Top 5 “Battles” to Watch in 2019 Saints Training Camp


Photo Credit: Barry Hirstius, Big Easy Magazine

With the arrival of the 4th of July weekend, the New Orleans Saints are now only three weeks away from the beginning of their 2019 Training Camp. The first padded practice in full gear is set to take place on Saturday morning, July 27th at the team’s practice facility in suburban Metairie.

The Saints had a 13-3 win-loss record and won a 2nd consecutive NFC South Division Championship in 2018, however, they will be heading into the 2019 NFL Season with a heightened sense of focus as they look to make another strong run at getting to the Super Bowl following their heart-breaking finish in the NFL playoffs in the past two postseasons.

Big Easy Magazine will be there in Metairie providing coverage. With that in mind here are our Top 5 “battles” to watch at 2019 Saints Training Camp, and a few thoughts about what you can expect to see take place with each one.

AN ENTIRE HANDFUL OF CHALLENGERS (5th AND FINAL WIDE RECEIVER SPOT)

This one could have also been titled: “Keith Kirkwood vs. Lil’Jordan Humphrey vs. Austin Carr vs. Simmie Cobbs vs. Emmanuel Butler vs. Cyril Grayson Jr. vs. Rishard Matthews (did you get all of that?). That’s assuming, of course, that 5th-year veteran Cam Meredith finally returns to action and assumes the #4 WR role that he was originally supposed to fill last year until he ended up on the injured reserve. Meredith was signed by New Orleans in 2018 as a restricted free agent when the Chicago Bears declined to match the Saints’ offer sheet.

Unfortunately, once the 2018 regular season began it became evident that his knee still hadn’t fully healed from the devastating injury that he had suffered with Chicago during the 2017 preseason. The Saints’ coaching staff has limited Meredith’s training regimen this past offseason, but he is not expected to have any restrictions when the team reports to camp. It’s important to note, however, that if for some reason Meredith turns out to be a free agent “bust” and can’t regain his previous form, there could be two wide receiver spots up for grabs this Summer instead of one

It’s already been established that Michael Thomas, Ted Ginn, Jr., and Tre’Quan Smith are the top of the WR’s depth chart, as long Meredith proves that he’s finally ready to fulfill his role as the “big slot” receiver and secure the #4 spot. That will leave last year’s incumbent at the #5 WR spot — the previously-mentioned Kirkwood — to fend off all of those names listed above. That might be too much competition for Kirkwood to beat out, and unless the Saints decide to keep an additional 6th WR spot (a very rare occurrence), the “battle” for the final WR spot will most likely be the one to watch above all others.

CHAUNCEY GARDNER-JOHNSON VS. P.J. WILLIAMS (“SLOT” CORNERBACK)

By now most Who Dats are familiar with the rookie sensation Chauncey Gardner-Johnson who was a noted “ball-hawk” safety and big-time play-maker at the University of Florida. Amazingly, he was still available somehow for the Black and Gold to snag in the 4th Round of the recent 2019 NFL Draft.

“CGJ” however possesses obvious 1st Round caliber talent, and he quickly wowed observers and the coaching staff alike, starting at the team’s rookie mini-camp and earned praise from both his position coach (secondary/defensive backs coach Aaron Glenn) and head coach Sean Payton. Johnson’s rapid progression has led to him being moved around like a chess-piece within the unit’s variety of coverages within their scheme, but his biggest impact should be at the “slot CB” spot. Tenth-year veteran Patrick Robinson is the current designated starter at that position, but he returns to the role this season after missing the majority of last season on injured reserve.

That leaves the battle that’s expected to take place between now-5th-year veteran P.J. Williams — who ended up playing well after he initially struggled for the first few games in place of Robinson — and the rookie Gardner-Johnson as one of the more hotly-contested battles of Camp and the upcoming 2019 preseason. At this point, it would seem that “CGJ” is destined to become a starter at some point this season, especially considering that he can be used in other substitution packages on defense at safety or the hybrid linebacker position, as well as a key contributor on special teams.

“T-REX” TREY HENDRICKSON VS. CARL GRANDERSON (BACK-UP DEFENSIVE END/EDGE RUSHER)

This is a 2019 Saints Training Camp “battle” that might not be as notable as some of the others but promises to be intense nevertheless. Hendrickson, who the Black and Gold originally drafted in the 3rd Round of their unforgettable and franchise-altering 2017 Draft, hasn’t quite lived up to the potential as a pass-rushing specialist that the organization had hoped he would, making this year’s Camp and Pre-Season a critical one for the former Florida Atlantic University star.

“T-Rex” has shown some flashes and little glimpses of obvious capability as a speed rusher on passing downs, but he’s been unable to have any meaningful impact as of yet during his first two and a half years spent in New Orleans. That leaves the door wide open for another player who is equally or possibly better-suited for the task.

New Orleans might have gotten that player when they signed the undrafted rookie Carl Granderson, who was a top-rated pass rusher at the University of Wyoming, and is possibly an even better run defender than Hendrickson. One potential stumbling block for Granderson — whom Saints team brass gave a $70,000 guarantee and a $15,000 signing bonus and who has looked extremely impressive so far throughout the off-season workouts and last month’s Mini-Camp — is that he still is facing charges on one count of third-degree sexual assault and one count of sexual battery against two alleged victims that are students at Wyoming.

Granderson has pleaded innocent to both counts but is awaiting a trial that begins on July 15th (he went undrafted due to the pending charges, although he had been originally projected to be a mid-round pick). It should be mentioned, however, that Saints officials believe that Granderson has a good chance at being found innocent of the charges or possibly having them dropped altogether; it wouldn’t have made any sense for them to have offered him the guaranteed money and signing bonus, otherwise.

MARCUS SHERELS VS. DEONTE HARRIS (PUNT RETURNER)

This is yet another example of a Saints Training Camp “battle” that deserves a lot more coverage and attention than it might end up getting from the mainstream media. Sherels has been one of the very best punt returners in the entire NFL in the last few seasons during his time with the Minnesota Vikings, where he played his first nine seasons.

The Saints signed the 31-year old defensive back and special teams stand-out in Free Agency a few months ago, and undoubtedly did so in part thanks to the fact that Sherels has played in 120 games and returned 231 punts for 2,447 yards; has tallied 5 career touchdowns off of punt returns and has averages 10.6 yards per return throughout the length of his professional career; and, oh by the way: in the 2018 Season he had six punt returns of 20 yards or more, which tied him for 2nd most in the NFL.

But Sherels isn’t “penciled in” for the permanent punt returner role just yet; he’ll have the next several weeks to try and outshine Harris, the diminutive (5-foot-6, 170-pound) former Division II “superstar” who excelled as a wide receiver at Assumption College who was considered one of the most prolific punt returners in NCAA history.

The 22-year old Harris set the NCAA All-Division career record for combined return touchdowns on both punts and kickoffs (14); he also owns the NCAA Division II single-season record of (8) return touchdowns, which he set in his junior season in 2017. Overall, in 45 career college games, Harris returned a total of 48 punts for 981 yards (20.4 avg.) and eight touchdowns. This is a battle that likely could go down to the proverbial wire, with the player that makes the biggest and most memorable plays on both punt returns and special teams eventually emerging as the team’s new designated return specialist.

TEDDY BRIDGEWATER VS, TAYSOM HILL (BACK-UP/#2 QUARTERBACK)

Last but not least, we come to the back-up/#2 quarterback spot, which technically won’t be considered a “battle” in Training Camp and the preseason since the Saints coaching staff has all but declared that Bridgewater will be the starter if something (God forbid) were to happen to the now 40-year old Drew Brees. But not to be forgotten is the fact that there’s also 3rd-string QB and popular “jack-of-all-trades” versatile player Taysom Hill who is behind Bridgewater on the QB depth chart, but who still hasn’t given up hope on becoming the “heir apparent” as the next starting QB for the franchise after Brees eventually retires.

Bridgewater has had a stellar offseason by most accounts. During Brees’ absence in Mini-Camp last month he had some impressive performances during practice and team drills that solidified his place as the primary back-up. But Hill has looked very sharp at times in his own right, and it’s quite obvious that he has been working diligently on improving his QB skills/mechanics, particularly with touch and accuracy on his passes — something which he didn’t always demonstrate in the past, and not nearly as much as he was able to get by mainly on pure athleticism alone during his “break out” season last year.

Unless Bridgewater himself gets hurt again or has a terrible performance in Training Camp, the #2 QB role is his to lose at this point, and there’s no reason otherwise to suspect that the team would elevate Hill to the back-up role over Bridgewater, unless he has some phenomenal or unbelievable performances in one of the preseason games next month to change the minds of the offensive coaching staff.

But what will be interesting to watch is whether or not Hill can make the more impressive showing in these next several weeks to make them have a “change of heart”. Keep in mind: there are more than just a few well-respected observers and analysts who cover the League, who still feel that the Saints’ next starting QB after Brees retires is playing in college somewhere. Nevertheless, the “battle” between the two talented passers will be one of the more intriguing ones to watch, when Saints 2019 Training Camp arrives in just three weeks from now.


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. Follow him on Twitter: @BarryHirstius

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