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Barry Hirstius

5 Most Improved Saints in Training Camp So Far

The New Orleans Saints will be having the 10th practice of their 2017 Training Camp tonight,  but it won't be just "any" practice. That's because the team will practice at Yulman Stadium on Tulane University's campus starting at 7 p.m. and ending at around 9:00 p.m. Central time.

"I think it changes the routine up," said Saints head coach Sean Payton told the media the other day. "During the day they are off their feet. Periodically that kind of change is good for tempo of your practice much like coming in here (the Saints practiced indoors Wednesday inside of their indoor facility because of the rain) today was."

"It also gives us a chance to practice somewhere off campus and take our team to a different area," Payton said. "It's a lot more fan friendly because of the seating arrangement. You're not limited to 1,500 people. You can have as many people and I think it will be good for our fans."

Yulman Stadium has a capacity of 30,000 people, so tonight's practice could have a game-like atmosphere to it.

As it is, most Saints fans in attendance will likely be looking to catch a glimpse of all of the Saints' "big stars" including the usual suspects such as Drew Brees and Cam Jordan; but they'll also be looking to see some of the names that in the past week and a half are ones that they've heard or seen a lot about --- and who are having great and very productive Camps so far.

With that in mind, this morning the Saints News Network gives you our list of the 5 Most Improved Saints players so far during this year's Training Camp, in comparison to where they left off last season.

We'll start at #5 and work our way down to #1, beginning first with this impressive youngster........

 

5. DAVID ONYEMATA, DEFENSIVE TACKLE

Photo courtesy of Michael C. Hebert

Now in his 2nd season, Onyemata is still learning HOW to play American football, after being drafted by the Saints in the 4th Round of the 2016 NFL Draft from the University of Manitoba, where he was the Canadian college Defensive MVP.

Onyemata was on many lists coming into Camp as a player that most were going to be watching who needed to "step up"; as the Saints attempt to fill the hole created by the departure of veteran defensive tackle Nick Fairley -- who in all likelihood will have to retire permanently after it was revealed he has a heart condition.

So far, Onyemata appears to have taken that next step. New Orleans Advocate beat writer Nick Underhill noted the other day that the Nigerian native drew early praise from Sean Payton; and the coach singled him out as someone who has "flashed" when the coaching staff watches practice film.

The Saints won't really get a true look at how improved any of the players on this list have improved until they can watch game film beginning with this Thursday Night's game in Cleveland against the Browns.

But Onyemata is one player who is way ahead of where he was at this time last year, and his play in the upcoming Pre-Season games should serve as a testament to what the Saints coaching staff has seen thus far now 10 practices into Camp.

 

4. STEPHONE ANTHONY, LINEBACKER

Photo courtesy of Michael C. Hebert

After struggling and being benched last season, Anthony was a player coming into Camp whose roster spot was in real jeopardy because of his inability to read and diagnose offenses; particularly in his zone-coverage responsibilities while he was lined up at strongside /"Sam" linebacker -- the position that he was moved to last year after a fairly impressive debut season as a rookie in 2015 where he played at middle / "Mike" linebacker.

But a week and a half into Camp, Anthony now appears to have "saved" his NFL career and clearly has benefitted from the presence of new linebackers coach and long-time NFL defensive "guru" Mike Nolan; who has worked exclusively with Anthony this off-season, and the results have been rather impressive.

Anthony thus far has seen plenty of action at weakside / "Will" linebacker, which is now his third different spot in three seasons; and told reporters yesterday of Nolan that: "I think Coach Nolan has helped me out a lot. I'm just focused on learning it and being the best that I can be."

The progress that Anthony has made from last year to this year 7 months in is very noticeable, though NOLA.com / The Times-Picayune columnist Larry Holder cautioned yesterday that Anthony has about a month to show his bosses he can contribute on a regular basis, especially since every linebacker role is seemingly up for grabs.

But barring a total "meltdown" in the upcoming Pre-Season games within the next few weeks, Anthony 'should' make the Saints Final 53-man roster just based solely on his ability to play all 3 linebacker spots and his outstanding athleticism alone.

 

3. JUSTIN ZIMMER, DEFENSIVE TACKLE

Photo courtesy of Michael C. Hebert

Zimmer, who went undrafted last year out of Division II Ferris State University, was originally signed by the Buffalo Bills but was released after their Pre-Season, but later in the year was signed to the Saints Practice Squad on Dec. 13.

Zimmer came into Camp this year looking to prove that he was capable and deserving of a spot on the Saints Final-53 man roster, and it goes without saying that he has done so --- and is right up there with the few notable players who have grown TREMENDOUSLY from where they were at this point last season.

The 24-year old Zimmer (he turns 25 in October) has easily been one of the most impressive young players along the Saints D-Line, and has looked great in spots while stuffing the run up front; as well as getting a constant and consistent pass rush from the interior and helping to collapse the pocket.

It's fairly obvious that Zimmer has benefitted from the arrival of brand new Saints defensive line coach Ryan Nielsen, who has personally taken a "hands-on" approach of teaching proper technique to all of the Saints D-Linemen; and it would appear at this point that Zimmer has emerged as one of his top pupils.

A well-known observer of the team told me privately the other day that the Saints organization and coaching staff are high on Zimmer because of his positive attitude and strong work ethic. As long as Zimmer can carry over his outstanding play thus far to the Pre-Season games, he should be a "lock" for a Final-53 man roster spot as a part of the Saints interior sub rush packages.

 

2. BRANDON COLEMAN, WIDE RECEIVER

After the first week and a half of Saints Training Camp so far, one thing has become evident: 3rd year WR Brandon Coleman might be having the best Training Camp of his young NFL career.

Coleman has been virtually "on fire" since the team's very first practice of Camp last Thursday, including a handful of receptions that would have gone for long TD's in a real game situation. At this point, it's just hard to imagine ANY type of scenario that won't have Coleman easily making the Saints Final 53-man roster later next month as the team's #4 WR.

He seems to be playing with a sense of purpose, and seems to be demonstrating a considerable amount of passion on-the-field, than has ever been seen from him before. NOLA.com / The Times-Picayune columnist Jeff Duncan observed the other day that Coleman looks bigger, stronger and faster than he ever has with the Saints and is playing with confidence and carrying himself with "swagger". 

Duncan adds that Coleman's development and progress could help the Saints compensate for the loss of playmaker Brandin Cooks on the perimeter. And based on what we've seen from Coleman after the first week and a half's worth of Camp, that clearly appears to be the case.

Coleman, who actually had been on many lists that placed him on the Saints final roster "bubble", has also benefitted from the return of former and now once again WR's coach Curtis "CJ" Johnson; who has given Coleman a much-needed boost of self-confidence -- a boost that should potentially propel Coleman to the best year of his young NFL career as long as he can continue to show his tremendous growth from the mental side of things.

 

1.  KEN CRAWLEY, CORNERBACK

Photo courtesy of Michael C. Hebert

Last but certainly not the least, we come to the young man who most observers agree may be having THE best Training Camp so far a week and a half into Camp, and definitely appears to be the most improved: 2nd year cornerback Ken Crawley.

The former University of Colorado star as signed last year as an undrafted free agent; and after making the Final 53-man roster with an impressive Camp last year, found himself pressed into action after the Saints lost BOTH starting CB's Delvin Breaux and P.J. Williams.

Crawley struggled at times as all rookie NFL CB's often do, and was even victimized a few times on some big plays, most notably in a Week #2 loss against the New York Giants. But Crawley's play improved throughout the season, though he was no "lock" to make the Final Roster this year coming to Camp with the return of all the Saints starters and the addition to the secondary of top Saints 2017 Draft pick Marshon Lattimore.

However, NOLA.com / The Times-Picayune beat writer Josh Katzenstein says that no cornerback --- as in none-- on the Saints current roster has made more plays consistently throughout the first nine practices of this year's Training Camp than Crawley has thus far.

Katzenstein adds that during this past Monday's practice, Crawley had at least four passes defensed in team drills. He followed that day with at least one interception in team drills on Wednesday and Thursday. And then yesterday as the team had a full-squad scrimmage in front of fans, Crawley was at it once again -- this time shadowing Saints top WR Michael Thomas and batting away a pass intended for Thomas from QB Drew Brees.

The growth that's been shown by Crawley is also a bonus and perhaps even an unexpected surprise for the Saints defensive coaching staff; whom after having to worry about finding healthy enough players just to put on the field to play last year, now find themselves with a much deeper roster this year at CB.

The emergence of Crawley as a legit "cover corner" on the outside boundary, suddenly makes the Saints secondary a position of strength, instead of one of weakness...........

 

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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