Six offensive players to watch during Saints OTAs
MAY 28, 2014 6:34p ET
The New Orleans Saints' first OTAs got underway Tuesday, but media access won't be granted until Thursday. In the meantime, let's take a look at six offensive players who will greatly benefit from getting off to a fast start. On the other hand, if they falter, some may fall into the deeper depths of the roster and potentially not make the final team.
The Jimmy Graham saga has caused a lot of stress among Saints fans, but the Saints brass has remained calm and collected about it, at least in the public eye. If Graham does not participate in OTAs, and as of now it seems very likely that he will not, the next man up will get his reps. The "move" tight end plays a major role in Sean Payton's offensive scheme, and it has so even before Graham joined the team. During these OTAs, the move tight end to watch for is Hill.
Hill, a 2013 undrafted free agent out of Idaho State, boasts an impressive combination of size, speed and leaping ability. At 6-foot-5 and 239 pounds, he ran a 4.66 forty-yard-dash and logged a 36.5-inch vertical jump at his Pro Day. Last season he earned a roster spot after an impressive offseason, and he went on to play 179 snaps in the regular season as the team's third tight end. You might remember him by his 23-yard catch in the playoff loss to the Seahawks where he leaped and made a Graham-like reception. What struck me was the fact that his role expanded as he played another 67 snaps in those two playoff games. With Graham's status in limbo, now is the perfect opportunity for Hill to showcase his talent.
Before the draft, I posed the question wondering how confident the Saints were with Armstead protecting Drew Brees' blindside. After failing to address the position in free agency, the Saints gave Armstead another boost of confidence by not drafting an offensive tackle on day one or two. Instead, they opted to use their sixth-round pick on developmental tackle Tavon Rooks. Rooks was not expected by many to be drafted, and he needs to add more size to his frame and gain more experience before earning a starting role.
Armstead is not in the clear just yet, however. He will need to continue to show improvement through the conclusion of this week's OTAs to ensure that the team doesn't bring in a veteran tackle. His run at the end of last season was impressive, but it was also short lived. The Saints certainly have the resources along the defensive line to challenge him. He will have the opportunity this week to showcase himself against not only Cameron Jordan, but also Victor Butler, who is returning from injury, and Akiem Hicks, who many believe will take a big step forward in 2014.
When the Saints selected Toon in the fourth-round of the 2012 NFL Draft, most in the organization felt like they found a mid-round steal. Toon had the size, family pedigree, and pro-style route running concepts that often translate to immediate success in the NFL. Coaches compared him to a younger Marques Colston, and Colston himself opined that Toon would be a contributor right away. However, the same issue that plagued his draft stock has thus far plagued his professional career -- injuries. He broke his foot before playing in a single preseason game his rookie year, and when he didn't heal quickly he was placed on injured reserve. Last season, he was only active for 205 snaps and saw 12 targets while primarily being used as a blocker.
Although some reports claim that the team remains high on Toon, offseason additions of Joseph Morgan, Brandin Cooks and Brandon Coleman make for a very crowded wide receiver core. Although he went undrafted, Coleman offers better size and speed than Toon. If he can show well in these OTAs, forget Toon's playing time because his roster spot itself might be in danger. Remember, Toon has never been a special teams ace, and it's his potential as a wide receiver that has kept him on the team.
In my game tape review, I outlined the different ways Brandin Cooks can help the Saints, but none of these focused on timing. There is little reason to doubt that Cooks can contribute, but it's simply a matter of when. Cooks has a great opportunity to use this first session of OTAs to display his grasp of the playbook and take advantage of what is being asked of him.
Payton mentioned that he would like to use Cooks on the outside and in the slot. As I mentioned in the game tape review, Cooks has found his best success working as both an X and Z wide receiver on the outside. It might take him some more time to display what is required from an effective slot receiver, but that is fine because Colston can handle it for now. Right away, I believe that he will display how quickly he can transition to playing outside wide receiver at the NFL level during this week's OTAs.
Now is the time for Griffin to prove that he deserves to be a part of the team's future. After signing on as an undrafted free agent in 2013, Griffin spent most of his time on the practice squad. He has the prototypical size (6-foot-4, 211) and he's tough in the pocket, but his biggest weakness is arm strength. Coincidentally, perhaps, this is the same weakness they pointed to with Drew Brees when he entered the NFL. Griffin does not face any notable competition, as the team's current No. 2 quarterback is Luke McCown. McCown is a career backup with a terrible overall record (2-7) and passer rating (68.3) as an NFL quarterback.
For Griffin, his best route to proving this is by displaying is knowledge of the overall offensive scheme and playbook. He will have a much deeper and talented wide receiver group to work with, after the additions of Cooks and Coleman, and if he can make the right reads and checks, there's a chance he can claim the No. 2 job. You would expect that the Saints would prefer to keep just two quarterbacks on the roster so they can use the extra roster spot on someone who can contribute on special teams. Now is his time to lay the foundation for why he belongs on the roster and not the practice squad.
The Saints have made a habit under Payton's reign of turning unheralded center prospects into quality starters. Before hitting on journeyman free agent Brian De La Puente, they signed Jonathan Goodwin cheaply in 2006. Goodwin also had a successful run with the team until 2010.
Lelito will have the chance to win the starting center job outright after the Saints failed to draft a center. Lelito was an undrafted free agent who signed on last offseason and made two starts in 2013. Although the Saints don't have any replacement options currently on the roster, they have flirted with the idea of re-signing Goodwin. Lelito will need to plead his case right away in OTAs, so the Saints can avoid feeling pressure to sign Goodwin.
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