Observers of Friday night’s preseason opener between the Minnesota Vikings and New Orleans Saints at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome shouldn’t blink too hard or they might miss the starters.
The exhibition games are a tool for the Saints coaching staff as part of the evaluation process before the team establishes the initial 53-player roster for the regular season.
And with so many clear starters on an already loaded roster, the Saints’ upcoming preseason slate should feature plenty of backups commanding playing time while jockeying for position on the depth chart.
Here are key areas to watch when the Saints take the field Friday night:
With Drew Brees and the rest of the Saints’ established starters not likely to play much –– if at all –– Friday night, other players should see extended action on the field. With just three quarterbacks on the roster, Teddy Bridgewater and Taysom Hill project to see plenty of playing time.
Of the two signal-callers, Bridgewater provides plenty of intrigue outside of facing his former team. He’s coming off his first full offseason with the Saints and has enjoyed strong performances with a variety of throws during 11 days of training camp practices.
While the Saints brought back Bridgewater on a one-year deal in March, the path to a potential long-term deal in New Orleans effectively starts now.
Alvin Kamara and Latavius Murray project as the top two running backs, and Dwayne Washington currently pencils in at No. 3.
Washington, whom coach Sean Payton recently pointed out is having a good camp, originally joined the Saints practice squad in early September 2018 before being elevated to the active roster. He faces competition from rookie Devine Ozigbo, recently signed Jacquizz Rodgers and Matthew Dayes, who has missed the past two practices for undisclosed reasons.
Ozigbo has quietly had his moments, including a play during the night practice at Tulane when he picked up a blitzing linebacker to allow Brees time to step up and find wide receiver Tre’Quan Smith for a touchdown during 11-on-11 drills at the goal line.
If the Saints’ recent history teaches us anything about the running back position, expect the competition to go down the final week of the preseason. It was just a year ago that Jonathan Williams, Boston Scott and Terrance West were mired in a training camp battle, and then the Saints parted ways with all three in the weeks of roster trimmings to set the initial 53-player roster for the start of the regular season.
Defensive linemen David Onyemata, Mario Edwards Jr. and Trey Hendrickson have flexibility to play inside or outside, but the Saints could use more depth at the pass rusher position behind starters Cameron Jordan and Marcus Davenport.
Enter Porter Gustin, who joined the Saints in late April as an undrafted rookie free agent out of USC.
The 6-foot-5, 260-pund Gustin, who totaled 21.5 sacks in college, has made the switch from outside linebacker to defensive end in training camp. He mostly lines up with the backups, but displays a non-stop motor in practice. Gustin can also help out on special teams, which for rookies is a helpful cause to make a case for the 53-player roster.
The Saints also have veteran Geneo Grissom, who has flashed off the edge in camp, and Wes Horton, who has missed time in recent days.
Rookie center Erik McCoy is coming on and has taken the field with the first-team offense in seven consecutive practices during 11-on-11 drills.
The Saints kept eight offensive linemen to start the 2018 and 2017 seasons, so the number could provide a hint on what they have in mind this year. McCoy seems well on his way to be a lock for the initial 53-player roster along with Terron Armstead, Andrus Peat, Larry Warford and Ryan Ramcyzk.
Versatility is key, so that should give an edge to Nick Eason and Cameron Tom, both of whom can play center and guard.
The final spot could come down to Will Clapp, who can play center and guard, or veteran Marshall Newhouse, who projects as a swing tackle.
The other players vying for a roster spot are Patrick Omameh, John Ulrick, Michael Ola, Derrick Kelly, Ryan Groy, Marcus Henry and Ethan Greenidge, who has missed a chunk of training camp.
Marshon Lattimore and Eli Apple have the outside cornerback positions on lockdown, and P.J. Williams appears to be entrenched as the nickel cornerback given the amount of repetitions he’s taken with the first-team unit during training camp over veteran Patrick Robinson.
The Saints kept six cornerbacks to start the 2018 regular season, making the competition behind Lattimore, Apple, Williams and Robinson very tight. Marcus Sherels projects to make the roster as the fifth cornerback given he was also signed to contribute as a returner.
The sixth spot becomes very important, especially on the outside where the team needs a dependable backup for Lattimore or Apple. Justin Hardee has tremendous value as a core special teams contributore, while veteran Kayvon Webster, who joined the Saints after June’s mandatory minicamp, and Ken Crawley are other primary competitors for that spot.
It will also be interesting to see Friday night how much time, if any, rookie safety C.J. Gardner-Johnson logs at cornerback. Gardner-Johnson has versatility to line up at a variety of coverage positions.
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There is plenty of competition behind starters Michael Thomas and Ted Ginn Jr., and preseason is the time for shine for the Saints’ wide receiver group given Thomas and Ginn aren’t likely to sniff the field too much until the third preseason contest.
The Saints have plenty of options to consider among the likes of Austin Carr, Tre’Quan Smith, Keith Kirkwood, Simmie Cobbs Jr., Rishard Matthews, Emmanuel Butler, Travin Dural, Cyril Grayson Jr., Deonte Harris and Lil’Jordan Humphrey.
Carr has flashed throughout training camp and is stating his case to make the initial 53-player roster for a third consecutive season, and he’s taken advantage of Butler and Kirkwood missing time.
Carr isn’t alone, though, as Cobbs, Matthews and Grayson have also shown a knack of making plays and building chemistry with all three Saints’ signal-callers given the absences of Butler and Kirkwood.
Butler returned Wednesday to the practice field on a limited basis, so it remains to be seen if he’s ready to play Friday night.
But with Bridgewater and Taysom Hill likely to command a majority of the quarterback snaps Friday night, look to see how the backup wide receivers perform in live action.