Tomorrow morning as the New Orleans Saints "officially" begin making preparations for the upcoming 2018 NFL season with the start of OTA's (organized team activities), some Saints fans have asked: Just what are "OTA's", anyway?
Under the rules of the off-season workout program, on-field workouts that the Saints have been conducting up to this point have been conducted on a “separates” basis, meaning no live contact or team offense vs. team defense drills are permitted.
Essentially, they've been more focused on doing individual work-outs which include conditioning exercises and weight lifting.
However, now that the Saints have officially reached the OTA period beginning tomorrow, live contact still is not permitted, but teams are allowed to conduct 7-on-7, 9-on-7, and 11-on-11 drills.
In other words, it's almost the Pro Football equivalent of playing "two hand touch" with the kids from your old neighborhood in that grass lot next to your parent's house, when you were growing up.
In much simpler terms: this is the first time the 2017 New Orleans Saints will PRACTICE fully together -- offense and defense, rookies and veterans.
But they only are doing so in helmets with jerseys and shorts, and they don't have full pads on.
The pads won't come on until the final weekend of July, when Training Camp gets under way and then of course the Pre-Season games that follow, in August.
The Saints have an additional two more OTA sessions scheduled for the weeks of May 29-31 and June 4-7. 2018 Saints Mini-Camp is scheduled for June 12-14.
So now that you're "up to speed" on what OTA's actually are, here are the 5 Saints players that we believe have the most to prove for the remainder of 2018, beginning with tomorrow's first practice and finally ending with the season finale at home in the Superdome on December 30th (over 7 more months from now) against the Carolina Panthers.
And we start first with......
MARCUS DAVENPORT, 2018 SAINTS TOP DRAFT-PICK (WEAKSIDE DEFENSIVE END / EDGE PASS RUSHER)
A rookie makes this list? Is that even fair? Considering that the most vocal of critics in the National Media covering the NFL believe that the Saints gave up waaaaaaaaay too much to get Davenport (the Saints gave up their top pick in next year's 2019 NFL Draft as well as their 5th Round pick (#147 overall) in this year's recently-completed 2018 NFL Draft to move up 13 spots from #27 to #14 and swap picks with the Green Bay Packers, to select Davenport), their will be a ton of pressure (fair or unfair) placed upon the rookie initially to show that he was worth it.
Those same National Media-types who have vocally criticized the pick believe that the 6-foot-7, 264 pound Davenport is a "project" player and is far from a finished product, and think that he has the potential risk to become an eventual "bust" at the NFL level. Among those concerns that are being played up the most, is the fact that Davenport was utilized mostly as a "stand-up" defensive end, and was rarely ever asked to play with his "hand in the dirt".
But are those concerns valid, when taking into consideration that others see him as a player with a high IQ and an athletic "freak of nature" with the potential to not only give the Saints a complementary player opposite of All-Pro Cam Jordan, but to also become a DOMINANT player in the professional ranks?
Unfortunately, until we actually at the very least see him play in the Pre-Season games in August, that much is yet to be determined. But make no mistake about it: even with him only being a rookie, at the very least Davenport has to prove that he can adapt to the professional level by showing the critics that he CAN do the things (like playing with his "hand in the dirt") that they think that he can't.
BRANDON COLEMAN, #4 WIDE RECEIVER
Unfortunately for Coleman, all that Saints fans remember about him from last year are the two near-costly fumbles that he had back in Week #15 contest against the New York Jets at the Superdome. Prior to the events that took place on that forgettable day for Coleman, he had gone three seasons, 45 games and 77 catches without coughing up the ball once, but yet he fumbled the ball away twice in the red zone in the second half of that 31-19 win.
Coleman finished 2017 with 23 catches, 364 yards and 3 touchdowns. Those aren't exactly numbers that "pop off the charts", but Coleman still played a lot because of his run blocking ability. But does that ability to run-block JUSTIFY his notable lack of production, which in 3 previous NFL seasons for Coleman adds up to 79 receptions for 1,099 yards and 8 TD's (?)
Even worse perhaps for Coleman: the Saints drafted University of Central Florida WR Tre'Quan Smith, who also has the capability to be an outstanding run-blocker in his own right as he did in college, but who also was drafted by the Saints for his very notable big-play making ability down field.
Meaning that for the remainder of the off-season and heading into Training Camp and the Pre-Season, Coleman has to prove that he's not only ready to stave off the challengers to his #4 WR spot, but also that he's capable of more production for the team's passing offense (assuming that he actually makes the Final 53-man roster). If he isn't able to do either one, his time in New Orleans could be in serious jeopardy.
TYELER DAVISON, "NOSE" TACKLE / 1-TECHNIQUE DEFENSIVE TACKLE
Considered the Saints' top run-stopper in the interior of their defensive line, the now 4th year, 6-foot-2, 309 pound Scottsdale, Arizona native (and 5th Round pick in the 2015 NFL Draft out of Fresno State) was originally taken New Orleans because of his versatility to play multiple positions on the Saints defensive line. He can play nose tackle in a 3-4 front, or the nose / 1-Technique and the 3-technique (interior pass rusher) in a 4-3.
Davison has the potential to do "great things" for the Saints defensive interior, but just hasn't seemed to have been been able to fulfill that potential that led New Orleans to trade then-starting guard Ben Grubbs to the Kansas City Chiefs in exchange for the pick they eventually used to select Davison. In 3 NFL seasons thus far, Davison has played in 47 games and has 41 total tackles, 1.5 sacks, and 2 forced fumbles.
Last year, Davison appeared in all 16 games, tallying 31 total tackles (2 solo, 9 assisted), 0 sacks, 3 tackles for a loss, 2 forced fumbles, and 1 pass defended; while primarily serving as a rotational player in the heart of the Saints defense along with 2016 Draft picks Sheldon Rankins and David Onyemata. In the upcoming moths ahead however, Davison could be "pushed" by undrafted rookies Taylor Stallworth from South Carolina, Devaroe Lawrence from Auburn, and local New Orleans favorite and former Jesuit High School star Henry Mondeaux from the University of Oregon.
And that's not even counting 2nd year player Mitchell Loewen, who will be making a push to crack the Final 53-man roster as well. Davison is currently set to be an unrestricted free agent following the 2018 season, and if he wants to remain an integral part of the Saints D-Line interior heading into the future, he'll first need to "step things up a bit" and prove his value to the team is more than simply just as a premier run-stopper.
TAYSOM HILL, #2 BACK-UP QUARTERBACK
Hill as you might recall didn't join the organization until last September after spending the 2017 off-season and Pre-Season last year with the Green Bay Packers. Hill went undrafted out of BYU last year, and the Saints immediately claimed him off waivers when the Packers cut him right before the start of the 2017 regular season.
Hill started 33 games at BYU, throwing for 6,929 yards, 43 touchdowns and 31 interceptions. Hill can also be a dangerous rushing threat as a "running QB"; which he demonstrated by rushing for 2,815 yards, a BYU record for quarterbacks, to go with another 32 touchdowns.
Hill appeared in five games last season playing mostly on special teams, but his own brilliant athleticism along with his capability to play the QB position as the former starting QB at BYU make him a very strong candidate to secure a permanent back-up QB spot on the roster as well as a possible shot to be the team's "QB of the future".
What Hill will have to prove going into the remainder of the off-season is that he can improve upon his accuracy as a passer and remain injury-free. Hill has a history of previous injury issues and has never once played a full season. He suffered four season-ending injuries during his time in Provo, Utah, which included a knee injury, broken leg, a Lisfranc fracture and an hyperextended elbow. If for any reason that Hill doesn't live up to the "hype" that he came to New Orleans with, it could leave the door open for undrafted rookie free agent QB JT Barrett.
HAU'OLI KIKAHA, ROTATIONAL DEFENSIVE END
Kikaha makes this list for a 2nd straight year, following another season in which he didn't quite live up to expectations thanks mostly to nagging (maybe more like chronic) injury issues that have plagued him since his arrival in New Orleans via the 2015 NFL Draft.
Kikaha entered the NFL on a "high note" as a rookie back in 2015, racking up 51 total tackles and 4 sacks. But his 2016 campaign ended before it even got started, when he tore the same left ACL in his knee in the team's 2016 June Mini-Camp that he had injured twice previously during his time at the University of Washington.
Kikaha came back last season a rotational player in the team's "NASCAR" defensive pass-rushing packages, and tallied 4 sacks playing primarily behind DE Alex Okafor. After Okafor was lost for the remainder of season with a torn Achilles, Kikaha took on an expanded role and had one of his best moments late in the season when he made a critical 4th down stop that led to the 23-13 NFC South-clinching win over Atlanta in Week #16.
The biggest thing that Kikaha has to prove for the rest of 2018 is simply that he can be counted upon for more production than 8 total sacks in 3 years (technically two after sitting out that 2016 campaign), an amount that most figured would have been deep into the "double digits" by now. And with the recent addition of Davenport likely to decrease Kikaha's playing time along with competing for snaps with teammates Okafor and Trey Hendrickson, that task could prove to be quite difficult.....