Breaking Down the New Orleans Saints' Roster After the 2014 Draft

Will OsgoodAnalyst IMay 13, 2014

Breaking Down the New Orleans Saints' Roster After the 2014 Draft

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    John Froschauer/Associated Press

    With the 2014 NFL draft in the rearview mirror, it’s time to begin to assess the New Orleans Saints’ roster as the team heads into OTAs, minicamp and training camp in July.

    Of course it is conceivable that a key player, or two, could be added between now and the time the regular season starts—September 7 in Atlanta. For the sake of argument, let’s assume the Saints are happy with the current roster and plan to open their season only with the players who are on the 90-man roster.

    During a press conference on draft weekend, Sean Payton talked about having names on a board as the team tries to find the right numbers and make sure there are enough names at each position. In addition to the six draft picks, the Saints added 17 undrafted free agents (UDFA) after the draft. 

    Let’s look at the names at each position, forecast which players are most likely to make the final 53-man roster and grade each positional group.

Quarterbacks

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    John Froschauer/Associated Press
    1. Drew Brees
    2. Luke McCown
    3. Ryan Griffin
    4. Logan Kilgore (UDFA)

    Though he’ll play the 2014 season at the age of 35, there isn’t much doubt that Drew Brees has at least three good years of quarterback play in him. The future Hall of Famer enters his 14th NFL season already ranked in the all-time top 10 in most career statistical categories and holds several single-season records as well.

    Save for an unfortunate injury, there is zero doubt about who is the man at this spot in New Orleans, as has been the case since 2006.

    Luke McCown is a solid backup, although no Saints fan wants to see him in the game in a meaningful moment.

    Ryan Griffin is joined on the summer roster by undrafted free agent Logan Kilgore as developmental prospects who might one day challenge for the No. 1 quarterback spot. Again, that day is quite far away.

    Grade (relative to rest of NFL): A

Running Backs

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    Michael Perez/Associated Press

    Players Gone: Darren Sproles (Philadelphia), FB Jed Collins (Detroit)

    Players Acquired: FB Erik Lorig (Tampa Bay), Tim Flanders (UDFA)

    When discussing the Saints' running back depth chart, it almost doesn’t make sense to rank players or say this guy is No. 1, this guy is No. 2, etc. Instead, it is best to speak of them in terms of their role in the offense.

    Here’s the role that each player figures to fill on the running back depth chart, based on past performance.

     

    First and Second Down

    1. Mark Ingram
    2. Khiry Robinson
    3. Pierre Thomas

    Of course, there is overlap in these categories, but Mark Ingram would be the Saints “starter” at running back if they had to name one player. They don’t, so again these rankings are relative.

    Ingram figures to get the most first- and second down-carries, although Khiry Robinson will probably come close to equaling his total. Pierre Thomas will see some base-down rushing attempts but not the same numbers as the two power backs.

     

    Short-Yardage Situations

    1. Khiry Robinson
    2. Mark Ingram
    3. Pierre Thomas

    Unlike many teams, the Saints do not single out one player to handle short-yardage situations. Expect all three of these players to gain attempts when either a first down or touchdown is needed.

    Robinson showed an ability to pick up key yards in short-yardage situations in 2013, while Thomas has always been underrated in this area. Ingram gets more carries in this area than he should, as he is apt to bounce runs outside when he should churn ahead and get the needed yardage.

     

    Third-Down Back

    1. Pierre Thomas
    2. Travaris Cadet
    3. Tim Flanders

    Don’t read too much into this. I had to fit the recently signed, undrafted Flanders in here somewhere. Thomas is the Saints’ third-down back, and with the loss of Darren Sproles, there really isn’t another option.

     

    Flex Back

    1. Travaris Cadet
    2. Pierre Thomas
    3. Brandin Cooks

    Travaris Cadet was the guy who would fill Sproles’ role as a flex back going into the draft. Thomas also can fill this role to some extent. But when the Saints drafted Brandin Cooks, it became obvious this role will be his in 2015, if not sooner.

    Cadet enters training camp as the top guy in this role.

     

    Fullback

    1. Erik Lorig
    2. Austin Johnson
    3. Josh Hill

    Erik Lorig came over from Tampa Bay to take the starting fullback job. Barring an injury, he isn’t in any real trouble of losing that job.

    Austin Johnson, though, could make life tough on Lorig. Josh Hill figures to fill a similar role in the offense to what David Thomas did in 2009 by occasionally lining up as a fullback in the backfield when the Saints want to give the defense a 12-personnel look but line up in a power running formation.

    Grade (relative to rest of NFL): A-

Wide Receivers

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    Dave Martin/Associated Press

    Lost: Lance Moore (Steelers)

    Acquired: Brandin Cooks (First Round), Brandon Coleman (UDFA), Seantavius Jones (UDFA) and Je’Ron Hamm (UDFA)

    Much like with the running back position, it is difficult to say this player or that player is a starter or is fourth-string. But there is a slightly more defined pecking order for the wide receiver corps. Here’s an estimated view:

    1. Marques Colston (X)
    2. Kenny Stills (Z)
    3. Robert Meachem (X)
    4. Joseph Morgan (Z)
    5. Brandin Cooks (Z and H)
    6. Andy Tanner (X)
    7. Nick Toon (X)
    8. Chris Givens (Z)
    9. Brandon Coleman (X)
    10. Charles Hawkins (Z)
    11. Seantavius Jones (X)
    12. Je’Ron Hamm (X and Y)

    Obviously, there will not be 12 receivers on the 53-man roster to begin the year. The team can probably carry six or seven at the most. This group will have a ton of competition.

    Cooks was mentioned in the previous slide as a flex back. He is a tweener who will play some “Z” (the receiver who is opposite of “X” in two-receiver sets). He’ll also play in the slot as an “H” from time to time.

    The first five players on this list are almost guaranteed to take up the first five spots on the depth chart. If true, that means the last seven players are competing for one or two spots on the 53-man roster.

    The ability to play special teams, run block and/or do something else to add value will help immensely toward that player making the final roster.

    Coleman, Jones and Hamm will all have practice squad eligibility, though there’s seemingly no way Coleman will clear waivers if released. All three are potential Marques Colston replacements in 2016 when his dead cap hit lessens to an acceptable $2.7 million, according to Spotrac.com.

    Kenny Stills, for all intents and purposes, takes Lance Moore’s “Z” receiver role—where he plays the role of a possession receiver who can also make big plays down the field. Meachem and Morgan figure to supply the majority of the deep targets, while rookie Cooks also possesses that ability.

    Grade (relative to rest of NFL): A-

Tight Ends

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    Bill Feig/Associated Press

    Acquired: Nic Jacobs (UDFA)

    1. Jimmy Graham
    2. Benjamin Watson
    3. Josh Hill
    4. Nic Jacobs

    For an offense that loves tight ends, it is unusual to only have four of them on a 90-man roster. Nic Jacobs should take heart; that means he has a good chance to make the team or in the worst-case scenario land a spot on the practice squad.

    Graham—despite all of the well-documented contract jibber-jabber—is the No. 1 tight end and will be for the next 10 years, barring injury and/or hurt feelings.

    Watson will not be around forever. And based on what we saw last season, Josh Hill is not the answer as Graham’s eventual sidekick.  

    Grade (relative to rest of NFL): B+

Offensive Line

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    Lost: LT Charles Brown (NY Giants), C Brian de la Puente (Bears)

    Acquired: RT Tavon Rooks (Sixth Round), C Matthew Armstrong (UDFA), OL Micajah Reynolds (UDFA), OT Ty Nsekhe (St. Louis Rams)

    The offensive line is one spot where a true depth chart can be ascertained. As it stands today, here is what it most likely looks like.

    Left Tackle

    1. Terron Armstead
    2. Marcel Jones
    3. Ty Nsekhe

    Right Tackle

    1. Zach Strief
    2. Bryce Harris
    3. Tavon Rooks

    Terron Armstead and Zach Strief are inked in pen into the left and right tackle spots, respectively. Unless either is seriously hurt between now and September 7, both will be protecting the edge for Drew Brees.

    Bryce Harris is a versatile tackle who doubles as the jumbo lineman/tight end that Sean Payton uses from time to time. Jones was drafted two years ago and has yet to show any significant progress. Rooks is going to have to show something quickly, though, to earn the fourth tackle spot on the roster.

     

    Center

    1. Tim Lelito
    2. Matthew Armstrong
    3. ?

    Officially, Tim Lelito is still listed as a guard, but it is well-known that he will head into minicamp as the starter at center, unless the Saints sign veteran Jonathan Goodwin or someone else of equal value.

    Matthew Armstrong was signed after the draft to provide competition to his former college teammate.

     

    Left Guard

    1. Ben Grubbs
    2. Senio Kelemete

    Right Guard

    1. Jahri Evans
    2. Micajah Reynolds

    If Jahri Evans or Ben Grubbs goes down, the Saints will be stuck starting Senio Kelemete at guard, unless Lelito is moved back to guard after a veteran is signed to play center. It’s a bit of a precarious spot for the Saints interior line.

    That said, the Saints are as talented on the offensive line as they have ever been.

    Grade (relative to rest of NFL): B

Defensive Line

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    Lost: Tom Johnson (Vikings)

    Acquired: George Uko (UDFA), Brandon McCray (UDFA) and Virgil Lawrence (UDFA)

    Right Defensive End

    1. Cameron Jordan
    2. Glenn Foster
    3. Virgil Lawrence

    Left Defensive End

    1. Akiem Hicks
    2. George Uko
    3. Tyrunn Walker

    Cameron Jordan and Akiem Hicks are locks at the two starting defensive end spots. Glenn Foster is a mere lock to be a rotation player at the position. Former Southern California Trojan George Uko has similar potential to Jordan, but he probably should have returned to USC for one more year.

    The Saints may benefit from that mistake, as Uko has the chance to develop into a rotational player in New Orleans.

    Tyrunn Walker’s roster spot might be taken from him simply because of numbers at other positions.

     

    Nose Tackle

    1. John Jenkins
    2. Brodrick Bunkley
    3. Brandon McCray

    Second-year nose tackle John Jenkins figures to have a breakout year in 2014 after finding success at the spot in limited playing time in 2014.

    Brodrick Bunkley took a major pay cut just to stay in New Orleans. His 2014 salary is more appropriate for a backup player who is being phased out of the Saints’ plans on defense.

    Brandon McCray is a long shot to make the roster.

    Grade (relative to rest of NFL): A-

Inside Linebackers

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    Lost: Will Herring and Jonathan Vilma

    Acquired: Khairi Fortt (Fourth Round) and Spencer Hadley (UDFA)

    Inside Linebacker

    1. Curtis Lofton
    2. David Hawthorne
    3. Ramon Humber
    4. Kevin Reddick
    5. Spencer Hadley
    6. Khairi Fortt

    The Saints were wise to re-sign Ramon Humber—a solid player with playmaking ability and good special teams knowledge. He is a very good backup to Lofton and Hawthorne.

    After Humber, the group becomes very young and inexperienced. Kevin Reddick and Spencer Hadley were both acquired as undrafted free agents—Reddick stuck last year and looks to become a starter in a few short years.

    Hadley and Fortt can make hay if they’re able to contribute on special teams. Hadley was always around the ball at BYU. Fortt has a lot to prove based on film observation.

    Grade (relative to rest of NFL): B-

Outside Linebackers

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    USA TODAY Sports

    Lost: Will Smith (Patriots)

    Acquired: Ronald Powell (Fifth Round), Chidera Uzo-Diribe (UDFA) and Kasim Edebali (UDFA)

    1. Junior Galette (Will)
    2. Parys Haralson (Sam)
    3. Victor Butler (Either)
    4. Rufus Johnson Jr. (Sam)
    5. Ronald Powell (Sam)
    6. Keyunta Dawson (Either)
    7. Chidera Uzo-Diribe (Will)
    8. Kasim Edebali (Will)
    9. Kyle Knox (Either)

    The Saints are slated to bring nine outside linebackers to camp. The position, of course, generally only offers two spots on any given play—save for some of Rob Ryan’s unique personnel groupings and alignments.

    Junior Galette, Parys Haralson and Victor Butler presumably have guaranteed roster spots and figure to handle the majority of the snaps at the two spots between them.

    Haralson and Butler, though, both have easy-to-cut contracts, meaning if any of the young players below them—Rufus Johnson, Ronald Powell, Uzo-Diribe or Edebali—outperform them in camp, their spots on the roster may not be so secure after all.

    Powell, Uzo-Diribe and Edebali all show tremendous potential as pass-rushers. But pass rushing in college can be more difficult than at the NFL level.

    Dawson and Knox each saw the field for the Saints in the playoffs. The influx of talent brought in this weekend, however, leaves them far from guaranteed to make the final 53-man roster.

    Grade (relative to rest of NFL): A

Safeties

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    Steven Senne/Associated Press

    Lost: Malcolm Jenkins (Philadelphia Eagles), Roman Harper (Carolina Panthers) and Isa Abdul-Quddus (Detroit Lions)

    Acquired: Jairus Byrd (Buffalo Bills), Marcus Ball (CFL), Vinnie Sunseri (Fifth Round), Ty Zimmerman (UDFA) and Pierre Warren (UDFA)

    1. Jairus Byrd
    2. Kenny Vaccaro
    3. Rafael Bush
    4. Vinnie Sunseri
    5. Marcus Ball
    6. Ty Zimmerman
    7. Pierre Warren

    No position on the roster saw as much turnover as the safety position, even though Malcolm Jenkins and Roman Harper had solid 2013 campaigns. The reason, namely, is that the duo could not create big plays.

    The trio of Jairus Byrd, Kenny Vaccaro and Rafael Bush figure to be a turnover machine for the next two seasons. Vinnie Sunseri and Ty Zimmerman were playmakers at the position in college.

    Marcus Ball and Pierre Warren each figure to challenge for spots, though the competition is quite daunting. The roster as a whole is quite talented. No position on the roster is as deep as this one.

    And top to bottom, there is superstar potential.

    Grade (relative to rest of NFL): A+

Cornerbacks

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    Lost: Jabari Greer

    Acquired: Champ Bailey (Denver Broncos), Stanley Jean-Baptiste (Second Round) and Brian Dixon (UDFA)

    1. Keenan Lewis
    2. Champ Bailey
    3. Corey White
    4. Patrick Robinson
    5. Stanley Jean-Baptiste
    6. Rod Sweeting
    7. Trevin Wade
    8. A.J. Davis
    9. Terrence Frederick
    10. Derrius Brooks

    There’s a saying in baseball that goes back seemingly to the sport's inception: "You can never have enough pitching." The football version of that comes in two forms: “You can never have enough pass-rushers”—which is a fairly new phenomena—and “you can never have enough corners”—also fairly new.

    The Saints have learned in recent seasons that it’s nearly impossible to have enough corners. The playoff victory at Philadelphia was made extraordinarily difficult when the Saints were down to their third and fifth corners, respectively, by the end of the game.

    Corey White is the ideal nickelback, while Patrick Robinson seems to be stuck in no-man’s land. He is not really a nickel but could be a great fit opposite Keenan Lewis as a starter, if healthy. If he cannot win the battle with future Hall of Famer Champ Bailey, he figures to drop to fourth on the depth chart.

    Stanley Jean-Baptiste—the Saints’ second-round pick this year—is fortunate in that he does not have to start immediately and may not even have to play much early. He can focus on learning the NFL game and improving his game.

    Rod Sweeting and Trevin Wade are solid in backup roles with special teams responsibilities, while A.J. Davis, Derrius Brooks and Terrence Frederick are players the Saints like, but they have an uphill battle to make the final roster.

    Grade (relative to rest of NFL): B-

Specialists

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    Lost: Returner Darren Sproles

    Acquired: K Derek Dimke and Returner Brandin Cooks

    Kicker

    1. Shayne Graham
    2. Derek Dimke

    The Saints neglected to bring in another kicker over the weekend. It wasn’t an absolute need, though most likely neither Graham—at 36 years of age—nor Dimke is the long-term solution at the position.

    Graham was more than adequate once he was acquired late last season. Dimke was an effective college kicker at Illinois but has yet to show he can be a productive and clutch kicker in the NFL.

     

    Punter

    1. Thomas Morstead

    There is no one else and no need to bring in competition. Morstead is adored in New Orleans and is one of the finest punters and kickoff specialists in the league.

     

    Long Snapper

    1. Justin Drescher

    Drescher is just 26 years old. Long snapper is a position where a player can easily play into his late 30s. And it’s not unusual to see a long snapper stay with the same team for 10-15 years. Drescher should be around for a while.

     

    Returner

    1. Brandin Cooks
    2. Travaris Cadet
    3. Joseph Morgan
    4. Pierre Thomas

    The Saints have been lacking in the return game the past few seasons, but it’s not all the fault of the men who are doing the returning. Some of it is poor blocking in front of them.

    Still, the Saints identified Cooks as a guy who could change their luck in this underrated and crucial facet of the game. He may prove to be too valuable to the offense and/or may get beaten out by Cadet or Morgan.

    Pierre Thomas is always a great last call option if no one else works out, or injuries occur ahead of him on the depth chart.

    Grade (relative to rest of NFL): B