 4 years (2009-2011), excluding the 2012 "Bountygate" season.

(Photo by David Grunfeld, NOLA.com | The Times-Picayune)

But, nevertheless.

The 2017 New Orleans Saints will have a lot to prove in the upcoming 2017 season, and it all begins next month at Training Camp; where the 'home' fans in south Louisiana and the surrounding Gulf Coast region, will get the opportunity to to get an 'up close and personal' look at their favorite players.

Among them: a handful of individual Saints players who will have a lot to prove to the team, the fans, and even to themselves, as the team tries in earnest to break that 3-consecutive year streak of losing seasons.

And here's a quick look at a few of them.....

 

2nd YEAR DEFENSIVE TACKLE DAVID ONYEMATA HAS TO PROVE HE'S CAPABLE OF "FILLING THE SHOES" OF THE DEPARTED NICK FAIRLEY

Photo courtesy of USA TODAY Sports

As you're probably well aware by now: Saints defensive tackle Nick Fairley will not play in the 2017 season due to a heart condition, and at this point it's very possible that he will permanently retire for good from the sport of Professional Football.

The Saints obviously will miss Fairley, who had a career-high 6.5 sacks, 43 total tackles (14 assisted); 22 QB "hits" and 12 QB "pressures" in 2016; a performance that earned him a new 4 year, $30 million dollar contract that he now will be unable to fulfill.

It's obvious that the Saints will make 2nd-year star and 2016 top Draft pick Sheldon Rankins the new starter at Fairley's 3-Technique defensive tackle spot --- but it's fellow 2016 Draft pick (4th Round) and former Canadian college Defensive MVP David Onyemata who will be looked at to provide pressure in the substitution-rush packages, as reported first by New Orleans Advocate beat writer Nick Underhill.

Last year in limited action as a rookie, the 6-foot-4, 300 pound Onyemata finished the season with 18 combined tackles, but was he was used somewhat sparingly after Rankins' return from an injury during last year's Training Camp. Onyemata ended up playing in 36% of the team's defensive snaps in the 2016 season. 

Heading into Training Camp next month, it's expected that Onyemata will have much a stronger understanding of the Saints defensive system heading into his 2nd year; and the 23-year old will have to very quickly 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; and "filling the shoes" of one of the team's best and most consistent pass rushers.

 

ROOKIE 1st ROUND DRAFT PICK RYAN RAMCZYK NOT ONLY HAS TO SHOW HE CAN PROTECT DREW BREES' "BLIND SIDE", BUT IS ALSO COMPLETELY HEALED UP FROM OFF-SEASON HIP SURGERY

Photo courtesy of Matthew Hinton, The New Orleans Advocate

If you're a fan of the Saints and are used to "bad news" already this off-season with the loss of Fairley that we noted above, then you also know by now that the team has lost starting offensive left tackle Terron Armstead from anywhere to 4-6 months (and possibly longer) with a torn labrum (shoulder) that he injured last month during Mini-Camp. 

That leaves the Saints essentially with a few options, none of which to be completely honest are anything that you'd consider to be "desirable", but as of right now appear to be the options that make the most sense; and barring an acquisition of a veteran free agent or a trade (unlikely), the ones that the Saints are going to go forward with.

Option #1 is to move left guard Andrus Peat over to left tackle, since he was actually an All-American left tackle when he played at the University of Stanford. But Peat has become a solid player at left guard; and the Saints are hesitant to upset the good situation that they currently enjoy at that LG spot by putting him instead at a position (LT) where he has struggled at times previously (in 2015 as a rookie and again last year) as a back-up.

Option #2 then is to put this year's brand new rookie 1st Round 2017 Draft pick (#32 overall) Ryan Ramczyk at the left tackle spot, since he too excelled at the left tackle position in college as Peat did --- even though the Saints drafted Ramczyk with the intent of having him learn and then eventually take over the starting right tackle spot from long-time veteran RT Zach Strief.

Putting a rookie in as a starter at left tackle is to be rather blunt, one hell of a huge risk; since the offensive left tackle position is the most critical on the entire O-Line because he protects the QB's "blind spot". Even further complicating matters: Ramczyk (pronounced RAM-CHECK) , is still in the midst of recuperating from off-season hip surgery (he's reportedly ahead of schedule in the healing process).

At this point, the Saints appear adamant about moving forward with the "next man up" principle, and Ramczyk will have to prove in Training Camp that he's not only ready to handle the physical demands of a full 16-game season but also capable of holding down the LT spot in Armstead's absence --- so that Brees doesn't get hammered into submission or God forbid, seriously hurt.

 

9th YEAR WEAKSIDE / "WILL" LINEBACKER DANELL ELLERBE HAS TO FINALLY PROVE THAT HE CAN SOMEHOW MANAGE TO STAY INJURY-FREE

Photo courtesy of The New Orleans Advocate

Ellerbe, without any question, might be "pound for pound" THE BEST defender that the Saints have -- when he can actually remain healthy enough to stay out on the field and contribute.

When Ellerbe actually manages to remain on the field, his impact is undeniable; which makes his inability to do so just all the more frustrating for both the team and its fans, and it's by far and away the most disappointing element of Ellerbe's time spent in New Orleans up to this very moment.

However, Ellerbe turns age 32 in November; and although it doesn't exactly make him 'ancient' or too old to keep playing by any means, you do now have to start taking into consideration the fact that he has only played in 15 total games since joining the Saints via a trade from the Miami Dolphins (for WR Kenny Stills) during 2015 Free Agency.

Ellerbe will become an unrestricted free agent at the end of this coming season; and you have to wonder just exactly how he fits into the team's future going forward. Further complicating matters for Ellerbe: the stiff competition that he will be facing in Training Camp starting next month for his starting weakside / "Will" linebacker position, from veteran Craig Robertson and rookie 3rd Round draft pick Alex Anzalone.

Robertson and Anzalone are 2 of the most versatile players on the entire Saints team, since both players are capable of playing ALL 3 linebacker positions -- the middle ("Mike"), weakside ("Will"), and the strongside ("Sam") -- and because of their ability to each play the "Will" position effectively, are expected to push Ellerbe HARD for his starting spot on the weakside.

Ellerbe's task is rather simple: not only hold off the 2 challengers to his starting job, but also prove that for the first time in the past several years (dating back to his first season in Miami) that he can actually avoid the injury-bug that he appears to have been cursed with --- and make a significant enough of an impact to warrant keeping around the 9th year veteran for this season and possibly beyond.

 

UNDRAFTED ROOKIE FREE AGENT WIDE RECEIVER TRAVIN DURAL HAS TO PROVE THAT HE BELONGS IN THE NFL (AND BECOME THE #5 WIDE RECEIVER)

Photo courtesy of Michael C. Hebert

It was right after the end of the recent 2017 NFL Draft 2 months ago now, that the Saints announced that they had signed another one of the state of Louisiana's very own: former Breaux Bridge High School star and LSU wide receiver Travin Dural, as one of their 12 undrafted free-agents.

For Saints fans that also happen to be LSU fans, the signing of Dural has drawn a ton of praise especially from those of who live throughout all of the entire south Louisiana region, given the Saints' recent history of allegedly "avoiding" LSU players --- despite them being one of the top universities in the nation for producing a wealth of NFL-caliber talent on a yearly basis.

The 6-foot-1, 202 pound Dural ended his college career with exactly 100 career receptions at LSU, totaling 1,716 yards receiving and 13 receiving touchdowns; but dealt with a variety of injuries that negatively impacted and curtailed his college playing career.

However, it would be more than accurate to say that the injuries along with inconsistent play from the quarterbacks for LSU at the time along with some issues Dural experienced with cleanly and consistently catching the ball; prevented him from reaching his full potential and becoming the player that many had expected that he eventually would become. 

Dural has already drawn the praise of head coach Sean Payton, who told reporters at Mini-Camp earlier this month that he didn't see any lingering signs of the injuries that he suffered at LSU; and that he seems to have transitioned well so far in making the "step up" that's required to play at the professional level.

However, whether Dural is actually 'NFL ready' or not remains to be seen --- as the 23-year old rookie will be locked in a heated battle with a handful of other players for what likely will be the team's 5th and final WR spot; which probably won't be decided until the final cut-down from 90 players to 53 near the end of the Pre-Season in late August.

If one were to rate Dural's chances as of right now with Training Camp still a month away, it's probably safe to say at this point that he's a "long shot"; but nevertheless, he will get an opportunity to prove himself and to prove that he does in fact 'belong' in the National Football League -- which is all that any undrafted rookie, regardless of where ever he played college football, could ever hope for.

 

3rd YEAR VETERAN HAU'OLI KIKHA HAS TO PROVE TO EVERYONE THAT HE CAN STILL PLAY AFTER SUFFERING A 3rd DIFFERENT MAJOR INJURY OF HIS CAREER TO THE VERY SAME KNEE

Photo courtesy of Michael C. Hebert

By now, you're likely aware that Kikaha tore the ACL in his left knee last off-season in the Saints' final session of OTA's, for what was the THIRD time of his playing career (and all within the past 5 years) -- which ended his 2nd season in the NFL before it even had a chance to get started.

And although Kikaha has been rehabbing the knee for nearly a year now and appears to be fully healed, enough so that he participated in the walk-through portion of team drills at the recent Mini-Camp earlier this month, it's still a whole lot different from getting hit at full speed once the players put on full pads in the first week of August.

There isn't any question whatsoever that one of the biggest story lines surrounding the Saints this summer will be the return of Kikaha and how he possibly could rejuvenate the Saints pass rush off of the outside edge, to complement All-Pro defensive end Cam Jordan on the opposite side of the defensive line.

The Saints had 30 sacks in 2016, which ranked 27th in the League; and it's that lack of a rush off the outside edge that was notably missing especially with Kikaha's absence.But for Kikaha, the biggest part is the mental aspect of the injury, as much as it is the physical part. 

Sports medicine expert Dr. Howard J. Luks, M.D. said in a recent study that athletes recovering from a torn ACL (not to mention a 3rd one to the very SAME knee) actually suffer with instances of severe emotional depression that can potentially hamper the ACL recovery process as a whole.

If Kikaha hopes to make a successful 'come back', it will all have to come from "between the ears" and from the mental aspect of his recovery, as much as it will from the physical aspect of his recovery and his knee holding up to the stress once again that comes from NFL contact.

Beginning in exactly one month from today, Kikaha will have to prove to everyone that he can still play in the NFL and do so at a high level --- and hopefully be able to fully resume the once-promising playing career that he was destined to have, without experiencing any major "set-backs"......

Saints News Network Editor / Featured Columnist and Lead Analyst Barry Hirstius is a 50-year old semi-retired journalist and former New Orleans area sports editor and columnist previously with several sites that exclusively cover the New Orleans Saints NFL football team. Additionally, he is a frequent guest on a variety of Sports Talk Radio programs that cover the Saints. Barry is also a New Orleans native that dating all the way back to his childhood in the early 1970's, attended games at the old Tulane Stadium and grew up as a long-time Saints fan; following and now covering the team for a span of over 40 plus years. And perhaps most importantly of all: he is the Grandfather of two beautiful young girls, Jasmine and Serenity.......

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