The New Orleans Saints are now only 3 more days away until the beginning of their 2018 Training Camp, as they officially begin making their preparations for the eagerly-anticipated "follow-up" season to last year's magical but disappointing Playoff run.
With that in mind, myself and Saints News Network are taking a look at the 5 players for the Black and Gold — both from the defensive side and from the offensive side of the football — that I'll be watching up close and personal while observing the upcoming padded practices that get underway later this week, in back-to-back articles starting this morning and concluding tomorrow.
So grab yourself a hot cup of coffee or your favorite morning-time beverage, as we start first with the 5 Saints to watch, on the defensive side of the football......
HAU'OLI KIKAHA, DEFENSIVE END / "SAM" LINEBACKER
For 4th year defender Hau'oli Kikaha in the next several upcoming weeks ahead, the "Sam" / strong side linebacker spot is a position that he will need to re-acquaint himself with; if he wants to remain in a Black and Gold uniform beyond 2018. Kikaha started out with the Saints originally at his more natural position as an outside edge pass rusher / 9-technique right defensive end, before the team moved him to the "Sam" linebacker spot. When it didn't pan out, he was eventually moved back to defensive end,
But while there's no question that the Saints defensive coaching staff is hoping that this change back to the "Sam" LB spot will give them another way to utilize Kikaha's notable pass-rushing skills (by using him to blitz the QB in certain passing situations), the question heading into Training Camp that begins in only 3 more days from now will be: is Kikaha capable of meeting every responsibility that comes with moving back to the "Sam" linebacker position?
To be clear, if this transition doesn't work out, it's entirely possible Kikaha could not only be playing in his last season in New Orleans, but possibly could even be gone by the end of this Summer if the change isn't working out that well. That isn't to say his NFL career would be over — but there isn't any doubt that Saints team brass would be ready to finally "throw in the towel" on Kikaha if he isn't up to the task.
KURT COLEMAN, SAFETY
Despite having one of the most improved defenses in the entire NFL last season, the Saints front office brass sought to continue the upgrade by seeking out ways to improve all aspects of Dennis Allen's scheme, and it’s why they brought in former Carolina Panthers safety Kurt Coleman in Free Agency, to do just that.
As noted by New Orleans Advocate beat writer Nick Underhill: there were times last season where organization and communication were an issue. This showed up quite often when the young secondary had to sort out and defend against bunch formations — which as noted by Underhill surrendered 22 receptions on 25 targets for 187 yards last season.
A veteran presence like Coleman, who can play both the strong safety position ("in the box") and free safety (back deep) is a player that Underhill believes can help "clean up" the last few trouble areas for this defense, and also give them a more versatile player at safety than the one he replaced (former 2013 top draft pick Kenny Vaccaro, who wasn't re-signed). With youngsters Vonn Bell and Marcus Williams beside him, the signing of Coleman could end up being the biggest "under the radar" move by the front office this past off-season.
DEMARIO DAVIS, MIDDLE / "MIKE" LINEBACKER
As improved as they were overall last season, the Saints linebacker corps got an even further upgrade this past off-season when the team chose to sign former New York Jets LB Demario Davis; the Brandon, Mississippi native (just outside of Jackson) whom Saints brass targeted immediately in the first wave of 2018 NFL Free Agency a few short months ago. Davis played at the "Mike" / middle LB spot for the Jets in 2017 and had a phenomenal season, as he recorded 135 combined tackles and 97 solo tackles, both career highs.
He also had 3 passes defended, 5 sacks., 13 TFL's (tackles for loss), 15 QB hits, and 1 fumble recovery. But additionally what he brings is a player with the versatility to play multiple roles (he played the "Will" / weakside spot in college at Arkansas State) and perhaps most importantly: a linebacker with the SPEED NEEDED to play off the ball and defend the run sideline-to-sideline, and cover TE's and RB's coming out of the backfield.
With the addition of Davis along with the return of 2nd year player Alex Anzalone — who was lost for the season last year but is equally (if not more) as fast as Davis — it's very likely that the Saints LB corps will be as quick (and even more improved) at reading, reacting, and defending the back 7, as they've been in some time.
PATRICK ROBINSON (a.k.a. , "P-Rob"), SLOT CORNERBACK
Robinson — a former Saints 1st Round draft pick back in 2010 and who will turn 31 in September — should potentially give the team the most talent at the CB position that they've enjoyed in quite some time. He had the best season of his career with Philadelphia last season while playing the 'slot' CB position in the Eagles secondary for a majority of 2017,
Robinson went on to post 4 interceptions (tied for a career high); and made a memorable "Pick-6" in the NFC Championship Game against the Minnesota Vikings. The Eagles went on to defeat the Patriots in Super Bowl LII. As a direct result: the player that some Saints fans disliked once upon a time because of his early-career struggles, has now returned to New Orleans as a World Champion and a "conquering hero", after he become one of the NFL's premier CB's at covering the 'slot' position.
The addition of Robinson alone should make the Saints defensive secondary an even much deeper one than last season, and possibly allow them to even become THE best secondary in the entire League, When you throw in Coleman who as we mentioned has the ability to play multiple spots, the Saints secondary will be even better with "P-Rob" added into the mix as well.
MARCUS DAVENPORT, EDGE PASS RUSHER / DEFENSIVE END
The Saints made a HUGE investment when they selected University of Texas-San Antonio edge pass rusher / weakside defensive end Marcus Davenport; whose biggest critics believe that the Saints organization gave up too much for (surrendering their #1 pick in next year's 2019 NFL Draft to the Green Bay Packers) in order to move up and select him at #14 overall,
That's mainly because of the given the lingering questions that continue to be asked with regard to his being able to adapt to the NFL level. While the proverbial jury will probably remain out of the room on whether Davenport is actually an elite-caliber talent at the position or not until sometime later on during the season; all indications so far (based on his impressive showing at Mini-Camp with limited snaps) are that he actually is going to be an elite-caliber pass rusher.
If that turns out to actually be the case, it could meaning that the defensive pass rush has very likely already seen some more improvement before playing a single game yet. Nevertheless, Davenport is still considered to be a very raw prospect (or still "rough around the edges") and needs the coaching staff (specifically D-Line coach Ryan Nielsen) to continually work with him exclusively.
Davenport doesn’t need to put up double-digit sacks as a rookie, but he does need to make an IMMEDIATE IMPACT — or else this move will be criticized even more in the months that lie ahead.......