One thing you can say with certainty about the New Orleans Saints: They are very consistent. The Saints have finished 7-9 in each of their last three seasons and four of their last five, and it’s really no secret why.
While general manager Mickey Loomis and coach Sean Payton have seemingly mastered the art of refueling one of the league’s most potent offenses, they have yet to figure out how to develop a consistently disruptive defense.
It should come as no surprise, then, that the majority of the position battles that will warrant the most attention during training camp this year will take place on the defensive side of the ball.
Sure, everyone wants to see how Payton incorporates running back Adrian Peterson into the offense and how he’ll split the workload between Peterson, Mark Ingram and Alvin Kamara, but it’s on defense where the Saints have to get better.
With that in mind, here’s a look at the three position battles that will likely prove to be the most important as the Saints look to break out of that 7-9 rut they’re in and get back to the playoffs.
You’ll notice that we didn’t specify which linebacker position – middle, weak-side or strong-side – the most important competition will take place at. That’s because all three spots are pretty much up for grabs.
The Saints have a new linebackers coach in Mike Nolan, and it appears as though he and coordinator Dennis Allen will spend a good part of training camp trying to figure out who best fits where.
There are at least 10 combatants, including Stephone Anthony, who may be the one to watch the closest because he led the Saints in tackles as a rookie middle backer in 2015 before struggling with hamstring and knee injuries last season.
Craig Robertson is another one who could, and perhaps should, work his way back into the starting lineup somewhere after starting seven games in the middle, seven more on the weak side and one on the strong side last season.
Dannell Ellerbe could also land a starter’s job after starting seven games at weak-side backer last season, but with Nathan Stupar, Manti Te’o and A.J. Klein in the mix as well, anything could happen here.
The Saints have been trying for several years now to find a complementary bookend to play opposite edge rusher Cameron Jordan, but so far no one has produced the desired results.
The Saints are now hoping that Alex Okafor can do for them at end what Nick Fairly did for them at tackle last season, but Okafor is best suited to play the role of situational pass rusher, not every-down end.
The same can probably be said of Trey Hendrickson, the Florida Atlantic product the Saints grabbed with the third of their three third-round draft picks (103 overall), but he’ll get a chance to prove otherwise.
The same may hold true for one-time Miami Hurricane Al-Quadin Muhammad, but after missing all of the 2014 and 2016 seasons because of suspensions arising former a variety of off-field issues, he’ll do good just to make the team.
This is probably Okafor’s job to lose as he makes the transition from linebacker to end, but don’t count out Hau’oli Kikaha. He’s coming off a third ACL tear, but if he’s healthy he has the tools to win the job.
The situation at cornerback is very similar to that at linebacker. The Saints appear to have a lot of seemingly capable starting candidates at the position, but they still have to figure out who to start and where.
The most likely starting candidate is Delvin Breaux. He’s started each of the 22 games he’s been healthy enough to play in the NFL, but the Saints have ranked 31st and 32nd in the league against the pass with him in the lineup.
The Saints are expecting rookie Marshon Lattimore, the 11th-overall pick in the draft, to strengthen the defense overall, and he should earn a starting job, too. But nothing is guaranteed here.
P.J. Williams and Damian Swann have both looked good on occasion, and the latter could win the slot corner job if he can stay healthy and beat out Sterling Moore, who brings some valuable versatility.
The thing to keep in mind here is that the Saints aren’t in a position to let contract or draft status dictate playing time. Given their struggles on defense in recent years, they have no choice but to run a meritocracy here. Best man wins.
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