As Training Camp rapidly approaches next week in the lush green rolling hills of the West Viginia countryside at the lavishly luxurious Greenbriar resort, a handful of Saints veterans will be somewhat (if not completely) nervous as they check into their rooms which they’ll call home for the better part of three weeks. That’s because for those particular players, the upcoming practices and perhaps the regular season itself will be the final proving ground that for some, may be their last in wearing an NFL uniform.
While I don’t neccessarily think that these individuals will seek employment waiting tables at the local Denny’s while serving special-priced Grand Slam breakfasts; they could be reduced to starting for the San Jose Sabercats of the Arena League or coaching high school kids at their former alma mater. That will be due to the fact that if they can’t come in and perform well now in what amounts to be a do or die, “make or break” point of their careers, they will no longer play for the Saints — and possibly not in the NFL, period.
Now that I’ve set forth the premise of what this article is all about, here are the names of five indivduals that I believe must bring their “A Game” to the football field in 2014 — or face the consequences associated with players who never quite fulfill their potential or live up to the ever-demanding expectations of the football world….
1. Mark Ingram, RB
Back in the 2011 Draft, the Saints surprised everyone by sending a future first-round pick in 2012 to New England, in order to snag Heisman Trophy winner Mark Ingram with the No. 28 overall pick. Ingram was the star on Alabama’s 2009 national championship team and the consensus No. 1-rated running back in the 2010 draft, so the move (at the time) seemed like yet another brilliant move by the dynamic duo / braintrust of Saints GM Mickey Loomis and head coach Sean Payton.
Unfortunately from my own perspective, not only has Ingram performed badly, but he’s what I’d personally consider as a “bust”. Maybe not a Ryan Leaf-caliber of a “bust” mind you, but one nevertheless. I realize that there’s are a growing segment of Saints fans out there who believe Ingram is poised and ready for a break out season, based on his encouraging performance near the end of the season and during the Playoffs. They believe that possible stardom is finally going to begin coming his way this year. However, I am not one of them.
Prediction: Ingram’s Playoff performance was merely an abberation, and the Saints (who have already decided NOT to pick up the 5th year option on his rookie contract) release Ingram after he reverts back to his previous form. Khiry Robinson emerges as the Saints’ RB of the future, and Ingram gets passed on the depth chart by promising rookie UDFA Timothy Flanders.
2. Nick Toon, WR
Second year WR Kenny Stills is entrenched as the WR2 behind Marques Colston, but saying that the 3rd WR spot is all but taken by Joseph Morgan, who is coming off of a serious knee injury and has missed two of the last three seasons, is a bit premature (as you’ll see). Coming in to this new year, Toon previously has been a tremendous disappointment; and talent wise, the rest of the current WR’s on the depth chart for the Saints shouldn’t even scare someone as talented as Toon.
The son of former N.Y. Jets All-Pro WR Al Toon, the 6’4″, 218 lb, former All-American at Wisconsin is the prototypical “big” WR. I can vividly remember being so excited to get him in the fourth round of the 2012 Draft, thinking at the time that the Saints got an absolute steal. So far up to this point, that has been about as far from the truth as I would have ever expected. Toon, however, seems to have taken all of the criticism to heart, looking reenergized and refocused heading to Greenbriar.
Prediction: Toon has looked nearly magnificent thus far in OTA’s and mini-camp, and he’ll look to carry that momentum into Training Camp. He simply needs to take advantage of this opportunity, and I believe that he will; when he becomes the WR3 behind Stills — and when for him the proverbial “light comes on”.
3. Patrick Robinson, CB
“P-Rob” has shown little flashes of what the Saints saw in him when they selected him with the No. 32 pick overall out of Florida State, following the Saints’ Super Bowl season in the 2010 NFL draft. Sadly up to his point, those flashes haven’t come around often enough. Robinson missed all of 2013 with a knee injury, and now will be in his contract year on a roster loaded full of cornerbacks. Not only is there Keenan Lewis and Corey White, but also free agent Champ Bailey, 2014 second round draft pick Stanley-Jean Baptiste and a slew of others.
There are currently 11 cornerbacks on the 90-man roster. It’s easily the most loaded position on the entire team, along with wide receiver, which also has 11 men. Last year, five players made the team at each position during the initial cut to 53, and that likely will occur once again this year. Whether or not Robinson becomes a starter isn’t even the issue anymore, but rather if he can still make a significant contribution on a team with as much talent at the position that he was originally chosen to play. Training Camp and pre-season this offseason is critical for players desperate to make an impression, and Robinson is undoubtedly one of them.
Prediction: Robinson’s pure talent alone should be enough to warrant a roster spot, as a back-up to Lewis; and possibly in a role as the nickel back as well.
4. Joe Morgan, WR
Speedster WR Joseph Morgan is easily and frustratingly the most ‘snake-bit’ player on the Saints roster. Brimming with all of the untapped potential in the world to become a star, he blew out his ACL in August and missed the 2013 season. The ACL injury was not the first for Morgan, who went undrafted in 2011 out of tiny Walsh University in Canton, Ohio. He actually missed the 2011 regular season with a torn meniscus, after a breakout performance returning a punt for a touchdown and scoring on a 56-yard reception in the preseason.
After Morgan signed a one-year contract in March to remain in New Orleans, the Saints took All-American wide receiver Brandin Cooks, another speedster, in the first round of the draft. They also re-signed veteran wideout Robert Meachem, who caught 16 passes for 324 yards last season after rejoining the team in September, and is by far and away a much better blocker than Morgan (and the rest of the WR’s, for that matter.) If Morgan can’t return to his old form, a roster spot is far from guaranteed.
Prediction: In a very crowded position on the Saints roster, I believe Morgan will bcome the “odd man out”, unless he can save himself with a dynamic Training Camp and pre-season. Having not done anything so far but continued rehabbing from the injury still, that’s unlikely to happen — especially with talented UDFA WR’s Brandon Coleman and Seantavious Jones in the mix as well.
5. Shayne Graham, K
Shayne Graham was among a handful of free-agent kickers that were brought in and given a tryout following former K Garrett Hartley’s troubles, and the 36-year old joined his seventh roster in four seasons. After a few easy kicks at the end of the regular season and a game-winner in the Wild Card round at Philadelphia, Graham missed two field goals (albeit in tough weather conditions) in a rainy and windy playoff loss to the Seahawks at Seattle in the Divisional round of the Playoffs.
Graham will face competition from journeyman and former University of Illinois K Derek Dimke during Training Camp and the pre-season, and there’s no guarantee that he’ll win the job, especially since I think that Graham’s a bit past his prime. The kicker position in general has often been overlooked by the current Saints management during this era of success, and it’s one of the few weak spots in what potentially can be a great team in 2014. Hopefully it doesn’t come back to BITE them in the (you know where).
Prediction: Graham will hold on to the job by the slimmest of margins — not because he’s better than Dimke, but because Payton is more comfortable with the veteran. Somebody please slip free-agent K Rob Bironas’ number to Payton, before it’s too late (like “losing the NFC Championship game by a missed FG – too late”).