Saints' Payton shuffles roster to revamp special teams
METAIRIE, La. (AP) Saints coach Sean Payton expressed frustration with New Orleans' special teams play this week, and now he's tinkering with the roster in hopes of doing something about it.
At the very least, two of the three players he's brought in this week can help the Saints scout this Sunday's opponent, the Denver Broncos.
Former Broncos tight end John Phillips and ex-Denver safety Shiloh Keo, as well as former Green Bay linebacker Sam Barrington, all took part in their first practices with the Saints on Wednesday.
''All three can contribute to our special teams,'' Payton said, noting that the promotions of linebackers Craig Robertson and Nate Stupar to starting roles on defense, combined with a season-ending injury to safety Erik Harris, have removed three players from kick and punt coverage who were adept in those roles.
''Your core special teams group at the start of the season has changed,'' Payton said. ''We have to pay close attention to that so it doesn't cost us a game.''
The additions meant three players had to go: defensive tackle John Jenkins, defensive back Brian Dixon and linebacker Chris McCain.
Jenkins was a former starter and third-round draft choice in 2013, but his snaps had diminished this season and he was a healthy scratch for last Sunday's victory at San Francisco, when rookie first-round pick Sheldon Rankins made his NFL debut after returning from a fractured fibula.
Payton said the decision to release Jenkins ''really came down to numbers and production.''
''We were at that point in our defensive line where it was going to be hard to get (Jenkins) active and then back to addressing special teams,'' Payton said. ''He has worked hard. We've just really never received, at the end of it, all the production we would've liked.''
Dixon remains with the Saints, but has been demoted to the practice squad. Payton could be seen scolding Dixon last Sunday after he'd been flagged for fair-catch interference on punt coverage.
McCain played one snap Sunday. He was flagged for lining up in the neutral zone and benched for the rest of the game.
Keo and Phillips said they're pleased to help the Saints scout Denver as much as possible – and already have been sharing their knowledge of the Broncos. They also hope they get a chance to make enough of an impression to stay beyond this weekend.
''Coach told me right away, `Right now, we need you to come in and play big-time special teams,''' Keo said. ''It's definitely something I take pride in. I know everyone wants to play offense and defense. It doesn't happen for everybody, so the next thing you can do is make a name for yourself on special teams.''
San Francisco averaged nearly 35 yards on three kickoff returns and about 8 yards on three punt returns against New Orleans on Sunday.
Payton said Phillips' addition, which raises the total of tight ends on the roster to three, could provide relief for tight end Josh Hill, who has been getting a lot of snaps on both offense and special teams.
''With just two tight ends there is a lot of stress on a guy like Josh Hill who's been a core player,'' Payton said. ''So we pay close attention in the last five or six weeks, looking at the wire to see if the right player at that position maybe was available. John fits that description.''
Notes: LB Dannell Ellerbe, who missed last week's game with a nagging quadriceps injury after playing for the first time this season in Week 8, returned to practice Wednesday on a limited basis. … Payton said he hopes James Laurinaitis, who was placed on injured reserve late last week because of a quadriceps injury, will continue to contribute in meetings as much as he has all season. ''Hopefully we never lose his leadership because he's been amazing,'' Payton said. ''I'd say he'd be able to coach this game if he wanted to … but I think his presence in that (linebacker) room and the building is an important one.''
Editors: This story has been corrected to fix the reference to the former tight end of the Denver Broncos.
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