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Most Crucial Matchups As The Saints Take On The Chargers

The Saints have joint practices with the Los Angeles Chargers this week, followed by a preseason game on Sunday. There are likely to be more important things to take from the practices than the game itself. As HC Dennis Allen has already stated he feels the joint practices are where they get their best work during training camp.

So what matchups are to most important to monitor? I’ve got 5 here that I think will tell us a lot regarding the development of some of the players most linked to the Saints success this season.

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Trevor Penning Vs Khalil Mack and Joey Bosa

Trevor Penning has been developing nicely so far this off-season, Hes only missed 1 practice so far after missing all of OTAs and minicamp recovering from the foot injury he sustained at the end of last season, and he saw extended snaps in the preseason opener. Per PFF Penning saw 23 snaps in the opener 11 as a run blocker and 12 as a pass blocker giving up zero pressures on those 12 pass blocking snaps.

He will have a stiffer test on his hands this week though, with Joey Bosa and Khalil Mack. Both rush from both sides of the line so Penning should see a lot of both players. Both are skilled, athletic and powerful rushers who have dominated the NFL in a multitude of ways for a number of years. They will give Penning a real test and it will be a good gauge of where Penning is with his development.

We do need to temper expectations on this. Penning is likely to take his lumps over the coming days against Mack and Bosa and the sign that he is developing is not that he wins every rep but that he holds his own in pass protection and gets some wins, at this stage Penning just needs reps and reps against this level of competition will only work in his favour.

Juwan Johnson Vs Derwin James

Derwin James is the Taysom Hill of defense, in 2022 he took snaps at FS, SS, Slot Cornerback, Outside Cornerback, Linebacker and as a pass rusher. Except he is slightly different to Taysom in that he might be elite at every single one of these spots. He is a matchup player in Brandon Staley’s defense and is used a lot due to his size to match up with athletic TEs.

Cometh Juwan Johnson who is soaring right now towards a pro bowl calibre season. He’s been excellent in camp and his chemistry with Carr looked to be fermenting along nicely, on the first drive vs the Chiefs on Sunday.  For him to continue this momentum and meet these lofty expectations that I and many other Saints fans are setting for him, he needs to be able to win these kinds of matchups. 

At times last season as a relatively unknown player, it felt like Johnson was a player the defense forgot, that will not be the case this season with more tape for teams to watch and the fact that teams (especially the Chargers) know that Derek Carr loves to throw to the TE.  Every opposing defense will be prepared for Johnson to be a focal point of the Saints’ attack and will plan for that accordingly. 

Carl Granderson/ Payton Turner Vs Rashawn Slater

Carl Granderson and Payton Turner have both had really strong training camps and have given media and fans hope that finally, the DE position opposite Cam Jordan will be in good hands. Both were solid in the preseason opener, especially Turner who hit a filthy spin move to clatter poor old Blaine Gabbert on Sunday.

This week though they will be facing a different animal in Rashawn Slater, who was a second-team all-pro as a rookie which is incredibly hard to do as usually O-linemen are not recognised that early in their careers. He missed most of last season with a triceps injury and has been reportedly dominating camp so far. 

If Granderson and Turner manage to have some success against Slater this week then that is an accurate indication that they are for real and that the Saints pass rush will be a force once again. If they are stonewalled it doesn’t necessarily mean that the promising camp has been a lie but it would just mean we need to bring our expectations back down a little.

Mike Thomas Vs Everyone 

This will be the first time we will see Mike Thomas for extended snaps against anyone other than the Saints CBs, specifically Marshon Lattimore.  Yes, Thomas played in the preseason opener but only 12 snaps, of those 12 snaps only 8 were passing plays. So an extended look at Thomas against a solid but not elite secondary like he’s been used to facing in Saints camp.

Thomas has had plenty of time to ramp up and build chemistry with Carr. now so it’s important that we start to see some results. There’s a lot riding on Thomas this year as the depth is quite behind him and doesn’t appear as strong as we suspected it would be. Shaheed’s injury and the other vets not really stepping up does put a bit more pressure on Thomas to be at least part of the player he used to be, if he’s going to be this week would be a great time to show it.

Adebo and Taylor Vs Chargers WRs

Paulson Adebo and Alontae Taylor are still in a close battle for CB2 spot opposite Marshon Lattimore. the next test comes in the shape of a pretty loaded Chargers WR room, led by Keenan Allen and Mike Williams, with 1st round rookie Quentin Johnston and Josh Palmer as explosive 3rd and 4th options. 

Adebo is still out in front currently but Taylor who was the pre-camp favourite has started to claw his way back in the race, some might look at his spotty performance against the Chiefs as a factor in this race but the only part that mattered was Taylor’s play on the outside (he tipped the pass that resulted in the interception whilst playing outside CB) the fact that he played poor in the slot does not factor in this battle.

Another reason it’s a bit week for this battle? quite often joint practices bring out the officials. This will help to decide if Adebo is being too physical and winning reps where in a game he would have been called for a hold.

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What I’ll Be Watching In The Saints Preseason Opener

Finally, we have Saints football to watch as the Saints open the preseason against the defending SuperBowl champion Chiefs. Yes, it’s the pre-season but there is still plenty we can take from the action. These are the 5 things ill be keenly watching this Sunday. 

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How Does The First String Offense Look

Dennis Allen has already confirmed that we will see the starters on Sunday Vs the Chiefs, Jeff Duncan from, tweeted that he’s hearing the starters will play around 15 snaps. 

Jeff Duncan on Twitter: “Sounds like the plan is for the Saints’ starters to play about 15 snaps in the preseason opener vs. K.C. on Sunday, with the 2s getting roughly 25 snaps and the 3s finishing out the game.” / X

That means we get to see Derek Carr for the first time in a Saints jersey and would be nice to see an efficient and effective display (similar to Winston against the Jags last pre-season). We should also see Mike Thomas back in game action, Thomas hasn’t been his usual dominant self so far in camp, game action against CBs other than Marshon Lattimore will be a good gauge of where Thomas is at. It goes without saying the ceiling of this team is a lot higher if Thomas is on form, if not I do have concerns about the depth at WR.

Part of the starting offense should be LT Trevor Penning another player who lifts the ceiling of this team considerably. He’s had two significant foot injuries one on each foot meaning he missed a lot of his rookie season. Time on task is the order of the off-season for Penning as mental reps will only get him so far. It sounds like the Chiefs will also play their starters to begin the game, so should be a good test for Penning, especially in pass protection which so far, he requires more work on compared to his already dominant run blocking. 

Along with Penning the overall play of the starting O-line is really something to monitor, the reports from camp are that the D-line has dominated, this game should give us some idea of if the D-line is just that good or the O-line is something we should be concerned about.

Finally, Chris Olave and Alvin Kamara have both had dominant training camps per reports, Olave has gained weight to be stronger in contested catch situations and Kamara has a new trainer who has reportedly brought back his infamous burst, again would be nice to see these results in a game.

The CB2 battle

Entering the off-season, I expected this battle to already be over, after Alontae Taylor’s impressive rookie season and Paulson Adebo’s sophomore slump the CB2 spot looked to be Taylor’s to lose. So far in camp, Taylor looks to have done just that, Adebo a camp star a year ago has again been excellent and Taylor has started slow, but has improved in recent practices, but overall Adebo is ahead.

Game action is important in this battle as Adebo is notoriously physical in practice which means at times he wins reps in a dominant fashion which makes him standout. Without refs present it’s hard to tell if his physicality is just enough or a bit too much. If, as the pre-season goes along Adebo is walking the line to closing leading to flags that would change the complexion of this battle in Taylor’s favour. Sunday is the start of a long road ahead to decide who CB2 opposite Marshon Lattimore will be.

The Backup Safety Battle

The top of the depth chart is set with Tyrann Mathieu, Marcus Maye and special teams star J.T. Gray. Behind them, 5th-round rookie Jordan Howden seems to be locked in too. Howden has received first-team reps at both Safety spots when Mathieu and Maye have been absent and has also been the first-choice DIME DB throughout the summer.

That makes 4, leaving most likely 2, maybe 3 roster spots up for grabs, the amount the Saints keep will depend on A). how they plan to run their special teams this year (i.e. more LBs or more DBs) and B). if Marcus Maye ends up being suspended.

Leaving, Lonnie Johnson Jr., Jonathan Abram, Ugo Amadi and Smoke Monday to fight for those spots and all three have had bright moments in camp. All 4 should feature on special teams and all 4 bring very different skill sets. I had Johnson Jr and Amadi making the initial 53 in my most recent projection (link to that here to see my reasons

However, since I wrote this Monday has been on a tear. So it’s really turning into one of the most interesting and unpredictable positions groups on the team, where it’s likely only game action will be able to give us a clearer picture. With Mathieu and Maye both getting up there in age and both with only 2 years left on their deals, it doesn’t hurt to have one eye on the future here too to see if the Saints may have a succession plan for one or both already on the roster.

The New Look D-Line

The Saints drafted Bryan Bresee and Isiah Foskey with their first two picks in this year’s draft and added Nathan Shepherd and Khalen Saunders in FA but that’s the only reason I’ve labelled the D-line as ‘new look’. 

Mike Triplett wrote an article for explaining that HC Dennis Allen alongside new D-line coach Todd Grantham wanted to defensive front to be more attacking and aggressive. DA has also commented that he thinks they had gone a little overboard with their weight expectations, meaning that players met with Matt Rhea the Saints Director of sports science to work out the player’s ideal playing weight with many players losing around 8 lbs.

This means the D-line should have more burst and athleticism whilst still being a bigger line than most. Of the new faces, I am most excited to see first-round pick Bryan Bresee, who by all accounts has transitioned well so far to the NFL world. He’s got an ELITE first step which I think is going to produce some wow plays this season, Sunday against possibly 3rd/4th string lineman? look out!

Finally, are Granderson and Turner for real? both have had really good camps so far, Granderson especially. Similar to my question earlier regarding the O-line is this true growth at a position the Saints really need or is this a product of poor O-line play?

Quick Hitters

LB Depth- Has Baun finally developed? (although we’ve been fooled by his preseason play before) who’s ahead? Nephi Sewell or D’Marco Jackson? as the man backup behind Demarion Davis and Pete Werner.

Jake Haener – One of ‘My Guys’ leading up to the draft has been excellent in camp so far, does that continue in-game action? this might be the most excited I’ve been to watch 3/4th stringers because of solely Haener.

Kendre Miller– I think a lot of people on the national stage are going to be talking about him once they see him play.

Who the hell is WR5/6??– I thought this might finally have been the year Tre’Quan Smith was knocked off the roster, that doesn’t appear to be the case and Smith seems locked in as the WR4 but who is going to grab the bull by the horns and take the last 1 or 2 spots? prime candidates, A.T. Perry, Keith Kirkwood, Bryan Edwards and James Washington.

Is Jimmy Graham making this team?- It sounds like Graham could have a specialised role on this team (RedZone, 3rd downs etc…) but as a 36-year-old TE who didn’t play last season is not usually a recipe for success.

People kicking the ball- There is an open competition at both Kicker and Punter with both of the vets currently out in front but will game action change that? or further cement their lead?

Who’s returning kicks?- With Rashid Shaheed injured, do the Saints have anyone who could earn a roster spot as a returner?

i think ill leave my ramblings there, as you can probably tell I’m way excited about this preseason game.

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5 Key Storylines To Watch At Saints Training Camp

Whether you’ve kept yourself plugged in this offseason or you’re just now returning to the NFL media cycle this article has you covered with all the key storylines I’ll be watching (and you should be too) when the full Saints roster finally returns to the field on Wednesday 26th July.

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Is Michael Thomas Finally Healthy?

No, you have not transported back in time, sadly we are still talking about Michael Thomas’ health rather than his pure dominance on the field. At one point early this offseason I didn’t think I would be writing about Michael Thomas in Saints uniform again. With a hefty cap hit and still health in question it looked like Thomas’ time in New Orleans was over but, the arrival of Derek Carr (more on him shortly) and Thomas’ under-reported thirst to still play in the black and gold brought him back on a re-done incentive ladened 1-year contract. 

Meaning here we are again, with the question on the tip of everyone’s tongue is he healthy and back to his dominant best? Well, all signs are positive on that front Thomas unexpectedly was on the field during OTAs giving all Saints fans hope that he is finally back and can put together a full complement of offseason practices for the first time since before the 2020 season. 

Now let’s be measured with our expectations, does he need to be full go on day one? Ideally yes that would be great but we’ve seen what happens when Thomas has been rushed back on the field too soon before, he was lost for the whole 2021 season, so there’s no harm in the Saints bringing Thomas along slowly and if they do there shouldn’t be a huge amount of concern. However, if there isn’t positive progress being made throughout the first week it will feel a little too familiar for Saints fans.

Of course, him being on the field is huge for the Saints with no other true X WR on the roster. His Rapport with Carr already seems strong, according to multiple Saints media outlets he was working off to the side with Carr for a good deal of OTAs but we are yet to see him run full-speed routes against CBs. Therefore the enticing prospect of a three-receiver set of Thomas, Chris Olave and Rashid Shaheed is just that, a prospect, thats why this is the first storyline i will be watching in the first week of camp.

How does Derek Carr look?

The Saints did the right thing in my opinion making the first splash signing of the 2023 season by signing Carr to a 4 year deal, which I think was a really good deal for not only Carr but the Saints as well. He fits the Saints system perfectly as the Saints system shares a lot of DNA with Jon Gruden’s and Carr had some of the best years of his career during Gruden’s tenure as the Raiders HC.

Now we know the theory of the signing was good, now we need to see the results on the field. The early reports were great in OTAs, Carr was showing good command of the offense already making checks at the line of scrimmage to get the offense into more advantageous plays, which is something I’m sure will continue with more time to gel with the playbook, OC Pete Carmichael Jr AKA Sneaky Pete and the weaponry around him. 

It goes without saying how important Carr is to the success of the Saints season so it’s crucial that he gets off to a good start in training camp.

Is The D-Line Back?

Since 2017 we have become used to seeing the Saints dominate upfront, getting pressure regularly only sending four rushers and stifling run defense. Unfortunately, this changed in 2022. With no meaningful push from the d-line outside of Cam Jordan, the Saints relied mainly on their creative use of LBs Kaden Elliss and Demario Davis and other blitzers to get pressure and unusually struggled against the run. The former is no longer on the team and is playing for some team with a disgusting bird logo and the latter is the same as Cam is 34 years old. Meaning the Saints need to see significant improvements from the rest of the line.

The Saints clearly saw the drop in play too and made a concerted effort this offseason to bring in new faces. The Saints added DTs Khalen Saunders and Nathan Shepherd in free agency after losing both David Onyemata and Shy Tuttle to division rivals. Saunders has shown promise as a pass rusher but should fit more as the dominant run stuffer that the Saints have missed since Malcom Brown left a couple of seasons ago. Shepherd is more of an unknown and has looked really good for stretches, especially as a pass rusher but has only been a part-time player for most of his career so far.

These moves were followed up with the additions of DT Bryan Bresee and DE Isiah Foskey with their first two picks in this year’s draft. Add those to DE Carl Granderson who really came on strong to end the 2022 season and is pencilled in as the current starter opposite Jordan. Former 1st round pick Payton Turner who is nose-diving towards bust status but has shown a couple of flashes to keep you hoping. That gives puts this position group high on the list of things to keep an eye on during camp as this unit could easily end up being the Achilles heel that derails the Saints high hopes for the 2023 season.

The Health Of The O-Line

Speaking of Achilles heels, sadly the o-line also falls into this category too. However, unlike the D-line the question mark isn’t talent but health. Starting RG Cesar Ruiz has been present but has not yet participated in any of the Saints offseason programme neither has starting LT Trevor Penning after both suffered late season-ending foot injuries. 

Both are vital to the Saints success up front this season, Ruiz showed great promise last season and was really starting to live up to his first-round pick status. As for Penning he showed signs of dominance as a run blocker last season but work was still required as a pass blocker and without the time already missed this offseason that area of his game is unlikely to have improved so getting on the field and staying there throughout camp and the season is a must. Penning starting at LT would give the Saints such an upgrade in athleticism over last year’s starter James Hurst, which would immensely help the weirdly nonexistent screen game and outside runs.

All of this is without mentioning that Alll-Pro RT Ryan Ramczyk is playing with a degenerative knee condition and Andrus Peat is generally good for missed time. So this unit getting on the field together early and most importantly often to gel with new starting QB Derek Carr is without question something to monitor.

 Will The Saints Finally Just Use Taysom Hill Everywhere?

This maybe more of a personal key storyline but have the Saint finally worked out how to deploy Taysom Hill? And will they build on it to make him even harder to defend? Last season we finally saw them lean into the fact that nobody can stop Taysom running the ball ( at least not consistently). This in fact still wasn’t even done enough in my opinion, The Saints successfully sprinkled in the right amount of Hill passing to keep defenses honest, but now like with anything in the NFL what’s the next step? How does this evolve before finally the rest of the league catches up? That’s what I personally want to know.

Hill is, when used correctly my favourite Saints player to watch a ‘Quarterback’ with his size and speed barreling over linebackers and defenceless DBs will never get old for me. However, it’s time for Hill’s role to finally evolve. In my opinion, he should very rarely come off the field. His threat to run, pass and catch passes is a massive headache for defences to account for, so why make it easy for them by taking him off the field? I personally don’t know, thats a question for Pete Carmichael and the rest of the Saints offensive staff.

All of the offseason talk has been encouraging, Hill and the Saints staff have spoken about wanting his role to evolve especially as a pass catcher which is great but we’ve heard this before, with similar reports about Hill’s move to TE all of last offseason. Now is the time, to make all of the football nerds head’s explode every Sunday on Twitter. Hill should be everywhere, outside, in the slot, at QB and in the backfield. With the latter in my opinion being his most effective alignment, where he would be a threat to run, pass, catch passes and even block (just to add another layer of complexity for opposing defenses to work through). 

So please Saints you have one of, if not the most versatile offensive weapons in the league, if only for me bring out every trick you can think of and give this Taysom Hill fan a season to remember. For that to be possible the Saints have to got to start the work when camp opens on Wednesday, so at the very least I will be keeping a keen and close eye on any report I see on Taysom Hill’s usage and you should too!

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