The New Orleans Saints 53 man roster breakdown: Offense
I’ve been trying to get this article out for a few days. The flood of moves at the bottom of the roster have made it hard. But I think we’re getting there. This is it, just about. The Saints roster is down to 53.
Rosters fluctuate throughout the season, but for the most part the Saints have their guys. A quick look at the available FA’s will tell you that there’s not much left to do. Any signings that the Saints make at this point will be depth signings, even at offensive line.
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That’s a bitter pill for Saints fans, who had their hopes high for the possible addition of Josh Sitton. Sitton would have started at one of the guard positions. Now we’ll have to make do with the return of long-time Saint Jahri Evans. Baring a trade, the Saints will start at guard some combination of Peat, Lelito, Kelemete, Evans, and possibly, down the line, Landon Turner.
Sean Payton expressed his concern about the situation, but there’s no one available that would be a clear improvement. It’s entirely possible the group elevates its play after a poor preseason showing, and that Evans still has something left in the tank. It’s likewise possible that Evans in out of gas, and that the line continues to be as porous as it was during the preseason.
Either way, the roster is pretty much set. Here’s a breakdown of the offense, position by position. Overall, if some players can step up along the offensive line, this year’s Saints team can be dangerous offensively. If not, the year will be long.
Drew Brees, Luke McCown
The Saints go with two quarterbacks on their final roster. With Drew Brees and the Saints agreeing to a short-term extension, Grayson’s spot on the 53 was expendable. There’s been plenty of talk about Brees’ declining arm strength and general level of play. I simply have not seen any of that on tape, and it seems that the Saints agree. The 37-year-old quarterback still plays at an incredibly high level. Locking him up for the near future is a good move. Behind him, McCown has demonstrated an ability to step in should Brees go down with an injury. He played a shaky preseason, but when given time in the pocket he looked like the solid backup he’s been for years.
Still, except the Saints to go after a QB in next year’s draft, or possibly a young QB in free agency. McCown is 35 years old, and is not a long-term option to take over for Brees. Loomis is probably hoping that Grayson lands on the practice squad. He might still develop into the player the team drafted him to be. But if the Saints felt he was on track to become that player, they would not risk waiving him.
Mark Ingram, C.J. Spiller, Daniel Lasco, Marcus Murphy, Tim Hightower, Travaris Cadet
The Saints had a too-many-options type problem at running back. They’ve solved the problem, it seems, by keeping them all. Cadet was one of the original cuts when the roster was trimmed to 53, but he’s been brought back. There’s simply no reason to keep six running backs on the team, even with Lasco and Murphy serving key special teams roles. I get the feeling that the Saints may be planning on making a move with one of these guys. They may also be trying to keep Cadet off another roster, so that he’s available in case of an injury.
Ingram will be the feature back, much like he was last year. His versatility as a runner, pass-catcher, and blocker make him invaluable to the team.
Spiller seems to finally be healthy. He didn’t get extensive snaps in the preseason, likely because Payton felt comfortable with what he saw. Spiller’s got back the burst and agility that made him such a dangerous player in Buffalo. His role for the offense, though, is unclear. Last year the Saints struggled to find Spiller in space, though admittedly he didn’t do much when they did. He figures to be more heavily involved this year.
Nov 8, 2015; New Orleans, LA, USA; New Orleans Saints running back C.J. Spiller (28) runs against the Tennessee Titans during the first quarter of a game at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome. Mandatory Credit: Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports
Spiller recently said that he would like to return kicks. For now, Murphy is the designated return-man. Murphy’s looked explosive throughout the preseason, in the return game and as a RB. His problem, as it was last year, is his tendency to fumble. If he can keep the ball off the ground, he looks to be a promising player on a strong special teams unit. If not, Spiller might get his chance to return some.
Since the Saints released Brian Dixon, the team’s top gunner, Lasco looks to step into the role. He’s played well as a gunner and has shown promise as a RB. He runs hard and makes tacklers miss. He likely won’t see the field much on offense this year, and will have to earn his keep on special teams. But he’s got the potential to emerge as an offensive threat down the road.
Hightower and Cadet are the backups of the group. Hightower is essentially the backup for Ingram, and Cadet for Spiller, should either go down with injury. Cadet is a gadget player, while Hightown is more of a between the tackles type runner. Both played very well last year when injuries pushed them into prominent roles. But both are somewhat expendable, particularly with the emergence of Lasco and Murphy.
For a detailed explanation of the importance of the fullback position for the Saints offense, check out Tony Twillie’s article. John Kuhn, the Pro Bowl FB from Green Bay, was a late offseason pickup after Austin Johnson went down with an injury. He’s a versatile player who can run for short yardage and is effective in the passing game. He’s made his living as a blocker, though, which is good news for a team with a struggling offensive line that just lost its best blocking TE to injury.
Brandin Cooks, Willie Snead, Michael Thomas, Brandon Coleman, Tommylee Lewis
The Saints worked out a number of WRs over the last few days, but don’t expect anyone to replace these five. The team likes to keep tabs on the free agent pool, in case of an injury. This group seems set, and capable. It’s one of the better WR groups that the Saints have had in a while.
Cooks continues to be a dangerous player for this Saints offense. He’s developed into a serious deep threat, and has made a concerted effort to improve his yards after the catch on short and intermediate routes. With improvements across the board in the passing game, Cooks may be able to play in greater space than last year. He should win one-on-one matchups. Conversely, if teams continue to focus their safety help on Cooks, there will be one-on-one matchups for Thomas, Snead, and Coby Fleener. Each of those players can and should win.
Snead, the UDFA star of 2015, is a savvy route runner. A Lance Moore-type player, Snead came close to breaking 1,000 yards last year. With the addition of Michael Thomas, Snead’s targets may drop. But he can beat CBs one-on-one and can find the soft spots in zone. He doesn’t have amazing speed but is an effective deep threat.
Aug 26, 2016; New Orleans, LA, USA; New Orleans Saints wide receiver Michael Thomas (13) against the Pittsburgh Steelers during the first half of a preseason game at Mercedes-Benz Superdome. Mandatory Credit: Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports
Thomas, meanwhile, has a lot of hype to live up to. Too much, probably. In his rookie year, Thomas is not going to lead the team in receptions, yards, or touchdowns. But he’s clearly a star. He makes acrobatic catches, runs well after the catch, is a big body and is by all accounts a hard-nosed receiver. Sean Payton endorsed Thomas’ fantasy football value, which is understandable considering Thomas figures to be a key red-zone target. But in his rookie year, with so much talent around him, expectations should be tempered. There’s only so much offense to go around.
Brandon Coleman has been the center of a lot of offseason discussion. Payton called Coleman’s camp “pedestrian,” a concerning judgment after an up-and-down 2015 campaign from Coleman. He continues to make the team based on potential. He has a huge frame and moves very well. Overall, I think the fan’s disparagement has been undeserved, but Coleman certainly has plenty of room to improve. However, I don’t think he needs to be concerned about losing the WR4 spot any time soon. But his development throughout the year is something to monitor.
Finally, Tommylee Lewis. An UDFA receiver that emerged in training camp, Lewis is this year’s Snead. He is undersized, but shifty and explosive. He had a fair number of drops during the preseason, which may keep him on the sideline on game days. But the Saints have to like what they found in Lewis, who will compete with Spiller to return kicks if Murphy continues to fumble the ball.
Coby Fleener, Josh Hill, Chriz Manhertz
The injury to Michael Hoomanawanui is tough. The Saints placed him on IR, and with Sheldon Rankins expected to return from IR midway through the season, it looks like Hooman’s year is done. It’s a shame; he was the best blocking TE on the team.
Chris Manhertz takes his place on the final roster. Manhertz is a converted basketball player (sound familiar?) that the Saints have developed on their practice squad. Payton described him as more of a blocking TE than a receiving threat, so at least he fits the mold. The jury is still out on his development, but he looked solid enough in the preseason, showing a bit more fluidity on his routes than Hoomanawanui. But if he runs better routes than Hooman, he likely won’t block as well.
Josh Hill returned to the Saints this year after signing an offer sheet with Chicago. Payton has repeatedly expressed his optimism that Hill can develop into a versatile TE, but the tape has so far underwhelmed. Hill often fails to make blocks and struggles as a receiver. But the Saints like him enough to keep him around. With Hooman out for the year, Hill looks poised to play serious snaps. We’ll see if he can make the most of it.
Newly acquired Coby Fleener is the main target and starter at TE. Payton and Brees both gushed over Fleener’s tape in the offseason, but he has yet to show the same dominance for the Saints. Granted, he’s still working out the kinks of this offense, and building his rapport with Brees. If Fleener can play at a similar level to Jimmy Graham or even last year’s Ben Watson, this offense will be hard to defend.
A lot is riding on his development as a route runner in this system. He made a number of big plays in the preseason that were called back for penalties, so his stats don’t paint the full picture. Payton said that Fleener still has some things to pick up. He’s a work in progress, but when he can get to full speed he’s a deceptive route runner and an explosive athlete.
Terron Armstead, Andrus Peat, Max Unger, Tim Lelito, Zach Strief, Senio Kelemete, Landon Turner, Jahri Evans
Sep 14, 2014; Cleveland, OH, USA; New Orleans Saints guard Jahri Evans (73) against the Cleveland Browns during the second quarter at FirstEnergy Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Ron Schwane-USA TODAY Sports
The return of Jahri Evans is a good move for the Saints, but it remains to be seen how impactful it will be. Will Jahri return to his starting position at RG? Or is he a depth signing? Saints fans have to be hoping for the former, as the presumptive starter at RG, Lelito, has disappointed. If Evans can play even at his 2015 level, this line just might be alright. Just. It also depends greatly on the health of our tackles. There are plenty of questions for this group. If nobody emerges as a starter at RG, if Peat doesn’t improve, or if either tackle goes down with an injury, this line could be one of the worst in the Payton era.
Stief, though only 32, seems to have a lost a step. He’s still a very solid RT. He has some trouble against speed rushes, but can make plays in the running game and is generally a very sound pass blocker.
Armstead is the best player on the line, but he’s been hampered by an undisclosed injury. He has reportedly returned to practice. The Saints badly need Armstead to be ready for Week 1 against the Raiders. Someone needs to block Khalil Mack. If he or Strief go down with an injury, there’s virtually no one on the team set to step in. The Saints will likely add a backup swing tackle, maybe Tony Hills, in the coming weeks. But it seems that they’ll go into Week 1 without a viable backup.
The only other player on the roster with tackle experience is Andrus Peat. The Saints drafted Peat to take over the RT position from Strief, but necessity and inconsistent play moved him to the inside. He had a stint at RG, but looks to have settled into his position at LG. I’m nowhere near as down on Peat as the Saints’ fanbase is. I’m confident that the second year player can develop into an effective lineman, but he does need to start demonstrating progress. That said, I think the Saints could do much worse at guard.
The biggest question, for me, is at RG. Lelito and Kelemete have been battling for the spot throughout the preseason, and both players seem determined to lose the competition. Lelito in particular seems to have regressed from last year, where he managed to be a serviceable pass blocker. He continues to make plays in the running game, but he’s struggled on passing downs. It’s possible that he’s just had some bad games. But the Saints bringing back Evans suggests that the team is not happy with his development. Perhaps by the end of the season Lelito will be back in the starting lineup, but for now it may be time for Evans of Kelemete to step in.
Kelemete, to his credit, never made too many egregious mistakes in the preseason. He’s simply unspectacular. But he’s young, and there’s still a chance for him to develop into a serviceable guard. Kelemete is more consistent than Lelito, an important trait in offensive lineman. At this point, until Lelito can show some improvement, I’d feel more comfortable playing Kelemete.
Hopefully, Jahri Evans is still playing at a high enough level to start. The Seahawks cut Evans after what Payton called a strong preseason, but the Seahawks are actually pretty strong at guard. Their offensive line woes are at tackle, where Evans has no experience. I believe Evans just might be the stop-gap the Saints need, until they can add some quality players next offseason.
Center Max Unger recently signed an extension with the team. A good move for both sides. Unger has played at an extremely high level, and seems to get better with every game. He’s solid in the running game and is athletic enough to pull or get to the second level. He’s most effective in pass protection. With the line in constant flux, having Unger as a staple of the offense has been a blessing. If he goes down, Lelito will likely take his place at center.
Finally, Landon Turner was the lone UDFA lineman to make the roster, out of a promising group. Turner plays RG, and so figures to be in the mix for the starting spot, at least down the line. He’s incredibly strong and a stout blocker, but his speed makes him a poor pull-player. He’s not the ideal fit for the Saints blocking scheme. But if he’s the best option, he’ll get the nod. At O-line, the Saints need all the help they can get.