New Orleans Saints May Twitter Mailbag: Undrafted Rookies are on Our Minds

Dec 21, 2015; New Orleans, LA, USA; Detroit Lions running back Ameer Abdullah (21) is tackled by New Orleans Saints outside linebacker Dannell Ellerbe (59) and defensive end Obum Gwacham (58) during the first quarter a game at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome. Mandatory Credit: Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports
Dec 21, 2015; New Orleans, LA, USA; Detroit Lions running back Ameer Abdullah (21) is tackled by New Orleans Saints outside linebacker Dannell Ellerbe (59) and defensive end Obum Gwacham (58) during the first quarter a game at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome. Mandatory Credit: Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports /

We here at Who Dat Dish are very thankful for the questions passed along in this first Twitter Mailbag/Q & A, and eagerly look forward to more interaction with our readers in next month’s edition.  As always, feel free to ask for our takes on all things New Orleans Saints football on Twitter, Facebook, or in the comments section on our own site.

Let’s get started:

This is a great question considering the instability of the Saints’ receiving corps.  The team parted ways with respected veteran Marques Colston #12, an emotional goodbye for many fans, which opened an immediate hole in the offense.  The top three spots are locked down between third-year starter Brandin Cooks #10, clutch second-year signee Willie Snead #83, and rookie draft pick Mike Thomas #13.

Beyond them, the safest bet to make the roster is former undrafted rookie Brandon Coleman #16, in his third year.  While Coleman has not replaced Colston as quickly or efficiently as many have hoped, there are reasons for optimism to be found in the 6-foot-6 receiver’s game.

23 of Coleman’s 49 targets came in the last five weeks of 2015, and he converted those into 16 catches for 231 yards and a touchdown.  This late-season effort resulted in a completion percentage of 69.5-percent at a brisk pace of 14.4-yards per catch.  Projected onto a full 16-game season, that’s a very productive stat line of 51 receptions for 734 yards and three scores on 74 targets.  I’m guessing there are many teams that would love to get that kind of production out of their fourth wide receiver.

But that brings us back to the question at hand.  I’m not sure any of the undrafted rookie receivers are in position to crack the 53-man roster.  Jared Dangerfield #85 (Western Kentucky) may have a good shot thanks to his involvement in a high-powered offense last year, having picked up 20.6-percent of the Hilltoppers’ catches and 16-percent of their touchdowns.

Dangerfield has a solid height/weight/length combination at 6-foot-1.5 and 219-pounds with a 1.72-second 10-yard dash.  Dangerfield also adds some agility (seen in his 6.92-second 3-cone drill, which is great for a man of his stature) and an All-Pro-quality name.

On the other hand, Dangerfield was dwarfed by his fellow undrafted rookie in Jordan Williams-Lambert #81 (Ball State), who played with Snead in college not too long ago.  Williams was the unquestioned top dog in his offense, leading the team in catches (27.4-percent), yards (35.1-percent), and scores (47-percent).  That’s huge production.

Williams has an even more dynamic athletic profile than Dangerfield, measuring in at 6-foot-3, 227-pounds with a stellar 7.03-second 3-cone drill for his stature.  Williams also timed in at nearly a 10th of a second faster than Dangerfield in the 10- and 40-yard dashes.  He’d be my bet of the group to eventually make the team.

There’s been some excitement surrounding Tommylee Lewis #87 (Northern Illinois) but I’d pump the brakes on those expectations.  Lewis doesn’t have the size or speed to win consistently in the NFL at 5-foot-6 and only 170-pounds with speed numbers that aren’t impressive relative to his size (10-yard dash of 1.58-seconds, 40-yard of 4.48-seconds, and 3-cone drill of 7.13-seconds).

Combine that with subpar college production and you don’t get a winning formula.  Lewis only accounted for 14.2-percent of his team’s catches, 13.6-percent of its yards gained, and 13.6-percent of its scores.  The numbers just aren’t on Lewis’ side, but maybe he can find a way to carve out his niche in training camp.

Honestly, I’m most excited about the pair of second-year receivers returning for another shot at making the team.  R.J. Harris #14 (New Hampshire) and Kyle Prater #17 (Northwestern) both drew attention last summer with some eye-popping catches and impressive size and speed.  Harris, 6-foot-even and 194-pounds, seemed to make a circus-trick catch almost daily last year and spent most of 2015 on the practice squad.

Prater, 6-foot-5 and 231-pounds, glued himself to Colston’s hip in training camp and tried to apply his great athleticism (he performed a 7.07-second 3-cone drill at his pro day, which is outlandish for his weight class).  With a year of seasoning behind them, either one of these 24-year old players could step up and make their case to show out in New Orleans in 2016 and beyond.

Next: Who starts across from Delvin Breaux?

There are a number of guys who could start opposite Delvin Breaux #40 but the most-likely candidate is second-year draftee P.J. Williams #25 (Florida State).  Williams was sidelined with a hamstring injury last preseason before going on injured reserve to start the year, so we haven’t seen much of him.

Williams was listed at 6-foot-even and 196-pounds last summer, and recent pictures uploaded to his Instagram account show that he hasn’t lost any muscle mass.  That’s great size for a cornerback, especially one playing on the boundary; he doesn’t have experience lining up over the slot, as he spent less than three-percent of his snaps there in college.

More from Saints News

However, the mental side of the game may be taking a little while longer to develop for Williams.  He was one of several young players who was criticized by then-defensive coordinator Rob Ryan in practice last year for not knowing the playbook or when he was supposed to be on the field.  Hopefully a year spent on the sideline with a better teacher in current coordinator Dennis Allen has helped Williams overcome that obstacle.  We’ll see how he looks next week in organized team activities.

As for Keenan Lewis #21, he’s spent his offseason rehabbing another surgery on his hip and groin muscle.  Lewis has been one of the NFL’s most consistently physical corners when healthy and fit what the Saints like to do in coverage perfectly, but he’s missed too much action the last two years.

For what it’s worth, Lewis’ social media posts are encouraging.  He’s moving well and has attending a number of charitable events.  The veteran doesn’t have to worry about learning a new position, but we shouldn’t expect him to step back into a starting job until we see him in action at upcoming practices.

So the Saints will be looking to a number of young cornerbacks to step up, including sophomore Damian Swann #38 and undrafted rookie De’Vante Harris #49.  Third-year special teams players and twin brothers Brian Dixon #20 and Brandon Dixon #39.

Next: Figuring Out the Offensive Line

This will be a fun competition to watch because it’s all up in the air right now.  Head coach Sean Payton gave Tim Lelito #68, Senio Kelemete #65, and Andrus Peat #75 every opportunity to lock down starting jobs last summer at left guard and right tackle but he never settled on any of them.  Lelito wasn’t good enough on a consistent basis to hold down a spot and was arguably outplayed by Kelemete.

That’s where the element of Payton’s favoritism comes into play:  if one player is performing at a higher level than his competition, why isn’t that player starting?  Payton has shown in the past that he would prefer a veteran start over a rookie, even if that veteran is plainly not very good at football.

Just look at the 2013 season when first-year left tackle Terron Armstead #72 had to wait until fourth-year veteran Charles Brown gave up three sacks in a single game at the end of the year before he could start.  Armstead has started almost every game since then when healthy and signed a huge contract extension a few weeks ago.

That’s what many Saints fans are hoping will happen with Peat at right tackle.  Current starter Zach Strief #64 has a reputation among Saints fans as being a bad player, but that’s not true.  He’s consistently played at a high level and was a coveted free agent not long ago, though he turned down more money from other teams like the Miami Dolphins so he could stay in New Orleans.

Strief struggles occasionally against a specific type of pass rusher (quick-handed athletes who use their speed to wreak havoc, like Los Angeles Rams end Robert Quinn) but on the whole he has been one of the Saints’ best linemen the last few years.  Peat struggled to unseat him last year and ultimately didn’t, instead joining the competition to play at left guard.

Peat’s struggles last year were mainly due to Stanford’s academic calendar.  Stanford works on a quarters system, so Peat missed the Saints’ entire offseason program before training camp in July.  So he showed up having not spent time with coaches or the athletic training staff, and was pretty well overweight.  His conditioning was subpar and Peat had trouble making an impact.  That shouldn’t be the case in 2016:

The guy next to Peat in the photo on the left is Stanford defensive end Aziz Shittu, who is 6-foot-3 and 280-pounds.  As we can see, Peat has lost almost all of the “baby fat” that hurt him last year and is in for an NFL offensive tackle.  If anything he looks too light to play a more physically-demanding position like guard.

So I’m expecting Peat to get an earnest shot at beating Strief for the starting job at right tackle and, if all goes well, win it outright.  That shouldn’t be a knock on Strief; he’s a great player and I’m confident that he wouldn’t have sat on the open market as long as other veterans like Jahri Evans and Marques Colston, neither of whom have yet signed with another team.

As for Lelito and Kelemete:  at this point I’m expecting Kelemete to be one of our two starting guards on opening day in September.  He’s a better player than Lelito and has steadily improved year to year.  The other two candidates to start are undrafted rookies Landon Turner #78 and Jack Allen #66.  Turner was a solid guard at North Carolina but he’s lacking the athleticism to project well in the NFL.  Allen may be my favorite undrafted player the Saints signed and I think he could step into a starting job right away.

We’ll have to wait and see if any of these guys is given a fair shot at getting into the starting lineup, but I’m optimistic.  Payton has admitted that the Saints tried to upgrade guard through free agency, missing out on veterans like Alex Boone (Minnesota Vikings) and J.R. Sweezy (Tampa Bay Buccaneers).  They tried again to address guard in the draft, targeting prospects like Germain Ifedi (Seattle Seahawks) and Joshua Garnett (San Francisco 49ers), but could never match value with pick selections.

For lack of better options, Payton may be forced to let the best players start rather than go with his favored prospects.

This question didn’t come as part of the responses to the Twitter Mailbag, but it fits the theme and is a popular topic of discussion, so it fits.  D.J. Pettway #77 was a talented pass rusher on Alabama’s defensive line who was kept in a reserve role because it was the deepest position group in the country.  His marginal athletic testing caused him to go undrafted.

Obum Gwacham #58 was poached from the Seattle Seahawks’ roster cuts last summer and played at a high level on limited snaps for the Saints, putting up the highest pass-rush productivity rating on the team on less than 100 attempts.  The former wide receiver has some serious athletic upside.

With the first few defensive ends locked up in Cameron Jordan #94, Hau’oli Kikaha #44, and Kasim Edebali #91, it will be tough for a guy at the bottom of the roster like Pettway or Gwacham to win a spot in the rotation.  Both players showed they belong at this level in limited action last year, but which is the best option?

Right now I lean to Pettway because he’s more polished and can step right away into the action.  But Gwacham visibly improved last year and could be the next undrafted pass rusher to win in New Orleans, in the style of Junior Galette and Edebali.  This should be an intense competition between two young players with chips on both their shoulders, and I can’t wait to see how it unfolds.

Thanks for reading the May edition of the Twitter Q and A.  I’m looking forward to next month’s and seeing what we’ve learned from OTA’s.