Saints' Projected Winners of Key Position Battles

Joe Tansey@JTansey90Featured ColumnistAugust 18, 2021

Saints' Projected Winners of Key Position Battles

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    Derick Hingle/Associated Press

    The New Orleans Saints' biggest question of the offseason still has not been answered, with the quarterback battle between Jameis Winston and Taysom Hill dragging on into the middle of August.

    Winston is viewed as the front-runner because of his previous experience as a starter with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, but he has not grabbed a complete hold of the job yet.

    There are other issues to address across the offensive unit as well.

    There is a massive drop-off in experience from Michael Thomas to the rest of the wide receivers on the roster, and head coach Sean Payton needs to figure out which of those wideouts will take over during the 28-year-old's injury absence.

    Defensively, the Saints are set up front, but they need to fill a few roles in the back seven.

    The third linebacker position came under focus in the first preseason game thanks to strong performances from Zack Baun and Kaden Elliss.


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    Scott Taetsch/Getty Images

    New Orleans is one of the few NFL teams without a named starting quarterback.

    Winston and Hill have been competing for the No. 1 position throughout training camp, and neither player gained separation with their performances against Baltimore.

    Winston went 7-for-12 with 96 passing yards, one touchdown and an interception, while Hill was 8-for-12 with 86 passing yards and a pick.

    The entire quarterback unit did not look too great. Third-stringer Ian Book went 9-for-16 with a team-leading 126 yards, but he also threw an interception.

    If you evaluate Winston and Hill off what they have done in their careers, the former would seem to be the favorite for the job.

    Winston threw for over 4,000 yards in three of his five seasons with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, but turnovers were a major issue in his final season there. If he cleans up that issue, he can be a serviceable starting quarterback in the NFL again.

    With Winston, you at least know the passing threat is there from the sample size of five seasons.

    Hill is a work in progress in the passing game since he has been used as more of a Swiss Army knife-type player while sitting behind Drew Brees on the depth chart.

    The 30-year-old went 88-for-121 in four games last season during Brees' injury absence, but he only had four touchdowns and threw two interceptions.

    With Thomas potentially out for the start of the regular season, it would make sense for Payton to call on Winston as the more established passer to work with his young corps of receivers.

    Prediction: Jameis Winston

No. 3 Receiver

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    Scott Taetsch/Getty Images

    The Saints find themselves in one of the worst positions at wide receiver right now. Thomas is hurt, Tre'Quan Smith missed two weeks of training camp with an injury, and Emmanuel Sanders departed for the Buffalo Bills in free agency.

    The hope inside the Saints camp has to be for Smith to be ready to go for Week 1 so there is some experience to put in front of the young collection of wideouts.

    The 25-year-old recorded the fourth-highest receiving yards total on the Saints roster in 2020 and had 448 yards on 34 catches with a 68 percent catch rate.

    With Jared Cook and Sanders gone, Smith should receive plenty of touches in the Saints offense if he is healthy.

    Until Thomas is 100 percent back, the Saints have to assume Marquez Callaway will feature in the No. 2 role. He could even be a big part of the offense with Thomas in the fold since he is the No. 3 wideout.

    The 23-year-old brought in three catches for 61 yards in his limited action against the Ravens. If he develops into a role in the first-team offense, the Saints will feel a bit better about their situation at the position.

    The rest of the depth chart is harder to figure out right now. Deonte Harris, Lil'Jordan Humphrey and Ty Montgomery should receive more time in the next two preseason games to prove their worth to the coaching staff. Humphrey had the lone touchdown reception in Week 1 of preseason.

    Prediction: Marquez Callaway

No. 3 Linebacker

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    Gail Burton/Associated Press

    Baun and Elliss were two of the Saints' most impressive players on either side of the ball against the Ravens.

    Elliss led the team with eight total tackles and six solo takedowns. He had a pass defense and a tackle for loss as well.

    Baun also produced a pass defense and a tackle for loss to go along with his five total tackles and three solo tackles.

    Elliss holds the edge as the strong-side linebacker, but Baun could compete for playing time in that spot since Kwon Alexander and Demario Davis will take up the other two linebacker spots.

    The good news for the Saints, at least for now, is that Elliss and Baun are playing well and can add to the team's depth in the front seven.

    If the Saints can have four consistent linebackers in place, it would alleviate any concerns about the performance of the front seven and allow the coaching staff to focus on more pressing needs at other positions for the rest of the preseason.

    Prediction: Kaden Elliss