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Barry Hirstius

The 5 Best Saints Position “Battles” to Watch in Training Camp

In exactly 4 weeks from today, the New Orleans Saints will be practicing for one of the very first times in full pads during the opening weekend of their 2017 Training Camp, in front of their devoted fans at the team's Practice Facility in Metairie (in suburban New Orleans) in what will be a clear indication that the upcoming NFL season is "just around the corner".

When the team makes the conversion from having practiced in t-shirts and shorts for the past several months, over to full pads and thus allowing full contact (a.k.a. hitting each other) to begin taking place, it also "ramps up" the intensity for those players who will be participating in those same live drills.

It will also mark the start of a handful of position battles throughout the Saints current 90-man roster, a roster that will have to be eventually narrowed down to 53 players no later than 4 p.m. EST time on Sept. 3rd --- which is 8 days before the Saints open the 2017 NFL season in Minneapolis, Minnesota against the Vikings on ESPN's Monday Night Football.

It's with that in mind that this morning, we're taking an early look at what possibly might be the 5 best position battles that will be taking place, as each player tries to prove to the team's coaching staff as well as the fans that will be watching, that they deserve to wear the Black and Gold and represent the city of New Orleans and the Who Dat Nation in 2017.

And we'll start first with this one......

 

THE #3 QUARTERBACK -- GARRETT GRAYSON VERSUS RYAN NASSIB

Photo courtesy of David Grunfeld, The Times-Picayune

It wasn't all that long ago that the Saints took former Colorado State star QB Garrett Grayson in the 3rd Round of the 2015 NFL Draft; and once even viewed him as the possible "heir apparent" to Drew Brees as the next starting Saints QB of the future. But instead, Grayson since that time has turned out to be nothing more than a HUGE disappointment.

It would be stating it mildly to say that he has been anything less than impressive since then --- and his recent rough showing during team drills at Mini-Camp didn't do much to help his cause.

Further complicating matters now for Grayson: not only did the Saints reunite with former veteran Chase Daniel to assume the #2 CB role in Free Agency, but they also signed a relatively young free-agent veteran QB who is more than capable of taking his spot away as the team's #3 QB.

Photo courtesy of Matt Bush, USA TODAY Sports

When Camp gets underway, Grayson will be facing former Syracuse University star Ryan Nassib; who was a 4th-round pick by the New York Giants in the 2013 NFL Draft and has 4 years worth of NFL playing experience. Nassib has appeared previously in 5 career games and completed 9 of 10 passes for 128 yards and a touchdown while serving as Eli Manning's backup for the G-Men.

NOLA.com / The Times Picayune beat writer Herbie Teope noted that Saints head coach Sean Payton continues to be impressed with the 6-foot-2, 223-pound signal caller; and at the conclusion Mini-Camp said this to Teope and the rest of the assembled media about Nassib:

"He's a quick study, he's smart," Payton said. "He's obviously been in a pro offense in New York and I think he's picked it up very quickly." 

That compliment is note-worthy, given the fact that Payton hasn't been nearly as kind in his evaluation of Grayson up to this point. Grayson appears to be headed into a battle with Nassib for not only the final QB spot on the roster, but perhaps even into a battle with himself --- to save whatever future of an NFL career that he still has left.

 

THE 5th WIDE RECEIVER -- TOMMYLEE LEWIS VS. COREY FULLER VS. TRAVIN DURAL

Photo courtesy of Michael C. Hebert

There's actually a total of six (6) players that will be vying for what will be the 5th and likely final wide receiver spot on the Saints 2017 roster, but it's these 3 men -- last year's 5th WR Tommylee Lewis, 3rd year veteran Corey Fuller, and rookie UDFA and former LSU star Travin Dural --- whom are the favorites to emerge over the other 3 UDFA's competing for this spot in Jordan Williams-Lambert, Jake Lampman and Justin Thomas.

Last season, the diminutive but speedy 5-foot-7 Lewis made the Saints Final 53-man roster out of training camp as an undrafted free agent from Northern Illinois. Lewis eventually won the 5th and final WR spot, but lined up all over the field; where head coach Sean Payton used him as a "decoy" in many instances. But his biggest impact was as the team's punt and kick returner, averaging over 11 yards per punt return and 19 yards per kickoff return while taking away that role from previous return man Marcus Murphy.

Lewis will have to hold off what likely will be a serious challenge to his spot from Fuller, who has 3 years worth of NFL experience under his belt after he was originally taken in the 6th round out of Virginia Tech in the 2013 NFL Draft (171st overall) by the Lions. Fuller has appeared in 18 games with two starts over his three-year NFL career, posting 288 yards and one touchdown (against the Saints ironically in 2014) on 16 receptions and five special teams tackles.

Photo courtesy of Michael C. Hebert

And then of course there's also everyone's favorite rookie (at least for Saints fans living in Louisiana) in undrafted free agent and former LSU star Travin Dural; who was a standout wide receiver and return specialist at Breaux Bridge High School (outside of Lafayette) and during his time at LSU grabbed exactly 100 career receptions for 1,716 yards receiving and 13 receiving touchdowns -- but dealt with a variety of injuries throughout his entire tenure there.

This is for many observers perhaps the most highly-anticipated and "fun" to watch out of all of the potential roster battles in Training Camp; and it likely will go all the way down to the wire with those 3 men (Lewis, Fuller, and Dural) all individually needing a stand-out performance in both Camp and then the subsequent Pre-Season to finally secure the 5th and final WR spot.

 

WEAKSIDE / "WILL" LINEBACKER -- DANNELL ELLERBE VS. CRAIG ROBERTSON VS. ALEX ANZALONE

Photo courtesy of David Grunfeld, The New Orleans Times-Picayune

Considered the starter at weakside / "Will" linebacker now for the past 2 seasons, 9th year veteran Dannell Ellerbe without a doubt might be one of the best defenders that the Saints have -- when he can actually remain healthy enough to stay out on the field and contribute.

Ellerbe has only played in 15 out of the 32 (essentially half) total games since joining the Saints via a trade from the Miami Dolphins (for WR Kenny Stills) during 2015 Free Agency, and now will be facing some very stiff competition in Training Camp beginning later this month from 6th year veteran Craig Robertson and rookie 3rd Round draft pick Alex Anzalone.

Photo courtesy of Michael DeMocker, The New Orleans Times-Picayune

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 VERY HARD for his starting spot on the weakside.

The Saints signed Robertson in last year's 2016 Free Agency from the Cleveland Browns, and he made an immediate impact and became the team's leader on-the-field 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.

But this season with A.J. Klein expected to fill the "Mike" / Middle linebacker role that Robertson had to take over from former Saints LB James Laurinaitis last season (who the team quickly realized was "washed up" and released him), Robertson is now being projected to back-up Ellerbe at the "Will" LB spot but not before he tries to take the position away from him first.

And not to be forgotten: the rookie (and one of 3 of this year's 3rd Round picks) Alex Anzalone out of the University of Florida; who quickly established himself with the coaching staff by becoming a fixture in the Saints starting defensive line-up during team drills at Mini-Camp while Ellerbe was held out (once again) with a foot injury --- and now has already shown that he will be joining Robertson in the battle for Ellerbe's spot.

Anzalone impressed coaches with his speed and ability to quickly cover a lot of ground by moving 'sideline to sideline'; and also his outstanding capability to provide tight pass coverage by "blanketing" RB's and TE's on pass defense. As of right now, Anzalone appears to be one of the true "locks" among the team's rookies to see plenty of action in his 1st year in the NFL.

That should in turn make for a very interesting battle in Camp; but even if Ellerbe holds on to the starter's role, the undeniable fact remains that he is injury-prone --- and one has to imagine that there's zero chance (at least as of this moment) that he will make it through an entire 16-game season; meaning that Robertson and perhaps even Anzalone down the line will need to be ready to step in and start at the "Will" LB spot, at a moment's notice.

 

EDGE PASS RUSHER -- ALEX OKAFOR VS. HAU'OLI KIKAHA

Photo courtesy of The Associated Press

Each on of these position battles holds their own intrigue for a variety of different reasons; and maybe no battle will be any more "captivating" for both knowledgeable and casual Saints fans than the one at the 9-Technique defensive end position on the side opposite of Cam Jordan --- known by its more popular slang term of "Edge" pass rusher.

This year's training camp battle at the Edge position will feature a showdown between two young men both intent on proving that they BELONG in the National Football League and playing the sport of Pro Football at the highest level:

26-year old Alex Okafor, who was benched last year as a member of the Arizona Cardinals; vs. soon-to-be 25-year old / 3rd year Saints veteran defensive end Hau'oli Kikaha --- who blew out his left knee last year (torn ACL) for what was the 3RD TIME in his playing career thus far (yes, the very same knee all 3 times).

Originally drafted by the Cardinals in the 4th Round of the 2013 NFL Draft, Okafor was a former 1st team All-American defensive end at Texas, but has never quite lived up to his full potential thus far in the NFL. He became expendable to the Cardinals after suffering a torn biceps tendon last Pre-Season, and also after he had already been benched and relegated to a back-up role behind starters Chandler Jones and Markus Golden.

But when healthy and put in the position to do what he does best (rush off the outside edge), Okafor has shown himself to be a pretty good player as his 8 sacks during his 2nd year in the League (after missing most of his rookie year in 2013) would indicate. Pro Football Focus noted that Okafor ranked 4th in pass-rush productivity among 3-4 OLBs  (the equivalent of the "Edge" position in the 4-3) last year.

Photo courtesy of Michael C. Hebert

He'll be facing off against Kikaha, who 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. However, it's still a far cry from actually getting hit at "full speed" once the players put on full pads in the first week of August.

But for Kikaha, the biggest part is the mental aspect of the injury, as much as it is the physical part. If Kikaha hopes to make a successful 'come back', it will all have to come from the mental aspect of his recovery as much as it will from the physical aspect of his recovery --- and his emotional capacity to handle the mental anguish of worrying about whether the knee will still hold up to the stress once again that comes from NFL contact.

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. The Saints will be banking on the fact that one of these young men will emerge as the starter and provide that much-needed outside rush; while also hoping that the other player can be a solid back-up and not allow any "drop-off" to occur no matter what the situation dictates.

 

THE 5TH CORNERBACK: KEN CRAWLEY VS. DAMIAN SWANN VS. DE'VANTE HARRIS VS. ARTHUR MAULET

Mandatory Credit: Jake Roth-USA TODAY Sports

Unquestionably, the top position battle of this year's 2017 Training Camp will be for the final CB spot on the Saints roster, which is usually the player capable of playing both on the outside boundary as well as in the slot. And this year, it promises to be a real "doozy" --- as no less than at least 4 young men will all be in the mix for the 5th and likely the final spot at cornerback. 

In the past few seasons, the Saints have kept 5 CB's and 5 safeties as their total of 10 defensive backs allocated for the Final 53-man roster, though it's entirely possible that given their experience last season in which three (and nearly four) CB's were lost for the entire season by Week #2, that they could decide to even keep a 6th CB.

When you add in the safety position, the Saints lost a whopping EIGHT defensive backs to injury at one point or another last season, which clearly had a detrimental effect upon the unit's lack of overall success in 2016. Obviously, being left no choice but to literally sign players "right off the street", can result in a negative impact for any NFL team's chances at achieving success.

In this upcoming Training Camp, it should come down to a 4-way battle between last year's 2 UDFA rookies Ken Crawley and De'Vante Harris, 3rd year veteran Damian Swann, and this year's rookie UDFA sensation, New Orleans native (and Bonnabel High graduate) University of Memphis star Arthur Maulet.

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 to prove that each one individually is worthy of remaining on the roster now that all of those injured CB's ahead of them on the depth chart last year are returning to full health.

One of those players was Swann; who Saints fans will remember is a 5th-round pick from the 2015 NFL Draft, but had his 2015 rookie year cut short by a series of concussions (3 of them in all) that had doctors concerned for his future. Then last season, Swann suffered a groin injury that ended his 2nd year 'comeback' bid before it could even have a chance to get started. The Saints eventually placed him on injury reserve.

Photo courtesy of Michael C, Hebert

They'll be joined by yet another undrafted rookie but popular local player from Louisiana, this time with New Orleans native and former Bonnabel High School (in suburban Metairie) star athlete Arthur Maulet, who went on to star with the University of Memphis. Maulet consistently turned heads of observers and analysts in attendance at last month's Mini-Camp with good pass coverage, especially when he was on the field with the 1st unit in team drills; and had one of the memorable plays of the entire Mini-Camp session.

Maulet "stole the show" when he stepped up on the final play of a Day #2 practice and undercut a Chase Daniel pass to make a nice interception, and thereby giving the defense "a win" for the day against the offense. As of right now, if there's any one UDFA player with a LEGITIMATE shot to make the Saints Final 53-man roster (as Crawley and Harris both did last year), it's probably Maulet.

With the fans who will be in attendance at the open Training Camp practices likely to be extremely vocal in their support for the local hero Maulet, it will just further add to the intensity of what promises to be one of the best position battles to watch, in the upcoming 2017 Saints Training Camp.....

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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