New Orleans Saints veteran underdogs to root for in 2015
By John Hendrix
As the New Orleans Saints gear up for their new season, there’s a lot of exciting things to look forward to. Flashy additions through free agency, new blood in the way of rookies and younger prospects, and the usual suspects make us really feel that this has the potential to be a great season for the black and gold.
While most of the attention focuses around the high impact players, there’s a host of veterans who have been battle tested throughout the years that could add tremendous value to the New Orleans Saints in more ways than one. Call them the ‘old dogs’ if you will, or whatever term you deem necessary for these ‘warriors of the gridiron’.
Anthony Spencer was lining up with the first team defense during initial OTAs, which makes a lot more sense with Junior Galette’s recent news of a potential pectoral injury that could sideline him for some time. You can make of that what you will, but the bottom line is that Spencer is someone who Rob Ryan trusts. It was nearly three months ago that the rumor surfaced of the Saints courting Spencer, and eventually he ended up signing with the team.
Spencer has been casted in 4-3 schemes for the past couple of seasons, and saw a drastic drop off in production as a result. Still, Spencer figures to have a heightened role with the black and gold this season. Many hope that he returns to his 2012 breakout form, where he tallied eleven sacks in fourteen games.
"“I think he’s very good at fitting (against) the run and I think he can affect the passer,” said Saints coach Sean Payton."
Tim Hightower hasn’t played a snap in the NFL since 2011 with the Washington Redskins. Most New Orleans Saints fans remember him from the 2010 divisional bout between the two, where Hightower took the very first play from scrimmage 70 yards to put the Arizona Cardinals up 7-0.
Hightower, who just turned 29, was medically cleared in May to play football again. His comeback was fueled by a supportive Richmond community. He mentioned back in February that he is driven by his family, and ultimately chasing his dream.
"“When I went down, I wrote down on a sheet of paper that this wouldn’t be the end for me,” Hightower said. “That didn’t mean that I didn’t have emotions, that I didn’t have times where I was angry and frustrated. It was a long process. But I don’t think I ever stopped training. I don’t think I ever stopped working toward this goal. As I trained, as I did rehab, as I went to the different surgeries, I just tried to keep that end picture in mind.”"
Hightower will have his respective work cut out for him trying to beat out rookie Marcus Murphy and second year back Edwin Baker. Hightower is particularly strong in blitz pickups, and exhibits a lot of versatility.
If there’s anyone on the New Orleans Saints secondary that people are overlooking, it’s Kenny Phillips. Phillips signed a reserve/future contract with the Saints back at the end of December. Phillips, a former first round draft pick in 2008, has two Super Bowl rings to show for during his tenure with the New York Giants. Phillips has had a history of bothersome knee problems, and it ultimately led to his release from the Philadelphia Eagles in 2013.
Phillips, who will turn 29 in November, is likely on his last ride with a respective team. A guy that comes to mind? Darren Sharper. I’m not saying that Phillips’ skill set is equal to Sharper’s, but he has that type of big play ability. You root for him because of his character, which is something Sean Payton preached heavily on improving during the offseason.
In January, Phillips had plenty to say on joining the Saints.
"“I don’t want to say I regret trying to play through my injuries, but I probably would’ve been well off if I had maybe just sat down and tried to get myself all the way healthy rather than rush back and play through,” Phillips said. “But I love playing this game. I wasn’t thinking as a businessman. I was thinking with my heart, as a football player.”“I wouldn’t have gotten this opportunity if I wasn’t ready,” he said. “And that’s all I’ve been looking for: an opportunity. I feel good. My body feels good.”"
Phillips will likely not have to battle it out with Jairus Byrd, Kenny Vaccaro, and Rafael Bush, as their positions seem set. However, Phillips could give a really good push to youngsters Pierre Warren and Vinnie Sunseri, and veteran Jamarca Sanford.
The Times-Picayune writer Sam Spiegelman recently caught up with Phillips, and he had more positive things to say on his comeback.
"“This is part of the game, unfortunately, and it’s the route I had to take,” Phillips said. “I’m thankful to be here with the Saints. They have a great secondary, guys that can really play. They have questions and I tell them basically what I know and vice versa, because I haven’t been around the game in two years.“It’s definitely exciting to be back. This is where I’m supposed to be and I’m going to take advantage of this opportunity.”"
Ben Watson may not be the automatic choice when you think of an underdog. Some might think he wasn’t on the field a lot last year, but you’re mistaken. Watson actually didn’t finish far behind Jimmy Graham in terms of total offensive snap counts, participating in 578 snaps to Graham’s 790.
Watson is entering his third season with the team, and played in all sixteen games for the Saints last year. He had two touchdowns on the year in back to back games against the Steelers and Panthers. He’s already been told that his role will not change this season, and will be a strong “Y” tight end. What does that even mean? That simply means that Watson will be the guy in the trenches to provide in-line blocking. The Saints will use Josh Hill as the “U”, or Joker position, which gets down the field more and moves around a great deal.
Perhaps the best reason to root for Ben Watson is for his locker room leadership. That’s hardly something you can overlook.
"”He’s a stud, Brees said. ”He’s certainly one of the most respected guys on this team, not just for what he brings to us on the field, but what he brings to us in the locker room.”"
On a defense where there were many bad performances, Parys Haralson was an exception. In his second year with the Saints, Haralson saw nearly 500 snaps on defense, and graded out at a +1.5 on the Pro Football Focus grading scale. His strength was in his run stopping, where he finished with a +12.3, the best of any Saints defender. It wasn’t a fluke either, as Haralson played in 367 snaps the previous season, so his increased workload only saw increased productivity.
Haralson, who just turned 31 in January, reportedly drew interest from the Green Bay Packers during the offseason before re-signing with the Saints. At this stage in his career, Haralson still adds value, but clearly fits in as a role/situational player. There’s a lot of flash with rookies Hau’oli Kikaha and Davis Tull, but Haralson could fit in by beating out Ronald Powell to earn a final roster spot when it’s all said and done.