The New Orleans Saints will conduct their annual Rookie Mini-Camp beginning tomorrow (May 10th), which for most of the players will be their initial indoctrination (or “first real taste”) of life at the professional/NFL level.
The one rookie practice scheduled for Saturday afternoon is closed to the general public, but Big Easy Magazine will be there covering the event along with the rest of the local media, as the team gets the opportunity to see a few of these players in action for the very first time.
Saints GM Mickey Loomis: "We are pleased with the players we got — three of our picks were rated within OUR Top 70 players" pic.twitter.com/rEPcWVbSBa
— Barry Hirstius (@BarryHirstius) April 27, 2019
While Who Dat fans by now have already chosen a few of the players they’d like to see make the team, it’s important again to remember that last season, only five Saints rookies — 1st Round pick defensive end Marcus Davenport, 3rd Round pick wide receiver Tre’Quan Smith, and 7th Round pick O-Lineman Will Capp along with UDFAs (undrafted free agents) wide receiver Keith Kirkwood and defensive tackle Taylor Stallworth — were good enough to make the team’s final roster.
Essentially, it’s likely that only a few of the Saints’ five selections in the recently-completed 2019 NFL Draft will be good enough to make this season’s final 53-man roster in the first week of September.
The more difficult challenge, however, is usually for the UDFAs. Many don’t have a single thing guaranteed to them, and they will have to fight their way to earn a shot at making the final cut by impressing the coaching staff throughout the remainder of the off-season and leading into Training Camp, which begins in late July.
For those players that are considered to be a “long shot,” the key is often demonstrating the capability to make “big” plays as well as showing that they have a firm mental grasp of the assignments for the position that they’re playing. Perhaps most importantly, they need to learn the team’s playbook/scheme.
With all of that in mind, here are five rookies — all of whom will be participating in this weekend’s 2019 Saints Rookie Mini-Camp — that we’ll be watching closely at Saturday’s closed practice.
DEVINE OZIGBO, RUNNING BACK
Devine Ozigbo led the B1G this season by converting 34.0% of his carries into a first down or touchdown. pic.twitter.com/VMZOD2ZzB0
— PFF College (@PFF_College) April 16, 2019
Key Stat in College: Averaged seven yards per rush and amassed over 1,000 yards in his only year as a starter during his senior season at Nebraska.
Fun Fact: Ozigbo’s 1,082 rushing yards as a senior nearly matched the entire total from his first 3 seasons with the Huskers combined (1,114).
Why We’ll Be Watching: While the undrafted 6-foot, 236 pound Ozigbo is projected to likely be an NFL back-up for the majority of his career, he’s talented enough to carve out a role for himself as part of a running back-by-committee during his first couple of seasons and possibly could even evolve into a starting #1 RB further down the line in his career.
— Barstool 'Skers (@BarstoolHusker) October 23, 2018
As far as making the Saints Final Roster as a rookie this year, the expected battle that will take place between Ozigbo and current #3 RB Dwayne Washington in Training Camp later this Summer, could be one of the more fun and intriguing ones to watch.
PORTER GUSTIN, EDGE RUSHER / OUTSIDE LINEBACKER
— USC Trojans (@USC_Athletics) September 17, 2017
Key Stat in College: In four seasons, Gustin racked up a total of 21.5 sacks, 33 tackles for loss, 5 pass deflections, and a fumble recovery. He also tallied 137 tackles (84 solo). If you projected those stats over the course of time that he missed due to a series of injuries (a total of 16 games in four years), those numbers potentially could have been mind-boggling.
Fun Fact: Can play on all three levels of the defense — secondary (strong safety), linebacker (lined up on the outside), and defensive line (as a designated EDGE rusher).
Why We’ll Be Watching: Gustin is considered by many observers as possibly being one of the biggest “steals” that the Saints might have gotten, from their entire 2019 UDFA class. Despite his very notable injury history, there’s simply no way to miss just how talented this kid currently is, and potentially can be.
— Pac-12 Network (@Pac12Network) September 1, 2018
Though he can line up at all of those positions mentioned above, the Saints are thought to be considering using him as a situational EDGE rusher. At this weekend’s practice, perhaps we’ll see exactly what the plans for him (and his role) are going forward.
ERIK McCOY, CENTER
— Pro Football Focus (@PFF) April 27, 2019
Key Stat in College: Allowed only ONE sack in three whole seasons as a starter on the Texas A&M O-Line.
Fun Fact: Was the fastest O-Lineman of the entire Draft Class (he ran a 4.89 40-yard dash at the NFL Scouting Combine).
Why We’ll Be Watching: The Saints likely got another draft “steal” in McCoy, who was the anchor of the Aggies O-line and became the top #1-rated center in the nation’s toughest conference (the SEC) against some of college football’s most outstanding interior pass-rushers.
C Erik McCoy is the kind of guy that you hate to play against. Stout, physical and won't take a play off. pic.twitter.com/xdo4S7ds5g
— Cover 1 (@Cover_1_) February 23, 2019
Texas A&M's Erik McCoy is 6'4", 303 lbs … and can run a 4.89 40
📺: NFL Network pic.twitter.com/Tcve0qrDrv
— NFL on ESPN (@ESPNNFL) March 1, 2019
The Saints had addressed the starting center position previously in Free Agency with the signing of former Minnesota Vikings reserve center/guard and young veteran Nick Easton last month, but taking McCoy gives them a player that they can “plug and play” immediately — but only if he can show that he’s ready. This Saturday will be his first step toward making that possibility become a reality.
CHAUNCEY-GARDNER JOHNSON, SAFETY
— New Orleans Saints (@Saints) April 27, 2019
Key Stat in College: A total of three “Pick 6’s” (interception return for a TD) as a key member of the University of Florida defense
Fun Fact: Named Defensive MVP of the Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl against Michigan
Why We’ll Be Watching: The Saints front office brass might have gotten themselves another potential draft steal with Gardner-Johnson, who essentially now will become the team’s insurance policy at the safety position, if they aren’t able to re-sign current starting strong safety Vonn Bell once he becomes a free agent next off-season in 2020.
Chauncey Gardner-Johnson! 🔥🔥🔥 pic.twitter.com/ux7bJKb1AT
— WeAreDBnation (@WeAreDBNation1) December 29, 2018
However, if Bell and fellow safety Marcus Williams remain with the team long-term, the addition of Gardner-Johnson could potentially make the Saints secondary one of the NFL’s very best. Gardner-Johnson should make his impact early on as the team’s designated ‘slot’ DB, but the young and extremely-talented “ballhawk” clearly is a potential star in the making. Perhaps this Saturday we’ll get to see whether if he actually looks capable of living up to the hype.
DEONTE HARRIS, WIDE RECEIVER / KICK RETURNER
— Assumption Football (@ACGreyhoundsFB) April 28, 2019
Key Stat in College: Harris owns the single-season NCAA all-division record after he ran back an amazing 8 return TD’s during the 2017 Season
Fun Fact: Set the NCAA all-division record for career return touchdowns (combined punt and kickoff returns) with an unbelievable total of (14).
Why We’ll Be Watching: Amazingly, this young man was able to gain 2,051 yards (a remarkable 32.6 yards per return average) and 6 touchdown returns as a kick-off returner; and additionally he gained another 981 yards (a jaw-dropping 20.4 yards per return) and ran back 8 more return TD’s as a punt returner.
Most likely the biggest “longshot” at making the roster because of his diminutive size (only 5-foot-6, 170 pounds), Harris nevertheless is an explosive player who clearly is a threat to “take it to the house” anytime that he has the ball in his hands, which is exactly how he could end up shocking a lot of people by earning a spot on the team’s Final Roster.
With 99 and 80-yard kickoff return TDs in Saturday's playoff game, Assumption's Deonte Harris set NCAA DII career (12: 7 punt, 5 KO) and season (8: 5 punt, 3 KO) records for return TDs.
— NCAA Stats (@NCAAStats) November 27, 2017
But having done all of that while he was at tiny D-2 Assumption College (located in Massachusetts) and then trying to repeat that same success again at the NFL level, are two entirely different things. Perhaps this Saturday will be Harris’ first opportunity to show everyone, that he’s actually capable of pulling it off.
Barry Hirstius is a semi-retired journalist, who has worked as a sports editor and columnist. Barry is a New Orleans native who grew up as a fan of the Saints while attending games as a young boy at the old Tulane Stadium. He is the proud Grandfather of two beautiful young girls, Jasmine and Serenity.