The New Orleans Saints have completed nearly a week’s worth of practices in their 2019 Training Camp after this morning’s Day #5 session, and there have been a handful of players so far — some that were expected, as well as some that most definitely were not expected — who have turned in some impressive performances.
With that in mind, this morning here at Big Easy Magazine we’re highlighting the five players who we believe have stood out most among them all, and we’re giving our take on how they might impact the team in the upcoming season and well into the future beyond.
EMMANUEL BUTLER, WIDE RECEIVER
— Garland Gillen (@garlandgillen) July 28, 2019
Without question, the one player that has been the most impressive so far in Saints Camp has been undrafted rookie wide receiver Emmanuel Butler. His rapid rise and emergence have been very impressive since signing with New Orleans.
At the moment, the former small school superstar would appear to be all but assured of earning one of the team’s available WR spots now that former veteran Cam Meredith is no longer with the team.
— New Orleans Saints (@Saints) July 29, 2019
Butler, who played at Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff, Arizona, — a FCS (Football Championship Subdivision) level school about two hours to the north of his hometown Phoenix — was a two-time All-American for the Lumberjacks program in the Big Sky Conference, holds the school’s single-season receiving yards record (1,208 receiving yards in 2015), and ranks first in career receiving yards and touchdowns at the school.
Butler played in 45 games during his five-year career at Northern Arizona, finishing with 187 receptions for 3,217 yards (17.2 avg.) and 33 touchdowns.
He isn’t necessarily the biggest and certainly is not the fastest of wide receivers that you’ll ever see, but what he can do is reliably catch everything thrown his way, and he makes BIG PLAYS with the ball after the catch.
That might remind some Who Dats of former Saints WR and team living legend Marques Colston. That’s intentional; Butler has said he patterns his game after Colston, and we all know Colston had incredible chemistry with Saints QB Drew Brees. That same type of chemistry was on display once again at yesterday’s practice as Butler made a leaping catch on a back-shoulder throw from Brees during 11-on-11 drills, while #1 CB Marshon Lattimore was all over him in pass coverage.
At this point, there seemingly isn’t anything that would prevent Butler from making the team (other than some sort of injury), as he continues his rapid rise. He looks poised to be around the NFL for a long time with the Black and Gold.
LATAVIUS MURRAY, RUNNING BACK
Without a doubt, several players have notably made impressions for the Black and Gold in their 2019 Training Camp thus far, and perhaps none more noteworthy than veteran RB Latavius Murray — who up to this point looks to be more than a suitable “replacement” for Saints former RB Mark Ingram, who left the organization in Free Agency this past off-season to play for the Baltimore Ravens.
Some Saints fans have been skeptical about Murray since the team signed him in Free Agency after he spent the last two seasons battling both inconsistent production as well as a series of nagging injuries, and ultimately lost the Minnesota Vikings #1 RB role to Dalvin Cook.
As a result: Minnesota decided not to re-new his 3rd-year team option, making him an unrestricted Free Agent. Last season Murray, the 6-foot-3, 230-pound “bruiser”, carried the ball 140 times for 578 yards and 6 touchdowns in 2018 with the Vikings. In his 6-year NFL career, first with the Oakland Raiders (who drafted him originally in 2013), Murray has carried the ball 899 times for 3,698 yards and 34 TDs.
But he has looked phenomenal thus far in Camp, running with power and authority.
— New Orleans Saints (@Saints) July 27, 2019
And undoubtedly: that was something that Saints head coach Sean Payton found gratifying as he shared his thoughts with the local media a few days ago after practice ended.
“It’s important to have depth at the position. We really like what we saw and we have a vision for what we think he does well. Is one player exactly taking Mark Ingram reps? I can’t tell you that right now,” Payton said.
#Saints HC Sean Payton on Latavius Murray "It's important to have depth at the position. We really like what we saw and we have a vision for what we think he does well. Is one player exactly taking Mark Ingram reps? I can't tell you that right now."
— Deuce Windham (@RevDeuceWindham) July 27, 2019
Murray was being sold a bit short by a portion of Saints fans who feel that he won’t be able to fully replicate the numbers that Ingram put up during his time with the Black and Gold. But he doesn’t have to. He just needs to be a solid contributor alongside 3rd-year superstar RB Alvin Kamara in the Saints running game — a task that he appears to be more than capable of achieving, and then some.
JARED COOK, TIGHT END
In the four years since the departure of former Saints All-Pro tight end Jimmy Graham (now with the Green Bay Packers), the high-powered offensive attack of the Black and Gold led by QB Drew Brees hasn’t quite gotten the production that it once did.
But one thing that has quickly become evident since the team signed 10-year NFL veteran tight end Jared Cook in NFL Free Agency: Brees and the offense could become absolutely lethal this upcoming season. So much so that it could see them finish ranked atop the League at #1 overall.
In spite of having turned 32 a few months ago, Cook has been one of the stand-out performers throughout the length of the team’s off-season training activities, and that trend has continued into Training Camp. The former Oakland Raiders star has been impressing both teammates and the offensive coaching staff alike. It’s become pretty apparent that the former University of South Carolina pass-catcher extraordinaire has a whole lot of proverbial gas left in his tank.
— Garland Gillen (@garlandgillen) July 28, 2019
Cook has made highlight play after highlight play ever since his arrival, and that trend continued as the team began practicing in full gear with pads on in Training Camp. Playing with Brees in head coach Sean Payton’s offensive scheme should provide Cook with a golden opportunity to put up numbers that could actually exceed his production last season with the Raiders when he caught 68 passes on 101 total targets for 896 yards and 6 TDs.
In his 10 NFL seasons, first with the Tennessee Titans (who originally drafted him in the 3rd Round of the 2009 NFL Draft), the Los Angeles Rams, Green Bay, and then with Oakland before he signed with New Orleans in late March, the 6-foot-5, 252-pound Cook has played in 149 games (with 77 starts) and has caught 425 receptions (on 711 total targets) for 5.464 yards and 25 TDs.
As we mentioned previously: although he’s in his early 30’s now, Cook remains one of the more athletic tight ends in the League. He still possesses adequate speed, allowing him to beat many linebackers and safeties, and his NBA “power forward”- like size makes him too big to defend one-on-one against most under-sized defenders.
Even at his “older” age, Cook is still athletic enough to run a (4.49) 40-yard dash time, and he is the perfect blend of size and speed to be a focal point of any type of offensive game plan. With teams focused on stopping Saints offensive superstars Michael Thomas and Alvin Kamara it potentially leaves Cook with an advantage, using his distinctive capabilities to completely embarrass opposing linebackers in open space.
Clearly, that’s what’s been happening throughout the off-season since Cook’s arrival in NOLA — and it’s the reason why the Saints offense could finish the upcoming 2019 Season ranked near the very top of the NFL.
(TIE) CHAUNCEY GARDNER-JOHNSON & SAQUON HAMPTON, DEFENSIVE BACKS
— B-Nard (@IshaboiBrandon) May 11, 2019
Saints fans get a bargain this morning with two more impressive players for the price of one, thanks to the emergence of not just one but TWO rookie defensive backs form their recent 2019 Draft Class: safety Chauncey Gardner-Johnson and cornerback/DB Saquon Hampton.
Johnson had originally been rated a Top 50 prospect coming into the 2019 NFL Draft process, but some “red flags,” including some which reportedly were over alleged character concerns (but were unfounded and never verified), caused him to fall down several team’s Draft Boards.
The notion that he’d somehow manage to fall into their laps all the way down into the 4th Round, however, was obviously something that Saints team brass never anticipated, which made the Cocoa, Florida native, and exciting young play-maker suddenly become a bargain that was simply too good for them to pass up.
Gardner-Johnson had been projected by some analysts to go from anywhere as high as the end of the 1st Round on the Opening Night of the draft, to the early part of the 2nd Round on Day #2 of the draft. But with this year’s class of players having been deep at so many different positions, the reality is CGJ might have been extremely underrated and definitely was being undervalued.
Make no mistake about it: based on everything we’ve seen of this young man so far, it’s quite evident that GGJ possesses elite-caliber ball-tracking skills, cover ability, and sound tackling principles and fundamentals.
With CGJ, Saints defensive coordinator Dennis Allen now has another chess piece to use for his secondary, since Gardner-Johnson not only can play up close to the line of scrimmage as a pass rusher or run defender (9 tackles for loss, three sacks in 2018, but also possesses elite-caliber “ball-hawk” safety skills in pass coverage as well. To that point: CGJ had a total of nine interceptions at Florida, including three that were returned for “Pick 6” touchdowns.
Those skills clearly been on display throughout the majority of the off-season, and have continued during the first week of Training Camp. But since Camp began, CGJ has been joined by Hampton, who after a relatively quiet and uneventful off-season has exploded onto the scene in his own right.
BOTH rookie DB's Chauncey Gardner-Johnson and Saquon Hampton making BIG PLAYS today
— Barry Hirstius (@BarryHirstius) July 28, 2019
Hampton is a solid safety and was a team captain at Rutgers University, but his true value to the Black and Gold might be that he’s considered by most NFL scouts to be an elite-caliber player on special teams — a special teams “ace” if you will — particularly on the kickoff and punt return coverage units. That, of course, is a trait that’s very near and dear to the heart of head coach Sean Payton.
But in the first few days of Training Camp, Hampton has also stood out while making great plays in pass coverage; and appears to have a lot more value as a defensive back than perhaps some had anticipated. Together, the two rookies make a formidable defensive duo, and undoubtedly it will be intriguing to watch their further development and see how they ultimately “fit” within the Saints secondary.
DREW BREES, QUARTERBACK
Some Saints fans may be surprised to see Brees on this list since it was originally believed by more than just a few observers and analysts that the now 40-year old Saints QB and future Hall-of-Famer allegedly had begun slowly exhibiting the signs of a physical decline at the end of last season.
But given how the 19-year NFL veteran has looked throughout the first week of this year’s Training Camp, it’s more than fair to say that the rumors of his eventual demise have been greatly exaggerated yet once again. His medium-range passes have been crisp and spot-on accurate, and all of his deep throws have been mostly on target, and he hasn’t shown any signs of the drop-off that he seemed to experience in the last few games of last season
— Garland Gillen (@garlandgillen) July 27, 2019
Brees has looked absolutely PHENOMENAL thus far, and if he is able to maintain this level/caliber of play throughout the remainder of the year, there’s no way to think that the Black and Gold won’t be one of the clear-cut favorites from the NFC to make it all the way to Super Bowl LIV in Miami next February.
To that point: Brees told ESPN Saints beat writer Mike Triplett in a one-on-one interview that he’s well aware of his age and the rumors and innuendos that come with that, but he is determined to prove all of his many doubters wrong, just as he has done for the majority of his entire NFL career as a player who most experts considered to be a physically under-sized (barely 6-foot-tall) quarterback
“I feel like I’m pretty aware of what you lose with the aging process. So everything I do from a training perspective, from a recovery perspective, is to combat that,” Brees said. “You just try to stay ahead of that curve”, Brees told Triplett.
“And so far, I feel like I’m beating it.”
Now granted, the decline of a player that is Brees’ age is usually inevitable, but modern-day sports medicine, along with advanced training techniques and methods have allowed QB’s especially, to now play well past the age of 40 — as evidenced by New England Patriots QB Tom Brady winning his record 6th Super Bowl victory at age 41 (Brady turns 42 right before the upcoming season) this past January.
Given Brees’ notable competitive “fire and desire” and unbridled passion for the sport of Pro Football, it would be absolutely FOOLISH and certainly unwise for of anyone to write him off as “washed up” at this point; and if he maintains this level of play that he has demonstrated in Training Camp so far, a 2nd Super Bowl title for the passionately-devoted fans in NOLA is a distinct possibility once next February finally rolls around.
Other Saints players that have stood out besides these five players listed above: CB Eli Apple. CB Kayvon Webster, TE Alizé Mack, WR Cyril Grayson. Jr., WR Simmie Cobbs, linebackers Demario Davis and Alex Anzalone, and nose tackle Malcom Brown.
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