The New Orleans Saints are now just 4 more days away from the official start of their 2017 Training Camp, and a week away from "full contact" -- when players begin wearing full pads starting with next Saturday's practice, one of three open practices for the team's fans next weekend.
Here is the Saints official Training Camp schedule, and please take note once again: ONLY 11 practices are OPEN TO THE PUBLIC, weather permitting; and you will need to have a ticket to gain entry.
Any remaining tickets still left that haven't already been claimed by season ticket holders are still available to the General Public, but --- you MUST be registered at the team site to get them (click HERE for more details).
Also keep in mind: your LAST CHANCE to see them practice before the season starts is Thursday, August 24th, so please plan accordingly.
With that, here are the 10 Saints players that we'll be watching closely, at Saints Training Camp......
#10. ALEX ANZALONE, "WILL" LINEBACKER
One of the team's three 3rd Round picks out of the University of Florida, Anzalone has impressed both the Saints coaching staff as well as observers and analysts, who have been keeping a watchful eye on where he's been lining up during the Saints' off-season practices.
Anzalone quickly established himself with the coaching staff by becoming a fixture in the Saints starting defensive line-up during team drills at Mini-Camp; as he received a good portion of snaps with the 1st unit while displaying his versatility to play every single one of the LB spots in the Saints' base 4-3 defense.
As of right now, Anzaolne appears to be one of the true "locks" among the team's rookies to see plenty of immediate action in his very 1st season in the NFL: and he is expected to be in the mix to see a lot of snaps at the "Will" linebacker position behind starter Dannell Ellerbe and likely back-up Craig Robertson; who started as the team's middle linebacker last year but has been lining up exclusively at the "Will" in Ellerbe's absence.
#9. A.J. KLEIN, "MIKE" LINEBACKER
It's fairly obvious after watching the Saints defense in OTA's and during Mini-Camp team drills last month that they liked Klein for a variety of reasons in Free Agency, but clearly his speed and his ability to cover RB's and TE's in pass coverage are what stood out and made him a key back-up player behind All-Pro Luke Kuechly with the Panthers.
The Saints are expected to begin shifting towards more looks in the "Tampa 2" defensive alignment with the addition of new linebacker coach Mike Nolan; and more often than not players within the "Tampa 2" don't usually have the prototypical size of other NFL defenders, so therefore the stress is put on other intangibles --- most notably speed (which Klein obviously has), which explains why the Saints signed him.
Still, there are many skeptics among both the media and fans that Klein is truly capable of being a starter in what is the linebacker corps' most important position (the middle / "Mike" linebacker spot), and everyone will be watching to see if the former Iowa State star is truly up to the task.
#8. HAU'OLI KIKAHA, DEFENSIVE END / EDGE RUSHER
It's been well-documented that 3rd year veteran Hau'oli Kikaha will be attempting to make a "come back", after blowing out his left knee with a torn ACL for the 3rd time in his relatively short career -- the very same knee that he previously blew out 2 other different times in college.
Kikaha was limited in last month's Mini-Camp, although Training Camp should give him an opportunity to show what he can do, and perhaps most importantly: IF he even can still do it at all. If Kikaha can return to his previous form, it should give the Saints more pass rushing options that at this point seem to be uncertain at best.
But until we actually see him doing it in full pads in Training Camp practices or in live game action during a Pre-Season contest next month, Kikaha will remain as the one big question mark on the Saints D-Line. Can he make a "come back" for a 3rd time, and against other NFL players who are equally as talented who are trying to lay claim to that same position? Saints fans will be watching closely, to see if the 25-year old can possibly defy the odds, yet once again.
#7. RYAN RAMCZYK, OFFENSIVE LEFT TACKLE
One of this year's brand new rookie 1st Round 2017 Draft picks (#32 overall), Ryan Ramczyk will now be the Saints' top option at left tackle on place of the injured Terron Armstead (torn labrum), that could keep him out until December. The Saints drafted him to be the heir apparent at right tackle once Zach Strief retires, but Armstead's injury now leaves the Saints with few options --- and putting Ramczyk at left tackle is one of them.
Nevertheless, putting a rookie in as a starter at left tackle is 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, and should be fully healed as the Saints begin Camp).
First, fans will want to watch if Ramczyk can handle the position without much difficulty, and then see if he can fend off veterans Khalif Barnes and Bryce Harris for the starting role. If Ramczyk, who played and started a few games at left tackle in college at Wisconsin, is up to the task, it will allow the team, the fans, and especially Drew Brees to breath a huge sigh of relief.
#6. MARCUS WILLIAMS, FREE SAFETY
Many in the media that cover the Saints have been simply "blown away" by Williams' ball-hawking, play-making abilities, and I personally have gone so far as to refer to him as THE BIGGEST "STEAL" of the 2017 NFL Draft. It's pretty unbelievable to think that this young man lasted until the 42nd overall pick of Round 2, considering that he very easily is a Top 20-caliber talent that fell into the Saints' laps a round later.
Williams is an elite defender in every sense of the word, with superior athleticism (with a leaping ability that has to be seen in person to truly appreciate it) and "ball skills" that are completely off the charts. He has a knack for creating turnovers via an interception or forcing a fumble with his hard-hitting "lay the wood" tackling style.
The bottom line for Saints fans while watching #43 on the defense for the next few weeks is to keep in mend that the Saints view Williams as a player that former veteran free safety Jairus Byrd was supposed to be --- but a whole lot better and 10 years younger.
#5. DAVID ONYEMATA, DEFENSIVE TACKLE
The Saints obviously will miss veteran defensive tackle Nick 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 due to a heart condition, and it's even possible that his NFL career is now over.
It's obvious that the Saints will make 2nd-year star and 2016 top Draft pick Sheldon Rankins the new starter at Fairley's interior pass rusher / 3-Technique defensive tackle spot --- but it's fellow 2016 Draft pick (4th Round) and former Canadian college Defensive MVP David Onyemata who the team will now likely turn to provide pressure in the substitution-rush packages.
Heading into Camp with a year of experience under his belt, Onyemata should have much a stronger understanding of the Saints defensive system; 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.
#4. MARSHON LATTIMORE, OUTSIDE BOUNDARY CORNERBACK
This year's top draft pick, Saints rookie cornerback and former Ohio State All-American Marshon Lattimore had what some would refer to as a "mixed bag" this off-season, looking very good at times in team drills when matched up in press coverage against some of the team's top WR's (including fellow Ohio State graduates Micheal Thomas and Ted Ginn, Jr.), but also struggling on a few occasions as well.
Lattimore did however received a large portion of the 1st-team practice snaps during last month's Mini-Camp than he did all off-season; and indication that the Saints are ready to throw Lattimore "to the wolves" and allow him to gain valuable experience as a possible 1st year starter as a rookie on the side opposite of #1 CB Delvin Breaux.
The Saints are expected to use other players at the #2 CB spot such as 3rd year veteran P.J. Williams (who likely will be the starting "slot" CB) and back-ups Sterling Moore , but once Lattimore gets completely "up to speed" with the responsibilities of his position, the #2 outside boundary CB spot will be his to lose.
#3. ALVIN KAMARA, "SCAT BACK"
Make no mistake about it, the Saints view 3rd Round rookie draft pick and former University of Tennessee star Alvin Kamara in the very same manner as they did with previous Saints players Reggie Bush and Darren Sproles: filling the designated "scat back" / pass catcher role out of the Saints offensive backfield.
Kamara has already shown flashes of his capability during off-season workouts and Mini-Camp last month, which included a 'highlight play' where he broke off and ran a pass route and then made the catch of a short dump-off pass before he completely "juked" veteran linebacker Mantai Te'o right out of his shoes in pass coverage.
That particular play was just a small sample size of how the Saints intend to use Kamara, in order to allow him to utilize his unique and very special blend of speed and elusiveness that will restore the "scat back" position in the Saints offensive scheme.
#2. ALEX OKAFOR, DEFENSIVE END / EDGE RUSHER
The Saints seem to have been snake-bitten in their attempts to fill the role of an outside edge rusher on the opposite side of Cam Jordan, which is where one of their top 2017 Free-Agent signings at that position this off-season comes into the picture --- with the addition of 4th-year veteran and former University of Texas All-American Alex Okafor.
Originally drafted by the Arizona in the 4th Round of the 2013 NFL Draft, Okafor has never quite lived up to his full potential thus far in the NFL; but if he can rebound from a couple of poor seasons out in the desert with the Cardinals, then perhaps the Saints might have something to work with up front. The Saints are cautiously optimistic that giving Okafor a "fresh new start" could be the perfect opportunity that Okafor can use to his advantage and prove to everyone that he's still a very capable player at the pro level.
Okafor became expendable in Arizona in part because of a handful of minor but nagging injuries during his time there that kept him out of action, and as a result he quickly found himself falling down the Cardinals depth chart; leading Arizona to choose not to re-sign him. But when he has been healthy, the 26-year old has proven himself in the past to be an effective player, and both the Saints and their fans will be watching to see if a "change of scenery" is just what the doctor ordered for Okafor and the Saints defensive pass rush.
#1. ADRIAN PETERSON, RUNNING BACK
There are many pundits out there in the National Media who are very skeptical about whether or not Peterson is really still capable of playing near the same level that he did previously, as a former 4-time All-Pro in his previous 10 seasons in Minnesota with the Vikings.
This much is certain: the Saints aren't likely to use Peterson all that much in the upcoming Pre-Season games, and the truth is that we really won't know what Peterson can or can't do until that season-opening showdown in early September at Minnesota against his former Vikings teammates on ESPN Monday Night Football (September 11th).
But that said, Peterson has looked fantastic in off-season workouts and appears to be in some of the best physical condition of his entire career; and most within the Saints organization believe that the 32-year old former League MVP is capable of having a "come back" season, Now the media and the fans alike will see Peterson going full speed in practice with full pads on --- and we'll know pretty quick if the rumors of his demise were either true or have been greatly exaggerated........