The New Orleans Saints begin their 2018 Training Camp this week, with the first padded practice set to take place this Saturday morning at the team’s Practice Facility in suburban Metairie. The Saints are coming off of an (11-5) season and an NFC South Division Championship last year, and will be seeking to make yet another strong run at the Super Bowl following their disappointing finish in the Playoffs.
With that in mind, here are Big Easy Magazine’s Top 5 position battles of 2018 Saints Training Camp, and a few thoughts about what you can expect to see take place with each one.
Starting first with…..
#5. BACKUP TIGHT END: Josh Hill vs. Deon Yelder vs. Michael Hoomanawanui
The Saints didn’t draft a tight end in this year’s recent 2018 NFL Draft as some observers believed that they would; as they opted instead to “kick the can down the road” for another season by re-signing 15-year veteran Ben Watson to resume the starting role he held at the position back during the 2015 season.
However, as fate might have it, the Saints may have lucked into the next best thing besides drafting a reputable player at the position, when they were able to land UDFA rookie TE sensation Deon Yelder, who broke out as a senior at Western Kentucky University last year and may have been one of the most underrated and overlooked college players of the entire 2018 Draft class.
Veteran back-ups Josh Hill and Michael Hoomanawanui will both be pushing hard to backup Watson and to stave off the hard-challenging undrafted rookie in Yelder, but the team’s coach staff is VERY high on Yelder and it shouldn’t come as a shock to anyone, if somehow Yelder “finds his way” onto the Final 53-man roster in early September, when all is said and done. If Yelder has a solid Camp and plays well in the Pre-Season games, either Josh Hill or Hoomanawanui (or perhaps even both) could end up in a quandary.
#4. MARK INGRAM’S “REPLACEMENT” AT RUNNING BACK FOR THE FIRST 4 GAMES: Trey Edmonds vs. Jonathan Williams vs. Terrence West vs. Shane Vereen
As Saints fans are well aware by now: starting #1 RB Mark Ingram will be suspended for the first 4 games of the upcoming season after testing positive for the use of a banned performance-enhancing drug in his off-season training regimen, 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.
However, 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 Terrance West, Trey Edmunds, Jonathan Williams, and recently signed former New England Patriots running back Shane Vereen.
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 likely emerge as the slight favorite — given that he’s a versatile back who racked up 1,010 yards from scrimmage in 2016, and has the most starting experience among them after starting 13 games for the Ravens two years ago.
#3. RIGHT SIDE DEFENSIVE END / EDGE RUSHER: Marcus Davenport vs. Alex Okafor vs. Trey Hendrickson
The biggest news of the 2018 Off-Season for the Saints franchise undoubtedly was the selection of rookie top 2018 draft pick defensive end / EDGE pass rusher Marcus Davenport from the University of Texas-San Antonio, who was one of the most highly-rated and talented players at the position from this year’s class but who the team gave up next year’s #1 pick to the Green Bay Packers to go and get; and who also is still very “raw” and essentially still learning how to play the role of complementary pass-rushing end, opposite of All-Pro Cam Jordan.
While Davenport has already impressed observers and the Saints defensive coaching staff with a good showing in OTA’s and the recently-completed Mini-Camp, he won’t just simply be handed the starting role at Right Defensive End and very likely will be pressed by returning veteran Alex Okafor — who’s returning from a ruptured Achilles that ended his season early last year — and last year’s 3rd Round draft pick Trey Hendrickson.
Regardless of who eventually emerges as the ‘winner’ of this particular position battle, this one will be the most scrutinized simply because of the weight of expectations that’s been placed upon Davenport; who will probably end up over the course of time becoming a part of the team’s heavy rotation at the position in their designated “NASCAR” substitution packages.
#2. THE 5th WIDE RECEIVER: TommyLee Lewis vs. Brandon Coleman vs. Travin Dural vs. Austin Carr
Every year during Training Camp and the Pre-Season in the past several seasons, it seems as if the #5 WR spot within the team’s wide receiver corps has always been “up for grabs” and this year won’t be any different; but with the notable exception that this year’s Camp will have more attention focused on the spot itself, thanks to the fact that 4th year veteran Brandon Coleman will be in the proverbial fight of his life to make the Final 53-man roster.
Coleman essentially has fallen down the depth chart thanks to the team signing former Chicago Bears WR Cam Meredith in Free Agency, and the selection of this year’s 3rd Round draft pick Tre’Quan Smith out of the University of Central Florida. He’ll be pushed for the final WR spot by last year’s #5 WR TommyLee Lewis, popular 2017 UDFA rookie Travin Dural, the Breaux Bridge, Louisiana native and former star receiver at nearby local college football powerhouse LSU; and former undrafted New England Patriots WR Austin Carr — who will be hoping to emerge from the pack; although you’d have to believe that the odds are certainly stacked heavily against both him and Dural at this point.
Coleman could have the upper hand thanks to his experience, size, and his well-documented capabilities as a blocker in both the offensive running and receiving game; but Lewis’ speed and play-making ability and the ever-improving Dural’s emergence under the steady guidance of WR coach Curtis “CJ” Johnson, could place the 6-foot-6 former Rutgers University star in between a rock and a hard place, come early September. This position battle could be the most hotly-contested, out of all of them.
#1. BACKUP QUARTERBACK: Taysom Hill vs. JT Barrett vs. Tom Savage
Last but definitely not the least, we come to the one position battle in this year’s upcoming 2018 Saints Training Camp that EASILY will get the most “hype”: the battle to be this year’s backup behind 18th year NFL veteran and future NFL Hall of Famer Drew Brees.
If you’re a die-hard Saints fan, then you already are well aware that this year’s Training Camp and Pre-Season will draw the most attention at this position for the simple fact that so much emphasis has been placed on finding the eventual “heir apparent” to Brees after his inevitable retirement, which most likely will occur within these next 2-to-3 years. The Saints possibly may have that player already on the roster, or perhaps they don’t — but nevertheless, will indeed find out if either Taysom Hill or UDFA rookie signee JT Barrett from Ohio State University, are up to the task.
Hill, who formerly was the starting QB at Brigham Young University (BYU) before injuries derailed his college career, has looked good in OTA’s and Mini-Camp; and has obviously emerged as a contender to become Brees’ eventual successor thanks to his dual-threat athleticism as both a passer and a runner, that has even drawn comparisons to former NFL QB legend Steve Young.
But he will have to show that he can become a more accurate passer throwing the football and can improve on his timing, both important traits of QB play that Young famously had, that Hill still seems to lack. Meanwhile, Barrett is likely headed for a spot on the team’s Practice Squad, although a strong performance in both Camp and the Pre-Season games, could actually put 5th-year veteran back-up Tom Savage‘s chances of making the Final Roster, in a bit of jeopardy.