The New Orelans Saints have built one of the best rosters in the NFL, and that means it’ll be difficult for young rookies to find a role for themselves — even in a normal offseason, much less the bizarre one we’re experiencing due to the Covid-19 coronavirus pandemic.
That might explain why the Saints were so careful in their draft strategy, burning multiple picks in a series of trades to add instant-impact prospects. While they were also active in pursuing undrafted free agents, it would be surprising if many of them made the team.
But few fans expected Shy Tuttle or Carl Granderson to earn regular season snaps this time last year. No one thought Deonte Harris would go on to win All-Pro recognition and a Pro Bowl roster spot. Who could follow in their footsteps?
To find out, we surveyed the 2020 Saints rookie class and ranked them to make our best guess at who might shine this year:
Two things are true, here:
- Gillikin was a very good punter at the college level
- Gillikin is the first punter to join Thomas Morstead in training camp since Morstead’s rookie year
Now, that doesn’t mean Gillikin is anything other than a training camp leg (the Saints ended up acquiring Wil Lutz from a similar situation when the Baltimore Ravens tried him out). But it is worth noting that he isn’t just some random name the Saints drew out of a hat.
Still, we’d be shocked if Gillikin unseats Morstead. It’s tough to imagine anyone but Morstead leading the punt unit these days.
There might not be any new faces at cornerback this year, with the Saints’ waiver wire pickup of Janoris Jenkins late in 2019 looking better every day. Jenkins and Marshon Lattimore are a stellar starting duo, with P.J. Williams looking to hold onto his job as the nickel against Patrick Robinson and XFL pickup Deatrick Nichols.
That leaves just one possible spot for someone like Ellis to make a splash: special teams, where Justin Hardee has been dominant while converting to cornerback from wide receiver the last few years. While Ellis has some ball skills and a more extensive background in playing corner, Hardee is one of the better gunners you’ll find around the NFL.
Like Ellis, Washington has his work cut out for him if he’s going to make the 53-man roster. The rookie has to adjust quickly from life in the Big-12 to the NFL in one of the pro level’s strongest divisions at wide receiver. Fortunately, he won’t be asked to start right away, or even chip in much outside of special teams.
One interesting angle to keep in mind is that the Saints don’t have much depth at cornerback in players who focus on the boundary; most of their backups are slot specialists. If Washington can prove a better option than Hardee, Ellis, or some of the others in covering routes outside the slot, he might be able to make a case for a roster spot.
Jones had a reputation as a bruiser at Notre Dame, but he’s also drawn comparisons to former Saints folk hero Pierre Thomas for his abilities on passing downs. Jones has shown a willingness to pick up blitzing defenders in pass protection while also making plays on the occasional screen pass, which was Thomas’s bread-and-butter. But Jones will have to show off more consistency than you’ll see in his college tape to make the squad.
It doesn’t help that he’s already buried on the depth chart, behind well-entrenched starters Alvin Kamara and Latavius Murray, with returning names like Dwayne Washington and Taquan Mizzell joined by free agent pickup Ty Montgomery. If Jones does have one trump card, it’s his ball security — he never fumbled once on 310 touches at Notre Dame.
The Saints have a solid depth chart at defensive end, with Cameron Jordan and Marcus Davenport bookending the line while Trey Hendrickson gets some action on obvious passing downs. If Cumberlander is going to make the cut, he’ll have to outshine backups like Mario Edwards Jr. and Carl Granderson, as well as veteran free agent Margus Hunt.
But Cumberlander does have a few things going in his favor. He started red-hot as a senior in 2019 before a leg injury cut him down, and his rare size (6-foot-7, 265 pounds) lines up well with the prototype the Saints have favored recently. He’s naturally strong in run defense and shouldn’t be counted out.
While Magee only started 20 games in college (spending most of his time backing up other future NFL players), 15 of those contents were spent lined up at left guard, and the rest at left tackle with a cameo here or there on the right side. That versatility has been a theme for most of the rookie linemen the Saints picked up this year, and it should serve Magee as well as anyone else.
His path to making the team would involve outplaying veteran backups like Will Clapp, Cameron Tom, and Patrick Omameh as well as his more-accomplished peers like Calvin Throckmorton and Jordan Steckler. It’s going to be an intense competition, and Magee might end up with a practice squad spot before getting called up for other opportunities.
Paulo started his senior year at left tackle after mostly playing on the right side for the Utes, pitching a number of shutouts in pass protection (allowing no pressures in 13 of his final 27 games). That resume compared with his rare size (6-foot-5 with 34 7/8-inch arms) is as good a place as any to start out in the NFL.
He’s in direct competition with Ethan Greenidge and Patrick Omameh to back up Terron Armstead at left tackle, and hopefully one of them will emerge as a better option than shifting Andrus Peat out of the left guard spot to fill in at tackle. The Saints have gotten by with that strategy before, but it would be great if one absence didn’t impact two different spots on the offensive line.
Johnson might recall Brandon Coleman, the former Rutgers standout who turned in a few solid years for the Saints after joining them as an undrafted free agent. Like Coleman, Johnson did most of his work in college as a blocker out on the edge, creating opportunities for teammates to pick up yards after the catch.
But that’s not to say Johnson never made plays for himself. He caught seven passes for 106 yards against USC last year, scoring three touchdowns in one night. He’ll need to catch that lightning in another bottle if he’s going to climb the Saints depth chart, which makes him more of a candidate for the practice squad — the same route Coleman once took to earning snaps.
Roach would have had much greater odds of making the team a year or two ago, but the Saints have consistently hit on roster moves along the interior defensive line, and there just aren’t many spots available. The top four are locked in between David Onyemata, Sheldon Rankins, Malcom Brown, and Shy Tuttle, leaving maybe one more vacancy.
If Roach is going to claim it, he has to defeat a couple of practice squad call-ups in Taylor Stallworth and Jalen Dalton. He doesn’t have the NFL experience of either of them, but Roach did play well at Texas and has a shot at making a great first impression in training camp.
Callaway is a deep threat in the mold of Devery Henderson and Robert Meachem, having ranked fourth in the SEC in yards picked up on targets 20-plus yards downfield (365). If Tennessee had fielded better quarterback play, that total would’ve risen substantially.
And, stop us if you’ve heard this before, but the Saints have found success with underutilized weapons out of Tennessee. Alvin Kamara can attest to that.
It’s anyone’s guess whether Drew Brees still has what it takes to stretch the field and test defenses out past the sticks, but if he can put the ball in Callaway’s range then the underrated rookie could carve out a role for himself.
Things are wide-open at wide receiver for the Saints after Michael Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders, but there are so many players ahead of Callaway with NFL experience that he might struggle to stand out in training camp.
Steckler may not have as extensive starting experience as other reserves along the Saints offensive line, but he does have a background in lining up at both guard spots and right tackle. He’s in competition with Throckmorton and Kelly to back up Ramczyk, and his impressive numbers in pass protection last year (just six pressures allowed in 434 snaps) bode well for his future.
However, the Saints have a lot of players like Steckler as it is. He’ll need to show competence when lined up inside and out, handling a range of responsibilities once the Saints kick off training camp. Like with Throckmorton, his ability to move around to different positions is valuable.
The Saints are in a similar spot at linebacker as at defensive tackle, but there are more backup jobs available after special teams captain Craig Robertson. Bachie is as good a candidate as any to make the cut thanks to his heady style of play. Now he’ll have to show whether he has the athleticism to keep up with NFL opponents on special teams.
That’s how Kaden Elliss earned a roster spot last year, and he’ll be looking to do it again after going down with an early-season knee injury. So too will Chase Hansen (who spent the year recovering from back surgery) and Andrew Dowell (another practice squad call-up). Bachie won’t be lacking for competition.
Stevens is in a very unique situation. He’s not here to show he can compete with Drew Brees and Jameis Winston in passing drills so much as to prove he can mimic Taysom Hill as a runner, receiver, blocker, and maybe chip in on special teams. And that’s kind of a lot to ask.
He was once the guinea pig for Hill’s versatile playbook when former Saints assistant Joe Brady coached him at Penn State, and Sean Payton took pains to keep Brady from reuniting with Stevens in Carolina. If the Saints try and sneak Stevens onto their practice squad, Brady’s Panthers would have an opportunity to poach him off of waivers.
So while Stevens is far from a roster lock, he does have a clear path to earning a spot on the opening-day depth chart. His training camp storyline is one to watch.
Throckmorton has started games at every offensive line spot in college, and was dinged for just one sack allowed on more than 3,200 snaps in pass protection. He’s a great candidate to push 2019 practice squad member Derrick Kelly as the understudy for Ryan Ramczyk at right tackle (Throckmorton’s most-common position).
But there’s plenty of opportunities for him in New Orleans, even if Throckmorton’s length issues become a problem in training camp (he measured in with just 32 1/2-inch arms). He could be an asset as a backup guard and center, giving the Saints another young option along with Erik McCoy and Cesar Ruiz. Two of the best qualities for a young lineman are versatility and availability, and Throckmorton has those in spades.
For now, Trautman is the future of the tight end position in New Orleans. Co-starters Jared Cook and Josh Hill are each headed for free agency in the next two offseasons (Cook in 2021, Hill in 2022), creating the ideal path for Trautman to develop and earn playing-time.
It’ll be fascinating to see whether the small-school prospect can hit the ground running. He shouldn’t be expected to make much of an impact in his first year in the NFL, but Trautman’s well-rounded skills as a receiver could turn into scoring opportunities here and there, considering how many weapons the Saints can field at once to draw attention from him.
Baun broke out in a big way last season, and he’s hoping to carry that momentum into Saints training camp. While he did most of his damage near the line of scrimmage as a pass rusher, Baun showed enough flashes in run defense and route coverage on film to convince the Saints he can handle a broader range of responsibilities. He’ll need to prove exactly that once he’s on the practice field.
There’s room for him to start in New Orleans, too. While the Saints typically field just two linebackers at a time (preferring the flexibility of an extra defensive back), both Kiko Alonso and Alex Anzalone ended the year with injuries last season. Baun will start camp on even footing with both of them as everyone auditions for the right to play next to Demario Davis this season.
Yeah, this year’s first-round draft pick is a lock to make the team. He should be seen as a lock to start right away, too; the only question is whether Ruiz will remain at his natural position at center or shift to right guard, replacing Larry Warford. A training camp battle with Erik McCoy (last year’s top draft choice, who a