By Barry Hirstius – Contributing Writer
The New Orleans Saints open the home part of their 2018 NFL Pre-Season schedule this Friday Night, when they host the NFC West Division opponent Arizona Cardinals at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome. Kick-off is scheduled for 8 p.m. Eastern / 7 p.m. Central and will be televised locally in New Orleans on FOX Channel 8.
With that in mind, here are my 7 Saints players for Big Easy Magazine that I recommend all ‘Who Dats’ keep a close eye on, while watching the Black and Gold in action against the desert birds inside the Dome in a few days from now.
JAYRONE ELLIOTT, DEFENSIVE END / LINEBACKER
Previously thought to be a “bubble player” to make the team’s Final 53-Man Roster after spending a year out of the sport of Pro Football, Elliott turned in a memorable (at least for Pre-Season) performance in his first game in a Saints uniform, recording 2.5 sacks and forcing a pair of fumbles in the 2018 Saints Pre-Season opener at Jacksonville last week against the Jaguars. One of those fumbles was recovered in Jacksonville territory, setting up the go-ahead touchdown in the 4th quarter in the Saints’ eventual come-from-behind 24-20 victory.
Elliott has the capability to line-up either as a strongside linebacker.in the team’s base 4-3 defensive alignment; but can transition over to stand-up defensive end / EDGE pass rusher in the team’s “nickel” substitution packages. That was where he was lined up when he made the game-changing sack in the win over the Jaguars. More specifically: Elliott possesses outstanding pass-rushing skills which include his notable ability to “bend and dip” past the opponent’s offensive left tackle coming off of the outside edge; and I’ll be watching to see if he can continue his great Training Camp thus far with another solid out outing on Friday Night.
In addition to his performance getting after the quarterback in Jacksonville, Elliott lined up on the 1st-team kickoff and kick return units on Special Teams. Saints head coach Sean Payton has already said that Elliott has to prove that he can play well on Special Teams to secure a Final 53-Man Roster spot; but also acknowledged that is aware of what Elliott can do for the Saints pass rush — meaning that the 26-year old and former University of Toledo star still has a decent shot at making the team. But he’ll need another outing like the one had against the Jaguars last week, and he’ll get that opportunity once again this Friday Night vs. the Cardinals.
JONATHAN WILLIAMS, RUNNING BACK
For the same reason I’m watching Jayrone Elliott, I’ll also be watching 2nd year Saints RB Jonathan Williams this Friday Night; which is because he significantly increased his chances of making the team after his nice performance against the Jaguars last week. His continued outstanding play in Training Camp that has allowed him to emerge as the “leader” to replace # 1 RB Mark Ingram behind Alvin Kamara; while Ingram is suspended for the team’s first 4 Regular Season games. Originally, it was first believed that fellow back-ups Terrance West and Shane Vereen were the two players who led the competition.
But Williams — a former 1st team All-SEC RB at the University of Arkansas — scored the game-winning TD late in the Jaguars game and put himself into the conversation as “Ingram’s replacement”; with 4 carries for 26 yards to lead all Saints RB’s on the night during the team’s come-from-behind 24-20 victory over the Jaguars. Just days later at practice, Williams has since been playing with an even greater sense of urgency, and he had a packed house of Saints fans that were in attendance at one recent practice cheering wildly as he ran with power and authority on several running plays and a pass reception out of the backfield.
I want to see if Williams can continue his passionate play with another solid outing against the Cardinals; and become the latest “discarded” player (the Buffalo Bills gave up on him after only 1 season despite drafting him in the 5th Round of the 2016 NFL Draft) that the Saints have claimed or picked up from another team who eventually goes on to become a star or at least a key contributor, while wearing the Black and Gold.
ARTHUR MAULET, CORNERBACK
Maulet, who starred in college at the University of Memphis, is a 2nd year undrafted player that of course most Saints fans are well aware is a Kenner, Louisiana native (suburban New Orleans); and was an all-around athletic high school superstar at Alfred J. Bonnabel High School, which is right off the I-10 interstate approximately 13 miles away from downtown.
Maulet was an all-state soccer player, an all-district punter, and a all-district cornerback at Bonnabel, and he made a name for himself already when he first earned a spot last season on the Saints Practice Squad. He later got put on the Final Roster and spent six regular-season games and two playoff games on the 53-man roster, playing primarily as an “ace” on special teams.
More opportunities for Arthur Maulet to ball with Harris gone form the corner competition already pic.twitter.com/swdToB8oyz
— Steve Geller (@SteveGellerWWL) August 11, 2018
The Saints have worked Maulet at both outside cornerback and nickel back so far throughout training camp, although head coach Sean Payton said the vision is for him to play at nickel this season. But Maulet has had a stand-out performance throughout the first 3 weeks of Camp; and as of now, if there’s any one undrafted player that’s considered a player “on the bubble” with a LEGITIMATE shot to make the Final 53-man roster, it’s easily Maulet, hands down.
With the recent release of fellow undrafted CB De’Vante Harris (who wad claimed off waivers by the division rival Tampa Bay Buccaneers), Maulet can solidify his chances of remaining on the Final Roster again this season even further, starting with a “good game” vs. the Cardinals Friday night.
DEON YELDER, TIGHT END
Yelder thus far might be one of the biggest disappointments in all of 2018 Saints Training Camp and the Pre-Season so far; since expectations were very high for the 23 year old after the Saints organization gave him the biggest signing bonus among of the undrafted players that signed with the team after the conclusion of the recent 2018 NFL Draft. A former walk-on, Yelder did not receive a scholarship or tally any receiving statistics prior to his senior campaign in 2017.
But Yelder exploded onto the scene by leading Western Kentucky University with 52 catches and 688 yards and 7 TD’s last year, thanks in part to the fact that a new coaching staff led by first-time head coach Mike Sanford wanted to run an offense that features the tight end position. Primarily used as a special teams player, the 6-foot-4, 255 pound Yelder set the single-season receiving yardage mark by a Hilltoppers tight end, and his versatility allowed him to finished ranked 4th in receptions and 3rd in receiving yards among all tight ends across the nation. He still went undrafted, but the Saints were obviously intrigued by his ability to catch the football.
My biggest disappointment in Camp / Pre-Season through August 12th:
Deon Yelder, UDFA rookie TE
Really was convinced the young man had “break out” potential especially as a pass-catcher; but hasn’t done anything special to stand out – might not even get a Practice Squad invite
— Barry Hirstius (@BarryHirstius) August 12, 2018
Unfortunately, Yelder’s above-average receiving skills haven’t been enough to help him make a favorable impression on the offensive coaching staff; and it’s been a quiet Camp thus far for the young Louisville, Kentucky native. At this point, he might not even get a Practice Squad invite — much less stand a chance of making the team’s Final 53-Man Roster. If Yelder plans on sticking around, he’ll need a very strong performance starting Friday against Arizona.
BRANDON TATE, WIDE RECEIVER / KICK RETURNER
If Tate was supposed to be a “camp body”, it sure was hard to tell. He’s looked more like a starter, and has had a solid Training Camp and Pre-Season performance thus far for someone that you’d expect was a player that’s now entering the second decade of his playing career. A former 3rd round draft selection by New England nine years ago in the 2009 NFL Draft out of the University of North Carolina, Tate has 71 career catches and 10 total touchdowns as a receiver with the Patriots, Bengals, and Bills. But his bigger impact has come in the kick return game, and it’s became apparent that the Saints will not only give him a shot to compete for that role, but to outright win the job and become the starter.
The 30-year old Tate has developed a reputation over the years as a premier kick returner, totaling over 7,000 return yards in his time with the Patriots, Bengals and Bills; with his best seasons in that department coming in 2010 and 2011. Tate played in 13 games for Buffalo last season, when his most significant contributions came in the return game. He returned 28 kickoffs for 548 yards and 20 punts for 193 yards.
In last week’s win over the Jaguars, the veteran return man showed that he still has excellent quickness in the open-field and displayed some nifty moves on a pair of nice kickoff returns, including a 36-yarder that he nearly “took to the house” before getting tackled near the 40-yard line. Tate currently has the slight edge in the competition to become the designated kick returner; and if he continues impressing the coaching staff this Friday Night against the Cardinals as a wide receiver in the same way that he has been in practice, then he’s a “lock” to make the Final 53-Man Roster as the team’s 5th and final WR.
DEVAROE LAWRENCE, DEFENSIVE TACKLE
Another “bubble” player on the current Saints roster, Lawrence didn’t even get the opportunity to play in the 2017 NFL Pre-Season as a rookie last year, and ended up spending the entire 2017 regular season with the Saints franchise on injured reserve. But last week against the Jaguars, the former undrafted Auburn University star made several stand-out plays along the interior of the Saints D-Line, tallying one full sack, two half sacks, five tackles and one for loss.
Lawrence has had a relatively “quiet” 2018 Training Camp thus far, but his performance last week definitely helped his cause to earn a Final Roster spot.
— New Orleans Saints (@Saints) August 10, 2018
Lawrence has now very surprisingly placed himself into serious contention for a Final 53-Man Roster spot later on this month, assuming that he can keep up the solid interior play for the remaining 3 games of the exhibition season.
Saints fans will want to keep an eye on #68 this Friday Night, to see if he can maintain the same intensity against Arizona that’s helped him in recent days. The Saints are likely only going to keep 4 defensive tackles on the Final 53-Man Roster, and Lawrence will need another solid outing like last week to have a chance to make the team.
TOM SAVAGE, QUARTERBACK
Some Saints fans are scratching their heads as they read this, wondering why in the world would I want to subject anyone to watching the often-maligned Saints back-up QB, but trust me:
There’s a “method to my madness”, so to speak.
Savage hasn’t always been the best of QB’s statistics or numbers-wise and certainly hasn’t won many games as a starter, but what he does have is valuable NFL game experience and a strong arm to boot. But for Savage, his biggest issues remains with accuracy and decision-making; hence the reason why his signing in Free Agency this past off-season was met a lukewarm response from many of the knowledgeable and long-rime supporters of the team.
Essentially, Savage is what you’d refer to as a “game manager”. He’s not flashy or glamorous, and he probably comes across the TV screen as a bit boring or mundane to the most casual of football fans watching on at home.
But what he can do is “get the job done” — with a much better O-Line protecting him and the several more offensive weapons that he has to work with in New Orleans, that he didn’t have previously in Houston with the Texans.
Against the Jaguars, Savage started the game and played every offensive snap in the first half except for the final one and completed 10 of 14 passes for 70 yards while leading the Saints to their first touchdown, a 2-yard run by Mark Ingram.
To Savage’s credit, he didn’t turn the ball over not even once — but yet he still also missed a couple of open throws that you would expect a now 5th-year veteran NFL quarterback to be able to make.
Eventually, the offense stalled out down near the goal line with Savage under center, but it was revitalized in the 2nd half when Taysom Hill provided the team with a spark with his dynamic athleticism and scrambling capability.
Hill played most of the second half and almost did more damage with his legs than his right arm as he ran seven times for 52 yards while completing 8 of 9 passes for 72 yards. Hill played with the reserve offensive line and several times was forced to quickly scramble rather than go through his reads. He scored on a 3-yard run midway through the 4th quarter, on a called run for the quarterback out of BYU. The Saints defeated the Jaguars, 24-20.
Bottom line: Hill looked like the “better” of the two players, and brings an element of excitement to the Saints offense that Savage CLEARLY does not.
Savage will need to take a step forward beginning this Friday Night if he wants to keep his job as the primary / #2 backup behind starter Drew Brees, and prove that he can operate the Saints offensive scheme as effectively as Hill seemed to do.
And as you’re watching Savage this Friday Night, ask yourself: “Is this the guy that the Saints need to be Drew Brees’ back-up?”
Then when Taysom Hill is in the game, ask yourself that very same question again. Whether Taysom Hill is the “real deal” or not is another debate for a different time, but for now: he seems like the better choice to fill in for Brees than Savage does.
And that’s something that the 28-year old Savage needs to prove that he can overcome in a few days from now at the Superdome, against the visiting Arizona Cardinals……..
Editor’s Note: If you enjoy Barry’s writing, be sure to check out his interview piece on Saints linebacker Demario Davis! Don’t forget to also check out our series on things to do in New Orleans as well as upcoming events!