It’s Go Time! What to Look for in the Preseason Opener
By Gus Kattengell / @gkatt_17
Thursday the preseason opener brings an end to the speculation and guessing part of how good the New Orleans Saints can be as it’s time to see what players can actually do in a game.
2017’s season has Saints fans excited, as excited as I’ve ever seen them not only in the Sean Payton era but also in franchise history. You’ve read and heard about how much talent and depth this team has over the past few weeks and months. All of that though comes without seeing a single meaningful snap and off of assumptions.
I understand that preseason success and failure doesn’t determine and at times really give an indication of the season to come but it can shine a light on areas of promise or concern.
A winning start is important for the Saints this season and in the past two seasons head coach Sean Payton has said winning mattered even in preseason. The open is against a team that is getting plenty of chatter nationally.
HIGH EXPECTATIONS VS HIGH EXPECTATIONS
Jacksonville was just as a surprise team in 2017 as the Saints were finishing the year 10-6 and winning the AFC South. The Jags in the post season beat Buffalo 10-6 in the Wild Card round, stunned the Steelers in Pittsburgh 45-42 and lost at New England in the AFC Championship game 24-20 in game in which they lead 17-10 entering the 4th quarter.
NFL analysts across the county predict Jacksonville to have just as good a chance at having a good season led by a stout young defense and by LSU’s Leonard Fournette on offense who rushed for 1040 yards in his rookie season to go with 9 TDs. Head Coach Doug Marrone, a former Saints assistant under Payton, has gone about this year like last by putting his team though grueling training camp practices.
I’m interested in seeing how the Saints stack up against a team that was a quarter away from the Super Bowl. I’m not talking starters against starters as I’m aware that many on both sides will wear ball caps instead of helmets but depth against depth.
Kick off is set for 6p.
AREAS TO KEEP AN EYE ON
The Saints have held 12 practices and you could argue the defense has won darn near all of the workouts, including Monday’s final practice of this game week. Whether it’s interceptions, pass blocks, strip fumbles, stuffing run plays, you name it as it seems as if the defense is doing the job. The plays being made also aren’t just from the starters but from players that this team will be looking at as key depth.
I’ll be looking to see the Saints defense shows the flow and hats to the ball, show the ability to break up pass plays even after their caught but not fully completed. Lastly the team has not had a live period in practice so the game will be the first time to judge how well the tackling can be. Jacksonville’s offense is not a pass happy offense so it’ll be interesting to see if the defense can be physical at stopping the run.
BACK UP QB
Let’s start by stating the obvious. Drew Brees gets injured to where he misses a handful of games or more this is not the same team. He’s a first ballot hall of fame quarterback. You don’t replace those. At best you deal with a loss like a damaged ship, keep it afloat and maybe even still manageable to stay in the fight. So that aside, there is a real possibility that a helmet malfunction, the flu, an injury during the game takes place and someone other then him needs to take a or a few snaps.
Tom Savage and Taysom Hill are battling for the back up role. Savage has starting experience where as Hill doesn’t. Payton this week said that when comparing the two you have to start with the fact that they are two different quarterbacks. Hill is the more athletic. Savage the more manager of the two. Hill throws darts. Savage gets the ball there and you’re counting on making the right reads. Hill to me brings one other element that goes with his athleticism. The ability to extend or even make a play with his legs. In practice we’ve seen broken plays turn into runs down the field gaining big yardage. We have even seen college style read option plays where he kept and took it into the endzone. Payton has long talked about wanting an almost dual threat QB. Before you balk at the notion you need only take a look in the Saints own division. Carolina’s Cam Newton is that and won a league MVP.
Philadelphia’s Caron Wentz is not just a pocket passer, nor is Jarod Goff with the Rams, Jimmy Garoppolo with the 49ers, Aaron Rodgers of the Packers all use their mobility. No one is saying that they are Michael Vick, but they are definitely stuck in stone in the pocket. With the potential the Saints defense has of keeping opposing offenses from putting up large amount of points and the potential the Saints offense has with young weapons at receiver and in the backfield, a quarterback needs to just not trip on the handoff. That’s Savage. Imagine if they have the ability to air it 50-70 yards down field on a dart on the run or elude a sack and find Kamara running out the backfield turning a sack into a first down and that’s what I think Hill can be. Now the deal is he has to go out and prove it. I still believe the Saints would like Hill to earn the job. He’s highly involved in special teams so he’s on the team. But Thursday will be his first chance his value is at quarterback and not slobber knocking returners on a punt or kickoff.
Sean Payton’s given us what to look for when either Savage or Hill is in the game. Can the team in and out of a huddle?. Pace. Rhythm. Can they move the team up and down the field and produce points? Can they run the offense and make plays? If neither shows the ability to do so by game 3 of the preseason they’ll be on the phone calling someone that can.
Mark Ingram missing the first four games has this position group as a must watch for four games. Your Contestants for a role while he is away in suspension land are Jonathan Williams, Terrance West, Shane Vareen, Boston Scott and Trey Edmunds. Edmunds has seen a move to fullback which could be an indication. I’ve found myself writing #32 a lot during practice and that’s Williams’s number. West has had a play here and there and I’m eager to see the quickness and stop on a dime then go ability Scott has shown at times. Game speed and live action will be the determining factor in determining who stays and who goes. Something to note is that Ingram can do it all, run, catch out the backfield and more importantly pass protect. Which of the back can do all three or at least two of the three.
Payton has called these players the Bachelor contestant. They are Alvin Kamara, Ted Ginn, Boston Scott, Brandon Tate, Tommy Lee Lewis. Kamara is a we need a home run call up in the return game as he’s far too valuable to use. Ginn is right there. Lewis has flashed here and there as a receiver but it’ll be his ability to return the ball that will earn him a roster spot. Scott can earn his spot here in the return game. West, Vareen and Williams have experience over Scott as just running backs. Tate brought in after the start of camp after Payton admonished the other returners will be given a chance to earn it.
PLAYERS TO KEEP AN EYE ON
WR TRE’QUAN SMITH #10: He has been one of the players of training camp that’s stood out. Smith has made plays since the start of camp that get you thinking uh oh did the Saints steal another playmaker in the third round? Smith has shown the ability to catch the ball smoothly, catch in traffic, catch it short take off and out run everyone. Smith has shown the ability to run on the snap, stop on a dime and make a big grab when the defense has the momentum and one of the plays of camp was his ability to go up and out jump a defender and bring the ball down and maintain it after he hits the ground. Can Smith do it in a game though? We’re about to find out and I have no question he will show what we’ve been seeing at practice.
TE DAN ARNOLD #85: Tight end is a thin position group right now thanks to injury. Ben Watson is on the team as is Josh Hill. To me after that the spots are up for grabs. Arnold is a converted WR and honestly, the guy is just catching everything. Not flashy size or speed but just solid.
CB JUSTIN HARDEE #34: The depth chart has Marshon Lattimore at RCB followed by rookie Natrell Jamerson and then Justin Hardee. Hardee a converted WR plays bigger then his 6-1 200 pound frame. He’s made some nice plays during practice and to me has some upside. Could a roster spot come down to Hardee and a draft pick? Payton’s gone with the better player in the past (Pierre Thomas vs Antonio Pittman).
RB BOSTON SCOTT #30: He’s just fun to watch at times. Scott is one of the smaller players on the field but one of the quickest as well and has put some sick moves on some of the best Saints defensive players. I’ve mentioned several times at practice that because of when he’ll play in the preseason games and against maybe not so good defenders, I expect Scott to have a play or two that will wow and get people talking. I mentioned earlier up top, his ability in the return game can really help his chances at making the team.
WR KEITH KIRKWOOD #18: Sometimes things happen to give you an opportunity and it sure feels like for Kirkwood it’s happening. Injuries to Travin Dural and Brandon Coleman have freed up snaps as those two are no longer with the team. At 6-3 210 the undrafted rookie free agent out of Temple is just consistently chugging along. Making a play here and there like Sunday at Tulane’s Yulman Stadium when he caught a pass from Brees in traffic in the end zone. Kirkwood has gotten snaps with the ones. Michael Thomas, Tre’Quan Smith, Cameron Meredith and Ted Ginn are your 4 locks at receiver. Who’s the fifth? Tate? Austin Carr? Kirkwood can help his cause with in game showings and special teams play.
The Saints will have a brief closed practice on Friday afternoon before holding a pair of open practices over the weekend at the normal 8:50 to 11:40 schedule. Monday is a closed practice followed by a scheduled day off before the final open practice before preseason game number 2 Friday in the Dome against the Cardinals.
Gus is the host of the Sports Hangover and can be heard weekdays on 100.3 FM ESPN New Orleans Monday through Friday 12 to 3pm.
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