With the three-day minicamp a couple weeks in the books and training camp still over three weeks away, there’s not much New Orleans Saints news going around at the moment. With that said, the Saints roster looks even more promising than the 2013 version that made it to the Divisional Round of the playoffs. They revamped their wide receiver talent, promoted a left tackle with upside, and added arguably the best free safety in the league. They also have emerging talent on the roster along the defensive line and at running back.
With more talent comes more competition. In this piece, we will take a look at the five position battles that I deemed to be the most heated heading into camp. Some battles have more at stake than others, but a fiery competition that will be determined in the summer will decide them all.
Center – Tim Lelito vs. Jonathan Goodwin
The competition for starting center is a classic battle pinning a veteran against a newcomer. Goodwin has spent 11 seaosns in the NFL, including a five-year stint with the Saints from 2008-2010. Lelito caught on with the Saints last season, and made a few starts at guard, but none at center. Both players have performed well with the Saints, but Goodwin presented a much greater sample size. They also share in common the fact that they both went undrafted and made the NFL as an undrafted free agent. Due to Lelito’s versatility, having played guard last season, both players are likely to stick on the roster.
Lelito has earned the early edge and taken the vast majority of first-team reps during OTAs and minicamp, even after the team signed Goodwin. His standing so far may have very little meaning though, because as Sean Payton noted at his OTAs press conference, center is a position that can only be one in training camp and live game actionâwhen live contact gets underway.
I think that after live contact gets underway, Goodwin will win back the starting center spot and Lelito will serve as the first reserve at both center and guard. Goodwin graded out as a top 15 center, per Pro Football Focus, all three seasons with the Saints. In the past two seasons with the 49ers, he finished in the top 15 in 2013 and the top 10 in 2012. Over the past two seasons, per Pro Football Focus again, Goodwin has graded out as a dominant run blocker. Payton has made mention of his hopes to establish a strong run game, and Goodwin offers more upside a run blocker on the interior.
Lead Back – Khiry Robinson vs. Mark Ingram
When I use the term "lead back", I’m not referring to a rare role occupied by the likes of Adrian Peterson, Marshawn Lynch, and just a few more running backs. But someone has to seize the role of early down compliment to Pierre Thomas and fourth-quarter thumper when the Saints have the lead. The defense should be even better in 2014 following the additions of Jairus Byrd, Champ Bailey, and the progression of their younger talent, which will lead to more chances for the winner of the Ingram and Robinson battle.
While Ingram failed to make any noise in offseason workouts so far, Robinson has caught the early attention of Payton. Last season, Robinson was able to get the running part of his job down, and he rushed for 224 yards on 54 attempts while forcing a just less than one missed tackle on every five carries. He struggled with picking up the team’s pass protection schemes as a rookie, and as a result, he was used in pass protection on just three total plays.
With another offseason to learn the Saints’ scheme and pass protections, I think Robinson will claim this role at some point in camp. Because Robinson wasn’t targeted on a single play last regular season, many assume he has little to offer in the passing game. However, as a senior at West Texas A&M, he racked up 430 receiving yards and four touchdowns on 38 receptions. Ingram has just 24 receptions in three seasons in the NFL. Robinson’s versatility as a pass catcher will persuade Payton to choose him in a variety of formations and personnel groupings.
Second Cornerback – Patrick Robinson vs. Champ Bailey vs. Stanley Jean-Baptiste vs. Corey White
Rob Ryan shocked some fans and followers when he opened up OTAs with Robinson as his starting cornerback across from Keenan Lewis. Of course, as OTAs and minicamp continued, Bailey, White, and Jean-Baptiste also worked in with the first-team defense. This competition is set to be the most heated in camp, and because Ryan often favors the "big nickel" personnel grouping, adding a safety instead of a third cornerback, a lot is on the line.
Although Bailey is at a disadvantage because he is learning a new defensive scheme, I still believe he is the ultimate favorite. Robinson, who is returning from a torn patellar tendon last September, still faces an uphill battle to earn the role. According to Payton, he has moved around well so far, but Robinson’s performances until now have been lacking once the pads come on. Jean-Baptiste admitted to reporters that he is still just tying to grasp the defensive scheme. Because he was deemed raw coming out of college, he is more likely to make an impact on special teams this season. Lastly, White is a true dark horse with ideal size (6-foot-1, 205 pounds) and speed (4.39 40-yard dash at his Pro Day) to play the outside cornerback spot.
I think Bailey will learn the scheme fast enough to earn himself the starting spot. Although an injury prevented Bailey from playing his best in 2013, he finished as a top 10 cornerback in 2012, according to Pro Football Focus’ rankings. According to Payton, Bailey is 100 percent healthy now. Ryan also mentioned that he came on strong towards the ends of OTAs and carried it through the minicamp.
Big Nickel – Raphael Bush vs. Vinnie Sunseri
As mentioned above, Ryan’s defensive scheme often calls for a "big nickel" look featuring three safeties. In this grouping last season, Ryan often deployed Kenny Vaccaro down in the slot to take advantage of his tackling prowess, as he only missed three tackles all season long. The team showed their strong support of Bush when they matched the restricted free agent offer sheet that the Falcons signed him to. The team also drafted Sunseri in the fifth round, and there he could work his way into the mix sooner than expected. Sunseri’s draft stock dropped because he tore his ACL in the Oct. 19 game against Arkansas. From my pre-draft film study I found that Sunseri displayed great instincts, great tackling skills in the box, and a high football IQ. Sunseri, who is the son of a coach, lined up the defense on some plays while at Alabama. So far in OTAs he has impressed coaches with his ability to learn the pre-snap calls and he is already taking control and motioning defensive players into the proper positions.
Although Sunseri has already seen work with the second-team defense, at both safety and linebacker, Bush has the edge. Bush’s emergence mid-season allowed Vaccaro to play closer to the line of scrimmage on a more consistent basis. Bush performed admirably in that role, and Vaccaro’s skill-set is best suited around the box. The fact that Sunseri saw some second-team reps at outside linebacker is very intriguing. Many analysts agreed with my assessment that Sunseri was at his best reading and reacting to plays inside the tackle box. He could offer Ryan the potential for some kind of "big dime" look featuring the four safeties.
Bush will win the job outright and Sunseri will spend 2013 focusing on special teams.
Backup Quarterback – Luke McCown vs. Ryan Griffin
When asked about winning the backup quarterback job, McCown responded by saying he had his eyes set on the starting job. In all seriousness, McCown isn’t stupid and he was likely just trying to lighten the mood because he knows he has a real battle on his hands this training camp. His competition, second-year quarterback Griffin, has the prototypical size at 6-foot-4, 221 pounds, but most draftniks believed that he lacked an "NFL arm" so he went undrafted in 2013. Of course, arm strength was the major knock on Brees when he entered the NFL and we all know how that turned out.
In OTAs, Griffin took the majority of snaps with the second team, during the portion that was open to the media. During the three-day minicamp, McCown and Griffin split snaps equally. Griffin claims that he is more comfortable in his second year in the offense, and it has shown during OTAs. Griffin has caught the eye of his teammates during the red zone drills. Payton said after minicamp that the battle will be decided during training camp when they take reps not only with the second-team offense, but also the first-team offense.
I think that Griffin will beat out McCown by the end of the preseason. McCown’s career record of 2-7 with a 68.3 passer rating is very unimpressive. As long as Griffin shows continued improvement, I expect the team to release McCown. They are unlikely to keep three quarterbacks for salary cap reasons. If the battle is close to even, I expect them to make this decision based on age and the fact that they can save more salary cap space by releasing McCown, according to Over The Cap.
For more on the Saints, you can follow Dan Schneier on Twitter @DanSchneier_NFL. He will be tweeting out nuggets from OTAs and training camp all offseason long. You can also "Like" him on Facebook, or add him to your network through Google.
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