When your NFL team finishes one play away (literally) from getting to the Super Bowl, chances are pretty good that you’d be favored to have a great shot at making it the following year — and certainly, that’s where the New Orleans Saints find themselves with the upcoming season now a little over three months away.
But one thing that’s quickly become evident after the team held its opening round of OTAs (“Organized Team Activities,” where players practice without pads on) over the past few days at the franchise’s training facility in suburban Metairie: the Saints need to be considered Super Bowl favorites in 2019 because of the coaching staff built and assembled by head coach Sean Payton in recent years.
— New Orleans Saints (@Saints) May 23, 2019
As Big Easy Magazine and the rest of local New Orleans media were allowed to attend and view the team’s only open OTA Practice yesterday (Thursday, May 23rd), the very first thing that immediately jumped out at me was the “booming” voice of brand new Saints Special Teams Coach Darren Rizzi; whose passion and “hands-on” coaching style is apparent to anyone that he speaks to.
The 48-year old Rizzi was hired away from the Miami Dolphins by the Black and Gold back in February after they decided to move on from their previous three-man working-trio of special-teams coaches from the past few seasons (Mike Westhoff, Bradford Banta, and Kevin O’Dea).
— New Orleans Saints (@Saints) April 26, 2019
He could be heard candidly sharing his thoughts with his players on little details such as their blocking technique, but it was his mannerisms and the very distinctive, unique way he’s able to get his point across to each one of them individually, that stood out. Rizzi is a bit more animated than some of the younger players on the team might be used to (which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, to be honest) but more importantly: it’s quite evident that he’s extremely passionate about his job.
However, you can say that about nearly every assistant coach on Payton’s current staff yesterday.
There was Saints’ defensive back/secondary coach, Aaron Glenn, shouting out encouragement to his safeties (Vonn Bell and Marcus Williams) on a particular pass coverage. Saints’ linebackers coach Mike Nolan conversing with the 7th Round rookie draft pick Kaden Elliss about how he needed to force a running back to the outside boundary instead of allowing him to cut back for more yards. Then there was Defensive Coordinator Dennis Allen, physically going into the huddle himself to make the call for the desired alignment that they were going to utilize for the next play.
Last but not least: Payton himself — in an instance where he appeared to be chewing out rookie 7th Round Draft pick tight end Alizé Mack for what appeared to be the fact that he had run the wrong route.
— Alizé Mack (@AlizeMack97) May 17, 2019
So what do you think happened next?
On the very next play, Saints QB Drew Brees hit Mack crossing over the middle of the field, and the 6-foot-5, 247-pound former University of Notre Dame star turned upfield for additional yards-after-the-catch for what would have been at least a 35-yard completion.
It goes without saying: Payton was effective in getting his point across, as the entire Staff seems to be able to do. The way in which the Saints organization communicates, teaches and instructs each and every one of their players one-on-one on an individual basis; has to be one of the very best in the entire sport of Pro Football at the moment — and it’s the clear-cut reason why they have to be a Super Bowl favorite once again this upcoming season.
OTHER NOTES AND OBSERVATIONS:
A total of four players didn’t practice: team veterans defensive end Cameron Jordan, right guard Larry Warford, and safety Chris Banjo all were given the day off (for unspecified reasons, but apparently none of which were injury-related), along with defensive tackle Sheldon Rankins. He, of course, wasn’t expected to participate while he recovers from the torn Achilles tendon that he suffered in the Divisional Playoff win over the Philadelphia Eagles in mid-January.
Also, second-year EDGE rusher/defensive end Marcus Davenport was there but was held out of drills as he recovers from a sore toe. Newly-signed free agents TE Jared Cook and RB Latavius Murray were there, and each had a moment or two that caught my eye.
Meanwhile, veteran WR Cam Meredith was present but was held out of practice while he worked off to the side with a personal trainer. But based on what I saw of him, Meredith’s knee appears to finally be fully recovered from his surgery for a torn ACL that kept him out of action for most of last season.
— Saints News Network™ (@SaintsNews) November 8, 2018
Given the uncertainty over the past few months surrounding the 26-year old Meredith since the Saints signed him as a restricted free agent over a year ago from the Chicago Bears (he even took a pay cut to remain with the team as their designated “slot WR” this season), Meredith’s progression and recovery has to be viewed as an encouraging sign for WR coach Curtis “CJ” Johnson and the offensive coaching staff, without any doubt.
MACK DADDY “IN THE HOUSE”
Got crawfish? pic.twitter.com/F9hJRQ8m8e
— Alizé Mack (@AlizeMack97) May 23, 2019
Speaking of the rookie tight end Alizé Mack: that young man is clearly a keeper, and the eventual new starter at the tight end position once the Jared Cook Era comes to an end in New Orleans. You can very clearly hear Mack on nearly every play, talking either to himself or to the man defending him, with on-field chatter/trash-talk, which he seems to do for the purpose of self-motivation.
One thing that what stood out to obviously was what a quick (and willing) learner he is, which undoubtedly bodes well for his future. Mack has a very bright future ahead of him (in my opinion) as a pass-catching weapon for the team in the passing game eventually; it’s just one more reason why the Black and Gold should now be set at the tight end position talent-wise for many seasons still to come. Without question, being mentored by Cook will be a huge benefit for him later down the line.
However, even more impressive is how he has chosen to FULLY EMBRACE the local New Orleans/Southeastern Louisiana culture, even though his heart will likely always belong to his native hometown of Las Vegas, Nevada.
Mack has very rapidly become quite popular and has become a fan favorite among Who Dats — and it’s one more reason why that the Saints should be excited to have him around for what will hopefully be a very long time.
WHO THE HECK WAS THAT GUY?
— Cyril Grayson Jr (@thec1_) May 10, 2017
Without question, the highlight plays of yesterday’s OTA practice belonged to former LSU track star and UDFA (undrafted free agent) wide receiver Cyril Grayson Jr., who blew right past Saints veteran safety Justin Hardee and 4th-Round rookie pick Saquan Hampton for what would have been a 75-yard TD pass from 4th string QB J.T. Barrett.
Grayson was signed by the Saints following their Rookie Mini-Camp last month, and it’s fairly evident why.
Grayson is a former four-time NCAA Track & Field national champion, and he was an integral part of four different championship 4×400 relay teams during his tenure in Baton Rouge, where he was an incredible seven-time All-American and became one of the most decorated athletes in Tigers sports history.
Even though he never played for the LSU football program or head coach Ed Orgeron, Grayson can run a 4.33-second 40-yard dash; undoubtedly, neither Hardee or Hampton were prepared for his blistering ability to fly down the sidelines and get open.
Will Grayson make the team’s Final 53-Man Roster at the end of the Pre-Season?
— The Advocate (@theadvocatebr) May 24, 2019
That would seem unlikely given the over-embarrassment of riches/abundance of talent that the Saints have at their disposal at the WR position currently. And clearly, Payton has his own thoughts about that; based on his comments to the local New Orleans media after practice had ended.
Q: What are you seeing from Cyril Grayson Jr., the LSU wide receiver so far?
(Payton): “Yeah, he’s a guy that can run exceptionally well. He was a little bit limited relative to the experience he’s had, but he’s been in a few camps now. So, I think the first thing is speed. We will have a chance to look at him in the return game as well. But, he is someone that runs exceptionally well, but he seemed to pick things up again quickly. He’s been with a few offenses already now, and I think this is his third (offense) in this league. So, we’ll take a look at him.”
Q: I know he (Cyril Grayson) was a track guy. What would you call it? Is it elite speed, even for this level?
“Well, it would probably be a little too early to say, but he runs well, which in our league is important. He runs exceptionally well.”
— Brandon Adam (@badam___) April 4, 2018
Q: You need to see him in pads too though?
“(Need to see) all of these guys. But look, he is behind (in football development). Just when you look at snaps played prior to coming into this league, and yet there is a trait there that other teams have seen and we too have seen the same thing. So we will look at them.”
While Payton and the coaching staff obviously do need to see the diminutive, 5-foot-9 inch, 183 pound Grayson in pads, it still would seem that the 25-year old appears to be a “shoo-in” candidate for a spot on the practice squad.
And to be totally honest, who knows what could happen between now and Labor Day weekend (when the team makes its final preseason roster cuts)?
After all, that’s what the purpose of these OTAs (besides the main goal of preparing for the upcoming season) are really all about.
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.