The New Orleans Saints are now just slightly over 3 weeks away from the start of their 2018 Training Camp, and the subsequent Pre-Season that begins a few weeks later on August 9th at Jacksonville.
It's with that in mind that this morning, we're asking 5 "big-time" questions that some 'Who Dats' have been wondering about, as the defending 2017 NFC South Division Champion Saints look to make a run at this upcoming season's Super Bowl LIII in Atlanta — after just barely missing out on a shot at making it a year ago, following the heart-breaking loss to Minnesota in the Divisional Playoffs this past January.
And we'll begin first with Question #5, and then work our way down.....
#5. ARE VETERAN BACK-UP WIDE RECEIVERS BRANDON COLEMAN AND TOMMYLEE LEWIS IN DANGER OF BEING CUT?
The general buzz among the media covering the team is that in very much the same manner that the defensive secondary and specifically the cornerback position was the team's biggest improvement last year, this year it appears to be taking place at the linebacker position — and that's a good thing.
If there were any reasons to point out why the Saints defense was so horrible prior to last year's remarkable turnaround, certainly the linebacker position was a huge part of its notable failure and bottom-of-the-League finishes for 3 straight (7-9) seasons from 2014 through 2016.
But since that time, the organization brought in well-respected and long-time NFL defensive "guru" Mike Nolan to coach the position group; and through Free Agency and the NFL Draft added players A.J. Klein, Manti T'eo, Alex Anzalone and Demario Davis into the mix.
One of the fatal flaws that the linebacker position suffered during that horrid stretch of games dating from 2014 through 2016 was the lack of speed and players who were fast enough to make plays. No offense to former Saints LB Dannell Ellerbe (who remains an unsigned free agent) or the recently-released Michael Mauti, but neither player exactly instills FEAR into the hearts of opposing players.
And yet, the Saints were still hoping to win games with both of them in the starting line-up. More often times than not, they weren't up to the task. But last year the additions of Klein and T'eo in Free Agency and Anzalone via the 2017 NFL Draft, dramatically improved the position's overall talent pool; and for the most part served as a palpable upgrade from previous years.
Now with the addition of Davis and the return of Anzalone, it's very likely that the Saints LB corps will be as improved as its ever been. Unfortunately: not every player at the position will make the team, leaving one of the team's other back-ups (Nate Stupar, Jayrone Elliot, and UDFA rookie Colton Jumper) as likely roster-cut candidates.
Stupar may be the one who faces the biggest challenge, and he's mainly been able to hang around for the past 2 seasons thanks to his vitally important and key role on the Saints special teams. He actually played the most snaps of the entire linebacking corps in 2016, but last year tore his ACL in Week #6 — ending his season and putting his status this Summer as Camp begins, into question.
The Saints will have to determine not only if he is fully recovered (as he appears to be, thus far), but if his special teams contributions warrant keeping him around for another season.
#3. WHICH RUNNING BACK WILL EMERGE AS THE PRIMARY "REPLACEMENT" FOR STARTER MARK INGRAM WHILE HE'S SUSPENDED FOR THE FIRST 4 REGULAR SEASON GAMES?
By now, most Saints fans are well aware that starting RB Mark Ingram has been suspended by the League for violating its policy on performance-enhancing drugs (PED's); and his role is expected to be filled for the most part by last year's 2017 NFL Rookie of the Year and sensational young superstar Alvin Kamara.
But Kamara won't be expected to shoulder the load all by himself, and is expected to share RB duties with fellow young veteran back-ups Trey Edmunds, Jonathan Williams, and recently signed former Cleveland Browns and Baltimore Ravens starting RB Terrence West.
While it's pretty much impossible at this point to handicap just which of the veteran back-ups will emerge as the primary back-up to Kamara for the first 4 weeks of the season, you'd almost have to believe at this point that West will be the slight favorite, given that he's a versatile back who racked up 1,010 yards from scrimmage in 2016, starting 13 games for the Ravens.
But the Saints coaching staff are also high on Williams, who was signed to the active roster back on November 14th, and had been with Denver's practice squad since September 5th of last year, signing with the Broncos one day after clearing waivers following his release from the Bills.
The running back's release was surprising to some League observers and analysts, as he appeared primed to serve as LeSean McCoy's backup in Buffalo. Instead, he spent a majority of the 2017 season working out and staying in shape on the fields of the Broncos' training facility. Williams played sparingly as a rookie for Buffalo in the 2016 season, rushing for 94 yards and one touchdown on 27 attempts during his lone season in the NFL behind McCoy.
One thing that could work to the Saints' advantage is that Williams is now reunited with Saints RB coach Joel Thomas, who previously was Williams' position coach at the University of Arkansas. After rushing for 900 yards and 6 TD's as a sophomore in 2013 with Thomas' guidance, Williams exploded for almost 1,200 rushing yards (1,190) and had 14 total touchdowns as a junior in 2014. We'll see if their reunion pays dividends in the next few weeks ahead.
And then of course there's Edmunds; who was an undrafted rookie out of the University of Maryland but earned a spot on the Saints' final 53-man roster in last year's Training Camp and appeared in all 16 games, primarily as a special-teams contributor.
What Saints fans remember most about Edmunds was last year's Week #10 blow-out 47-10 Saints win over the Bills at Buffalo, New York on November 12th; where the Saints running game racked up over 300 yards and 6 — count them: SIX — rushing TD's on the day. The 6 rushing TD's in a single game set a Saints franchise record in the process.
And after both Ingram and Kamara had each rolled up 100 yards each (Ingram 131, Kamara 106) respectively by the game's 3rd quarter,it was Edmunds who put the exclamation point on the Saints' dominant performance with a 41-yard TD run down the Bills left side-line to "ice" the victory for New Orleans.
Can Edmunds do that and possibly much more in an expanded role? That's what the offensive coaching staff will ultimately have to determine, in the upcoming weeks ahead.
#2. IS ROOKIE DEFENSIVE END AND TOP DRAFT PICK MARCUS DAVENPORT GOOD ENOUGH TO LIVE UP TO THE HYPE AND JUSTIFY GIVING UP NEXT YEAR'S TOP PICK?
The Saints traded The Saints traded up in the 1st round of the 2018 NFL Draft a few months ago to select Davenport, a raw but extremely athletically gifted pass-rusher out of UTSA (University of Texas at San Antonio).
He was considered one of the most explosive EDGE rushers in the draft, and the Saints obviously felt he both filled a 'team need' for them and that he has the potential to develop into a superstar-caliber player for their rapidly-improving defense, when taking into account that it cost them both their 2018 and 2019 first-round picks — which they sent to the Green Bay Packers to complete the deal.
The thing to remember in Davenport's particular situation is that he is still LEARNING how to even play the position; and with the guidance of well-respected Saints defensive line coach Ryan Nielsen, For Nielsen, his notable capability of developing college D-linemen into quality NFL defenders is the exact reason why it's hoped that he can help "mold" the talented but still-very-raw rookie into an elite NFL pass-rusher in due time.
It's a task that could be one of the more critical coaching jobs on the team's staff this off-season and moving forward into Training Camp and the Pre-Season later this Summer, as New Orleans hopes that the talented rookie can quickly become the "missing piece" for the Saints defense, opposite of All-Pro defensive lineman Cam Jordan.
We'll see if Nielsen's coaching style can pay dividends with Davenport; whose biggest critics believe that the Saints organization gave up too much for; given the lingering questions that continue to be asked with regard to his being able to adapt to the NFL level. The most vocal of critics have questioned specifically Davenport's capability to play with his "hand in the dirt", which he's considered better suited to do by most analysts because of his length and size (6-foot-7, 264 pounds).
Many of those same critics believe that Davenport can be neutralized at times by bigger offensive tackles when he comes off the outside edge as a "stand-up" rusher in a 2-point stance (for NFL D-Linemen in the base 4-3 defense, sometimes it’s actually harder to get a good jump off the ball when you don’t have your "hand in the dirt" — a.k.a., a 3-point stance).
But the question on every Saints fan's mind right now, still remains: is he actually GOOD ENOUGH to justify giving up next year's top pick for?
Davenport looked good in limited action at Mini-Camp, prior to undergoing minor surgery for a partially torn ligament in his thumb. But that was against his own offensive line and without pads on. Once we see the talented rookie in full pads and going at "full speed" once Camp goes into full swing (and the Pre-Season arrives), perhaps we'll get a small hint of whether the organization has made a sound investment or not.
#1. IS TAYSOM HILL CAPABLE OF WINNING THE #2 QUARTERBACK SPOT, AND MORE IMPORTANTLY — CAN HE REALLY BE THE "HEIR APPARENT" TO DREW BREES?
Without any doubt, the one "big-time" question first and foremost on the minds of many Saints fans at the moment is: can Taysom Hill really and truly be a legitimate starting-caliber NFL quarterback — and prove to everyone that he is actually capable of becoming the "heir apparent" to Drew Brees?
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 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".
That's more speculation than actual fact at this point, but given Saints head coach Sean Payton's notable track record at developing QB's dating back to his days in the late 1990's as the offensive coordinator with the New York Giants under then-head coach Jim Fassel, it would be unwise for any of Hill's doubters to dismiss the possibility.
Kerry Collins, Tony Romo, and of course Drew Brees are just a few names of former or current NFL stars at the League's most critical position — quarterback — that Payton has helped guide to NFL stardom; as either an offensive coordinator or a head coach, in the past.
The great job that he's done with either developing or enhancing the skills of each one of those players are a testament to Payton's notable ability to develop QB's — which shouldn't come as much of a surprise given that Payton himself was once a QB.
But can he REALLY do that with Hill?
Hill is still unrefined as a passer and certainly has to continue showing that he can improve upon his accuracy at the NFL level, but he's a DYNAMIC athlete. Hill started 33 games at BYU, throwing for 6,929 yards, 43 touchdowns and 31 interceptions. For a quarterback, Hill can be a dangerous rushing threat. He rushed for 2,815 yards, a BYU record for quarterbacks, and 32 touchdowns.
So clearly, his talent as both a passer and certainly as a runner, aren't in question. His unique skill set could be a huge advantage for the Saints, and it undoubtedly was one of the reasons why Payton and the Saints organization were so quick to jump on him following his release by the Packers.
Could Hill even become the next starting QB for the Saints within the next few years?
Can Sean Payton guide him to NFL stardom, just as he did for Collins and Romo and is doing still for Brees? That much is yet to be determined.
But with the tutelage he is getting from Payton, along with being "mentored" by one of the greatest QB's to EVER play in the NFL with the future Hall-of-Famer Brees, the idea that Taysom Hill could actually become the next starting QB in New Orleans, isn't as far-fetched as you might think.