The New Orleans Saints are only 10 more days away from the beginning of their 2018 Training Camp, as the team gets even closer towards the start of the upcoming NFL season; which kicks off in just a little over a month and a ½ from now.
One thing that is certain to draw some attention once Camp gets under way at the Practice Facility in Metairie will be the competition to be the team's designated punt returner for the upcoming 2018 Regular Season.
Saints head coach Sean Payton told neworleanssaints.com senior writer John DeShazier recently that he envisions the position will be determined during the next few upcoming weeks, both during open competition in practice and during the Pre-Season games — the first of which will be at Jacksonville, Fla. 3 weeks from this Thursday Night, when the Black and Gold travels to face the defending AFC South division champion Jaguars.
“It’s wide open. We have five or six candidates. And once we get into training camp and we get into the Pre-Season games, there’ll be a reliability (factor) and then who gives us the best chance back there. But certainly, it's a job that we have a number of guys that are candidates to compete for,” Payton told DeShazier.
One of the players competing for the position will be rookie running back Boston Scott; whom the Saints selected in the 6th round of the 2018 NFL Draft from Louisiana Tech University.
Scott is a native of Zachary, La., which is a suburb of Baton Rouge; and he has become very popular among Saints fans during his brief time in NOLA, especially because of his diminutive size (5-foot-7, 203 pounds) which has drawn inevitable comparisons to former Saints and current Philadelphia Eagles RB / kick returner Darren Sproles.
“He picks things up pretty quickly…He'll work with the punt return, kick return units. He’s shorter but he's built pretty well,” Payton said in regard to Scott, back during OTA’s in May.
“He is someone that has I think good instincts. So it's early but he's done some really good things.”
Now while the team clearly needs a player to return punts on a full-time basis (last season the team leaders were WR Ted Ginn Jr. with 19 returns for 103 yards and fellow WR Tommylee Lewis with 14 punts for 115 yards), you'll notice that Payton said specifically that Scott will work with the kick return unit also, presumably as the player that will actually be fielding the kick-off itself and returning the ball up the field as well.
Sproles was actually the last Saints player to do both, which came during his final year as a Saint during the 2013 season.
In that 2013 season while still in the Black and Gold, Sproles played in 15 regular season games, running for 220 yards and 2 touchdowns on 53 carries, making 71 catches for 604 yards and 2 touchdowns, ran back 12 kickoff returns for 225 yards, and fielded 29 punt returns for 194 yards, for a New Orleans team that finished (11-5) that season.
Just a few months later on March 13, 2014, Sproles was traded by the Saints to the Philadelphia Eagles in exchange for a 2014 5th-round draft pick. Saints QB Drew Brees was quoted after the trade: "You only see a Darren Sproles type of player come around once in your career."
But amazingly, Sproles' overall numbers at doing both during his 3 years total in NOLA were actually quite modest. In his 3 years spent with the Saints, Sproles fielded 8 punts for 64 yards, and ran back 10 kickoffs for 223 yards.
That was it.
Now he we are approximately 4 years later, and perhaps the Saints have finally found a player who can successfully do both again with the dynamic young rookie Boston Scott.
However, if Boston Scott is able to show that he can successfully do both this Summer and become the designated returner for both punts and kickoffs, he would be the first LEGITIMATE dual kick-return threat for the Saints since the one and only Michael Lewis — a.k.a., "the Beer Man".
For those somewhat younger Saints fans who may be unfamiliar with his story, Lewis was a New Orleans native who worked as a driver and delivery man, just down the street from the Saints facility; which essentially was right next door at the local Budweiser plant on Airline Drive in Metairie (located in suburban New Orleans) back during the 1990's.
But one day back in the spring-time of the year 2000, Lewis got a shot at fulfilling his life-long dream of becoming a Pro Football player; and it became a story that was the stuff of NFL legend.
A tryout given to him by then Saints head coach Jim Haslett would lead to him earning a spot on the team's Practice Squad, followed by a brief stint in NFL Europe. By the time he had just turned 30 years old at the beginning of the 2001 NFL season, Lewis finally made his long-awaited NFL debut.
"The Beer Man" ended up playing for the Saints for 6 seasons total from 2001-2006, and eventually ended his career with the San Francisco 49ers.
Along the way, he ended up becoming a HUGE fan favorite among loyal 'Who Dats'; but not just only for his standout return skills, but for his quiet, shy and humble personality that made him seem like an ordinary guy or just another fan himself (because technically, he was).
Lewis would then go on to earn All-Pro honors from the League in 2002, the year in which he led the NFL with 625 punt return yards and 1,807 kickoff return yards.
Lewis finished his brief but memorable NFL career having played 76 games, with 186 punt returns for 1,818 yards and a touchdown and 248 kick returns for 5,989 yards and three touchdowns. He also caught 28 passes for 553 yards and a touchdown.
"If I don't play another game, I lived my dream, I played the one NFL game, I'm satisfied," Lewis said at the time, not long after playing in his final game with the 49ers.
As mentioned: it was and still remains to this very day, the stuff of both NFL and (of course) Saints team legend.
Assuming that Boston Scott ends up doing both this season, it potentially would give the Saints something they've lacked on special teams now for half a decade.
And when you factor in that Sproles' impact as a dual-threat returner wasn't nearly as big as most fans actually remember, Boston Scott could end up being the best Saints player to actually handle both responsibilities since "The Beer Man" walked right next door on Airline Drive for his try-out, nearly 20 years ago.
Starting in a week and a half from now, we'll get to see over the course of the next several weeks if whether or not the young 23-year old former Zachary High School star is or isn't up to the task.