Publisher’s Note: Nath Pizzolatto, our new sports editor, will be covering Saints football (and, eventually, Pelicans basketball for The Bayou Brief) until the team’s sweet, magnificent victory on February 4th of next year. Nath is the co-creator and publisher of the football website ZoneReads, a native of Lake Charles, and a lifelong Saints fan.
Our beloved New Orleans Saints play their third preseason game of the year Saturday night against the Houston Texans. The third preseason game is often the “dress rehearsal” game; whereas the other games are often used to evaluate newer, younger players and determine how to fill the back of the roster, the third game is when teams try to field their starting units for significant periods of time and work off any offseason rust to get ready for the time the games will count.
It’s also a time for teams to start sorting out their battles for starting positions. For the first Black and Gold Brief column, I wanted to look at a few of those positional battles and discuss who might end up starting for the team. Since the offense seems to have everyone more or less set in their roles, barring injuries or a major surprise, let’s look at the starting battles on the defensive side of the ball.
The biggest question here is: Who starts at defensive end opposite All-Pro Cameron Jordan? The Saints declined to break the bank looking for an answer at the position; despite a draft deep in pass-rushing talent, they didn’t use a selection on an end until late in the third round, using a pick they got from the Patriots in the Brandin Cooks trade on Florida Atlantic’s Trey Hendrickson. Henderson has the athletic profile you want to see in a pass rusher, although he’s only expected to play in a rotational role this year. The current leader for the starting job is Alex Okafor, signed as a free agent from the Arizona Cardinals, where he made a limited impact (although he did notch eight sacks in 2014). Okafor isn’t a world-beater, but he’s only 26 and has shown enough this preseason to think he can at least provide surplus value on his one-year, $2 million contract. Other players who may take snaps at the position include veteran free agent Darryl Tapp; young holdovers Obum Gwacham and Hau’oli Kikaha (Kikaha, a 2015 second-round pick, may also spend time at linebacker); and sixth-round selection Al-Quadin Muhammad.
The defensive tackle situation is simpler; unfortunately, that’s due in part to Nick Fairley’s previously undiagnosed heart condition, which will cause him to miss the season– and possibly to retire– just as he had signed a four-year contract to remain a Saint. Last year’s first-round pick Sheldon Rankins will main one spot; third-year man Tyeler Davison, the closest player on the roster to a traditional nose tackle, is listed at the other; but David Onyemata, a fourth-round pick last year out of Canada chosen as a project with immense athleticism, figures to take a lot of snaps as well. The last spot in the rotation is up for grabs; Tony McDaniel or Justin Zimmer seem like the most likely candidates.
Unhappy with the team’s performance here– as well as their failure to improve it through previous additions, such as Stephone Anthony and James Laurinaitis– GM Mickey Loomis and crew set out to previously revamp the position. The Saints made two major free-agent signings, Manti Te’o from San Diego (now Los Angeles) and A.J. Klein from Carolina, while using a third-round pick on Florida’s Alex Anzalone, a talented player who came out of school early and saw limited action in college due to injuries. Unfortunately, the team had to let go of Dannell Ellerbe due to injuries; when he remained on the field, he had been perhaps their most consistent players at the position since arriving from Miami.
The aforementioned Anthony, a 2015 first-round pick (the one from Seattle in the Jimmy Graham trade), has so far proven a bust, an athletic player without the necessary instincts or feel for the game. His roster spot could be in jeopardy. On the bright side, Craig Robertson remains with the team; he was signed last year simply as a special-teams player, but thrust into a greater role due to injuries (Ellerbe) and ineffectiveness (Anthony), he performed far beyond expectations. The only other linebacker of note is Michael Mauti, a special-teams ace likely to keep his roster spot for that reason but unlikely to play many defensive snaps.
If I had to guess, my prediction for the three starters would be: Klein, who signed a three-year contract on the first day of free agency to be an every-down linebacker; Te’o, who’s been a tackling machine this preseason; and Anzalone, who by most reports has taken the lead for the weak-side position with his instincts and range in coverage. (Robertson is likely to get the most snaps if any of them is injured or ineffective.) Te’o will be first off the field on passing downs; he’s more of a run-stopper who would be a liability in pass coverage.
In theory, the Saints’ trio of Delvin Breaux, Marshon Lattimore, and P.J. Williams ranks up there with the most talented in the NFL. In practice, the chances of getting all three on the field at the same time seem slim. Each has a long injury history: Williams has played a total of two games in two seasons; Lattimore had a series of hamstring injuries in college (a recurrence of which has already caused him to miss time in training camp). Then there’s Delvin Breaux, whose history many of you may know already.
Breaux famously injured his neck in a high school game and saw his football career derailed for years before signing with a CFL team in 2012 to revive it, eventually joining the Saints in 2015. Breaux played well when available; however, in 2016, he broke his fibula in the season opener, then injured his shoulder toward the end of the year, only playing six games in total. This year, he’s again suffered a broken fibula (one which was apparently misdiagnosed by team orthopedists, which led to their firing), and he may not be available for the regular season.
Breaux has been excellent when available. Lattimore is one of the top cornerback prospects to enter the draft in the last few years, perhaps behind only Jalen Ramsey in that regard. Williams has played soundly in the limited time he’s been on field and would be well above-average for a third cornerback. Again, though, the question remains: Can these three stay healthy, and who will play if they can’t?
The top three answers to the latter question right now seem to be Sterling Moore, Ken Crawley, and De’vante Harris. Moore was an undrafted journeyman who played for three teams before settling in New Orleans last year; injuries forced him into 12 starts, where he played surprisingly well given how far down the depth chart he started the season. Crawley and Harris were both rookie free agents last season, and as one would expect with rookie cornerbacks, they struggled but showed enough promise to justify keeping around. Moore’s performance last year makes me expect he’s a lock for a spot; Crawley and Harris might be competing for the last spot on the roster. The wild card is Damian Swann; the team traded a future pick to be able to select him in the fifth round in 2015, but a series of concussions has kept him out of action, and the team may just be writing him off at this point.
Kenny Vaccaro and Vonn Bell are listed as the starters, but the team used a high second-round pick on Marcus Williams, a wide-ranging coverage safety to contrast with Vaccaro’s play in the box and near the line of scrimmage, and with Bell’s flexibility to play either in coverage or closer to the line. Rafael Bush provides a good backup here; the Saints often used him as a third safety from 2012-14. The defense suffered when he was hurt in 2015; he left for Detroit the next year but is back in New Orleans now. This position is pretty set as far as who’s in place on the roster; the only question is how defensive coordinator Dennis Allen will deploy these four. (One long shot who could make the roster: Chris Banjo, whose special teams play in the preseason has had too much impact to ignore.)
While the defense is in a fair bit of upheaval, with only a few starting jobs set in stone, this could be a good thing for the Saints given the unit’s performance the last few years. Over the next two weeks there are still a number of jobs up for grabs; Saturday’s game should go a long way toward sorting them out. If the Saints can field even an average defense, they have a shot of returning to the playoffs.